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Why Post-Pandemic Bollywood Films Are Struggling At The Box Office

Shamshera is the latest big-budget tentpole Hindi film to plummet at the box office. When theaters reopened late last year after remaining shut through the two COVID-19 lockdowns, the Hindi film industry breathed a sigh of relief.

They could finally get back to work—resume pending shoot schedules and release the films festering in wait and uncertainty. However, that hope turned out to be transient.

Fridays, which used to end in rousing celebrations not too long ago, were now dreaded, and rightly so, for they started manifesting the worst fears of everyone involved with the new releases. Satyamev Jayate 2, 83, Jersey, Bachchan Pandey, Runway 34, Heropanti 2, Samrat Prithviraj, recent crashes at the box office have been loud and distressing.

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Despite featuring mammoth stars, jaw-dropping mounting, and the support of giant studios, these films turned out to be complete box-office wash-outs.

Bollywood could have lived with the poor performances of a few key films and dismissed this time as a dark phase but the simultaneous emergence of the southern cinema has made the recent spate of failure more difficult to swallow.

It’s not like people have stopped going to theaters post the pandemic. They are, and in huge numbers. The ticket-window collections of Pushpa, KGF Chapter 2, and RRR are a clear testimony to that. Audiences love movies as much as they always have; they’re just not watching Bollywood anymore.

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In the latest episode of Koffee With Karan Season 7, host Karan Johar discussed this alarming BO situation with his guests Akshay Kumar and Samantha Ruth Prabhu. Johar started by sharing the worrying Omax statistics.

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In its April 2022 list of most popular female stars, only three heroines from the Hindi film industry managed to find a spot. Alia Bhatt was at number 2, Deepika Padukone at number 5, and Katrina Kaif at number 8.

Kajal Aggarwal bagged the fourth spot and Pooja Hegde the tenth. Though both of them have worked in Hindi films, they earned a place on this list not because of them but for their work in the south. Guess who beat Alia Bhatt for the number one position? Samantha Ruth Prabhu.

The list of the most popular male stars for April was even more alarming. Akshay Kumar was the only Bollywood leading man to feature on it, that too at the middling number 5 position. All the other spots were comfortably occupied by heroes from the south, the boys club led by Vijay who was closely followed by Jr. NTR, Prabhas, and Allu Arjun.

When an anxious Johar asked Kumar what possibly could be the reason for such appalling downfall in the BO collections and popularity of Hindi films, he said, “Here, actors are very scared of doing two-hero, three-hero films. I don’t know why and I don’t think that happens in the south.”

Kumar is right. The recent success of RRR, headlined by stalwarts Ram Charan and Jr. NTR, and Vikram, which starred the invincible trio of Kamal Haasan, Suriya, and Vijay Setuhpati, is proof enough.

But when was the last time you saw two or three Bollywood male superstars in a film together? Extended cameos don’t count. It’s rare that a Shahid Kapoor agrees to do a film like Padmaavat that primarily belongs to other actors in the film.

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Marred by the insatiable hunger to be the hero of every film that they do, our stars seem to have forgotten the joys of collaboration. So much so that even as Farhan Akhtar is working on Jee Le Zara, which features the three biggest heroines of contemporary Bollywood—Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, and Alia Bhatt—the chances of a film like Anand, Amar Akbar Anthony, Andaaz Apna Apna or Karan Arjun getting made don’t seem too likely any time soon.

Johar agrees. In response to Kumar’s comment, he added, “As a producer, I can tell you it’s impossible to cast a two-hero film. Maybe it’s their insecurity that I can’t own this film completely or there will be one-upmanship, which will affect my stardom (remember how difficult it was to find a parallel lead opposite Ayushmann Khurrana for Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan after Rajkummar Rao refused the part?)”.

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“You ask any Bollywood producer. I have been around for 25 years. If I can find it difficult, I can imagine what it must be like for anyone else to even dream of casting like that,” he added.

The problems plaguing the Hindi film industry right now are glaring, evident to even passers-by. Our actors are too busy building themselves as a brand to focus on the “act” aspect of acting. They are too distracted by the frippery to reflect and course correct.

Too drunk on the shimmering lights, the shiny clothes, the tabloid features, the head-turning remuneration. Our writers are undervalued and underpaid, our crew overworked, our musicians uninspired, our studios too scared to experiment and back cinema of worth.

Johar, who owns and runs arguably the most successful production house in Bollywood right now, agrees. However, he points at something even graver.

In an interview with Film Companion, deliberating on the sudden emergence of southern cinema, he told Anupama Chopra, “They (filmmakers in the south) have a lot of conviction. They don’t listen to other things, they just follow their conviction. They know what they are doing and they do it; they are not seeking acceptance, validation, or approval.”

“They are so confident in their skin, so convinced with what they are doing. That’s what we all (in Bollywood) lack. In our cinema, we don’t have conviction. We are victims of herd mentality,” he added.

“A lot of filmmakers, including myself, we get carried away with where the wind is blowing. Suddenly if biopics are doing well, then everybody will make a biopic. Now everybody has woken up to the syntax of southern cinema. Now suddenly, we want to start doing that,” he said.

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That’s true. The last few big Bollywood films have all been released in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu—a new trend that found wind only after the mind-boggling triumphs of films helmed by movie masters such as RR Rajamouli, Prashanth Neel, Sukumar, and Lokesh Kanagaraj .

Johar believes Bollywood can get out of the current crisis only if it’s ready to make critical changes. “We need to up our storytelling, empower our writers, go back to basics—love for cinema and the good old-fashioned conviction in Hindi cinema. We need to stop trying to be somebody else, stop appealing to who we can’t appeal to.”

“You need to know what you are capable of. You don’t want to become a buffet when you’re a bona fide a la carte. We are so idiotically unconvinced about our strengths and weaknesses, that we tend to be all over the place. We are living a dual existence and we have to stop,” he said. I say, touché.

Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.

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