Cue hits: May Bollywood soar and seduce once more, says Anupama Chopra
In the last two weeks, Bollywood has felt like a comatose patient springing back to life. On September 25, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced that theatres in the state would reopen on October 22.
Maharashtra is Hindi cinema’s largest market. The CM’s announcement was followed by a flurry of release announcements. As many as 14 films blocked the best weekends: Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi is out on Diwali; the Kapil Dev biopic ’83, starring Ranveer Singh, is out on Christmas; Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi on January 6; Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha on Valentine’s Day. Prime slots are booked until January 2023, promising a dazzling return of the big screen. Film Twitter is throbbing with news and excitement.
The next six months promise to be fascinating. Of all the major film industries in India, Bollywood has taken the biggest beating during the pandemic. In the last 18 months, thanks to streaming platforms, Malayalam cinema has found fans beyond Kerala with actors like Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir becoming pan-India actor-stars.
The Telugu film industry has seen sizeable hits such as Jathi Ratnalu and more recently Love Story, which opened on September 24 to packed houses across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, reportedly making close to ₹10 crore on day one and scoring the biggest opening weekend in India since the Covid-19 second wave.
Tamil cinema had blockbusters like Master, which has completed a 50-day theatrical run and made over ₹200 crore despite the pandemic. Meanwhile, Bollywood limped along, fumbling both commercially and critically. There was little to celebrate, either in terms of storytelling or box-office numbers.
I’m hopeful that at least a few of the upcoming releases will change that. But the landscape is precarious. Many of these films were shot either partially or completely in 2019 and early 2020. They are largely products of the creative instincts of a pre-pandemic world, which may or may not connect in the new normal. More critical is the question-mark over the act of theatre-going itself.
A top-ranking executive at a leading streaming platform put it like this: “A high frequency of film releases is necessary for virtue signalling, no doubt, but that in no way guarantees peak footfalls. What we don’t know is to what extent habits have permanently changed. I’ll watch films on my personal device as a norm and go to the theatre as an exception. Also, the economic frugality of customers will strongly determine how many movies they watch in theatres.” If anything, the executive added, it’s possible that a whole revenge tourism-type behaviour you emerge, “brief and valuable perhaps, but in no way an affirmation of sustainability.”
There are, of course, many unknowns. But I believe what will ultimately triumph is the power of the narrative. Like all Bollywood-lovers, I’m giddy with excitement at the prospect of watching big stars on big screens again. But for the love affair to endure, Bollywood must deliver compelling stories that will force us to seek out the company of strangers, and screens that we can’t hold in our hands.
Ideally, theatres and streaming platforms will thrive side by side. And Hindi cinema will, once again, soar and seduce. That would be the ideal happy ending.