Exhibitor Rakesh Pande was watching Avengers: Endgame at Mohan theatre, the single screen he runs in Malegaon, in Nashik district of Maharashtra, when he overheard a fellow audience member explain to his friend why Thanos won’t kill Nebula. It piqued Pande’s curiosity, and he listened on; it is, after all, not the kind of conversation one is used to hearing in a theatre that is more familiar with hysterical first-day-first-shows of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan movies. The clientele at Mohan – most of who are from the local power loom industry – seems to be from a world far away from time heists, conspiracy theories and comic book geekdom. But thanks to Marvel’s persistent efforts in localising the movies, a large section of Pande’s audience are familiar with the characters — and as he found that day, even clued in to the latest developments in the storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Malegaon is one of the many smaller centres in the traditional Hindi film market where Endgame, dubbed as the “Cinematic Event of the Century”, has done exceptionally (it had a 95 % occupancy in most of the small towns and mini metros in the country). Out of the Rs 157 cr on the weekend, Rs 61 cr came from the Hindi-dubbed version. It’s unprecedented for a Hollywood film, and, according to film exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi, “in a lot of places at par with Baahubali and Dangal” — two of the most successful Indian films.

Boxofficeindia estimates that in its first week collections, Endgame (259 cr) is only behind Baahubali: The Conclusion (530 cr) and 2.0 (284 cr). It is likely to overtake Salman’s Tiger Zinda Hai (339 cr), and even the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal (387 cr.). Even if it doesn’t do the latter, 4 out of the 5 biggest grossing movies in India would be non-Hindi films; the others being Baahubali: The Conclusion (1115 cr), Baahubali: The Beginning (418 cr), and 2.0 (413 cr), in that order. 

“It bursts our bubble that Hindi is the primary language of the entire market,” says Vikramaditya Motwane, who has written and directed films such as Udaan, Lootera, “It shows that we are way behind in terms of a) Creating content for an all-India mass audience, and b) Our audience is willing to watch things which are away from our comfort zone.” Motwane says it’s a “wake up call” for the Hindi film industry.

Hollywood Invasion

What is true of MCU may not be true for all of Hollywood (Endgame is reaping the fruits of consistent, serialised storytelling told over 22 movies spread over 11 years). But it’s impossible to ignore Hollywood’s stupendous growth in India, which is 250-300 % over the last 5 years in terms of box office. Compare that to Bollywood’s growth in the last 5 years, which has been around 10%. Hindi films now keep a safe distance from big Hollywood movies, which have started enjoying solo releases in India; the trade has its money on the live action remake of Lion King, which releases in July.

Early signs came in 2015, when Furious 7 became the first Hollywood movie to earn Rs 100 crore. A couple of months later came Baahubali: The Beginning, which became the highest grossing film in India. 2 years later the sequel bettered the records, and has since set the upper limits of the Indian box office. These monster numbers show that Hollywood, and the South Indian film industry, been able to tap into a market that Bollywood until recently hadn’t woken up to. They also signal a new era of blockbuster moviemaking, that is built on cinematic universes, serialised storytelling, and cliffhangers, and where language is secondary.

These monster numbers show that Hollywood, and the South Indian film industry, been able to tap into a market that Bollywood until recently hadn’t woken up to. They also signal a new era of blockbuster moviemaking, that is built on cinematic universes, serialised storytelling, and cliffhangers, and where language is secondary.

This is of course in the context of a global crisis in ticket sales of cinema halls, for which the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon are being held responsible. As we are consuming more entertainment at home, on the go on phones and tablets, we are asking for more compelling reasons to go to the theatre, buy that ticket, make that effort, spend on that overpriced tub of pop corn. Motwane says that Hindi cinema seems to be lacking “that ‘Wow’ factor that will drag someone to watch a movie”. He sees a future — a pretty scary one — where “drama is going to go to streaming, and spectacle is going to go to cinema”. “Spectacle, and something that needs to be watched collectively, like comedies,” he says. The problem is that it’s the kind of VFX-heavy, action-oriented, somewhat fantastical films that Bollywood has always sucked at.

A post-Baahubali Bollywood

A spate of “big scale” movies, mostly set in a historical period, with varying degrees of action scenes – more in design than in thought – have followed after the success of Baahubali

Bollywood has been slow to react. A spate of “big scale” movies, mostly set in a historical period, with varying degrees of action scenes – more in design than in thought – have followed after the success of Baahubali: The Beginning. Mohenjo Daro, Thugs of Hindostan, Manikarnika, and recently, Kalank. The Baahubali hangover was all too obvious, as one can see in specific shots and visual ideas. Whether it is the scene in Thugs of Hindostan where a statue is being unveiled, and the common folk looking up in awe; Or a bare-chested Varun Dhawan fighting a bull in Kalank; Or Kangana Ranaut’s stunt that sees her climb an elephant — all try to recreate images that we’ve in the Baahubali movies. The problem with these movies is not the special effects; they are crippled by the age-old problems that ail Bollywood. To begin with, the writing.

“There is something rotten about the Bollywood process where they are too comfortable in making projects rather than films. It’s easy to put a couple of stars together and put some songs in and make a film whether or not the script works,” says screenwriter Sumit Roy. “Now the audience knows the tricks Bollywood can pull and have sort of become wise to it. We need to work harder in terms of what stories we are telling, fresher stories,” he says. Roy is writing Karan Johar’s Takht, “a period drama about grand passions”. He says that there are still many big budget Bollywood films that begin shooting even before a script has been finalised, improvising along the way. “It is very important, especially when you are making these VFX-heavy films, to have scripts that you are sure about even before you go into production, because they require extensive pre-production,” he adds. 

South does it better

It’s easy to say that South has an edge over Bollywood when it comes to making the special effects movies, because they have a knack of doing even ‘trash’ with a kind of madness and conviction that Bollywood doesn’t seem to show anymore. But really, it’s just two directors, SS Rajamouli and Shankar. Roy shares a probably apocryphal story about Rajamouli, who came up with the idea to make the hero a housefly after his frustrating experience to sign a star for Eega (Makkhi in Hindi) — the revenge drama he made before Baahubali. “One thing Bollywood could do well to learn from MCU and Baahubali is that you could take somebody who isn’t known in a certain market but still make a great, entertaining film,” says Roy. 

The over dependance on stars is a problem, it might even be the root of the problem. But it isn’t going to go anytime soon. The notion is that the more expensive a movie gets, the bigger the star power it needs to minimise the risk. Even if a studio decides to be adventurous, negotiating through the complicated system of distributors and exhibitors is an uphill task. But surely, one can work around it. Shankar seemed to have had a lot of fun in the way he used the 2 stars at his disposal in 2.0, shaping and moulding them in different ways. Akshay Kumar plays super villain with a cause Pakshi Rajan, who can be a spectacularly designed Bird-man one moment, and a monster made of mobile phones the other; Rajinikanth appears as a micro-sized version of the Robot he had played in the prequel, Robot. 2.0 might have lacked the coherence of Robot in terms of story, but it had jaw-dropping set pieces which I’d pay good money to watch. The closest Hindi film equivalent of a “big screen” director — whose movies demand to be watched in theatres — is Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but Bhansali is hardly “massy”.

The road ahead

Hindi films need to be more ambitious with their big spectacle outings not just in terms of story and ideas, but also figuring out new ways of production and distribution. Perhaps it can collaborate with the South Indian film industry to capture a bigger market (Hindi films do poorly in the South). Only Dharma Productions seems to have shown some far-sightedness, by getting involved with the Hindi distribution of both Baahubali and 2.0. Although it seems a bit convenient, there’s some smartness to the idea of Rohit Shetty’s Cop Universe, which has turned Singham brand into a franchise. 

All eyes are on Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra, which promises a combination of star power (Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Amitabh Bachchan), mythology, and special effects. Planned as a three-part series, Mukerji has been working on it since his last film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). Before starting the shooting, Mukerji wrote a piece for Film Companion about the difficulty of making a fantasy film in Bollywood. “These processes that are now being put into force make me feel like I am sharing a global spirit with Marvel and Game of Thrones, with the makers of superhero and fantasy films that are being produced by the Hollywood factory,” he said. Brahmastra had an inventive “logo launch” at the Kumbh mela last year where it put up a show of dancing lights with the help of 150 drones. It was announced as a December, 2019 release, but it has now been pushed to next year — presumably to take more time to work on the special effects. That the announcement came on the day after the release of Endgame might not be a coincidence.

Disclaimer: The numbers cited in the article have been provided by Box Office India, and Ormax Media

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