Indian movie screens light up again, but change is coming

As crowds start returning to India's theatres after two years, cinema realigns itself to post-pandemic realities and new box office equations.



By R Krishnakumar

Published: Mon 11 Apr 2022, 10:47 AM

Last updated: Mon 11 Apr 2022, 3:16 PM

For India's multi-lingual film industry, identified with prolific production and varied cultural markers, the month which passed was crucial. Trade analysts see the impressive box office returns from March (including from the blockbuster RRR, film still pictured above) as relief that took a while coming. This could be another sign of revival since the phased reopening of cinemas that were shut down as the pandemic peaked in the country.

Three major releases - Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Gangubai Kathiawadi (February 25), Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files (March 11) and S. S. Rajamouli's Telugu film RRR and its other language versions (March 24) - have together raked in a worldwide gross collection of about $170 million. RRR is still on strong legs and as it smashes records across markets, its staggering success has been tagged by the union government to an upturn in the country's economy.

"I understand that RRR is set to become the biggest film in the country, earning over Rs750 crore (about $100 million). I feel that India's economy, like the film, will be setting new records," Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce and Industry, said.

RRR director S. S. Rajamouli with actors Alia Bhatt, N. T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan recently promoted the film at PVR Plaza, Connaught place, in New Delhi.

The numbers, especially from Hindi films, are well short of the pre-pandemic range. These figures, however, point to possibilities of a turnaround after a disastrous first two months of the year, marked by the Omicron variant that pushed state governments to order closure of cinemas or restrictions on viewing capacity. They mark another step closer to normalcy in a country where recently, the daily Covid caseload dropped under 1,000, for the first time since April 2020.

Consulting firm Ormax Media, in its India box office report for 2020 and 2021, says footfalls at cinemas came down from 1030 million in 2019 to 220 million in 2020 and 470 million in 2021.

However, star power could pull in crowds, like the massive one that gathered to meet RRR actor Ram Charan at a cinema in Mumbai recently.

DEMAND WITH A DISCLAIMER

Some of the trade reports trace the success of post-pandemic films, many of them released during troughs between caseload peaks, to pent-up demand. It is convenient to see a rise in footfalls at the cinemas as indicative of a craving for entertainment of any kind.

There, however, is a stronger case for content as the key driver of this moderate box office upswing. Pandemic-related restrictions had already forced the makers of RRR into a deferred theatrical release. In cinemas that are increasingly free of social distancing strictures, the film, with its big action set-pieces and high-note emotional core, seems to have found the right viewer at the right time.

This, of course, is instant gratification. This is a return to the real deal, to canteen crowds, to whooping and booing; this is catching up on lost time, with the cursory face mask being the only sign of caution over the next wave of infections. This is also displacement by choice, from the uncertainties of a realigned life to a comforting, familiar social activity. The demand, still, is for a supply of choice.

The films that have done well since the pandemic offer no substantial evidence of undiscerning acceptance. They have come in diverse genres and are anchored in diverse sensibilities - from an assembly-line cop caper (Sooryavanshi, film still pictured below) to a Telugu language romance with themes of casteism (Uppena).

The underwhelming performance of some of the big releases is also in line with fickle box office traditions. Kabir Khan's 83 starring Ranveer Singh is set around the Indian cricket team's famed World Cup triumph in 1983. A retelling of a defining high in the history of the country's favourite sport, the film won high praise from the critics but ended its run with collections bafflingly short of expectations.

Over the past two years, Malayalam cinema has broken new ground with bold themes and treatment in a series of OTT hits. The big theatrical successes after the reopening of cinemas, however, have been star vehicles - Kurup, a true-crime thriller with Dulquer Salmaan (film still pictured below) and Bheeshma Parvam, a gangland drama with Mammootty - and Hridayam, a rom-com with Pranav Mohanlal, all fresh and formulaic in their own ways. This familiar pattern of no patterns, perhaps, is the strongest sign of a return to normalcy for film trade in the country.

Vidya Balan is among the actors who believe that competition will help produce better content. "It's a great time for audiences because there's something for every taste. We are exposed to content from across the country and the world," she was quoted as saying in an interview with PTI.

THE SOUTH RISES

The Ormax box office report says the contribution of the four south Indian languages to the domestic box office increased from 36% in 2019 to 59% in 2020-2021.

The evolution of popular cinema from the south into a pan-India market was defined by the two Baahubali films helmed by Rajamouli and released in 2015 and 2017. It found a new marker in late 2021, with the success of Pushpa: The Rise, the Telugu film headlined by Allu Arjun which had its Hindi and other language versions. RRR, a pre-Independence period spectacle that has two real freedom fighters meeting in an imagined timeline, is reaffirming the Telugu language industry as a force in packaging big-ticket entertainment with a cross-cultural appeal.

The Hindi version of Pushpa (film still pictured below) alone clocked $14 million as its India nett collection. In the year-ender list, it was second only to Sooryavanshi, an A-lister ensemble led by Akshay Kumar, which ended its run at about $26 million. According to trade website boxofficeindia.com, the Hindi version of RRR is set for a final India nett of about $27 million.

The build-up to the April 14 release of the Prashanth Neel-directed KGF Chapter 2, a sequel to the Kannada language blockbuster from 2018, reflects this new reality of the pan-India film. The period actioner with Yash in the lead is set to open on over 6,000 screens worldwide.

Tamil cinema, the second biggest southern language industry, after Telugu, is yet to find the mix for this mainstream, although Rajinikanth-starrers including the 2018 release 2.0 (also featuring Akshay Kumar) and Kabali (2016) clocked big numbers outside of Tamil Nadu.

In contrast, the Malayalam industry has had modest traction with event films but continues to produce rooted winners for a larger audience, including Drishyam 2 (2021), The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) and Joji (2021) in the OTT space that opened up after the pandemic. It's significant that Minnal Murali (2021), a wildly entertaining superhero genre-bender, was set in a Kerala village and found itself in Netflix's global list of 10 popular non-English films.

NEW CONTENT, NO BARRIERS

Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan 1 (Tamil, with other language versions) and Ayan Mukerji's Brahmastra are among big films aiming for a 2022 release. The next upsurge in the Indian box office could be steered by the pan-India theatrical film, with streaming platforms playing a well-curated spread of niche films and popular theatrical releases.

The impact of the pandemic, as a creative influence and a shaper of viewer sensibilities, is likely to be felt much later, when stories of hope and survival could emerge on film. Restrictions on travel and the number of crew members have already opened up possibilities for experimental films, some of them shot on phones, some fully indoors. The formats will inspire more filmmakers even as the restrictions ease.

These could be stories told in new ways, with the creators drawing on newfound exposure to an extensive range of streaming content from across the world. These stories will be told to a new audience tuned to a pause-rewind-resume form of film viewing. The show is back but a rewrite is on.

R Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru, India


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