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Stars struck and box office losses

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on June 06, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

After a long wait: Shoojit Sircar's film Gulabo Sitabo, starring Ayushmann Khurrana (left) and Amitabh Bachchan, will be released on Amazon Prime on June 12.   -  PTI

Bollywood stares at an unprecedented loss as big-ticket films wait for theatres to reopen

Eid wasn’t quite the same this year. The lockdown — in place because of a viral pandemic — meant that there were few festive gatherings. And, to top it, there was no Salman Khan film to look forward to. Bhai’s new releases have been a veritable part of Eid celebrations since 2009’s Wanted. This year, the star’s much-touted Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, directed by Prabhu Deva, was to have been released around Eid. But the lockdown led to the closure of theatres and the postponement of the film’s release, leaving Khan’s diehard fans deeply disappointed.

They are not the only ones. Several big-ticket Bollywood films, to have been released in or after March, are still waiting for theatres to open. Among them is the Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi, which was to have hit the theatres on March 27.

The list of films in limbo is a long one. No release dates have been set for Ranveer Singh’s 83, Amitabh Bachchan’s Chehre and Jhund, and Alia Bhatt’s Sadak 2. Likewise, audiences are still waiting for Parineeti Chopra-Aditi Rao Hydari’s The Girl On The Train, Varun Dhawan’s Coolie No 1 and Sushant Singh Rajput’s Dil Bechara. While Saif Ali Khan’s Bunty Aur Babli 2 and Rajkummar Rao’s Chhalaang were to have been released in the next few months, theatres are likely to remain shut for a while, further pushing the films’ release dates.

Statue: No release dates have been set for Ranveer Singh’s 83   -  THE HINDU / M VEDHAN

“Typically, a film’s release date is locked months in advance to help maximise undivided audience attention, among a slew of releases,” says Ashish Saksena, chief operating officer (COO), cinemas, BookMyShow. “When the lockdown was announced, some of the most-awaited films had already seen a partial release, impacting their overall box-office collection. There were other films that were slated for release in the following weeks, with promotions in full swing. Unfortunately, a majority of these releases had to be frozen.”

Some producers have opted for a digital release before their theatre launch — an unheard of strategy in India so far. Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, starring Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, and Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan, have been lapped up by Amazon Prime Video. There’s talk that Akshay’s Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb will also opt for an over-the-top (OTT) platform.

Not surprisingly, the direct OTT release of big films has led to a war of words between exhibitors, who feel their business has been severely affected by the films not being released in theatres, and Bollywood producers, who are looking to recoup the money invested.

“Covid-19 has challenged the status quo,” Red Chillies Entertainment’s COO Gaurav Verma states. Will this have an impact on consumer habits? “The answer is yes. But does it take away theatre releases? I don’t think so,” Verma holds. He points out that the theatre business has stood the test of time. “In the ’90s, there was a massive home video assault; then the piracy assault came in. The theatre business survived that and it’ll survive this as well.”

But equally true is that the industry had never faced a situation like this before. Film and trade business analyst Girish Johar estimates that the Hindi film industry faces a loss of ₹2,000–2,500 crore because of the pandemic. “Even earlier there were stoppages in the Indian film industry, on and off, in some states or regions, due to strikes and so on, but not a nationwide shutdown for nearly three months. There was zero box-office revenue this quarter and I expect zero box-office revenue the next quarter also,” he says.

Films that were on the floors and in post-production have been severely affected, too. With no shoots possible now, large investments are locked up in these projects. Aamir Khan’s magnum opus Laal Singh Chaddha was to have been released in December 2020 but will now be launched in 2021. The post-production for Dharma Productions’ action fantasy Brahmastra and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi has been delayed too.

“The films which are ready for release will encounter losses since they’ll not get the same ROI (return on investment) as they would have in normal times,” says Vinod Bhanushali, president, marketing, media and publishing, T-Series. The production house has a long list of films — including Jhund, Ludo, Mumbai Saga, Bhool Bulaiyya 2, Bhuj: The Pride of India and Ezra — in its kitty for the year.

But will the films, if and when released, be able to draw crowds? Sunir Kheterpal, CEO, Azure Entertainment, stresses that the freshness of a film may be affected by the delay. “Projects under development... face a risk of delayed production and even risk of shelving; some projects may not be viable for theatres; some may get restructured as digital release... But it’s not the end of the world,” he says.

It will, however, be a while before people regain the confidence to return to theatres. “As of now, both the environment and sentiment are negative. Till the time both are positive, there will be this debate,” Kheterpal says.

Latha Srinivasan is a Chennai-based senior journalist

Published on June 05, 2020
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