A movie or two a month: The Great Film Famine

Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia in the iconic Bobby song, Hum tum ek kamre mein band ho. Photo: Video Grab 

This is a very personal experience: I am facing a famine of movies. New movies, that is. What’s worse, so is my family.

Time was when there was a minimum of one movie a week that a family could watch. The experience was unique: we saw a trailer about a month or less before the release, and it got us excited, as the trailer told us all about a film. In today’s lingo, my sentence translates into “We were excited to watch a film even after seeing the trailer and because we had watched it! We knew a lot about the film from reports in various publications already. We knew what we were going to see, what stars could be watched and which songs we would hear. Today, a lot of the info is kept a secret till the last moment, with nothing revealed during production except the theme, and songs released one at a time.

Up to maybe seven or eight years ago, the songs, and many times the entire album, were already heard by us. In some cases, like Aradhana, Pakeezah, Bobby or Qurbani—and even as late as Bajirao Mastani in 2015, they had already made us determined to watch the parent film ASAP.

Films ran or sank mainly on word-of-mouth, but at very affordable movie ticket rates. So we often also went to watch movies that carried inferior reports, especially if a good or great movie we wanted to watch was running ‘Housefull’ in nearby theatres, and we had to have a compulsory cinema-going experience that day with a loved one, family or friends!

Movies and their music also had separate fates then—Mera Naam Joker, Satyam Shivam Sundaram or Khamoshi—The Musical being great examples where the films did not do well but the music was a roaring success. Papa Kahte Hain, a small film in 1996, made huge profits from its music alone that more than compensated for the losses the film itself incurred. Producer and then distributor Pahlaj Nihalani had also told me the amazing story of a small film, Tere Pyar Mein in 1979, which earned in multiples of its investment from its (average, by the way) music alone!

And then came the multiplexes.

The decline begins

Farah Khan, set to make her directorial debut with Main Hoon Na (2004) had then foretold to me, “Mark my words! The multiplexes are going to destroy Hindi cinema!” ‘Plexes were just coming up then, and around five years later, at a film event, Manmohan Shetty, producer, entrepreneur and owner of Adlabs Films Ltd., one of India’s largest media and entertainment firms, had predicted to me, “The lower class will have to do with TV serials as watching films will not be affordable!”

Well, much of what the two said has come true, but thankfully not completely. While multiplex ticket-rates crossed three figures and reached high (that is, Rs. 300-plus), and food and beverages ditto, many single-screens, burdened with unfairly high taxes, closed down, but others valiantly carried on. They never hiked or varied rates as per a movie’s audience pull (read banners, stars or directors), show timings and days, and kept the F&B affordable.

With spiraling costs from the 1990s, especially in the matter of star fees (a malaise introduced by interested parties I will not go into), film budgets had escalated, and still, in many if not most cases, movies did not recover their investments. From a 60 percent-plus record of movies that did well or made heavy profits, the flop-success ratio went into a spin now with 80 percent loss-makers.

Many rights came up—satellite, video, overseas, music of course and finally streaming, but still the films never could do the kind of business or even have the kind of magnetic appeal that had made the industry thrive despite multiple odds in finance, distribution, marketing and more, for decades!

Social media strikes

One of the last straws (there were more than one!) that broke the film camel’s back was the appearance of social media that rapidly began to be a compulsion for all film celebs. Star value diminished rapidly as a celebrity’s exclusivity went down rapidly. The allure of a star (and I do not mean just the top names) coming in a new release dovetailed as they were seen and heard every day. Ranbir Kapoor, a prominent exception, is reaping the benefits of not being spotted or heard every day—his last three films have done amazing to decent business!

True, films were now competing with global cinema and hitherto-unseen themes are being tackled, frequently with good results and public endorsement (Taare Zameen Par, Parmanu, Grand Masti or Bajrangi Bhiajaan to name just four), but in many cases, the excitement of watching films began to slowly be restricted only to 10 films or less in a year.

The world and the media claimed that Indian cinema had evolved, but so had the losses and the disinterest! After this, Covid proved to be another lethal blow along with the arrival of OTT platforms. The films designed (or being compelled to release there due to various reasons) for OTT were again, largely either bold or unconventional, experimental or innovative and a new generation of actors now wanted to do “global” Hindi cinema, which hardly espoused local applause. Such actors, including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao and the likes, began to demand (and often get paid in) double-digit crores, even as their movies failed to make even half those figures as gross incomes!

The term “media-hit” (a hit only according to the media, which had become increasingly pseudo-intellectual, ‘global’-oriented, out of sync with reality or openly in the pay of filmmakers and actors) was coined by veteran trade analyst Amod Mehra all of 16 years ago when films with a complete disconnect with Hindi film watchers, like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Gangs of Wasseypur, were claimed (by their makers) or termed as “hits”! Trade figures and empty theatres, however, told a different story.

Of course, from around 2010, music also began to go in a vertiginous tailspin in caliber. Suddenly “hooks” came in demand, as physical forms of music (CDs) were no longer manufactured and digital revenues from caller-tunes and ringtones become the music companies’ new mantra. The biggest magnet for an opening (after the star) and one of the prime reasons for a film’s repeat audience was now gone. Music makers were hired in most cases to supply individual tracks at low budgets (with the hooks of course if they had to be ‘promo’ted!).

Overconfident stars, now brazenly overpaid, went on to do restricted work, unlike a Dharmendra or Shatrughan Sinha who did over 5 films at a time in bygone years, being paid a mere few lakh per film. Today’s top stars even took partnership in most films. One would have thought that such things would improve the quality of movies, especially since international distribution and film watching had zoomed.

Instead, forgetting the vital mantra of “Do local, appeal global”, oftener than not, stars began to insist on a confused mélange of what appeals globally with some concessions for Indian tastes and sensibilities. The result was that, while sporadic movies in a year did great global business, they overall, failed to get due returns on investment! Prime examples of such films were My Name is Khan or Baabul.

Vikrant Massey in 12th Fail. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

The star famine

With publicity and social media in full bloom and the newly-coined chant of “Content is King!”, even box-office figures began to be fancily manipulated. Slowly, thanks to websites mainly, people stopped thinking “Good film” and “Bad movie” and instead began obsessing with how many crores a film made. A film like Thugs of Hindostan was called a “hit” because it had made a certain seemingly spectacular gross worldwide figure. But no one checked that the production and publicity budget was almost 50 percent higher!

Soon, people began to wait for most movies to be streamed on OTT rather than be watched at exorbitant rates in the theatres. More and more films began to be made for direct streaming, or were released for a token period of a week or so in movie-halls and then aired on OTT after 4 weeks, where their offbeat subjects were appreciated.

Naturally, this combination made the audience even more choosy, and there emerged what I call the “Theatrical Quotient” of a movie—that mysterious factor that compelled audience to go watch a film in movie halls even before the 4-8 week period when it begins to stream.

Let us now look at 2023 and 2024. The former was called the ‘Best Year ever for Hindi cinema’ on the basis of very few massive hits, ignoring the volume of disasters and flops. In 2024, January actually had only Fighter as a film to look forward to, while February saw Teri Baton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya. Both these films under-performed, the latter much more. March will have Shaitan, April will see Bade Miyan Chote Miyan and Maidaan and as of now, there is a straight jump after that to Singham Again in August. The rest are not really films that, in these days, will have us heading for the cinema hall First Day First Show or even in the first weekend, unless terrific word-of-mouth is there, as with The Kerala Story, 12th Fail or Article 370.

As veteran filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari says, “Let me just say that both big stars and content draw the audience. The magic happens when both factors are there. Only content does work, and bad content will not, but stars are very important.” And we see an acute famine of star-driven movies that we can look forward to on face-value. In the past, from Dilip Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan, we expected and (in most cases) got a synergistic union of stars and songs that made us wait for their films metaphorically with baited breath!

Will Movies, India’s greatest family obsession besides Cricket, recover their lost glory? The optimist within me hopes for the best. But right now, veteran distributor and exhibitor (theatre-owner) Raj Bansal from Rajasthan, tells me, “2024 does not seem bright and unless there are great surprises, I see cinemas bleeding!”




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