The Indian Bollywood film industry, which has long been part of the cultural fabric of the movie-crazed country of 1.4 billion people, is facing its greatest crisis ever as streaming services and non-Hindi language competitors steal their luster. The South Asian giant produces an average of 1,600 films a year, more than any other country traditionally characterized by glitzy Bollywood, with fans worshiping movie stars as gods and crowds crowding premieres. But now cinemas have stalled even in Mumbai’s nerve center of Bollywood, with receipts plummeting since Covid restrictions were lifted.
“This is the worst crisis ever,” experienced Mumbai theater owner Manoj Desai told AFP. Some screenings were canceled because the “audience wasn’t there”.
The usually profitable megastar Akshay Kumar had three back-to-back movies. Fellow A-lister Aamir Khan, the face of some of India’s most successful films, failed to entice audiences with the Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha.
Of the more than 50 Bollywood films released in the past year — less than usual due to the pandemic — only a fifth have met or exceeded sales targets, Elara Capital media analyst Karan Taurani said. Before the pandemic, it was 50 percent.
In contrast, several Telugu-language aka Tollywood movies – a South Indian competitor to Hindi-language Bollywood – have risen to the top.
Embarrassingly, about half of the box office receipts for Hindi-language films from January 2021 to August this year were called southern offerings, Soumya Kanti Ghosh, the chief economic adviser to the State Bank of India, said in a recent report.
“Bollywood, after decades of storytelling… It seems to be at a turning point, unlike any other disruption it has experienced before,” Ghosh wrote.
‘Out of range’
Bollywood, like other film industries, has been hit by the rise of streaming, which started before the pandemic but took off when millions of Indians were forced inside.
About half of India’s population has access to the internet and streaming services, including international players such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ Hotstar, which have 96 million subscriptions, according to a government estimate.
Some of the films released during the Covid shutdown went straight to these platforms, while others hit small screens just weeks after their theater debut.
With monthly streaming subscriptions that are less than or comparable to the cost of a single ticket — 100-200 rupees ($1.20-$2.50) at single-screen movie theaters and higher at movie theaters — price-sensitive audiences avoided theaters, analysts said.
Times have been so tough that INOX and PVR, two of India’s largest multiplex operators, announced their merger in March to “create scale”.
Subscribers, meanwhile, were exposed to local and global streaming content, including movies in southern Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada that already had legions of devoted local fans.
“Regional cinema didn’t travel beyond its borders. But now everyone was watching Malayalam cinema or Maharashtrian cinema and you realize…there are filmmakers who tell more interesting stories,” said film critic Raja Sen.
“Then they see a Hindi blockbuster come out with a star who is like a repeat of a story they’ve heard a million times, and they’re not so impressed anymore.”
Critics also accused Bollywood of making niche or elite films that don’t catch on in a country where 70 percent of the population lives outside the city.
Aamir Khan admitted during media interviews for Laal Singh Chaddha that Hindi filmmakers’ “choice of what’s relevant to them may not be as relevant to a wider audience.”
At the same time, Tollywood are mega smash hits Pushpa: the rise and RRR spotlighted the exploits of ordinary people while treating the audience to larger-than-life visual spectacles with catchy song and dance routines.
Formulas like this have long been a mainstay of Bollywood, but film critics say the southern challengers fared bigger and better.
“To get people to movie theaters, we need to create a storytelling experience that cannot be replicated at home,” said multi-theatre operator and trade analyst Akshaye Rathi.
“What we have to do is respect their time, money and effort. And when we do that, for a particular movie, they come out in huge numbers.”
Guaranteeing success at the box office by having a star as a lead was now no longer guaranteed, said Taurani, who described Bollywood’s recent struggles as “alarming”.
“I think of course the audience wants the star, but the audience wants the star to play a part in a movie with compelling content,” he added.
Kumar – nicknamed a “one-man industry” because he was so prolific – said he would go back to the drawing board.
“If my films don’t work, it’s our fault, it’s my fault. I have to make the changes, I have to understand what the public wants,” the Indian Express reported in August.
Bollywood’s suffering was compounded by repeated social media campaigns against certain films by Hindu right-wing people, including the Forrest Gump redo.
Most recently there were calls for new release Brahmastra are being boycotted because of star Ranbir Kapoor’s comments about eating beef several years ago. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus.
But while they created unwelcome noise, analysts say there appeared to be no material impact on returns at the box office. Brahmastra has indeed done well.
The real problem, moviegoers told AFP outside a cinema in Mumbai, was that many Bollywood films just weren’t good enough.
“The story has to be good (and) the content has to be good so people want to watch,” said college student Preeti Sawant, 22.
“So that’s why people don’t come to watch movies.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)