There you were, with the popcorn warm in your hands, your eyes glued to the screen in the dark, your mind teleported miles away. Sometimes you held your breath, at other times you expelled it in frustration. Sometimes you doubled down in your seat with laughter, at other times, you cowered in fear. It’s where you suspended disbelief, allowed your imagination to take flight, and shared, for an hour or more, in a powerful collective experience. As Christopher Nolan, who hopes his $200 million Tenet will be magnetic enough to bring audiences back to the theatres in the US on July 17th, wrote in The Washington Post: ‘Maybe, like me, you thought you were going to the movies for
surround sound, or Goobers, or soda and popcorn, or movie stars. But we weren’t. We were there for each other.’
We were, and we are. Darkness at noon, the traditional matinee show in the era of single screens, is still a memory to treasure. Nothing compares to the heightening of senses, the sharpening of awareness, the racing of the heartbeat, except perhaps the ingestion of certain hallucinogenic substances. For over two months, India and the world have been denied the thrill of cinema-going because of the coronavirus. So instead of looking up, we’re looking down; instead of embracing a world of possibilities staring at the gigantic screens in front of us, we’re retreating into our own atomised fantasies, crouching over our laptops and cradling our phones.
Ajay Bijli, chairman and MD of PVR, which owns 850 of the 9,000 screens in the country, believes Indians, especially those under 40, are as resilient as they are restless. They can’t be incarcerated for long, and will be at the theatres, with their masks on, sanitisers in hand, to watch the first day, first show of the first big movie. A survey of 20,000 of PVR Pictures’ privilege card members confirmed it. “In India, movies are the number one out of home entertainment. With protocols like cluster seating, automated tickets with box-office QR code, automated metal detectors and truncated menus, it will be a new controlled way of watching movies, but it’s normal human nature to be inclined to social engagement.”
It isn’t mere optimism. Theatres in India still control 60 per cent of all movie business, with the rest of the revenue coming from broadcast television and streaming services rights. “Aberrations, even as cataclysmic as the coronavirus, cannot change structures,” says Bijli. Which is why his work calls still go to Akshay Kumar for Sooryavanshi, a mammoth Rs 135-crore Rohit Shetty movie that was to release in March; Karan Johar, a producer director whose ambitious Rs 250-crore Takht was about to start production in Film City, and Kabir Khan whose Rs 125-crore 83, based on India’s World Cup Cricket win, bankrolled by Reliance, was going to be a big April release. The other big summer opening that everyone had pinned their hopes on was Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, starring Salman Khan, directed by Prabhu Deva, and promising an avatar of the superstar that was “half-good, fully mad”.
But an unseemly war has broken out between exhibitors and producers, with the former, represented primarily by Inox Leisure, which owns 620 screens across the country, accusing producers of being “fair weather friends” and “retributive justice” to the makers of Gulabo Sitabo, directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, for “skipping the theatrical window run”. It was of little use, because the film was soon followed by others, notably Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi starring Vidya Balan, as well as legal drama Ponmagal Vandhal starring Jyotika, Penguin with Keerthy Suresh, and Suifyum Sujatyum starring Aditi Rao Hydari, among other southern language movies. All went to Amazon Prime Video. The Producers Guild of India shot back with an equally sharply worded statement citing mounting interest costs, lower occupancies as and when cinemas open, staggered nationwide release, uncertainty about the overseas market and a huge back log of releases. For Sircar, who has co-produced Gulabo Sitabo, the decision to experiment with Amazon Prime made sense because it has a reach of 200 countries worldwide. “The film was ready. I thought it over and decided not to hold the film for long.”
Raj Nidimoru, one-half of the cheeky Raj-Krishna DK duo behind sleeper hits such as Stree and the popular streaming series The Family Man, says the coronavirus lockdown has only hastened what was already coming. “We were possibly the last of a generation of filmmakers to have the luxury of telling our stories in small, intimate movies made for theatrical release as well as the OTT platform. I was enjoying the options I had because we are a theatre-loving nation. But theatrical releases now will be reserved for the big spectacles and tentpole event movies,” he says. A lot of smaller movies will go straight to streaming, possibly on pay-per-view basis. Streaming services will also have to consolidate, from the 20-odd players now to a handful of domestic and global players. In the West, Apple TV and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, two very different platforms, one for long-form prestige productions such as the addictive The Morning Show and the dramatic Defending Jacob, which starred Captain America Chris Evans in the role of the troubled father, and the other for shorter, quicker consumption such as Survive with Sophie Turner and The Stranger with Dane DeHaan.
Directors and actors who have tried their hand at both will be at an advantage. Ali Abbas Zafar, creator of noisy blockbusters such as Tiger Zinda Hai, Sultan and Bharat, is grateful he took time off to write and create a show on Delhi politics for Amazon Prime Video, tentatively called Dilli, starring the other early adaptor to streaming series Saif Ali Khan who has distinguished himself of late in Sacred Games 1 and 2. In the West, women have embraced streaming services with an enthusiasm bordering on world domination with Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and of late, Cate Blanchett, greenlighting series such as Big Little Lies, this year’s Little Fires Everywhere and Mrs America, as well as the forthcoming The Undoing, which tell women’s stories with verve and ambition.
SOMETHING SIMILAR is taking place in India with production houses led by women such as Tiger Baby, run by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, and Pritish Nandy Communications run by Rangita Pritish Nandy, putting women in roles that require them to be at their flawsome best. Written by women, and directed by women, series such as Made in Heaven and Four More Shots Please! are bringing urban stories to urban India in their language, showcasing gender diversity, unapologetic sex, and often difficult political themes as well. These are stories that don’t always get fair play in theatres, though Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was an exception. Srivastava wrote and directed a few episodes of Made In Heaven and was tapped by Netflix to create and direct her own series, Bombay Begums. Even Ali Abbas Zafar, master of testosterone action, is working on a female-oriented action movie, which he is currently refining at home with his parents in Dehradun.
Raja Krishna Menon, who has made movies such as Airlift (2016) and Chef (2017), agrees that theatrical releases will continue to be noisemakers but he hopes to see the emergence of pay-per-view cinema. He sees this as the new box office, which will sit easily between streaming services and cinema-going. There is also the not-so-small matter of bad Wi-Fi which makes streaming an erratic experience. Audiences will still want the magical big screen experience, and will be willing to brave the theatres provided hygiene protocols are in place.
Sure, home viewing will always be attractive. What can beat watching what you want in one go wearing what you want? Lasting, a guided marriage counselling app from The Knot Worldwide, conducted a survey with singles, newlyweds and married couples as well as those currently in a relationship, through the last two weeks of April 2020. The survey found that 90 per cent of the couples polled have been spending a substantially larger amount of time with each other, with almost 40 per cent of them having said that they are spending close to 18 hours a day with their partner. A vast majority have picked up hobbies like cooking together (74 per cent) or binge-watching their favourite shows (67 per cent) to have shared experiences. So the culinary renaissance has coincided with the streaming revolution.
The prolonged lockdown will affect the star system, the storytelling, and most importantly, budgets. There will be a democratisation of the star system, with big stars having to justify their big fees with opening weekends worthy of wide theatrical releases. The storytelling will change to fit the form. Long-form storytelling will find a home in streaming services while the more high-concept, star-driven, franchise films will find themselves in theatres. Budgets will also become more realistic with a considerable drying up of easily available money. The portents were already visible in even a movie directed by Karan Johar, starring half the industry A-listers, finding trouble with original producer, the now defunct Fox Studios. It is now in the safe custody of Bhushan Kumar’s T-Series, which is a most unusual union in Bollywood between pedigree and pure paisa.
With less liquidity in the market, the number of films being greenlit will be fewer and more structured. Over the next 18-24 months, says Shibhashish Sarkar, Group CEO, Reliance Entertainment, he sees institutional finance being less accessible unless there is a government mandate. The industry employs over five million workers who need to be sustained over a period where there is no shooting. Actors like Gul Panag, who have become staple stars of streaming series such as Paatal Lok, say shoots are unlikely to happen before September and then it will be like “going to war, because you have to do what you have to do”.
Alankrita Srivastava, who is currently editing her series virtually, while also cooking and cleaning, finds it a strange time. We often forget that if cinema-going is a collective experience, equally making cinema is a collaborative exercise. “When we’re shooting, there is so much proximity that I just don’t see how we can shoot until some safety protocols are really in place in an effective way,” she says. Indeed, actors are the frontline warriors of entertainment and for them to feel comfortable with recreating intimacy will be a tough ask. There will be smaller crews, longer shoot periods, more health and hygiene protocols, daily testing, and perhaps, units having to stay together off set to minimise infection. Moreover, adds Menon, “actors have to find it within themselves to come out and start shooting.”
Already, filmmakers are looking at novel ways to work together. Srivastava wrapped the shoot of Bombay Begums for Netflix in early March, just before the crisis broke out in India, and fortunately, set up edit from home facilities by mid-March. As she edits the show with her editor through a virtual edit room, it’s as close to working together in a physical edit room as possible. “We can see each other, talk to each other, watch all the footage together. I can see her timeline. We can try out things. It’s a blessing. Having said that, of course, it’s still taking us double the time.”
Everyone’s ingenuity is being tested given that shooting has yet to begin and will happen only with specific hygiene protocols in place. Nidimoru used this time to generate a show entirely on Zoom—The Viral Wedding—where the actors never met. The next step is to bring finesse to such bare bones filmmaking, he says. There will also be increasing reliance on technology, be it in creating virtual sets or crowd scenes. Dibakar Banerjee points out that virtual reality in gaming and movie-making are synergising to help directors like him in creating content with virtual reality and CGI. “The grammar of filmmaking will shift, just as it did when movie-making turned digital,” he says.
But what is the kind of story Bollywood will want to tell? The old formulas are certainly going to be challenged in this context. One possibility, according to New York University professor Arvind Rajagopal, is that those with time and mind-space to seek entertainment, would want escapist material, and the media industry will simply cater to that and carry on with their established formulas. There would be some scope for some powerful dramas on people’s suffering, and even if they had implausibly happy endings, they would surely win audiences. Overall, he says, there will probably be a striking contrast between the gravity of the situation and the lightness of the media response. Where the leaders themselves dare not to go, how can the followers take risks? Risk-taking in the media will be left to stray cats and lone wolves.
Will the stray cats and lone wolves become the new kings and queens of the jungle? Will a new story of India be written? Zafar points to the migrant having replaced the farmer as the most visible image of India. “The labourer, the domestic worker, the men and women who built our cities and ran our homes, suddenly became visible to everyone as they walked the long way home,” he points out. Their public struggle and the private suffering of others are the new tales that creators may want to tell.
And to extend the animal metaphor, Banerjee, whose cinema has always been political and who is in the process of completing his Netflix movie based on three generations of a Kashmiri family, says “cockroaches like me will survive, doing a nuanced dance, even if society at large hankers for a narrative that is escapist”. And till the theatres open and transport us to a world of visual trickery, we will have content to gorge on in the next big series on our laptops or worship our celebrities on Instagram, whether it is following a pimple’s progress on Kareena Kapoor Khan’s peachy complexion or the latest TikTok video from Shilpa Shetty Kundra’s endless repertoire of facial acrobatics.