22-year-old Lalit is an ardent moviegoer who prefers to watch films on the large screen. He had four viewings of Spiderman: No Way Home. I opened advances for Dr Strange today, and he booked the first-day first show. He is a die-hard Marvel fan who can give you ridiculous trivia that would make Mr Feige pleased. On the other hand, Anshuman, a 37-year-old film specialist, swears by south films. He’d seen KGF2 seven times at my theatre and adored RRR and Pushpa. He claims that Bollywood is no longer the same and that the movie he sees does not excite him as an audience. More are across the Hindi belt, such as Lalit and Anshuman, who Bollywood has overlooked.
Following the Delta wave, movie theatres opened in August. Bollywood’s track record at the box office has been dismal. Except for Sooryavanshi, nothing seemed to work across the regions. 83 and Gangubai Kathiwadi did well in viewership, but the material was not uniformly pleasing. The last few weeks have been catastrophic, and the phenomenal success of RRR and KGF2 has just added salt to the wounds. The latter is becoming the first Hindi film to gross $400 million. Today, the Hindi cinema industry is estranged from its primary fans due to an evident separation. It appears like Bollywood is unable to detect the audience’s pulse and continues to release films that no one wants to see in theatres.
Over the last 12-13 years, Bollywood has gradually drifted away from making Universal pictures and toward making speciality films. The expansion of national chains, particularly in metropolises and larger cities, supported this trend enormously. In Mumbai, the notion was that multiplex films were the future, which led to the growth of several filmmakers who thrived on making specialised films. These filmmakers were heralded as “new generation heroes,” lavished with large budgets and star-studded casts. The majority failed, but the belief had taken hold, and the mass-produced popular movie was shunned. A huge budget, content-driven film’s failure was the film’s fault, but a massy film’s failure was due to the genre’s demise. Most performers, including action heroes, altered gears and began doing speciality films, finding success in urban enclaves. Young actors did not want to be famous and began experimenting too soon before establishing an audience. As a result, a star-driven industry diluted its existing stars while forgetting to develop new leads.
Content began to become more and more specialised. The studios funded the ideas and absorbed all of the losses. It became all too simple, and many films made money before selling a single ticket. Theatrical was unnecessary, which made most filmmakers clumsy. The box-office pressure keeps filmmakers on their toes, and if you can avoid it while still making money, it’s paradise!
The entire attitude in Bollywood has become snobbish. The Hindi Film Industry became a cosy combination of studios, premium producers, and national chains. The top executives who mattered were all English-speaking educated elites who had little understanding of small-town India. This resulted in more elitist programming being approved, and with the help of satellite and the internet, they gained money. Bollywood’s sensibility shifted from a national to an entire enterprise. Even when it attempted to make mass-market films, it did it with contempt and, more importantly, without conviction.
For a Blockbuster, the theatrical medium has a viewership potential of 3-5 crores. This accounts for only 3% to 4% of the population. Bollywood began aiming for 1-1.5 crore footfalls if the film met the mark, and if it didn’t, there was no safety net of star power or franchise to fall back on. The theatrical medium must be universal and address the entire audience to maximise theatre attendance. They forgot to develop large-scale escapist cinema as an industry, and there was no conviction when we did. An enterprise might be driven by franchises or by stars. Bollywood went the other way and is now suffering the price. Today, a significant issue with Bollywood that no one talks about is a lack of connection with the youthful audience, drifting heavily towards Hollywood. Loyalty can be generated through brands, yet Bollywood is no longer creating them. Continuing to rely on 90’s stars to do the hard lifting will not help the cause. Even Bollywood filmmakers, except a few, are incapable of producing pan-India films since the entire environment has become specialised. The youth believe that Bollywood is no longer ‘cool enough’ and no longer connects with them because it serves sanctimonious and dull content.
Today, Bollywood is in a difficult situation. Both the South and Hollywood are breathing down its throat. Its core audience is transferring to other industries, and its reputation is suffering. It needs to start making large worldwide pictures and belting out massive hits. It must grab the imagination of the youth and impress the public, as they are its most ardent supporters. The audience it’s courting is the Saturday and Sunday crowd that goes to the movies after reading posh critic reviews, and their devotion is to the content. It sorely needs the morning show audiences back, the masses back, and the single screens to burn. I’m holding my breath!!