The Ranbir Kapoor-Alia Bhatt multi-starrer Brahmastra Part One: Shiva was declared a flop before it opened in cinemas on September 9. “Brahmastra is a king-sized disappointment. High on VFX, low on content. … Brahmastra could’ve been a game changer, but, alas, it’s a missed opportunity … All gloss, no soul,” vintage movie critic Taran Adarsh said.
Audiences, on the other hand, gave the fantasy movie a big thumbs up. The film defied boycott calls, generating Rs 220 crore at the box office in the first week. Besides proving his critics wrong, writer-director Ayan Mukerji reversed the perception that Bollywood—the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry—was on its way out. A string of failures, like Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan in August, had shaken the industry. Add to that the sustained boycott campaign that seemed to have ‘official’ support.
Bollywood is not new to trolling and hate campaigns. What is new, is the focused and vicious attacks on the big stars. Someone dug up Ranbir Kapoor’s past that he had supported beef-eating, and a campaign ensued to prevent him and Alia from entering an Ujjain temple.
At a broader level, there has been a sustained bid to paint Bollywood a den of drug users. The unfortunate death by suicide of the young actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, in June 2020, was investigated as a case of abetment involving drugs. Actor Kangana Ranaut added to the shrill accusations.
The drama was extended when Aryan Khan, Shah Rukh’s son, was arrested last October by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) for possessing banned substances. Both investigations have come to naught. It proved that the crime agencies had pursued leads that were little more than red herring.
But back to basics. It’s an old adage: There is no formula for a successful film, but nothing can take away from a story well told. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat in 2018, and the edgy film Lipstick Under My Burkha in 2017, which explored female sexuality, faced boycott campaigns but came out flying. If Laal Singh Chaddha crashed out, it was because the Forrest Gump remake was too meandering. The informal filmgoers’ grapevine is what decides the fate of a film; inspired boycott calls have little impact.
Beyond this controversy, where is Bollywood heading? Trade sites show that of the 30–32 big titles released in calendar 2022, only five or six have made it— The Kashmir Files, RRR, K.G.F: Chapter 2, Bhool Bhulaiya 2, and now, Brahmastra. The rest have been ‘flops’. That means 80% of the releases this year have failed to recover less than half their investments. This is a dismal showing compared to pre-Covid 2019 when about 40% of the releases performed well.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll. According to a PwC report, compared to the 1.9 billion cinema tickets sold in pre-pandemic 2019, just about 379 million were sold in 2021—a drop of 85%! Market data firm Statista shows the industry’s revenues stagnating at Rs 18,200 crore for FY 2023, a notch lower than pre-pandemic FY2020’s Rs 18,300 crore.
Two main factors have crimped Bollywood’s bid to shake off the Covid paralysis. One is lacklustre content, and the other is the change in the watching habits of audiences. That movie studios fancied the fan-following of superstars was enough to get entertainment-hungry crowds to the cinema. But that did not work. Star-heavy films like Ranveer Singh’s 83 and Jayeshbhai Jordaar, Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj and Kangana Ranaut’s Dhaakad all fell by the wayside.
For the industry, it has been the Kannada and Telugu originals that have saved the day. RRR, a Telugu original directed by S S Rajamouli, generated Rs 1,144 crore. K.G.F: Chapter 2, originally in Kannada, starring actors Sanjay Dutt and Raveena Tandon, with the blood-soaked Kolar Gold Fields and Rocky the Assassin providing the action, piled up Rs 1,200 crore.
Epic battles of justice in slow motion, combined with high-octane drama, big sets and good music, rocked audiences across the country and breathed new life into mass entertainment.
Meanwhile, the pandemic that locked up people at home changed viewing habits. Streaming platforms—also known as over-the-top (OTT) services—saw a surge in subscriptions during the two-year lockdown. Netflix, Prime Video, Zee5, and SonyLiv have grown popular, streaming not only movies but popular series and live sports action.
There are many entertainment options now, and the quality of international, dubbed content has created new standards. Besides, entertainment is no more just the dinner-popcorn-multiplex-movie outing. The couch potato has been reinvented. Fearful of contracting Covid-19, the filmgoer sticks at home and prefers to play with the multiple options his remotes offer.
Yet the power of the Big Spectacle on the Big Screen can never be underestimated. Audiences yearn to live the dream in a big theatre, and Bollywood can cash in if it gets its script right. Much lip service is paid to the importance of storytelling, but filmmakers spend over 50% of their budgets on star fees and 35% on marketing, leaving very little for story and research. It’s time they got the ratio right.
Consulting Editor, The New Indian Express