Mix it up; cinemas can’t thrive on a single flavour, says Anupama Chopra
Stories that are urban, high-concept and mid-budget should not be destined for streaming alone. They deserve to be seen on big screens too.
“Are we just messed-up people?” Alisha asks at the end of the trailer for Gehraiyaan.
Shakun Batra’s upcoming film is about cousins whose lives become impossibly entangled when Alisha (played by Deepika Padukone) has a passionate affair with Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), who is engaged to her cousin Tia (Ananya Panday).
Shakun has described the film as “a mirror of modern adult relationships”. The title alludes perhaps to the depths and mysteries of desire. Or to the fact that human beings are ultimately unknowable, and love can sometimes lead to wreckage.
Gehraiyaan doesn’t prescribe to the notion of “janam-janmantar ka saath” that Hindi cinema has successfully peddled for decades. That sort of swooning romance of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and the happily-ever-after of more recent love stories such as Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Tamasha (both of which starred Deepika) is nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Gehraiyaan seems to be the story of imperfect people making hurtful choices. Like real life, it’s complicated and acrimonious. Which might be why co-producer Karan Johar decided to give it a direct-to-streaming release. The film is due out on Amazon Prime Video on February 11.
This made me wonder, is there room any longer for the multiplex movie at the multiplex? Or are stories that are urban, high-concept and mid-budget now necessarily destined for streaming?
If the box-office performances of the past two months is any evidence of how audience palettes have changed, then the answer is clear: Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and ’83 underperformed while Spider-Man: No Way Home and Pushpa: The Rise were blockbusters. Which suggests that audiences will make the trip to the theatres for a very specific kind of experience. One that involves megastars, big budgets (the jury is still out on why ’83, despite having both, as well as cricket, didn’t work), and crucially, superheroes or superb action.
Post-pandemic, clear lines seem to be drawn in the heads of viewers and, increasingly, filmmakers. Though they are reluctant to speak about it on the record, the head of a leading studio put it to me like this: “A film like Badhaai Ho can still be a theatrical release because the treatment is more commercial. Even Raazi can, because patriotism sells. But today, films like Neerja, Pink, Kapoor & Sons would go straight to streaming. Marketing costs for theatrical releases are very high, ranging from ₹8 crore to ₹20 crore. And then you have to worry about the box-office report card. Earlier there wasn’t an alternative, but now there is. And even actors and directors are coming around to accepting it.”
Another entertainment executive, who also wished to remain anonymous, explained the difference thus: “You have Shakuntala Devi and you have Sherni [both starring Vidya Balan]. The former will still find audiences among multiplex-goers but the latter will be hard-pressed to find screens.” With the window between the theatrical and streaming release becoming shorter (from several months pre-pandemic, it’s now down to four to six weeks), audiences have even less incentive to show up. The more intimate stories will play just as well on smaller screens.
I find this a bit disheartening, to be honest. As much as I love the ease and choices of streaming, I believe that the theatrical experience impacts us in a deeper, more profound way. The immersion into storytelling is more complete. I would have loved to see the waves (emotional and literal) of Gehraiyaan break on a big screen.
What will it mean for storytelling, if writers and directors begin to craft projects with these designated distribution models in mind? Where does that position actors such as Rajkummar Rao, Taapsee Pannu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and especially Ayushmann Khurrana, who singlehandedly created his own genre of taboo-topics-made-family-friendly (and, incidentally, starred in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui)?
Taapsee’s next film Looop Lapeta, based on the 1998 twisty action thriller Run Lola Run, is being released on Netflix on February 4. I hope this demarcation between films fit for theatres and films fit for streaming doesn’t become the norm. Because a multiplex that is only playing star-driven, big-budget event movies would be tragically dull. We need originality, risk-taking and the capacity to surprise — both in movie halls and in our living rooms.