A string of Bollywood films flop at the box office as India turns to streaming

Tthe opening of a new big-name Bollywood film was once a national event across India, greeted by weeks of fanfare, long queues outside cinemas and auditoriums packed to the rafters with audiences cheering and singing along.

But this year, when 77% of films flopped at the box office, theaters were left eerily quiet and Bollywood’s once unshakable dominance of the Indian film industry began to look precarious.

“This year has been extremely bad for the Hindi film industry as far as the box office is concerned,” said Sumit Kadel, a film trade analyst in India. He said there were only three or four hit movies while everything else bombed — a disaster for an industry that relies on at least 10 big box office failures a year to survive. “Bollywood is definitely witnessing its worst phase in the last two to three decades,” Kadel said.

Bollywood’s recent failures have been blamed in part on Covid, which has caused a crisis for cinemas worldwide. As India’s usually committed movie-going crowds have been confined to their homes, there has been a surge in the popularity of platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, which are used by a quarter of India’s 1.4 billion population. Movies that were previously only available in theaters could now be seen on these platforms for a fraction of the price of a multiplex ticket.

“After the pandemic, people are only willing to pay a fortune for a movie theater if the scale and content of the movie excites them,” Cadell said.

This also led to a diversification of tastes. Bollywood has long enjoyed the privilege of being India’s “national cinema”, due in part to the prevalence of Hindi speakers across the country, but also to the political weight wielded by Hindi-speaking states. Meanwhile, India’s other film industries were relegated to the ‘regional’, with a reputation for being boring or lacking in the spectacle and star presence of Bollywood’s Bollywood men.

But as a growing audience began to avidly watch Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Marathi language cinema in their homes and post widely about it on social media, “it made them realize the stagnant infiltration of Hindi films,” Anna MM Vettikad, a film journalist and author. Meanwhile, she added, “stunned by their privilege, Hindi filmmakers have failed to notice that their traditional audience has gradually begun to evolve.”

As a result, this year dozens of multimillion-dollar Bollywood films starring top-grossing male stars, usually known for turning every film they touch into box office gold, have faced criticism for formulaic storylines and were shunned by the public.

By Jayeshbhai Jordaar, starring Ranveer Singh and Laal Singh Chaddha, with Aamir Khan, to Akshay Kumar in Bachchhan Paandey, all were back-to-back failures, throwing major Bollywood studios into disarray. Although the once untouchable male stars seem to have lost their luster, a new generation has yet to emerge to replace them. “Films don’t work – it’s our fault, it’s my fault,” Kumar said last month after another of his films flopped at the box office.

Vetticad said, “The Hindi industry is used to being coddled with systematic support for its dominance and now it doesn’t know how to deal with the changes in the country’s entertainment landscape brought about by the pandemic.”

Instead, the biggest hits of the year were films made by so-called regional cinema, mainly from South India. RRR, a Telegu epic about two revolutionaries fighting the British Raj, broke the record for the highest opening day earnings for any Indian film and is the third highest grossing Indian film of all time, grossing around 160 million dollars worldwide.

KGF:2, a Canadian period action film, also reaped tremendous success, while Vikram, a Tamil thriller, fared better than almost all major Bollywood releases. Overall, for the first six months of the year, South Indian films took 50% of the box office profit share, an unprecedented change from previous years.

There are some exceptions, such as The Kashmir Files, a Hindi film that focuses on a fictional retelling of the 1990 exodus of Hindus from India’s Muslim region of Kashmir. The film was accused of politicized historical revision and Islamophobia and was supported by politicians from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Most recently, Brahmāstra, a Bollywood fantasy action film drawn from stories from Hindu mythology, released this month, was a hit. Against the backdrop of the current political climate in India, with the rise of powerful Hindu nationalism and escalating oppression of minorities, especially Muslims, many have expressed concern about what they see as the reflected “Hinduization” of Bollywood.

Aakshi Magazine, a film critic and academic, said that given the influence of cinema on society, especially in India, it is disturbing that apparently Hindu iconography and imagery is now being used as a tool by Bollywood to attract audiences.

“Given the times we’re living in right now, when non-Hindu symbols are under attack in India and there’s this whole hijab controversy, the fact that Brahmastra seems to naturalize and embed characters in this very hyper-Hindu religious universe is especially disturbing,” Magazine said.

Bollywood has long been viewed with suspicion by the Hindu right, which has recently attacked some of its biggest Muslim stars, including leading a boycott of Aamir Khan’s recent film Laal Singh Chaddha, accusing it of being “anti-Hindu”, after which it collapsed at the box office.

As Bollywood wanders and looks for ways to win back audiences, Magazine said there is a risk that Hindu Bollywood will become the norm, undermining its long history of being perceived as largely secular and religiously inclusive. “If this film, with all its excessive religiosity, is successful, I’m sure many others will follow,” she said.

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