CHILDREN LAUGHING AT inappropriate moments, parents discussing dinner plans on the phone, men conversing directly with the characters on screen, and general merriment when Ranveer Singh enters the movie. Everything that irritated you when you went out to watch a movie in a theatre may now amuse you. That’s what the pandemic has done, having separated audiences from their natural habitat in front of a big screen for over a year.
So, no surprise then when Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi raced to ₹ 100 crore in revenue in less than a week of its release across India, fully justifying the resolve of the filmmakers to wait for over two years despite blandishments from streaming services. With its spectacular car explosions, high-speed chases and helicopter rides, Sooryavanshi was made for the big screen. As was the swagger of its copverse, Shetty’s made-in-India answer to the Marvel superhero universe.
The audiences have responded with optimism, coming back to the theatres, mostly vaccinated and masked-up. They’ve also answered the questions that were bothering everyone. Will audiences’ tastes change? Will they still be up for Akshay Kumar’s no-holds-barred patriotism, dividing the world between nationalist and anti-national Muslims? Will they still watch with their jaws on the floor when Katrina Kaif dances with abandon in the rain? And will they still cheer when Simmba and Singham make an appearance late into the movie to teach the anti-nationals from “sarhad paar” a lesson or two?
The answer to all is yes. The pandemic has renewed India’s romance with the big screen, as indeed it has globally. In south India, even more so, where 65 per cent of the screens are single, compared with a mere 25 per cent in the north. The emotions and ideas are painted with broad brushstrokes. Nationalist Muslims help Hindus in rescuing a Ganesh idol from a temple which is about to be bombed, to the tune of “Chhodo kal ki batein” from the 1961 film Hum Hindustani. The anti-national Muslim is dragged out of his home like a common criminal after the nationalist Muslim allows it. And the thought that you can’t trust anyone around you— because the Lashkar has sent 40 terrorists to live amongst you as a waiter, a bell boy, a mechanic, a hotelier—feeds into the general paranoia about the Other.
It’s the kind of mass political statement that a tentpole blockbuster delivers well, where Akshay Kumar can make an impassioned statement about two kinds of Muslims: Ajmal Kasab versus Abdul Kalam, and where Ranveer Singh can laugh about Pakistani cricketers and actors not being allowed to come to India, losing a sizeable amount of revenue. And which is set to make it the largest Hindi film to be released following the Covid outbreak. In terms of reach, too, Sooryavanshi released in 3,500/1,200 screens across India/ overseas, respectively. Its net lifetime box-office collection will likely be in the range of ₹ 1.2 billion-1.4 billion. These numbers, says media analyst Karan Taurani, are still 30 per cent lower than pre-Covid levels. They are impacted by timing restrictions and the occupancy cap in some states (50 per cent in Maharashtra) and some anxiety on the part of the audience about return to enclosed spaces. Annaatthe, starring Rajinikanth, released at the same time, has raced to ₹ 90 crore in the first five days. Its lifetime gross is expected to be ₹ 1 billion, says Taurani, which will be highest after release of Vijay’s Master that collected ₹ 1.9 billion gross in January 2021.
But there are a few issues distributors and exhibitors will have to resolve in the near future. First, the share of distributors and exhibitors in the box-office revenue, and second, the theatrical window. Other changes are happening simultaneously. There are estimates that 1,500 single screens have shut during the pandemic and these are unlikely to reopen. There are currently 3,000 multiple screens and 9,000 single screens—65 per cent of them are in the south where there is also a cap on movie ticket prices. Larger multiplex players will be able to achieve scale and expansion through better deals with developers on rent, and a larger share of box-office revenue will come from pan-India multiplex chains.
Joint Managing Director of PVR Sanjeev Bijli is understandably elated. Revenge consumption is back, he says, with spending on food and beverage 15 per cent higher than it was pre-pandemic. “The film industry is delighted now that the barometer to measure stardom is back and audiences are clearly tired of being fearful. The human race was not meant to be incarcerated,” he says, pointing to renewed business at malls, hotels, restaurants and airlines.
Theatrical expansion plans are back on track. PVR opened 14 screens even during the shutdown and expects to open 20 more before the end of the financial year, taking their total to 875 nationally. INOX has opened 15 screens already and plans another 34 by March 2022, taking their total to 658.
This week also marked the release of Eternals, Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao’s addition to the Marvel universe, which made $71 million at the US box office (and $90 million in the rest of the world) and was still dubbed an underperformer because $100 million domestic in the opening week is standard. But Eternals introduces a new superhero universe now that Iron Man and Captain America have retired from The Avengers world, with an emphasis on diversity. Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer at INOX Leisure, says the opening response to both Sooryavanshi and Eternals over the Diwali weekend was fantastic. He adds: “We are confident that with these blockbuster movie releases, the film industry will replicate the success of 2019. It’s indeed a great sign for the entire film and exhibition industry as audiences are coming back to cinemas with a vengeance. With a great content pipeline in the months to come, the Indian cinema industry will recover faster. Also, since people are vaccinated to a large extent, there is less fear psychosis among them.”
Business as usual has other implications. The old power structure of Bollywood was under enormous threat during the pandemic, exacerbated by allegations of mistreatment of outsiders after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Streaming shows had made the universe of stars more democratic and stories seemed to have become more important than the stars. Sooryavanshi is precisely the kind of noisy blockbuster favoured by Old Bollywood, where the men get to flex muscles and the women get to wear wet saris, and little else.
Those who didn’t have a taste for Shetty’s explosions or expositions—or have lost it permanently during the pandemic—can always go back to a more secluded and solitary viewing of streaming shows and movies. The choice is back