ASTHA JHUNJHUNWALA, a public relations professional currently residing in Mumbai, likes to spend her free time watching movies at the theatre, largely to experience the thrill of viewing content on the big screen and the accompanying convenience of having some swiftly brewed hot coffee and popcorn alongside. But of late, Jhunjhunwala has been feeling ‘let down’ by the films she spends her money on. “The quality of movies has gone down significantly. Spending on mindless content is just a waste of money,” she says.

New-Delhi based Bandita Barman is equally miffed. “Recently, I watched Jug Jug Jeeyo and the patriarchal comedy in the film made me numb. Also, women wearing shorts and dancing in snow-clad areas of Leh, Ladakh is not tolerable anymore,” says the 26-year-old.

A string of failures at the box office has raised question marks not just about the viability of the Hindi film business but also whether the industry is in sync with the times. Mediocre content, the surge in OTT (over-the-top) platforms with diversified and good-quality content from across the world at the tap of a smartphone, the increasing influence of YouTubers and Instagrammers churning out swift, short-form videos, and the rise of regional cinema, especially the South, have dented the age-old Bollywood ‘craze’. Add to this the Hindi film industry’s obsession with the remake culture and high ticket prices at multiplexes, and one has the perfect recipe for a disaster.

Bollywood has seen more misses than hits this year, with only a small number of films like Gangubai Kathiawadi, The Kashmir Files and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 surpassing ₹100 crore in domestic box office collections. And though most recently Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt-starrer Brahmastra, reportedly mounted on a budget of over ₹400 crore, has managed to get audiences back to the theatres, there’s still a long way to go. At the end of two weeks, Brahmastra’s net domestic box office collections was around ₹185 crore across languages, with the Hindi version of the movie raking in around ₹160 crore, according to analysts. But then, Brahmastra’s distinguishing factor is not content, but the film’s strong visual effects (VFX).

Even big-budget stars have failed to draw crowds to multiplexes. Consider this: Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha made with a budget of more than ₹180 crore managed to earn only ₹58.93 crore in total net gross collections. Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan pocketed less than ₹50 crore while his big June release Samrat Prithviraj, which had a budget of over ₹150 crore, bagged only ₹68.06 crore, according to Box Office India website. Despite its high-decibel promotional campaigns, popular Telugu actor Vijay Devarakonda and star kid Ananya Panday-starrer Liger faced a drubbing at the box office, fetching around ₹20 crore in local collections, shows data published on Bollywood Hungama website. The movie, which also has a cameo by American boxing maestro Mike Tyson, has been reportedly made on a budget of ₹120 crore.

Analysts feel there is an element of ‘sameness’ in Bollywood scripts, something viewers agree to as well. “Movies these days are similar to a typical Ekta Kapoor saas-bahu soap. Most of the stories are predictable,” says Ghaziabad resident Akanki Sharma, who hasn’t watched a single Hindi film this year.

Film business expert and producer Girish Johar estimates that since the opening of cinemas post pandemic, Bollywood may have already incurred losses of ₹1,000-1,200 crore in terms of gross box office collection, a sharp contrast to the record net domestic collection of over ₹4,000 crore in 2019.

“It looks like the current year’s total box office collection may not even be close to the 2019 number. At best, it can touch about 60-65% of the 2019 collection,” says Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer, Inox. The size of the filmed entertainment segment (comprising domestic and overseas theatricals, broadcast rights, digital rights and in-cinema advertising) stood at ₹9,300 crore in 2021, less than half of the ₹19,100 crore in 2019. The industry is estimated to touch ₹15,000 crore in 2022, according to an EY-FICCI report published earlier this year. The revenue from domestic theatricals (gross box office collection across movies, including dubbed) is expected to touch ₹7,500 crore in 2022, higher than ₹3,900 crore in 2021, but lower than ₹11,500 crore in 2019. Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema says in a normal year, around 1,400 movies are released across languages, led by Hindi films. According to EY estimates, around 757 movies were released in 2021. “If the content is not good enough, people are bound to reject those films… audiences want to watch interesting stories within the commercial format,” says movie critic Taran Adarsh.

While weak content may be at the core of Bollywood’s poor comeback at the theatres post Covid, there are other factors at play as well.

The OTT Avalanche

Be it a thriller or a rom-com, a documentary or an original series, it’s all there in one click, thanks to the flood of OTT apps and platforms sitting pretty on our phones and laptops. The pandemic, with its intermittent lockdowns and restrictions, has given people space to sample varied OTT content.

“The growth of OTT has been furious. What was supposed to happen in five years, happened in 1.5-2 years,” says Johar. Vast OTT content libraries spanning genres and languages have brought about a whirlwind change in consumption patterns and preferences.

Audiences’ expectations from entertainment have evolved because they have seen much more complex stories with multiple layers unfolding on OTTs, says Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India. “Consumers want choices across genres, which OTT enables them. We have more than 3,000 movies, almost 200 web series… the audience is looking both at the width and breadth of the library,” he adds. Prior to the OTT boom, the two major distribution channels were the theatres and television. Unlike the mature media markets in the West there was no segmentation in Indian TV, says Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Media, which runs OTT app MX Player. “For ₹250-300, people could buy the entire cable pack. There was no space for content targeted at a particular user base. Diversity of content never existed. But OTT changed all that,” says Bedi.

“OTT is better in terms of content, options and convenience. The content is honest. Also, it is very exciting to wait for prequels and sequels,” adds Mumbai-based Jhunjhunwala. Real, relatable stories really work well, echoes ZEE5 India’s Kalra.

And it’s not just just OTT. Bollywood today is competing with gaming platforms, short-video apps and social media for eyeballs. Millions of creators or influencers are curating expansive content across genres for a host of platforms, including Instagram, YouTube, Josh and Moj. The deluge of reels or short videos is keeping consumers hooked to their phones with their snackable, on-the-go content style. “Both (social media and OTT) are competing for the time available for entertainment, which earlier by default used to be movies and TV shows,” says Jehil Thakkar, partner at Deloitte India.

The Remake Culture

The fact that Bollywood has been adopting storylines from South Indian movies and many a times from the West, and then repackaging the idea by infusing some Hindi songs, is nothing new. But when it develops into a industry wide pattern, it becomes difficult to get the audience to pay for watching remakes, especially in the era of OTTs and internet when they can have access to the original film. Countless Bollywood movies have been adopted from the South, including Aamir Khan’s Ghajini, Akshay Kumar’s Rowdy Rathore, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and the most recent Bachchhan Paandey, and Salman Khan’s Wanted and Ready, to name a few. Apart from Bachchhan Pandey, Kumar’s OTT film Cuttputlli and Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey are among recent releases that are remade versions of South movies.

“Bollywood needs to get over remakes. It has to understand that every Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam film doesn’t need a remake,” says Noida-based avid movie-goer Vikalp Pratap Singh. “I skipped watching Laal Singh Chaddha because I have seen Forrest Gump (Laal Singh Chaddha was a remake of the cult Tom Hanks film),” adds Bengaluru-based Pooja Mehta.

Johar says the audience probably couldn’t digest the fact that Aamir Khan was giving them the same expression and method acting in Laal Singh Chaddha seen earlier in PK, 3 Idiots and other films. After August 15, shows of the film were reduced across theatres and more screen space was allotted to Telugu movie Karthikeya 2, according to Inox’s Jyala.

Prerna Singh, CEO at Bhansali Productions, the maker of Gangubai Kathiawadi, says people want to watch real cinema. Storylines need to be presented well, written well. “Audiences today resonate with real looks and natural characters. Hence Gangubai did well. It was an idea which was presented in a different way,” she adds.

There’s also the predictability factor. The audience today knows what to expect from a Karan Johar film for example. “Even if it is a war hero film like Shershaah, it will have song and dance, romance, and a bit of glamour,” says Panchkula-based Aarti Kapur Singh, who holds a PhD in intersection of gender studies and cinema. Also, for the longest time, majority of Bollywood movies relied on ‘fan’ culture. In today’s times when the audience has so much access to the same stars through social media, they need more than just a face to watch a movie in the theatre, says Kanupriya A. Iyer, head of business affairs and senior producer at Locomotive Global Media, the Indian arm of international production company Locomotive Global Inc.

The Rise of Regional Cinema

The highest box office grosser of all times is not one with a Khan in the lead role. It is S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu blockbuster Baahubali 2: The Conclusion released in 2017 with Prabhas Raju in the lead that has notched a whopping ₹510.56 crore in total net gross collections. K.G.F: Chapter 1, K.G.F: Chapter 2, RRR, Pushpa: The Rise, Malik, The Great Indian Kitchen, Jai Bhim and Karthikeya 2 have also triumphed their Hindi-language cousins at the box office, making Southern stars such as Allu Arjun, Prabhas, Ram Charan Teja, Suriya or Saravanan Sivakumar household names in the Hindi market.

So, what do these films do differently? Regional films do not mix genres or go over the top. They are true to their sensibilities, according to Johar. Viewers want something new and exciting regardless of how fresh the content is. “Some of the directors in the South have understood this game and they are making pretty likeable content. If you look at RRR, there are various things that are over the top, including a non-realistic storyline. We see it even in Marvel movies, but people overlook it because the presentation is so grand and great,” says Rakesh Jariwala, partner at EY.

Bollywood has always had a sense of entitlement, claims Naman Pincha, screenwriter and assistant director. “It is out in the open now that Indian films are not only about Bollywood, it also comprise the likes of Kollywood and Tollywood,” he adds.

“South Indian filmmakers have been able to capture the ground by making content that appeals to the general crowd. And they have done it with consistency,” feels Akshaye Rathi, director at Saroj Screens. In 2021, gross box office revenues were led by South Indian movies — collections touched ₹2,400 crore against Bollywood’s ₹800 crore (it had fewer releases though.)

High Ticket Prices

A section of the industry opines that high prices at multiplexes may also be acting as a dampener when it comes to attracting footfalls to the theatres. Consider this: The average ticket price at Inox shot up to ₹229 as of Q1FY23 from ₹198 in Q1FY20, according to the company’s earnings presentation released earlier this year. For PVR, average ticket price increased to ₹250 from ₹203. Given the current economic scenario, which is marked by steep interest rates, moderately high inflation and threats of a looming global recession, people are careful about their budgets. “People in Tier-I towns need to spend ₹500-1,000 per head (including snacks) for watching a movie. It is the price of an OTT subscription for a year,” says MX Player’s Bedi.

Deloitte’s Thakkar makes an interesting point: The single-screen audience — largely men in the 18-42 age bracket — seems to be coming back to the theatres and over 55-60% of the single screens are in the South. “Multiplex pricing can be three-four times more than single screens. For an audience that is making decisions at short notice and a low-cost point, Bollywood’s content is not appealing enough,” says Thakkar.

Inox’s Jyala, however, disagrees that pricing has anything to do with low footfalls. Jyala argues that tickets are typically priced depending on the location and a particular area’s residents’ ability to pay. “It is not that Nariman Point and Dahisar will have the same pricing,” he adds. Also, there are three tiers of pricing — regular, popular (for mid-sized good movies) and blockbuster (for big-budget movies featuring big stars). Even in the blockbuster category, pricing varies based on timings. For instance, early morning shows are usually priced at lower rates. KGF, Spiderman, RRR, Doctor Strange had blockbuster pricing, but still people came,” says Jyala.

Fading Star Effect?

Good content has been superseding the super star factor even before the pandemic and OTT revolution, albeit slowly. In 2018, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Badhaai Ho, built on a budget of ₹29 crore, garnered ₹134.46 crore in total net gross collection at the box office. In the same year, Rajkummar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor-starrer Stree picked up ₹124.56 crore in box office collection, way more than its budget of ₹24 crore. For that matter, consider Uri: The Surgical Strike — the 2019 movie which steered Vicky Kaushal’s Bollywood career trajectory fetched a whopping ₹244 crore at the box office. Uri’s makers spent a mere ₹44 crore to develop the movie. Films like Vicky Donor, which made a bold bet of making a departure from conventional storylines and depicted the hero as a sperm donor, were lapped up by audiences. Aamir Khan’s ₹300 crore Thugs of Hindostan, on the other hand, faced a drubbing at the box office, having raked in only ₹138.34 crore.

Consumers’ affinity for good content was always there, the pandemic-led OTT push only cemented the trend. In fact, post Covid, a lot of the films are being made solely for OTT platforms that cater to a diverse set of audiences. “So many films are now going straight to streaming platforms. The biggest change is how busy the writers are as OTT is very much a writer’s medium,” says Anupama Chopra, film critic and editor-in-chief at Film Companion. “Good films are coming thanks to OTT because independent films are getting funding,” adds Pincha.

Pradeep Dwivedi, Group CEO at Eros Media World, thinks a new ‘content culture’ is on the rise. When content takes precedence, everything gets created around it, he says. “Now we are looking at actors who fit the role and do justice to the story rather than just bringing their star power to the screen.”

The Next Stage

So, is course correction the way ahead for Bollywood?

At a time when the audience is led by the decisive, informed and digitally savvy millennials and GenZ, it perhaps becomes imperative for Bollywood to think out of the box. Internet penetration has democratised access to good content. YouTube, for instance, offers a lot of free content and a range of affordable OTT subscription packs. “The habit of going to the theatre regularly seems to have gone, at least for the Hindi film audience. Bollywood should focus on craft, writing and work as opposed to the peripherals such as money, stardom, fame, brands, etc. None of this will work if your foundation isn’t in place,” says Chopra.

“It is no more a face-driven cinema,” says Singh of Bhansali Productions. “The industry has to focus on ideas, stories and bring in freshness and creativity.”

“Probably, a generational shift has happened in 2020 and it’s time to really look at what people want to consume. Now, there is a better ROI (return on investment) expectation from a consumer’s point of view not just because of OTT but also because things are expensive,” says EY’s Jariwala.

One might argue that, for now, the numbers are in favour of Brahmastra (collections crossed ₹100 crore within just 3 days of release) and it could well turn out to be Bollywood’s moment of reckoning, but there is also evidence that after the previous box office success Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the industry was hit by back-to-back flops. Even for Brahmastra, the overall response has been mixed. “The dialogues were terrible and the story was like kuch bhi ho raha hai (anything is happening),” says a viewer.

For now, the jury is still out on the fate of the Hindi film industry.

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