Production slowdown, hybrid releases, PR crises: How mainstream Bollywood coped with 'the year from hell'
Trade analysts put the overall loss to the Hindi movie business anywhere between Rs 5000 crores and Rs 9000 crores depending on who one speaks to, but in all of this it’s important to remember those who have been the hardest hit – the daily wage workers, junior artists, and the single screen owners.
Mid-December is usually when Bollywood gears up to end the year with that one last big-budget film with an A-list star cast. Not this year, though, as Bollywood and theatre owners struggle with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis that’s brought the movie business to a virtual standstill. Add to this the massive image hit that the industry took this summer, and it’s possibly been the worst year the industry has faced in decades.
Box-office shutdown: A catch-22 situation
For Bollywood, 2020 started with a bang thanks to director Om Raut’s historical Tanhaji. With gross earnings of over Rs 300 crores, the historical action drama starring Ajay Devgn, Kajol, and Saif Ali Khan tops the short list of films that released in theatres this year. The only other bonafide profit-maker that released in theatres was Tiger Shroff’s Baaghi 3 but it eventually suffered when the countrywide lockdown came into effect on 24 March. Late actor Irrfan’s Angrezi Medium that released on 13 March was the last film to hit the marquee before the lockdown.
Nine months hence, while theatres have reopened in some states, most filmmakers still prefer to either release straight on OTT or wait for the circumstances to get better. It’s a catch-22 situation, if there’s ever been one. Covid-related restrictions have meant that theatres are only allowed to function at 50% capacity but that’s not the ideal scenario for big films like Salman Khan’s Radhe or Kabir Khan’s ‘83 to release.
“Big budget films can’t really recover their monies if theatres aren’t operating at full capacity. On the flipside, while theatres have been open since Diwali in a lot of the states, the audiences haven’t really returned. The general feeling is that only the lure of big Hindi film will get people back to theatres,” says trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi and ’83 are among the films that the industry is banking on to bring some cheer. Both films were ready to release when the lockdown came into effect but Shibashish Sarkar, the Group CEO of Reliance Entertainment, distributor of these films, isn’t ready to commit to a release date as yet.
“We have announced multiple dates since the lockdown so we aren’t in a hurry to mention any dates as yet but we will be looking at the first quarter of 2021. We expect the first five or six months of theatres re-opening to be slow. It’s going to take some time to get the audience back,” says Sarkar. Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha, Ajay Devgn’s Maidaan and Akshay Kumar’s Bellbottom and Bachchan Pandey are the other big releases that are already slotted for 2021.
The long pause due to COVID this year has delayed films by a minimum of six to seven months. The first Hindi film shot and completed during the pandemic was Bellbottom. The cast and crew flew to the UK in August and principal shooting was completed by 30 September. Apart from a 24*7 paramedic on set, regular temperature and oxygen level checks and social distancing, new shooting protocols meant that the cast and crew were tested once every week during the shoot in Glasgow. “We had a separate cook for the team and even the local team stayed at a hotel instead of their homes,” says producer Jackky Bhagnani.
Since the lockdown restrictions were lifted in different parts of the country, actors have returned to sets. Ajay Devgn is shooting for Bhuj: The Pride of India and Mayday in Hyderabad. In the last few months, Chandigarh has played host to the cast and crews of Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey, director Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Vaani Kapoor and Dharma Production’s Varun Dhawan starrer Jug Jugg Jeeyo. Shah Rukh Khan has started shooting for Pathan in Mumbai; Aamir Khan flew to Turkey to shoot for Laal Singh Chaddha while Salman Khan wrapped up Radhe.
While many actors used the forced hiatus to continue prepping for their films, those who had to be in peak physical condition for their forthcoming projects found it tough to maintain their regime through the lockdown. When the pandemic struck, Taapsee Pannu was weeks away from filming Rashmi Rocket where she plays an athlete. She had spent two months prepping to look the part of a runner. “I lost all the muscle volume I had built over two months because I had no weights at home and there was obviously no access to a gym. To maintain my stamina, I started working out twice a day at home. I would use a mat and furniture at home and in the evenings, I’d either climb 45 floors of my building or run two kilometres nonstop in our parking lot,” shared Taapsee, who is currently shooting for the film in the outskirts of Pune.
Trade analysts put the overall loss to the Hindi movie business anywhere between Rs 5000 crores and Rs 9000 crores depending on who one speaks to, but in all of this it’s important to remember those who have been the hardest hit – the daily wage workers, junior artists and the single screen owners.
When the lockdown started actors and film associations rallied around to help technicians and junior artists with direct cash deposits and monthly ration supplies. Now that work has started again, social distancing requirements and tighter budgets have reduced the opportunities by almost 70 percent. “There are currently four-five films being shot in Mumbai including Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi and YRF’s Pathan. But you can’t have very large crews anymore so most junior artists still don’t have work. During the lockdown, many had started working as security guards or selling vegetables to run their homes and that’s what they continue doing even now,” says Pappu Lekhraj, a second-generation junior artiste supplier.
The situation is just as grim for single-screen theatre owners across the country. Off the 6327 single screens, experts believe close to 2000 could dim their lights by the end of this year. “There are theatres where rats have chewed through seats or the projection system isn’t working properly because of disuse. Theatre owners are either selling their business or they just haven’t bothered opening because the audience isn’t interested in watching films like Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari or reruns of Kabhie Kabhie. Producers are waiting for the right time to release their big films but they don’t realise that single screens that are the backbone for masala films might not survive the next few months,” says a North-India exhibitor who asked to be anonymous fearing backlash from the industry.
To hybrid release or not?
Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo was the first Hindi film to go straight to OTT in the summer and over a dozen others including Laxmii, Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl and Ludo have since joined the list. Theatres owners, both single screen and multiplexes, were clearly miffed but there was little they could do. As the months progressed and it became clear that producers weren’t going to release new films until the pandemic recedes, single screen owners were open to the idea of screening films that had OTT releases but multiplex chains were unwilling to bend.
According to a report by trade analyst Komal Nahata, some theatres in small towns showed pirated copies of Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii that released on Disney Plus-Hotstar to keep themselves afloat.
Industry insiders have been keeping a close eye on the developments at Warner Bros. in Hollywood that could speed up the demise of the century-old movie-going habit. The studio announced a hybrid distribution model for 2021 where their films will release in theatres and on HBO Max simultaneously. This was after the studio supported the theatrical model by releasing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet after the first wave of the pandemic passed and over 60 percent of American theatres opened. But the film grossed only $56 million (in the US and Canada), a far cry from his previous films Dunkirk ($188 million) and Interstellar ($188 million). While there’s been a lot of backlash against the studio’s decision to go hybrid, it’s clear that the box office has already been hollowed out because of the pandemic, which continues to rage across the world. Producers will be forced to try various release strategies to survive.
While these conversations haven’t started closer home, Zee Entertainment has taken the first steps towards Premium Video-on-Demand with Zee Plex that’s available on both television and digital platforms. Ishaan Khattar-Ananya Pandey’s Khaali Peeli was the platform’s first Hindi offering. While the pay-per-view model is very popular in the US, Shariq Patel, CEO, Zee Studios doesn’t seen Zee Plex as a ‘substitute for other avenues of release’. “The idea will always be to go to theatres first, then VOD and then satellite. With Zee Plex we want to establish the pay-per-view window that hasn’t been a focus area for Indian films. This would be a sweet spot between theatres and going straight to OTT,” Patel explains.
The court of public opinion
The untimely death of Sushant Singh Rajput earlier this year cast a long shadow of negativity over the industry. In the weeks following his death, strange and sinister conspiracy theories regularly appeared on social media and very often went on to hog headlines on primetime news. These conspiracy theories, fuelled by his family and political powers, led to a witch-hunt against his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. Online trolls went after Bollywood personalities who they thought had driven Sushant to his death by promoting nepotism. A drug angle that was probed at the time, and still continues, led to the likes of Deepika Padukone and Sara Ali Khan being questioned by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and Rhea and her brother Showik being jailed.
The daily vilification of the industry prompted the Producer’s Guild of India to release an open letter that said, “The last few months have seen relentless attacks on the reputations of the Indian film industry across all media. The tragic death of a promising young star has been used by some as a tool to defame and slander the film industry and its members. A picture has been painted of the industry as a terrible place for outsiders to aspire to; a place that treats those who dare to enter it with contempt and derision; a murky den of substance abuse and criminality. This narrative is salacious enough for the media to exploit to great effect in order to boost its rating, readership and page views”.
The almost immediate fall out of this PR crisis were the online campaigns against star kids and their films. The week Janhvi Kapoor’s Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl dropped on Netflix, the film had a low rating of 3.1 on the film portal IMDB. On the day the trailer for Sadak 2 launched, a campaign by Rajput’s supposed fans made it the most disliked trailer on YouTube with 13 million dislikes.
Image and perception are a huge part of building a celebrity’s public persona. It’s too early to know if this online negativity will have real life repercussions. “Every celebrity wants to be likeable. That is what drives audience to theatres to watch their films, why brands sign them up for endorsements. Any celebrity, big or small, survives on the love and adulation of their fans. If the audience is turned against an actor or director, it can be the beginning of the end of their career. Only once films start releasing in theatres will we really know if this negative campaign has hurt the industry,” explains a senior talent agent who requested to not be named.
Whether you were one of the most famous faces in the country or just a face in the crowd, this has undoubtedly been a year from hell for everyone, everywhere. But humans are wired to hope. Like Shah Rukh Khan reminded us at the end of Om Shanti Om, “…Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!”
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