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Covid pandemic 2nd anniversary | The end of cinema (again) or its glorious rebirth?

The small screen got bigger in the pandemic years—and is getting bigger. The movie exhibition industry lost an estimated Rs12,000 crore worldwide. Where does filmmaking go from here?

March 13, 2022 / 07:38 AM IST
A 2020 Ernst & Young report said that India had around 9,527 screens - of these around 1,000 screens shut down in 2020. (Image: Felix Mooneeram via Unsplash)

A 2020 Ernst & Young report said that India had around 9,527 screens - of these around 1,000 screens shut down in 2020. (Image: Felix Mooneeram via Unsplash)

About 48 hours before its release in theatres, the team behind the Ranveer Singh-starrer 83 (24 December, 2021)—led by producer-director Kabir Khan and producers Deepika Padukone, Sajid Nadiadwala and Vishnu Vardhan Induri—had a nagging feeling things could go “spiralling out of control”, but they “kept their fingers crossed” and went ahead with the release because it was too late to find the next safe window for box office success. Things did go spiralling down. A day after the film opened, Gujarat, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh announced a night curfew. Within four days, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the closure of cinema halls. States like Kerala, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh followed, capping theatre occupancy at 50%.

83, about India’s audacious win at the 1983 World Cup Cricket led by Kapil Dev is a kind of cocktail—big star, London (and the Lord's Stadium) as a location, cricket, underdog heroes, and the big Indian obsession with nostalgia—that would be a box office roarer in ordinary times. It also has Khan’s signature: massy, rousing and suffused with a pan-India sentiment and brand of humour. The film managed a worldwide lifetime collection of Rs108.97 crore—a modest figure compared to Khan’s previous blockbusters and most big-star driven Bollywood blockbusters.

A few days before the release of 83, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) along with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) released its annual M&E report ‘Lights, Camera, ActionThe Show Goes On,’ at the CII Big Picture Summit 2020 that was held in partnership with the ministry of information and broadcasting. The report indicated that the new frontier clearly was OTT. Tier-two, three and four towns clocked 1.5 times the number of new OTT users as compared to metro and tier-one cities during the pandemic. At the event’s inaugural session, Siddharth Roy Kapur, co-chairman, CII National Committee on media and entertainment, president, Producers Guild of India, and managing director Roy Kapur Films, was quoted as saying, “Entertainment remains one of the basic human needs. This year has shown that when one mode of distribution dries up, another waits to open.” He was, of course, referring to the shutdown of movie theatres—a 2020 Ernst & Young report says that India had around 9,527 screens out of which there were around 6,327 single-screen theatres and 3,200 were multiplexes, and in 2020, around 1,000 screens shut down—and the opportune OTT moment that was on the horizon, promising to shatter Indian movie tastes and the way they are consumed.

Every kind of filmed “content” landed at the OTTs. A Netflix spokesperson says, “In the limits of home confinement, when life as we knew it came to a halt, stories became the only window to the world we knew and provided a sense of connection. We feel fortunate that so many people turned to Netflix, in India and around the world, during this difficult time to seek that connection and respite.” The pandemic years have given us Money Heist in Spanish, Squid Game in Korean, The Disciple in Marathi and Minnal Murali in Malayalam, all on Netflix. The English and Hindi language content spectrum exploded with big scale action thrillers as well as smaller, performance-driven stories. Every major OTT platform has such examples. In India, audiences still prefer movies over web series. “Our members in India love to watch films. With our continued and growing curation of films in different local languages, we've had the opportunity to bring a more diverse set of films from different regions of our country,” the spokesperson added. Malayalam cinema’s first superhero film, Minnal Murali trended in the Top 10 in 30 countries on Netflix, from Argentina to Nigeria. And Red Notice, a global hit success for Netflix, was dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

Digital and the OTT understandably became the choice of visual entertainment for quarantined millions across the world.


In the DNA of the filmmaking as well as the film-going experience is its demand for human beings to be close together. That idea of community and shared experiences makes the movies such an all-encompassing and cherished art form. Celebrated American critic Pauline Kael wrote in one of her most famous essays Trash, Art and the Movies, “Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.”

Films are among few industries in the world that are truly global. Studios and production companies often have offices and sets in several countries and they require employees and hired talent to travel between countries and continents. Most big scale Hollywood productions rely on multiple locations—and talent hired locally—for a 2 to 3-hour film. The latest James Bond outing, No Time to Die, which was released in November 2021 worldwide, for example, was shot in the UK, Italy, Jamaica and Norway. The pandemic seemed to ensure that this very quality would lead to the movie theatre experience’s end.

So like all human enterprises that aren’t solitary, Covid-19 ravaged the movies as we knew it. It seemed to cement the view held for at least the last decade that the movie theatre experience was ebbing away, with the explosion of streaming. The Motion Picture Association (MPA) in the US released their annual THEME report covering 2020 in April 2021—an annual report that tracks the theatrical and in-home entertainment industry both globally and domestically. Its global findings: In 2020, the entire global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market was at a $80.8 billion, the lowest figure since 2016 and a decline of 18% from 2019. The sharpest decline was in theatrical revenue which dropped from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020. Theatrical entertainment accounted for only 15% of the total global entertainment revenue, compared to 43% in 2019.

In the first year itself, what this downswing meant for Bollywood was that production of films worth several hundred crores were stalled, production companies shut down, film talent left Mumbai to start smaller independent projects in hometowns and other cities. Big ticket productions such as Amazon Prime Video's first Indian co-production Ram Setu, starring Akshay Kumar, and Goodbye, starring Amitabh Bachchan, came to a halt. The theatrical Eid release of Salman Khan’s Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai was cancelled and later released on streaming. A Producers Guild of India spokesperson says that about a million people, directly or indirectly employed by the film industry were affected. The worst hit are about 35,000 daily wage workers. In the last two years, hundreds of single screen theatres—already on their way to be signposts of film nostalgia—closed for good. Following the closure of Chitra at Dadar and the iconic Eros in Churchgate, a stunning art-deco structure opposite Churchgate railway station in the years preceding the pandemic, Central Plaza, another South Mumbai theatre that had found ways to adapt to changing times much better than other single-screens that had shut down in the last decade like Naaz, Apsara, Novelty, Shalimar, Minerva and Swastik, announced its closure.

In the first year, when governments lifted restrictions on film shoots, productions worked with lean crews. A Health and Safety unit became routine in most shoots, and testing was done every two days in some shoots, swelling budgets. Actor Konkona Sen Sharma, who plays the protagonist in Applause Entertainment’s The Rapist, directed by Aparna Sen, remembers that shoot and others in the middle of the pandemic, as “limiting”. She says, “The primary constraint for an actor was communication. Sometimes, communication between a director and an actor is intuitive and can be in many ways. So masking and distance can be limiting. Actors are also the most vulnerable because they have no choice but to take off their masks.” Producers, of course, found ways to get the work going. Cinematographer Manoj Lobo who shot the Anshuman Khurrana-starrer Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui—another December 2021 release that did not find box office success but has garnered audiences and praises after it dropped on Netflix—during the pandemic, recalls being part of a marathon shoot over Zoom, when he had to give exact instructions to an equipment-operator on location for a promotional music video from his living room: “It was a bit surreal.” In Chandigarh, for Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, he was on a gruelling two-month schedule with minimum staff. “My takeaway from these two years is positive. These years literally taught us guerrilla filmmaking. I got the experience of doing the best with less, it’s a very valuable lesson,” Lobo says. The psychological or attitudinal shift is something Applause Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair embraces. “The big takeaway for us has been to figure more empathetic ways of working; the pandemic put a lot of strain on people and yet our teams still managed to write, produce and deliver over 20 shows in the past 2 years. Use of remote technology, changing our traditional approach to work and by coming together closer as teams made this possible. These are learnings and experiences we want to continue to apply even as the pandemic recedes,” Nair says.

Mumbai’s film fraternity is not wasting time ever since restrictions became minimal after the Omicron numbers waned. Cinematographers, directors, technicians and actors are headlong into shoots—several of them backlog of incomplete projects that started before March 2020, and several new projects. Film studios  are booked for several months ahead. Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures, says, “The writing on the wall is quite clear. People are hungry to go back to theatres. For the next one year to 18 months, there is at least one new release lined up for every week. That means business at a scale not seen in the last 7-8 years.” In the past two months, theatres have more footfall than in the last 2 years. Around 75 films released in Indian theatres since March 2020, compared to around 1800 in the pre-pandemic decade. In the first year of the pandemic, around 1,000 screens shut down permanently across the country. According to estimates of, the four highest grossers at the box office were Sooryavanshi, with Rs 196 crore (5 November, 2021), followed by Gangubai Kathiawadi, which has so far reached the Rs 100 crore-plus mark and is expected to make Rs 115 crore (25 February, 2022), Antim - The Final Truth (26 November, 2021) with Rs38 crore and Bell Bottom (19 August, 2021) with Rs32 crore. Hollywood tentpoles have contributed to keep the Indian box office alive. Spider-Man: No Way Home (16 December 2021) made Rs 202 crore and The Batman (4 March 2022) has so far made Rs 24.25 crore.

These are early days of limping back to the old normal—at the theatres and in shared human experiences. Right now, “going to the movies” has acquired a meaning more charged than just watching a movie of one’s choice. Now it means the idea of the movie theatre as a destination where you watch with your mask on, and eat popcorn with your mask off. It is the return of a familiar sense of joy that comes from movie-love camaraderie and family outings. But even for the movies and their makers, it is a return to the consumer who gives them a concrete feedback by buying a ticket, and to make a real, tangible impact. Would The Batman and its cultural impact and social commentary be the same if it were streaming on at OTT platform? Perhaps not.

Great work in all art forms often goes against the grain of whatever the system is at a given moment, and how the pandemic fuels creativity and imagination—how creative minds process two years of isolation, and the unprecedented nature of human suffering and loss—is ultimately going to be the real index of how the pandemic leaves its imprint on filmmaking. Sen Sharma, a director as well as an actor, looks forward to the way the pandemic itself will become part f our movie lexicons. “I am wondering how much we are going to be representing covid in our films. In most films so far, we have not referenced it—either as a backdrop or as main driver of stories. It will be interesting how we creatively and innovatively address the pandemic in our stories,” she says.

The history of the movie industry is also the history of different production-distribution models. And through it all, movies got made for the theatres, and people went to the theatres. The Internet has changed the way we interact with others, how we read, play and watch—especially during the pandemic. But the resurgence of the box office in the last couple of months tells us, above anything else, that the Internet is not enough just yet. And the movie theatre will play a big role in the way we consume stories that the pandemic has unlocked in writers and directors and how we understand the pandemic years from now.

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Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: Mar 12, 2022 08:11 pm
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