Finally, a price correction begins in Bollywood
As films led by superstars continue to flop, A-listers are taking pay cuts and there is talk of budgets going towards storytelling instead, says Anupama Chopra.
August was a danse macabre for Bollywood. Two highly anticipated films, Laal Singh Chaddha and Raksha Bandhan, led by superstars previously considered infallible, Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar, imploded at the box office. The shocker wasn’t just that these films flopped. It was that neither even registered as a blip in its first few days. Laal Singh Chaddha brought in about ₹12-crore in its opening weekend. By contrast, Aamir’s last film, Thugs of Hindostan (2018), while also a flop, opened at ₹52 crore.
Neither Laal Singh Chaddha nor Raksha Bandhan connected with viewers. The toxic, noisy calls for boycotts of both didn’t help. Memes declared that Bollywood was finished.
I would argue that it’s the opposite. Undoubtedly, this is a time of great churn, but good things will come of it. Already, there has been some course-correction in the market. A leading producer told me that star prices — especially for top-rung leading men — have dropped by up to 35%.
In the over-25 years that I’ve been a film journalist, actor salaries have been disconnected from ground reality, continuing to soar even as film after film tanked. The producer described current events as a “seismic shift”. “There is a major conversation around costs. We need to make spectacles because that is what the audience seems to want to see right now, but the budget will go into the film rather than to the hero. OTTs are also tightening their belts. It’s a buyer’s market right now,” he said. “The good thing is that heroes can lower prices citing the narrative around the fate of the industry. So there is face-saving for everyone. If they don’t do it, they know their films will simply get shelved.”
Leading producer Vikram Malhotra (Airlift, Sherni) quoted Warren Buffett when discussing the current scenario: “You don’t know who’s been swimming naked until the tide goes out.”
“Any industry attains maturity and sustainable growth when the demand side matures. That is when quality products start playing a more critical role. For decades now, we have believed that we can dish out anything. But audiences now want value for their time and money,” he added. “If we have to raise our game and work harder, why are we complaining? Why are we being paranoid and calling it doomsday?”
There is also a pervading sentiment that the obsession with social media, especially Instagram, has eroded the status of stars and the industry at large. It has, as a male superstar described to me, “made stardom chhichhora (cheap)”.
Images of actors going, in an endless loop, to the salon, the gym, Maldives, attending brunches and dazzling events, have also underlined the fact that they live in bubbles of entitlement. “Naturally people want to pull them down,” one producer said. “Especially after the death of Sushant Singh Rajput (in 2020), the impression of the industry is so negative. There is no awe or respect.”
Constant accessibility has frayed the sense of glamour. “Stars have become as commonplace as Bisleri water,” one producer said to me. “The charm around special-occasion consumption is gone. A viewer asks, ‘Why should I pay to see you?’ Everyone needs to calm down and stop shoving their success in people’s faces.”
Whether stars will ease up on the relentless documentation of their lives remains to be seen. But the current crisis could help separate the wheat from the chaff, and that would be a most welcome change.