Bollywood on the flop track : The Tribune India

Bollywood on the flop track

Hindi film industry seems to have lost the plot and pulse of its mass as well as niche audience, with movies struggling at the box office. Brahmastra, off to a good start, could turn the tide. Or can it?

Bollywood on the flop track

Audience’s favourite Aamir Khan couldn’t recover production cost in his recent ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’.

Nonika Singh

We are in this entertainment business really to give the audience what they want...

— Ice Cube, American rapper

Can Bollywood, one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world, having a major share in the annual 1,000 Indian-film pie, make a similar claim? As one after the other Hindi film literally bites the dust at the box office, the question that everyone is asking is not whether Bollywood has lost its plot, but why and how it lost it? And most important, can the Hindi film industry salvage its reputation, nose-diving as fast as dwindling box-office collections?

Akshay Kumar (seen here in ‘Samrat Prithiviraj’), whose movies usually mint money, delivered three back-to-back flops.

Today, all eyes are on ‘Brahmastra: Part One — Shiva’ that has thankfully had a bumper opening of Rs 75 crore worldwide, becoming the biggest Hindi movie opener of 2022. There is a silver lining on the anvil. Trade pundits are keeping their fingers crossed, as are other filmmakers who do not even have a stake in the film. While it’s too early to place any bets on the Ranbir-Alia starrer, the Hindi film industry has been under dark clouds for too long.

Niche films like Ayushmann Khurrana’s ‘Anek’ failed miserably at the box office.

According to Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, from January-July period this year, out of Rs 6,000 crore overall gross box-office collections, Hindi cinema’s share was just 34 per cent, lower than even the pre-pandemic levels. Another shocking development has been that while Hollywood films like ‘Thor’ have had Rs 65-crore opening weekend collection, many mega budget Hindi films could not muster up similar figures. ‘Shamshera’ could only collect Rs 31 crore in the opening three-day run. Most recently, even ‘Liger’, directed by South biggie Puri Jagannadh and starring new sensation Vijay Deverakonda, could barely make Rs 13.5 crore in the extended opening weekend.

‘Shamshera’ could only collect Rs 31 crore in the opening three-day run.

In fact, as we enter the ninth month of the year, there have been just three bona fide hits, which include an unexpected winner: Vivek Agnihotri’s ‘The Kashmir Files’. The early success of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, headlined by Alia Bhatt, did gladden the hearts of industry watchers. But that was at the beginning of the year in February and a tantalising line-up showed so much more promise. However, as we take stock after two-thirds of the year has gone by, the long list of flops is making not just stakeholders but even Bollywood baiters jittery.

Despite other southern movies raking in the moolah, ‘Liger’ had to cancel shows early into the release of

the film.

Great OTT migration

Just as the industry bemoans the loss of one film’s revenue collection, recovers from another setback and pins hopes on one more magnum opus, comes yet another whammy. It’s as if the Indian fans have almost forsaken Bollywood. If big-time studios like YRF and Dharma are failing, acclaimed directors like Anurag Kashyap and Anubhav Sinha are not faring any better. And directors like Aanand L Rai, whose name itself spelt box-office magic, too, seem to have lost their Midas touch. Neither A-listers (Akshay Kumar, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor), nor attention-seekers (Kangana Ranaut) or Mr Perfectionist (Aamir Khan), and not even the poster boy of quality cinema (Ayshumann Khurrana) can guarantee success, or even a bumper opening. If Akshay delivers three flops in a row forcing him to push his fourth, ‘Cuttputlli’, on to OTT, ‘Samrat Prithiviraj’, ‘Shamshera’ and ‘Liger’ had to cancel shows early into the release of the film. Ditto for ‘Raksha Bandhan’ as nearly 1,000 shows of the Akshay-starrer had to be cancelled.

Notwithstanding a good performance by Ranveer Singh, ‘Jayeshbhai Jordaar’ failed to impress viewers.

In this abysmal scenario, film producer Rahul Mittra senses decimation of the star system and says, “The new evolving audience does not care about names, only content.” Furthermore, he feels, privilege is no longer cool but a liability which star kids will have to contend with in future.

Kangana Ranaut-starrer ‘Dhaakad’ was a total dud, earning a meagre Rs 3.77 crore.

It isn’t as if no one is addressing the elephant in the room. Superstar Akshay Kumar even apportioned part of the blame on himself. Why Hindi films are not working has become the de-facto question in Karan Johar’s ‘Koffee with Karan’. The producer-director has himself admitted in one of his interviews that herd mentality and lack of conviction have taken Bollywood on the road to nowhere. Sumit Kadel, trade analyst and film critic, puts it succinctly, “The Hindi movies on offer are not exciting the imagination of the viewers.” He admits that the urban-centric audiences who patronised niche films of actors like Ayushmann Khurrana have all but shifted to OTT.

South rises over North

However, even makers with an urban bias and city-based pool of writers are not able to figure out what pleases the masses, who are gladly patronising an ‘RRR’, a ‘Pushpa’ or a ‘KGF’ but deserting Hindi films. More than a handful of filmmakers from the South are laughing all the way to the bank. Rise of the South and fall of Bollywood could well be two sides of the same coin, only if it didn’t have such disastrous consequences for Bollywood. Filmmaker Madhureeta Anand observes, “What is worrisome is not just that the South films are doing well in their own region, but how they are working their magic in the North as well.” And it’s not that the South is dishing out films of superlative quality. ‘Pushpa: The Rise’, for instance, is a typical masala potpourri, rather misogynist too, yet it works. Anand pinpoints why, “Even within the formula, the makers from the South are pushing the envelope.”

Another problem, says Mittra, is that many of the Hindi films were conceived and made pre-Covid times and the makers could not factor in the newly evolved taste of the audience. Delayed release of many films like ‘Shamshera’ became part of the problem as by the time the film was released, the much-hyped YRF film appeared dated. Besides, the presence of many dated stars in mainstream Hindi films adds to the audience’s sense of fatigue and deja vu.

Says Kadel, “Who wants to see an Akshay who is ever-present in theatres every two months?” Superstars might still be a click-bait but are not clicking with the viewers anymore. However, he does go on to add that more than stars playing havoc, it is the makers who are letting the stars down. ‘Jayeshbhai Jordaar’, despite a zordaar performance by Ranveer Singh, did not quite do the trick, for viewers are no longer interested in gyan or grave issues like female foeticide or dowry.

Yet, what the viewers want is far trickier than hazarding a guess at what they don’t. If Bollywood is not one person, the audience, too, is not a monolith which Shakespeare may have deemed is a mob which can be swayed in one direction or the other. Indeed, cinema for most viewers is entertainment, entertainment and more entertainment and holds the key to their attention/engagement quotient. But what is more significant is a discernible difference in audience tastes pre- and post-Covid in which OTT content has been the biggest driver.

Anand adds, “If I have already seen a particular kind of visual language, why would I be keen on watching it again in theatres?” Her reasoning partially explains the fate of movies like ‘Dobaaraa’ and ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’. Both films, remakes of foreign films, opened to mixed reviews, with audiences remaining unenthused.

But that doesn’t mean all is lost or the Bollywood filmmakers can’t get their act together.

Needed, freshness in stories

Mittra can sense an opportunity in this crisis. Only it comes with a caveat. “If only films would stick to a particular genre just as ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2’ did and not go all over the place. Only if we would tell rooted stories with honesty. By rooted, I don’t mean village stories but ones that are anchored in our socio-cultural milieu.” Anand feels more than fresh stories, we need freshness in how stories are told. She adds, “It is like when 5G technology comes, the telecommunication industry can’t remain oblivious to the new winds of change and has to make a paradigm shift. Similarly post-Covid, after the deep penetration of OTT, the entertainment industry has to upgrade its skill sets.” Of course, the course correction in the market where the audience is more demanding is not easy to achieve. Kadel foresees tough times for at least the next six months.

In the intervening period, everyone is feeling the heat. Multiplex chains Inox and PVR posted net losses during the year. As a recourse measure, actors are taking a fee cut; ambitious projects such as ‘Takht’ have been shelved for some time. Even actors like Aahana Kumra who are not part of mainstream cinema are more than a tad worried. “It’s the same ecosystem of which we are all a part of. There is certainly a ripple effect,” says Kumra. Besides, there’s cancel culture to reckon with. As Anand puts it, “The times are hardly conducive for cultural renaissance.” She is not convinced though that boycott calls have affected the film business. But the unspoken censorship, the threat of FIRs do hang like the Damocles’ sword — a cultural impediment which can only hem creative imagination even further.

Caught in crosshairs, the industry can seek release only by going back to the drawing board and not by seeking solutions where the problem lies. As Mittra says, “As long as we keep spending Rs 2 crore on stars’ paraphernalia and Rs 20 lakh on the sets, unless we pump money in developing writers’ room and cutting-edge technology, we will still exactly be in the same place another time.” God forbid… but then as Zacahry Levi says, “Entertainment has a way of resetting itself.” Only when and how soon, remains to be seen. Brahmastra could, hopefully, be that light at the end of the tunnel.

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