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Can Bollywood Stage A Recovery In 2022? As ‘Shamshera’ Opens, Hindi Film Industry Pins Hopes On Packed Schedule, New Theatrical Windows

When Yash Raj Films’ Shamshera opens at the Indian box office tomorrow, all eyes in Mumbai’s Hindi-language film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, will be closely watching the release.

With a big star, Ranbir Kapoor, major studio and reported $20M budget behind it, hopes are high that the period action film will signal a recovery for Bollywood, which has had an underwhelming first half of 2022.

While a few Hindi films have performed well this year – The Kashmir Files, Gangubai Kathiawadi and most recently horror comedy Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 – an alarming number of titles with big stars and high expectations have flopped, despite the fact that Indian cinemas have been open with no Covid restrictions for several months.

Adding insult to injury, films from the South Indian film industries, made in other languages – most notably Kannada-language K.G.F.: Chapter 2 and Telugu-language RRR – have been breaking box office records in India and overseas. India’s overall box office is estimated at around $712m (Rs56.9bn) for January-June 2022, comparing favourably to 2019’s pre-pandemic $1.4bn year-end haul. But Hindi releases accounted for just 34% of that first half total, of which 45% were not even made in the Hindi language, but Hindi dubs of South Indian and English-language films.

Bollywood producers point the finger at changing consumer habits during the pandemic, a story familiar in other territories, which have also seen a shift towards big event movies at the expense of smaller films, as the rise of streaming has encouraged audiences to consume more content at home. India’s streaming landscape is fiercely competitive, with a host of local players including Zee5, Voot and SonyLiv going up against Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Netflix.

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But there is still demand for big theatrical titles. In a market where Hollywood has always been regarded as a bit player, audiences have also been queuing up for Disney’s Thor: Love And Thunder and Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, while shunning smaller and mid-budget Indian-language films.

“For the past two years, many films were going direct to digital, building up the expectation in the audience’s mind that if they don’t go to the theatre, they can see the film at home in a month’s time,” says producer and former Reliance CEO Shibasish Sarkar, who is now heading the International Media Acquisition Corp (IMAC) SPAC.

But these producers also point to a factor peculiar to India: changes within Bollywood itself, which for the past decade has been catering more for what Sarkar describes as the “urban-centric, multiplex audience” and moving away from the more “rooted” or rural style of storytelling still popular in the South. While this has given Hindi cinema more credibility in the West, it hasn’t impressed the greater mass of cinema-goers in India’s heartlands, who still want the songs and the spectacle; a hero who can beat up the baddie and get the girl, without any concessions to urban wokery.

Films such as RRR and the K.G.F series are not exactly subtle, but they give even
Hollywood films a run for their money in terms of heart-stopping stunts, romance, action and dance numbers, all for a fraction of the cost of a Marvel movie. “They’ve given us a tight slap across the face because they’ve reminded us how to entertain and how to mount a major production,” says Pranab Kapadia, director of UK-based international distributor Moviegoers Entertainment. “It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, we’ve just forgotten how to do it, and all of a sudden we’ve been dethroned in a big way.”

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But after this series of rude shocks, there are several factors that are giving the Hindi film industry hope. The first is the packed theatrical release schedule for the second half of 2022, as producers are finally rolling out the backlog of titles they were sitting on during the pandemic.

While strategies have varied from company to company, Shamshera producer Yash Raj Films (YRF) is one studio that decided to sit out at least three waves of Covid-19 rather than opt for digital premieres. “All our films have been made for the cinematic, big screen experience, so we took the route of theatrical release,” says YRF vice president, international operations, Nelson D’Souza. “Of course, there were delays due to the pandemic and dates needed to be reworked. But this also allowed us time to revise and plan our marketing strategy.”

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Vikram Vedha
Reliance Entertainment

And there are many other big titles waiting in the wings. Most of the major stars have theatrical releases upcoming – the next few months will see Zee Studios’ Raksha Bandhan, starring Akshay Kumar; Aamir Khan’s Forest Gump remake, Laal Singh Chaddha, which Paramount Pictures is taking out internationally; Disney’s Brahmastra Part One: Shiva, also starring Ranbir Kapoor, and Reliance’s Vikram Vedha, starring Hrithik Roshan.

This year’s Diwali holiday schedule (late October) is also packed with long-delayed films featuring big stars, such as Ram Setu, with Akshay Kumar, and Thank God, with Ajay Devgn, while the year-end into January season includes new titles starring Ranveer Singh, Salman Khan and the first release from Shah Rukh Khan since 2018 (see tentative schedule below).

A more cynical interpretation of the sudden enthusiasm for theatrical would be that streaming platforms in India have stopped paying big bucks for digital premieres. What was once a deluge of direct-to-digital releases has slowed to a trickle in recent months; in fact, streamers are expressing a preference for films to be taken out theatrically as they attempt to reduce both acquisition budgets and marketing costs.

“Platforms are now refusing to buy for direct-to-digital, or at least the prices that producers could get three to six months ago are no longer there in the market,” explains Sarkar. “They’re figuring that they’re going to get the films eventually anyway, so why pay to compensate the producers for the theatrical loss.”

Another factor that could boost box office is that India’s exhibitors and producers recently agreed on an eight-week theatrical window for Hindi and Hollywood films, starting from August 1. While this two-month window was standard prior to the pandemic, it collapsed to around four weeks or less when cinemas were forced to shutter. “There’s now this confidence that, because audiences can’t see the film at home almost immediately, they’ll return to theatres at least in the second half of the year,” Sarkar says.

International recovery

Recovery hopes are also strong for Bollywood’s traditional overseas markets in the U.S., UK and Middle East, which over the past six months have started to more closely mirror what has been happening in India. “There was a time when some films would perform well in international markets, while others were regarded as not really an overseas-friendly film. But in the last six months films are performing overseas exactly the way they perform in India,” says Kapadia. He adds that social media, Whatsapp messaging and shifting migration patterns are aligning Indian audiences in the U.S. more closely with those at home, although they’re more likely to be watching Hindi dubs than original versions. “A film like K.G.F.: Chapter 2 is a blockbuster overseas because it’s a blockbuster in India.”

Questions remain over what will happen to smaller films, especially as the economics of releasing a film theatrically, given India’s relatively low screen count, crowded schedules and high p&a costs, often didn’t add up even before the pandemic. Producers say they won’t stop greenlighting these films, as they can get close to break-even through sales to digital platforms and satellite. But they increasingly expect to be pressured by the platforms to take on the risk and expense of a theatrical release. Sarkar explains that it’s risky because “there are films that the audience figures they can wait to see at home, so you’re not even getting the first day box office, let alone a first weekend.”

Kapadia, who is also producing and has R. Balki’s psychological thriller Chup upcoming, agrees smaller films will still get made: “But don’t even think about not having a strong story, because audiences are getting amazing Korean, Iranian, Malayalam and other language content in their living rooms, so you have to work that much harder to keep them engaged.”

As for the tentpoles, as of Wednesday evening, advance ticket sales for Shamshera were beating those of Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 according to local trade analysts. So while there are challenges aplenty, it might not just be wishful thinking on the part of Hindi producers that the good times are back for Bollywood films.

HINDI FILM RELEASE SCHEDULE 2022 H2 (subject to change):

JULY 22: Shamshera (Yash Raj Films), starring Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Vaani Kapoor

JULY 29: Ek Villain Returns (Balaji Motion Pictures & T-Series), John Abraham, Arjun Kapoor

AUG 11: Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan Productions & Viacom 18), Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor

AUG 11: Raksha Bandhan (Zee Studios), Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar

SEPT 9: Brahmastra Part One: Shiva (Star Studios & Dharma Productions), Amitabh Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt

SEPT 30: Vikram Vedha (Reliance & T-Series), Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan

OCT 24: Ram Setu (Abundantia & Amazon Prime), Akshay Kumar

OCT 24: Thank God (T-Series), Ajay Devgn

NOV 18: Drishyam 2 (T-Series & Viacom 18), Ajay Devgn

DEC 23: Cirkus (Reliance & T-Series), Ranveer Singh

DEC 30: Kabhi Eid Kabhi Diwali (Salman Khan Films & Nadiadwala Grandson), Salman Khan

JAN 11, 2023: Adipurush* (T-Series & Retrophiles), Prabhas, Saif Ali Khan

JAN 23, 2023: Pathaan (Yash Raj Films), Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone

*Shot simultaneously in Hindi and Telugu



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