Finally, it is a full house. There is good news for Bollywood. From February 1, theatres can run to capacity, just the push thatthe industry needed. After all, the entire supply chain had been hit—from the people at the top (read producers, distributors and exhibitors) to the person ferrying the raw material for popcorns.
This also means an end to all the loose talk around the survival of the core entertainment business, especially the one centred around theatrical arrivals.
In the year gone by, countless stories floated around how the advent of OTT was the death knell for the movie-theatre experience. The the argument was that when biggies like Laxmii, Coolie No. 1, Gunjan Saxena-The Kargil Girl, Durgamati, Gulabo Sitabo and Shakuntala Devi were readily available at home, who would pay to visit the cinema.
Moreover, with web series like Scam 1992, Special Ops, Mirzapur, Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors and Asur bringing binge-worthy entertainment to the mobile screen, there were concerns that with the entertainment quotient up, the theatrical business would suffer.
These theories and arguments, to put it bluntly, are unfounded.
Firstly, the theatre business is not going anywhere. Yes, that is right. The business had been growing year-on-year till the coronavirus outbreak robbed it of further glory in 2020, which had started fabulously, courtesy of the biggest January blockbuster ever— Ajay Devgn’s Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior that crossed the Rs 280-crore mark.
There is a certain survival instinct that the film industry, and not just Bollywood, has shown time and again.
In the mid-1970s when television had started making its presence felt in India, the film industry wondered if audiences would queue up again in front of cinemas. The 70s turned out to be the best phase for Bollywood, with several back-to-back blockbusters from Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna among others.
The 80s saw the arrival of VCPs and then VCRs. This time the challenge was bigger as cassettes were being made available on the same day as the film’s theatre release. This was even more damaging than the OTT releases.
For OTTS, one needs to buy a subscription, which is reasonably substantial but video cassettes were available for anything between Rs 10 and 20. It used to be a carnival-like atmosphere with friends, family members and neighbours coming together to watch a film together for just 10 rupees.
But Bollywood loves a good fight. A new crop of stars came to the fore—Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi and Juhi Chawla to name a few. As for Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jeetendra and Rishi Kapoor, they continued to deliver and win loyal audiences.
Bollywood had weathered another storm.
The age of the superstars
Then came the 1990s and another— perceived—blow to the business. Satellite channels were in town. Zee, Star, Sony and the likes were beaming movies straight into the living rooms. The release window shortened as well. Though Doordarshan took an average of 10 years between theatrical and TV arrival, satellite channels reduced this window to a year.
What did Bollywood do? It created a trio of Khan superstars, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn. Between the five of them, they ruled Bollywood and how.
Audiences got new superstars to celebrate and with the older ones and the box office register continued to ring. Bollywood hit back with history-making films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which ensured that audiences kept coming back, and just not for weeks but months together.
As for the late 90s and the entire first decade of the new millennium, piracy raised its ugly head. First were pirated VCDs, available for just Rs 25. Then came the DVDs, which cost just Rs 50. A shabby print would be available on the day of release and four weeks later, a theatre quality print would start making the rounds. Obituaries were being written again.
Bollywood decided to up the game. In 2008, Aamir Khan’s Ghajini gave Bollywood a wealthy new term—100 Crore Club. The industry had a new benchmark to aspire for.
Did piracy continue? Yes. Did it survive? Not really.
Today, DVDs—original or pirated—is a lost industry, As for Bollywood, it has hit more than 100 centuries. There are many films in the 200 Crore Club as well as 300 Crore Club. Baahubali: The Conclusion did the unthinkable, it went past Rs 500-crore mark in just the Hindi version—something that no other Bollywood film has managed to do.
Does piracy exist today? Yes, it does, in online streaming.
The word ‘torrent’ was much in vogue till about a decade back. Yet again, there was a prophecy that Bollywood won’t survive. In came streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar (now Disney+Hotstar), ZEE5 and ALT Balaji. These took on the illegal platforms by the horn and except Netflix, which still comes at a premium, the rest don’t cost much and illegal streaming is also on its way out.
Another decade gone and Bollywood lived to tell the tale.
This is the reason why it is funny and foolhardy to write off the theatre business after one bad year, which bad for the world economy as a whole and not just one industry or sector.
Will 2021 be the year of revival? Yes, to an extent, as it is more about health scare than the quality of films. Will it be back to fantastic in 2022? The answer is an unequivocal Yes.Naysayers can think what they want but the theatres are not going anywhere—not by a long shot. Long live the theatres.