Technology and cultural change usually go hand in hand in Bollywood. In 1975, 'Sholay', one of Bollywood’s most iconic movies, became a hit partly because of the novelty of the 70-mm widescreen format and stereophonic sound. In 1994, audiences addicted to cable TV, home video and piracy were brought back to the theatres with 'Hum Aapke Hain Koun'...! through a carefully managed strategy of limited release of 26 prints in upgraded theatres and 14 songs tailored to capitalise on the rise of the music industry. In 2001, the cool crowd discovered Hindi cinema in multiplexes with 'Lagaan' and 'Dil Chahta Hai'.
Every time there was a challenge from audiences aided by disruptive technology, Bollywood responded by changing its content to suit the times. This time, it seems difficult. Unless the Mumbai film industry learns how to tell stories that matter to the audience, they’d rather sit out the movies, preferring to spend
their time and money on streaming series, online betting, swiping dating apps, playing video games, and shopping on the internet. And, of course, consuming Bollywood-related content on YouTube, available for free, 24x7. What did Ranbir Kapoor say about Alia Bhatt while promoting 'Brahmastra'? Did Taapsee Pannu joke about wanting her film 'Dobaara' to be banned? Is 'Liger' a cross between a lion and a tigress or a dog’s breakfast of a movie? Did Sara Ali Khan and Jahnvi Kapoor call Vijay Deverakonda a piece of cheese on 'Koffee with Karan'? Memes, reviews, comments, videos. Bollywood-related content is a hit with audiences. Bollywood movies? Err, not so much, and certainly not in theatres.
Even as the world moves on from Covid-19, the impact of the pandemic on Bollywood is being deeply felt. Big names are crashlanding at the box office, the biggest being Aamir Khan and 'Laal Singh Chaddha', which made Rs 127 crore worldwide so far with a production budget of Rs 180 crore. The year’s top four films at the box office so far has only one Hindi film in it, 'The Kashmir Files'. No. 1 is a Kannada original 'KGF 2' at Rs 1,000 crore; No. 2 is 'RRR', a Telugu original, at Rs 944 crore; and 'Vikram', at No. 3, is in Tamil, at Rs 460 crore. 'The Kashmir Files', a hard-hitting film with no stars, but a powerful story told with conviction, cannot even be described as a Bollywood film, with its director Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri a proud outlier. The complete top ten list tells an even more dismal story for Bollywood. There are only three original Hindi movies ('The Kashmir Files', at No. 3; 'Bhool Bhulaiya 2', at No. 4; and 'Gangubai Kathiawadi', at No. 8). The others in the top ten are southern language movies.
It’s simple. Bollywood has stopped making interesting movies for an audience, which spent the extended lockdown refining its viewing tastes, watching movies and series from across the world. A content revolution has happened, leaving Bollywood far behind in the storytelling stakes. Most of the movies being released now are those which were made or at least conceptualised before the pandemic, when audiences hadn’t fallen out of the habit of watching entertainment in theatres, especially in Tier-II towns. A report from Elara Capital in May 2022, said Hindi language cinema, which usually makes over 60 per cent of box office revenue for theatre owners in north India, saw its share decline to an all-time low of 10 per cent in the first five months of 2022.
At the core of it, says Prabhat Choudhary, founder of communication agency Spice, is a problem of content. Everything else can be fixed, whether it is respect for audiences, the so-called arrogance of stars, or the #BoycottBollywood hashtags on social media. “There is a creative disconnect in Bollywood,” he says, “where mainstream cinema has ceased to be worth the audience’s money or time.”
It’s happened because of a variety of reasons. Filmmakers such as Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, who brought the sights and smells of small-town India into the industry in the late 90s, became the establishment. The star system grew to a point where 50 per cent of the budget was spent on remuneration to the star, leaving little to develop the story or its execution. “If Rajkummar Rao takes Rs 8 crore from a film with a budget of Rs 12 crore or a Sanya Malhotra charges Rs 5 crore, where the film’s budget is Rs 12 crore, how can a film be good?” asks a veteran filmmaker. Star lifestyles have become luxurious even as their movies have become dead-on-arrival at the box office. A recent example is 'Hit: The First Case'. Its budget was Rs16 crore and its lifetime box office revenue was Rs 8 crore.
The media discourse around actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death convinced families during the lockdown that the Mumbai film industry was responsible for his death. Stuck at home, they watched Bollywood stars cooking in their well-appointed kitchens, promoting brands and soon holidaying in the Maldives, and the relationship of love was broken. “The audience felt we are being left here to die in this heat of May and June, and these stars are enjoying themselves. There was a trust deficit,” says Agnihotri. When theatres opened, the movies seemed dated, as indeed they were. Added to it were marketing techniques from before the pandemic. Mall visits; focus on the star to the exclusion of the writers, directors and producers; and inflated demands from stars, extending from expensive entourages to specialised vanity vans. There was no focus on developing the plot, which became a mix of South Indian remakes and Korean/American copies. Like the Congress party, says Agnihotri, the leaders of the industry lost touch with the common man.
Yet, oddly, there was a rise in the consumption of Bollywood-related content on YouTube, with memes, news videos and reviews feeding the cancel culture. “There is a civil war between the audience and the film industry. Or rather an uncivil war,” says Ram Gopal Varma, veteran director. “In this, film-related content has become more entertaining, more of a gladiatorial game for the audience than the film itself.” The audience is having fun, each trying to be more vicious than the other.
New York University professor Arvind Rajagopal harks back to the 1980s and early 1990s, after Amitabh Bachchan’s decline and the rise of Govinda’s double-meaning songs, when people were forecasting the decline of the film industry. That is until a certain newspaper came up with the “ABC” formula, Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, and decided they were in the advertising business, not in the news business. “The decline in journalistic standards, and in a public culture of debate, impacts film culture as well. Previously filmmakers tried to anticipate the censor board by avoiding politics and hinting at erotics off-screen through well-known codes. Today there are many aspects to Bollywood’s crisis, including changing audience tastes, search for new formulas, difficulty of talent and capital to find a suitable meeting ground, conservative tendencies of big capital, and the increasing challenges of monetisation,” he says.
A useful historical parallel for understanding Bollywood’s crisis is, in Rajagopal’s opinion, the McCarthyist witch-hunt on Hollywood. Although in the US it happened through official government channels, in India it is happening almost entirely through non-government players. There has long been a conservative view that Bollywood is dominated by Muslims. In a strange way, Muslims became the Indian counterpart of Communists in the US—although Muslims were not any more likely to be Communist than Hindus.
The rise of a powerful conservative public culture, embodied by websites such as Gems of Bollywood, which routinely calls out what it describes as anti-Hindu content in Bollywood movies, along with independent cynic-critics such as actor Kamal Rashid Khan or KRK, who often roasts public figures in the most unseemly way, and several Twitter handles demanding justice for Sushant Singh Rajput has ensured that the gods and goddesses on screen no longer seem as inviolable as they were before. Much of it is also because almost every star seems to be incapable of quitting social media, putting their family photos online, their vacation pictures, and even private party photos.
But everyone is a critic now, and everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. Cancelling someone famous is the easiest way. Sometimes it can be inadvertent.
Manoj Desai, the owner of Maratha Mandir and Gaiety-Galaxy theatres in Mumbai, lashed out at Vijay Deverakonda for his supposed arrogance in saying he didn’t care about the #BoycottBollywood movement. It was enough for Deverakonda to fly down to Mumbai from Hyderabad and apologise to Desai. At other times, it can be deliberate baiting to elicit attention, as with KRK who has been at the receiving end of defamation cases and now arrest. Sometimes the criticism is in good taste, sometimes it isn’t. The message is clear, says Varma: “If you don’t entertain us, we will entertain ourselves.”
Historically, Bollywood’s choices at critical points in its recent history seem to have backfired in the long run. In the 80s, the southern stars were remaking many Hindi movies, specifically those headlined by Amitabh Bachchan. Rajinikanth remade at least 10 films, from 'Don', 1978 (remade as 'Billa', 1980) to 'Deewar', 1975 (as 'Thee', '1981'). NT Rama Rao too remade Bachchan hits, from 'Khoon Pasina', '1977' (remade as 'Tiger', '1979') to 'Don' (remade as 'Yugandhar', '1979'). Then in the 90s, Bollywood movies became vehicles for music and the three Khans emerged as primarily romantic heroes. The south meanwhile continued to make the masala entertainers in the Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra mould. The rise of 'Dil Chahta Hai', 'Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham', and 'Lagaan' in 2001 coincided with the emergence of the multiplex and the return of the urban elite to theatres.
But equally Bollywood didn’t pay enough attention to the film which topped the box office that year 'Gadar: Ek Prem Katha', a masala entertainer that truckloads of people watched, especially in the north. Where 'Lagaan' was about a past, where India had won a fictional cricket match, 'Gadar' was about the harsh reality of Partition, and the lives and loves that were forever divided. Bollywood decided its course, with the new middle class embracing multiplex favourites, such as 'Dil Chahta Hai', 'Lagaan', and 'Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham'. The Tier II and III towns, which had loved 'Gadar', just didn’t get enough well-made entertainers that spoke to them about real issues. Bollywood’s tragedy was that it didn’t even make enough of the Lagaans and DilChahtaHais.
Every time the audience tried to signal to the industry where its interests lay, with 'Ghajini', a remake of the 2005 Tamil film, in 2008, starring Aamir Khan, and with 'Wanted', a remake of the 2006 Telugu film, 'Pokiri', in 2009, starring Salman Khan, Bollywood was looking away. The result, when the blockbuster success of 'Pushpa: The Rise' hit them in 2021 with Rs 365 crore at the box office, without hype and marketing, the leaders of the industry were taken aback. Unlike 'Baahubali', which Bollywood had embraced and introduced to the North, through Dharma Productions, 'Pushpa', despite starring Allu Arjun, was a mystery. When it was followed by the success of 'The Kashmir Files' in March and then 'KGF 2' in April, the warning bells were finally loud enough to be heard in Juhu and Bandra. Now there is a sense of panic, with some big-ticket movies lined up for release, including the long-awaited
'Brahmastra', a CGI-heavy attempt to build a 'Baahubali'-type franchise, and 'Vikram Vedha', a remake of the 2017 Tamil hit starring R Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi.
The failure of the Liger experiment, a Hindi movie with a southern director and southern star, has been a setback. At the same time, disruptive films continue to throw curveballs at Bollywood. Case in point is 'Kartikeya 2', a Telugu movie dubbed in Hindi, starring the little-known Nikhil Siddartha, has crossed Rs 100 crore worldwide. The film is a thriller about a search for secrets buried beneath the sea near Dwarka, and is a mix of faith, history and mythology, the cinematic equivalent of an Ashwin Sanghi novel. On its ninth day, it did double the business of 'Laal Singh Chaddha' and triple the business of 'Raksha Bandhan', both with major Bollywood stars. With dubbing and marketing costs adding up to Rs 1.20-1.75 crore, it is quite economical to release a southern language movie in Hindi. 'Sita Ramam', Dulquer Salmaan’s romantic epic, co-starring Mrunal Thakur, which has done well in Telugu already (Rs 38 crore), is now releasing in a dubbed Hindi version, which hopes to open a whole new market for the Malayalam language star, familiar to audiences in the North through his 'Karwaan' (2018) and 'The Zoya Factor' (2019).
You can argue with content, says Varma, but not with success. “Directors in the south are rooted in their culture. They have a low-angle view of life which people in Bollywood will not understand. They cannot direct a line like ‘Violence, violence, violence, I don’t like violence, but violence likes me,’ from KGF 2 and no actor in the industry can say it with as much conviction as Yash,” he says. They know their audience. Bollywood assumes the audience is like them. You need a certain madness and confidence for this kind of cinema. Bollywood has had 20 years of refinement and can’t turn the ship around so quickly,” he says.
Eventually, good cinema will win. Shamshera was dubbed in Telugu and Tamil as a reverse experiment, in the hope that it could replicate the success of southern films. The movie was badly made and earned Rs 63 crore worldwide. With a production budget reportedly of Rs 150 crore, it was unviable. Its dubbed versions alone cost Rs4 crore, and it made a total of Rs 20 lakh in Tamil and Telugu.
As in the West now, the movie has become a brand, bigger than the star and bigger than the director. “The Kashmir Files, for instance, has no stars, doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and is based on real incidents. It doesn’t think the audience is stupid,” says Varma. The audience is, in fact, smarter than many filmmakers today, and one can almost sense the anticipation in the air as it waits to rip apart the next highly touted big thing.
It has become a bloodsport and the spectators are as much cheerleaders as they are antagonists. What can turn them from one to the other is what everyone would like to find out. The biggest stars and the biggest producers don’t know. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui says he can’t understand the loss of faith. All he would say is that “you can't disrespect the audience, which has given you so much love, and made you who you are”. Nikkhil Advani, director and producer, says the industry needs to analyse the causes of the disaffection. “We have to educate ourselves, not bury our heads in the sand,” he says.
Is the anger against Bollywood real or misdirected? That is a good question. But equally, is Bollywood making what people want to watch?
The Mumbai film industry hopes a southern touch will help its movies do better at the box office. Here are some of the big-ticket Bollywood movies with a regional flavour. Will it be enough if not accompanied by a tale well told?
Brahmastra: Part One—Shiva Starring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, has Telugu star Nagarjuna in a key role, and is being promoted in the south by Baahubali director SS Rajamouli and RRR star Junior NTR
Starring Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan, a remake of the 2017 Tamil hit, directed by the same couple Pushkar-Gayathri
Drishyam 2 Starring Ajay Devgn, in the second part of a successful franchise in Hindi and the 2021 original in Malayalam, with superstar Mohanlal
Merry Christmas: Sriram Raghavan pairs Tamil superstar Vijay Sethupathi with Katrina Kaif
in intriguing mystery
Adipurush: Prabhas as Raghava, Saif Ali Khan as Lankesh and Kriti Sanon as Janaki in Om Raut’s massive epic based on the Ramayana
Shehzada: Starring Kartik Aaryan, remake of Allu Arjun’s Telugu 2020 hit, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo
Selfiee, co-produced by Dharma Productions and Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran, remake of his 2019 hit Driving Licence, starring Akshay Kumar and Emraan Hashmi
Bholaa: Directed by Ajay Devgn, co-starring Tabu, shot in Hyderabad and remake of 2019 Tamil hit Kaithi, starring Karthi
Big-banner films that failed at the box office
Laal Singh Chaddha
Starring: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan
Budget: Rs 180 crore
Box office: Rs 127 crore worldwide
Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt
Budget: Rs 150 crore
Box office: Rs 68 crore worldwide
Starring: Vijay Devarakonda, Ananya Pandey
Budget: Rs 140 crore
Box office: Rs 47 crore (first six days)
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar
Budget: Rs 70 crore
Box office: Rs 60 crore worldwide