Bollywood strikes back: With theatres reopening, Hindi film industry needs its audience more than ever before
Top Bollywood producers have united to sue Republic TV and Times Now for 'defamatory' coverage. With theatres reopening after seven months of shutdown, it is imperative that Bollywood clean its name.
Recently we saw the Hindi film industry unite and take action beyond the cozy confines of social media, when four associations and 34 major production houses from the Hindi film industry moved Delhi High Court against Republic TV, Times Now, and four of their TV anchors for "irresponsible and derogatory reporting" following the death of Sushant Singh Rajput in June.
Over the past five months, Bollywood has been castigated as a 'filthy' industry obsessed with drugs and nepotism by several news channels, including the two mentioned above. A large quarter believed the industry was being punished for its conspicuous silence. There were voices of dissent, but most operated on the fringes, as none of the 'biggies' lent their mighty support. The closest mainstream Bollywood got to challenging the worrying discourse was when Jaya Bachchan raised the issue in Parliament.
These isolated incidents aside, a consolidated retaliation from Bollywood was glaringly missing. Yes, there was the Producers' Guild of India's statement demanding the media not to malign the industry, and film personalities like Mira Nair and Anurag Kashyap joining forces with others to sign a letter protesting the witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty. But the big stars who are considered representatives of Bollywood, including the Khans, Akshay Kumar, and Ajay Devgn among others, struck back only this week, in the capacity of producers.
Why did Bollywood take so long to take a cohesive stand? And why did it not limit the reaction to social media, as has been the practice? Because, more than ever, Bollywood needs its audience the most now.
It is imperative for the Hindi film industry to clear its name as theatres reopen gradually and in limited capacity on 15 October, after a hiatus of seven months. Amid increasing cases of coronavirus across the country, filmgoers are already scared to step out and venture into closed, crowded places like movie halls. Repulsion towards Bollywood and its products will only reduce the footfall, even on peak business days like Diwali and Christmas.
In the statement released by the producers who have moved court, they make it clear that the media's smear campaign has drastically impacted the livelihood of thousands employed in the industry, in addition to the pandemic, which has already brought the business to its knees. They also argue that unlike other industries that may bounce back with economic incentivisation or state patronage, the film industry operates largely on perception.
"Bollywood is unique and stands on a different footing from any other industry inasmuch as it is an industry that is dependent almost solely on goodwill, appreciation and acceptance of its audience. The livelihood of persons associated with Bollywood is being severely impacted by the smear campaign being run by the Defendants. This is in addition to the ongoing pandemic which has resulted in extreme revenues and work opportunity loss," the statement reads.
In September, Multiplex Association of India claimed a loss of over Rs 9,000 crore since March as a result of the theatre shutdown imposed by the Union Government to combat the spread of the coronavirus . In addition to the multiplexes, thousands of single screen theatres, long considered the lifelines of mainstream Bollywood, also suffered massive losses bordering on the risk of permanent closure.
Streaming services emerged as the saviour for production houses looking for an alternate platform to exhibit their film. While some big-budget films refrained from settling for a digital release, several films like Gulabo Sitabo, Shakuntala Devi, and Raat Akeli Hai opted for streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.
Though no streaming platform discloses viewership numbers, prospects of some films are believed to have been hit hard by social media trolling that followed the vilifying media coverage against the alleged 'stakeholders of Bollywood' and 'products of nepotism' linked with the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Sharat Sharma's Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, starring Janhvi Kapoor and produced by Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, was in the eye of the social-media storm even before it dropped on Netflix. Similarly, Mahesh Bhatt's Sadak 2, starring his daughter Alia, was also trolled endlessly and may have eaten into its viewership, although the Disney+ Hotstar release did not receive glowing reviews either.
The one distinct direct-to-digital release that seemed to have worked wonders even on a streaming platform was Mukesh Chhabra's Dil Bechara, Sushant Singh Rajput's final film. Ormax Media, a viewership tracking firm, claimed 95 million accounts tuned in to watch the film within the first 24 hours of its release on Disney+ Hotstar. The unparalleled traction could be attributed to the mainstream media discourse around Rajput's death. It stirred a great amount of public interest in the case and intrigue around the death of a rising star, as hammered relentlessly by Republic TV and Times Now among other news outlets.
As theatres reopen in staggered fashion from Friday, Rajput's films are being re-released in West Bengal. While a section is still criticising the move as a way to milk the tragedy, another section believes it is a chance at redemption by the self-proclaimed #JusticeForSSR warriors who did not flock to the theatres when his critically acclaimed films like Sonchiriya bombed at the box office.
Another film being re-released is PM Narendra Modi, Omung Kumar's biopic of the prime minister, after producer Sandeep Ssingh claimed that the film did not work commercially because of the controversies surrounding it when it debuted in May last year. Clearly, the films being re-released after months of theatre shutdown are not global hits like Harry Potter and Avengers, as in the case of several Western countries. Instead these films revolve around contentious subjects, that have been in the limelight in the past few months, thanks to mainstream media.
After experimenting with alternate models like drive-in theatres and appointment viewing (Zee Plex), Zee Studios is releasing Khaali Peeli and Kae Pae Ranasingam in theatres probably as a means to test waters before its new offering Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari hits theatres on Diwali. While Akshay Kumar is going ahead with a direct-to-digital release of his horror comedy Laxmmi Bomb on Diwali, his action drama Sooryavanshi will release theatrically in the first quarter of 2021. Also, as Ranveer Singh-starrer 83 eyes a Christmas release in theatres, Varun Dhawan-starrer Coolie No. 1 will premiere on Amazon Prime Video at the same time.
At a time when producers are assessing risks and are evidently divided on releasing their films in theatres, the least they want is an ongoing smear campaign against Bollywood. Throughout the lockdown, entertainment has reestablished itself as an indispensable industry since people have turned to the arts increasingly in order to escape an ominous, unpleasant reality.
Now that theatres are reopening, here's a message for the sensationalist media houses: Thanks for the entertainment; Bollywood can now take over.
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