The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown has seen some big-ticket movies which were ready to be released find their way to over-the-top (OTT or streaming) platforms. This led to a big debate between multiplex owners and producers. But a virtual panel comprising bigwigs from the Hindi film industry concluded that releasing movies on OTT platforms was, in fact, good for the industry and would lead to a lot more movies being made. As actor-producer and panellist Ajay Devgn put it, film releases would not be restricted to the 52 weeks in a year and the limited number of release windows.

The panel, moderated by actor Varun Dhawan, had besides Devgn, actors Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, and Alia Bhatt, and Uday Shankar, president, The Walt Disney Company APAC, and chairman, Star & Disney India. The occasion, on Monday evening, was Disney-owned streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar announcing the launch of its Multiplex service, which would premiere seven big-ticket films which were meant for the theatres.

“We find ourselves yet again at the cusp of making a revolutionary change by bringing the biggest Bollywood movies directly to millions across the country. We are happy to partner with the best directors and most talented actors; and provide them with a platform to present their masterpieces,” Shankar said.

The service, which will be available to Disney+ Hotstar Premium and Disney+ Hotstar VIP subscribers, will launch on July 24 with Dil Bechara, which was late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film. However, this film, which also stars Saif Ali Khan and Sanjana Sanghi, will be available to all.

The panel launches the service.
The panel launches the service.
Image : Disney

Besides Rajput’s film, others on the list are Laxmmi Bomb, starring Kumar and Kiara Advani; Bhuj: The Pride of India, a war drama based on the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict and featuring Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, and Sonakshi Sinha; Khuda Haafiz, with Vidyut Jammwal and Shivaleeka Oberoi in the lead; The Big Bull—which is based on Harshad Mehta and events which took place in the financial markets in the 1990s—starring Abhishek Bachchan and Ileana D’Cruz; Lootcase, with Rasika Dugal and Kunal Kemmu in the lead roles; and Sadak 2, which marks the return of Mahesh Bhatt as a film director after 20 years and features daughters Pooja and Alia, Sanjay Dutt, and Aditya Roy Kapoor.

The move comes close on the heels of Amazon Prime snapping up seven Hindi and regional films for a digital release—including Shoojit Sircar-helmed Gulabo Sitabo (starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana)—and Netflix acquiring Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, featuring Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, and Angad Bedi. The Covid-19 pandemic this year has put paid to producers’ plans of releasing movies in theatres, with many approaching OTT platforms as an alternative medium.

Shankar said releasing movies on digital platforms would have eventually happened, but the pandemic provided the impetus. People were missing films and great content; and since they were stuck at home, they wanted new content. Saying that it was a big opportunity for the film industry, Shankar said his firm decided to use the “opportunity” of the pandemic to create “a network of private theatres in everybody’s homes”.

“We should not see this as a compromise, but as a very big leap for our film industry,” Shankar said about the new service. According to him, digital premieres would give the industry a new lease of life. He said India had nearly 500 million smartphone users and the platform gave the industry access to so many viewers via the OTT medium.

Disney said in a release that the initiative, which they are calling “First Day First Show ki home delivery”, will “usher in a new re-imagined ‘first-day first-show’ for Bollywood fans, by treating them to the most anticipated movies of superstars”.

Kumar said that while nothing could beat the thrill of watching a movie in a theatre, under the prevailing circumstances, people could experience the thrill of watching a movie on the first day in the first show at home, with show timings according to their convenience—and this was a different kind of experience. Devgn agreed and said, “Having done 100 films, I definitely took it for granted that theatres were where our films were meant to play. However, two things happened suddenly and almost simultaneously. The Corona pandemic threw all our comfort worlds into a tizzy. And, at the same time, the OTT medium that was a fairly new phenomenon gained a huge significance as far as consuming entertainment is concerned. In the future, theatres and OTT will move in parallel. Both options offer their own strengths.” And with access to a big medium like Hotstar, which has such a huge user base (according to reports, it had 300 million monthly active users last year), different kinds of quality films would be made. “We can release some in theatres and some on the platform,” he said. “I think people will once again start looking forward to new film releases.”

Abhishek Bachchan said that releasing The Big Bull on the platform would enable people from across the country to enjoy it. “There is nothing greater than the joy of being able to entertain someone through movies and great storytelling. And that’s exactly what The Big Bull will do - it will keep audiences hooked till the very end.” Alia Bhatt said Sadak 2 was a dream come true for her as she was working with her father. “These are extraordinary and difficult times and all of us are trying to get through it, taking each day at a time. My father always says that a filmmaker’s destination is the audience’s heart. Disney+ Hotstar VIP gives us that opportunity to connect with our audience across the country.”

“Theatres are a special experience. So, they will always exist and thrive. But the potential of the industry cannot be capped by the number of release windows and theatres available. Our initiative will dramatically increase the number of films that can be made, giving film-lovers more films to enjoy and the creative community more films to make. We believe that this will generate a massive momentum for more and different kinds of films to be made in India. It’s a win-win for all,” Shankar concluded.

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