How the Bollywood film industry is reeling under the Covid-19 lockdown
Empty sets, shut theatres and celebrities with a lot of time on their hands
Deepika Padukone was getting ready to pack her bags for Sri Lanka to shoot a movie with Shakun Batra. Karan Johar was planning the sets of his mammoth spectacle Takht, in Mumbai’s Film City—after having had to give up the idea of shooting in Florence, Italy. And Anurag Kashyap had just four days of shooting left for a love story starring Alaya F.
The way movies are funded will also be altered. The closure of Disney and Fox Studios, and change at the top-levels of Viacom 18 indicates that unrealistic budgets and inadequate returns were taking a toll. Johar’s Takht had to be shipped from Fox Studios to Bhushan Kumar’s T-Series. Big film studios like Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions will have to alter their production patterns and do a lot more streaming shows. Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s Tiger Baby Films, Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Studios, and Reliance Entertainment have a lot more to offer to digital audiences right now. Digital, in fact, will become the primary platform.
But stalled movies and re-runs of TV shows are the least of the Mumbai entertainment industry’s problems. As actors used the lockdown time to entertain us with their skills at cleaning, cooking, washing dishes and doing interviews on Zoom, producers and directors have started looking at life beyond the lockdown. As the nation grapples with the humanitarian crisis caused by Covid-19, it is clear that nothing will ever be the same again, starting with the way entertainment will be consumed. It is like a dystopian nightmare, only not one produced by Bollywood.
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With cinema halls expected to reopen only by September, that too with stringent protocols in place, the nature of collective suspension of disbelief will be undergoing an enormous change. Streaming services are the likely beneficiaries, with possible premieres of movies across all platforms, including theatres and Direct-To-Home, something Aamir Khan had proposed as many as 11 years ago for 3 Idiots. “The nature of stardom will change,” says PR guru Prabhat Choudhary, “it will become much more egalitarian. When a movie with a big star releases alongside a series with a newcomer, and the latter gets more viewers, there will be democratisation of talent. And from then on, it will be pure economics. Will the high prices stars command be worth it if the eyeballs they attract are less than the series starring a newbie? Add to that the collapse of the high-end luxury market and FMCG goods, and you have the end of the lucrative endorsement segment. The likely slowdown of events means stage shows and store openings will no longer be an additional source of income especially for female actors.”
Stars in India will actually have to start acting in movies and even “slumming” it on streaming services to make a living. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The slowdown has meant intense creativity for writers and directors who are busy planning the shows they will pitch to streaming services hungry for content. Nikkhil Advani, having recently launched Hasmukh, a TV series about a comic-cum-serial killer starring Vir Das, is busy with his work that continues unaffected thanks to online connectivity. He says, “Once theatres open, people will think long and hard before venturing out into a 300-seater multiplex even if they claim to follow social distancing measures, unless you have a clear indication that those sitting inside are virus-free. Security scanners in malls and multiplexes will have to come equipped with the two-minute screening equipment. Single screen audiences will brave it out, what choice do they have?”
While on the other hand, Amazon Prime is bringing Paatal Lok, a neo-noir web television series under Anushka Sharma’s banner, Clean Slate Films. Watch the trailer here:
And when it comes to Netflix, the streaming platform has collaborated with Red Chillies Entertainment for an upcoming horror series, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Here’s the first look of Betaal:
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Shooting is going to be tough and producers have been circulating norms and conditions to reopen an industry that employs at least five million people. The Producers Guild of India is discussing this with the state government but the last thing any producer cares to invest in is security and hygiene. Vicky Donor and Piku director, Shoojit Sircar, was all set to release Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, in April. It has been pushed back. What is interesting for him is the potential change in narrative. “There was a new kind of storytelling emerging in India,” he says, “and now it will have a deeper impact.”
First look of Gulabo Sitabo, directed by Shoojit Sircar
Rohan Sippy, director of Bluffmaster! and Dum Maaro Dum says, “After social distancing, will we even want to see hugging and kissing in movies any more or will we flinch?”
As Chaudhary says, whenever there is a cataclysmic event there is a redistribution of value. In the battle for the attention of the viewer, who is now distributing his time on the mobile phone, laptop and television, whatever is feeding these screens will gain. The pandemic will destroy those on the brink of death. Advertising revenue will shift to where audiences do and the financial model that will be created will be more robust, reflecting the true global power of Indian entertainment. “We have been stuck to this archaic model of Bollywood which relies entirely on the physicality of the experience. And we have been losing an unaccounted audience,” he says. Going forward, a movie may premiere as a video-on-demand on a streaming service across the world on the same day.
Shibhasish Sarkar of Reliance Entertainment Group says producers will feel the absence of theatrical revenues as well as the reduced liquidity in the market, which will result in fewer films that are more structured. It’s a shake-up that has been a long time coming, he adds. They have two major films ready for release, Sooryavanshi starring Akshay Kumar and 83 starring Ranveer Singh, apart from other movies and several series in the process of being green-lit.
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Yet Bollywood worships money and the joke goes that the only phone call stars and directors are willing to take right now is that of Eros Entertainment CEO Kishore Lulla, who thanks to his alliance with American studio STX, has made almost Rs 4,000 crore. He would be expecting a call from Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanting to make his next spectacle.