Bollywood plays catch up with streaming platforms

OTT gives creators the freedom to develop a storyline without songs. Thematically, it is far closer to reality than what Bollywood currently offers audiences

By Asmita Aggarwal

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Published: Mon 26 Sep 2022, 10:49 PM

Why are big films bombing at the Indian box office? Whether it is Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan, or very recently Ranbir Kapoor, big names have failed to woo discerning audiences to multiplexes. Even the “success” of Ranbir's Brahmastra has been questioned by actor Kangana Ranaut who wrote on Twitter, “The film has been declared the biggest hit at a mere Rs1.4 billion. This is only to put in perspective how the movie mafia works. It's they who decide which film will be declared a hit and which will be called a flop regardless of its collections or recoveries. They choose who to hype and who to boycott. Here they stand exposed.”

Kangana's comments notwithstanding, gimmicks, poor choice of subjects, star enigma...lots has been said about Bollywood’s dull recent offerings, but the key component of a film is the script, and with the advent of streaming players like Netflix, Amazon, Disney in the Indian marketplace, the content from India had to be of global standards. This is where hungry creators who had broader, innovative, and expansive narratives gave audiences thought-provoking and original stories.

The pandemic brought about this change as people began consuming more streaming content during the lockdown. “When Bollywood cinema returned to theatres and a majority of films continued churning out the same archaic storytelling techniques, I feel, gauging from the recent box office failures of big-budget Hindi films, a large chunk of the Indian population had moved on,” says Sunil Sadarangani, a producer, based in Hollywood..This trend will continue as now there are many more platforms such as Zee 5, Voot, Mx Player making local content. There is no urgency to visit theatres for a star-soaked Bollywood release; the thought is “we’ll catch it when it streams on an OTT platform."

However, there is no denying the power of the Indian film industry, with a gross realisation of $3.7 billion in 2020, according to a PHD Chamber report. Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha is an official remake of the 1994 Hollywood film Forrest Gump. No one could predict a 'boycott’ campaign ahead of its release. “Padmavat was severely trolled, but it managed to achieve box office success, just like Gangubai Kathiawadi. Alia Bhatt, they said, was allegedly the product of nepotism, so trolling can’t make a film flop,” says actress Swara Bhasker.

Film critics believe Lal Singh Chaddha is not a great film scripting and direction-wise. Also, why would you remake a classic? In the first half of the year, many films don’t do well, if you observe the history of the box office, blockbusters are released during Diwali. Ranveer Singh’s ’83 and Salman Khan's Radhe, were sold at exorbitant prices to OTT platforms. Conventional and established filmmakers are getting complacent. Earlier, films were sold to TV channels, now they have various options. “They are building a ‘parallel’ film city in NOIDA in about 1,000 acres. This, however, is an impossible task, as you can’t end Bollywood culture, it has survived too long despite the odds,” adds Vinayak Chakravorty, film critic.

Bollywood produces almost 1,800 films a year, in 16 languages according to Deloitte, double the amount Hollywood does (700). Frankly, the three Khans have ruled this cut-throat space, but does content take a backseat? Interestingly, films are an art form and they must be divorced from any kind of censorship, but there is no winning formula. Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Tanu Weds Manu, Queen, Masaan, did exceedingly well, says actor Javed Jaffrey. Uri: The Surgical Strike, earned Rs 2.45 billion in 11 weeks, nationally. “Now, the audiences want brilliant content, bold and bizarre are okay, and censorship can't rule youth choices. Sacred Games, for example, would have been a beep-beep film. The series is cult, the dialogues intrepid, the scenes uncensored. Such content would not have been possible pre-OTT,” says writer and director, Dr. Anusha Srinivasan Iyer.

You have the freedom to develop a storyline, without songs. Thematically, it is far closer to reality than what Bollywood offers audiences. Series like Paatal Lok or Mirzapur have characters from small Indian towns like Gorakhpur, Kanpur, and Meerut. The metro audience is savouring the authenticity of these lower middle-class, gun-wielding characters. “Who could have imagined a series on a wedding planner, Made in Heaven, would find a cult following?” says film critic Arnab Banerjee.

If you don’t want to watch a film, you can scroll through any theme you want to watch -- feminism, crime, action, romance, or thriller on your TV or laptop at your convenience. “Unless it is a magnum opus like Bahubali, RRR, or Avengers, where an audio-visual extravaganza is involved, the audience is reluctant to visit a theatre. The movie experience is two hours, but a web series is like a book, you can finish one chapter and then read through another at leisure,” says Jaffrey.

It must be noted here that popular OTT stars haven’t had the same success at the box office. Films can’t do numbers if theatre capacity is at 50 per cent. Covid has been a dampener. Netflix provides quarterly financial reports, and OTT is also seen losing money, but pockets are deep, so they are able to invest. “OTT has resurrected many careers - from Raveena Tandon in Aranyak to Sushmita Sen in Aarya. In a patriarchal industry with no woman except Kangana Ranaut calling the shots, OTT is a breath of fresh air,” concludes Iyer.

- The writer is a senior lifestyle and fashion journalist based in Delhi.

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