The year 2022 has not been good for big-budget Hindi films. None of the big stars whose films released in the last few months seem to have escaped a rout at the box office—Aamir Khan with Laal Singh Chaddha, Akshay Kumar with Samrat Prithviraj and Raksha Bandhan, Ranbir Kapoor with Shamshera, Ranveer Singh with Jayeshbhai Jordaar, and Ajay Devgn with Runway 34.
Much has been written and discussed about social media boycott campaigns and yes, a couple of these definitely had some impact. Laal Singh Chaddha and Raksha Bandhan suffered, but none of the others had to worry about such threats. Shamshera did face some sort of a backlash for “denigration of Hindus”, but this was after it had released and was already declared a flop.
Despite the boycott calls, it is certain that if the first-weekend audiences had enjoyed the films, they would have spread the message and their friends and extended families and followers would have turned up at the theatres. For instance, Samrat Prithviraj seemed to have started off decently enough with many house-full shows, but then sank rapidly on negative word-of-mouth.
Several recent Mumbai-made Hindi films have made money. The Kashmir Files was an outlier that became a monster hit. Others like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Gangubhai Kathiawadi and Juggjug Jeeyo have been hits. And of course there were the South Indian films dubbed in Hindi—RRR, KGF Chapter 2 and Pushpa. The reasons for the slump in big-budget Bollywood films may be complex, and both internal and external.
One, the commercials of these big movies are totally out of whack. When a star charges Rs 70-80 crore to play the lead in a film, he—and it is invariably a he—immediately makes the recouping of costs that much more difficult. And star power is clearly on the wane.
Social media—everyone is on WhatsApp now—constantly exhumes and broadcasts old—and sometimes cleverly edited—videos of stars that show them up in a poor light. The result is that quite a bit of the glitter has worn off these men and women. Blind fandom is now rare, and that makes the economics of big-budget Hindi films even more illogical.
About the only way the production house can hedge its risks is to desperately build up media hype and release the film on as many screens as possible. The hope is that even if audiences do not like the film, the advance-booked tickets for the first weekend will generate enough money to recover costs, before any negative word-of-mouth can spread.
But this strategy does not seem to be working too well any more. Because audience feedback is now instant. By the time of a film’s first show’s intermission, people in the hall have already WhatsApped to the world what they feel, and it is the negative reviews that are posted first and forwarded more widely.
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Two, the pandemic has dramatically altered our cinema-going habits. Covid introduced a new level of uncertainty into all aspects of our lives. Gone are the days when a gaggle of friends, with nothing much to do on an afternoon or evening, walked casually into a theatre to watch a film. Covid got us used to staying at home, for both work and leisure, and our youngest adults, who should have formed a significant chunk of the theatre-going population, have perhaps never even experienced the collective pleasure of watching a film in a hall to while away a lazy afternoon.
Three, vast numbers of people have seen their incomes and prospects hurt during the pandemic. A multiplex visit is hardly cheap. Ticket price plus popcorn and a cold drink plus transport costs will inevitably set you back by more than Rs 500, and it’s much more than that on the first weekend of a film that features a big star. Other than the devoted fans, a big film’s potential audience may today rather wait than risk their cash.
Four, the OTT platforms. India now has dozens of streaming services, which offer their subscribers a virtually inexhaustible number of films and TV shows at a monthly price much lower than what a single cinema hall visit costs. And if you are savvy, you pay even less. There is a giant underground industry today that lets you download a Netflix or Amazon Prime film or show on your phone for a nominal fee of Rs 10-25. And young Indians—the younger millennials and all Gen Z-ers, irrespective of their economic status—observe and respond to the world through the cellphone. They can literally carry the entertainment they seek in their pockets and watch films whenever convenient. They can also shut off a film they don’t like and switch to something else.
This is a reality that any film industry must grapple with, just as Hollywood had to rework a lot of its assumptions in the 1950s when television seriously hurt the American film industry’s earnings.
Five, the internet (YouTube, etc.) and the OTT platforms may also have been a revelation to some. A friend put it rather aptly. "It’s like the Bengalis who were willing to die for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and then international football matches became available on Indian television," he said. "We were all amazed. What the hell had all of us been wasting our time and passion on? Indian football was sub-standard in every way possible."
And in any case, you can watch that big film a month later at a negligible cost on some OTT platform.
Six, what makes for a great cinema-going experience today, something that no TV, however large its screen, and no OTT platform can replicate? One obvious answer is: spectacle.
A frank confession: I tried watching RRR, KGF Chapter 2 and Pushpa on OTT platforms and I didn’t last more than half an hour on any of these films. I found them overwhelming for my senses, but I was still awed by their technical and technological masterfulness. The computer-generated imagery and the sheer scale of ambition are magnificent. These films match the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films in their wizardry. And in the last decade and more, dubbed MCU films have regularly appeared in the top 10 lists of box office grossers in India.
But recent Bollywood films that relied on spectacle—Samrat Prithviraj and Shamshera—have done poorly. Even the most critical reviews of Shamshera acknowledge that the film’s visuals and some of the big action scenes were outstanding. Clearly, spectacle alone does not satisfy the audience any more, since many of them may have already watched an Avengers movie or two. The difference may be that a film like RRR, while delivering grand—and absolutely over-the-top—set pieces, also deftly manages to involve the viewer deeply in the fate of the characters on the screen. Emotional manipulation, after all, is an integral part of most successful films.
Film-making is one of the most high risk-high return legitimate businesses in the world. The world has changed in the last few years, the audiences have changed, both in their preferences and in their behaviour. Big Bollywood producers have possibly been caught unawares. They need to rethink and adapt. But there may be some more grief for them before that happens.