Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Bollywood's small-screen year

Cinema halls closed down before the rest of the country did. This speaks to the hold of moviegoing over the Indian public—a hold that was relinquished for perhaps the first time in the medium’s history. There was no way that movie halls—crowded, enclosed—could run. And yet, how would India run without the movies?

The year began auspiciously. The Ajay Devgn-starrer Tanhaji collected ₹367 crore at the box office (it ended up as the year’s biggest earner) in the second week of January. In March, the action film Baaghi 3 collected a respectable ₹137 crore. Then covid-19 struck, and theatres closed. Film-makers and producers took the only call they could: to go online.

After a lean couple of months, the first big film intended for theatrical release premiered on Prime Video in June—Gulabo Sitabo. July saw the release of Dil Bechara (Disney+ Hotstar)—Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous release—Shakuntala Devi (Amazon) and Raat Akeli Hai (Netflix). The films kept coming, though, apart from the Akshay Kumar-starrer Laxmii, which premiered on Hotstar in November, big banner spectacles (like Sooryavanshi) opted to wait it out.

The streaming industry benefited from a mass of viewership with nowhere else to turn. Subscription video-on-demand had a 55-60% year-on-year growth in 2020, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry. “The responsibility of being able to distract people from this unimaginable crisis was humbling,” Srishti Arya, director, Original Films, Netflix India, says. While the platform wouldn’t share numbers, Arya says that along with an overall increase, foreign language shows and films saw a pronounced uptick in viewership.

Other platforms too benefited from a captive audience, aided by critically lauded shows. Amazon had the Middle Cinema-esque comedy Panchayat and the gritty, intricately structured Paatal Lok. Hotstar scored a hit with Aarya. And SonyLIV caught many by surprise with Scam 1992, an absorbing look at the Harshad Mehta story. It was perhaps the first time the three-four best Hindi streaming shows in a year outstripped the best Hindi films in imagination, daring and storytelling verve.

Directors and actors, conditioned to pre-release promotions, had to adjust to streaming premieres. “This isn’t how we had planned it,” said Alankrita Shrivastava, whose Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare premiered on Netflix in September. “It’s strange to have a film come out and you are not hanging with your cast and crew and friends.”

While streaming had a standout year, theatrical exhibition plummeted. The first six months of shutdown resulted in estimated losses of ₹3,000 crore, Mint reported in September. Some theatres opened in October, at 50% occupancy. The first major film to release was Tenet in early December, which grossed ₹10 crore in two weeks—not big numbers for a film by Christopher Nolan starring Robert Pattinson, but a start nevertheless.

Sanjeev Bijli, joint managing director, PVR, describes the eight-month closure as “an unfortunate pause”. Exhibitors would be eyeing Wonder Woman 1984 (which released in India on 25 December) closely, he said. “We are looking at two-three regional films in January, and hopefully some Hindi films will also get dated. Then we are on our way to achieving business as usual. Everyone’s watching out for the results of Wonder Woman. There’s a certain number of admissions that we all have in mind which will, I think, encourage producers to release their films.”

Assuming people start returning to theatres in large numbers by mid-2021, will it be business as usual? A successful film in theatres can, of course, reach a far wider audience than digital. But there is the uncertainty of box office, while digital allows producers to recover their costs before the film premieres. Will mid-budget indie increasingly opt for a digital release? “I think it will be a question of figuring out what strategy is best for your film,” Shrivastava says. “I just don’t want it to become a situation where theatrical becomes inaccessible for smaller films.”

Warner Bros created a storm last month when it announced that its 2021 titles would release at the same time in US theatres and online, on HBO Max. While HBO Max hasn’t yet launched here, this could encourage a further reduction of the theatrical window (the gap between theatrical and online release) in India. Bijli isn’t worried, though. “The window will hold,” he says. “You have seen the backlash in the US. I believe there are a lot of Indian talents who are putting in their contract that they want a theatrical release.”

The film industry will also be tracking with some wariness the government’s decisions on streaming content. It was announced in November that OTT would ncome under the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. This likely means that streaming content will come in for some sort of censorship (the Central Board of Film Certification is under the I&B ministry)—something it has avoided till now. It seems likely that the aftershocks of 2020 will reverberate through 2021 in Indian cinema.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 26 December 2020.

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