Akshay Kumar-starrer Bell Bottom released last week, becoming the first Hindi film to opt for a theatrical release since the second-wave of the Coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this March.
Bell Bottom's release was significant in many ways. After numerous delays of several big-ticket releases including Kabir Khan's 83 and Rohit Shetty's Sooryavanshi, this was the first time a well-established superstar from Bollywood was releasing his project in limited-capacity theatres since the pandemic started in 2020. The last mainstream big-budget project to have a theatrical release was Ajay Devgn-starrer Tanhaji (January 2020), made in a budget of Rs. 125 crore.
While this move is being lauded as a bold one from industry experts, especially considering the fact that theatres in Maharashtra – the biggest market for Hindi films churning a whopping 30-35% of a film's revenue – are yet to open, the film, co-produced by Nikkhil Advani, Jackky Bhagnani, Vashu Bhagnani and Deepshikha Deshmukh, has managed to earn approximately 13 crores over the Raksha Bandhan weekend. Is this a good enough opening, though? "It's a fairly decent attempt. In normal circumstances, you look at a 20-crore opening on day one. In one way or the other, it would've done 50 crores over the weekend in that scenario. So, it's not even 30% of how it would've been," says Entertainment industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai.
Up until the 90s and early 2000s, the success of a film used to be determined by the number of days it used to sustain itself in the theatres. Over time, however, it started getting measured by its weekend collection. Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media, believes that sustenance, at such unprecedented times, is once again, the key. "The fact that the film could sustain well during the weekend and cross the 4-crore mark on Sunday, as compared to being 2-2.5 crore before that is a good sign," he says, adding, "It'll slowly build during the week and the second weekend may be good too. It's not like earlier when another big film would release and all the shows would pass on to it. Bell Bottom will continue to have a lot of shows for the next 2-3 weeks at least."
Furthermore, keeping in mind the theatre restrictions and night curfews in several major states across the country, it's important to note that even in the best possible scenario, a film can only earn a portion of what it used to before the pandemic struck. "The restrictions have to get reduced for the business to pick up. There are no night shows anywhere because most cities have a night curfew. The 10 pm night show is India's biggest show for box office collections everywhere – be it in big cities or smaller towns," Pillai elaborates.
Considering that a plethora of big-budget Hindi movies have been stuck, hunting for a good time for a theatrical release, this film, made at an approximate budget of 150 crores as per box office reports, can serve as a good blueprint of the kind of earnings that can be expected. This holds true for a star like Kumar himself, who is looking at as many as seven upcoming films, which are touted for a release in the next couple of years – including Sooryavanshi, Bachchan Pandey, Atrangi Re and Raam Setu, among others. "Akshay has done the smartest thing possible," says Pillai. "I see it as a test balloon after the second wave. Considering how many upcoming films he has lined-up, unless one of the big movies releases in a theatre, you wouldn't know how it's going to perform."
While a decision like this by a star of Kumar's stature comes as a welcome move for theatre owners and distributors, one possible reason for him choosing to opt for a theatrical release could also be tactical. "They might have had some commercial deal, whether it's with the distribution company or an OTT platform, where a theatrical release may have been required from them to complete the deal. The way deals are structured, unless that clause is completed, many times the value of the deal can come down," Kapoor explains. The result, though, is a win-win from an industry standpoint as well. "Whatever came out earlier this year or last year – Roohi or Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari – didn't necessarily provide a good benchmark of the kind of collections to expect because they were smaller. But this is a big star cast film and gives a good understanding to others planning a theatrical release of how the business would be," he says.
With the theatres opening in Tamil Nadu this week, the box office is likely to see big theatrical releases with Thalaivi, based on the life of late TN Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, and Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi-starrer Love Story on September 10. Kapoor believes that business-wise, Southern films shouldn't face too much of a problem – something the industry had tackled well post the first wave as well. "Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are anyways operating on almost full capacity. Even when the theatres opened during December to February earlier, a lot of films, whether it was Vakeel Saab, Jathi Ratnalu or Master, did great business. They were almost at par with the pre-covid numbers. I think if South has covid in control, they'll face no issues from a business perspective," he says. However, considering most of these films have a Hindi-dubbed release planned subsequently, the only cause of delay lies in the makers' decision on whether or not to wait for the Hindi market to restart at a relatively normal pace.
That sense of normalcy can only be expected once the theatres around Maharashtra are, at least partially, re-opened. However, once that happens, it's not unlikely to expect more big films announcing their theatrical releases. "Once theaters in Mumbai and Maharashtra open up, even if they are with a 50% occupancy, more announcements are likely to follow. We have a festive period coming up with Dussehra in October and Diwali in November, so that may be a good time for projects to get released," Kapoor says.
While only time will tell what the future looks like, Pillai feels that Bell Bottom's release marks more of a trial phase for Hindi cinema, and doesn't anticipate more stars choosing a theatrical route this year. "India is in an experimental situation at this moment," he says. He adds that the popularity of OTT platforms has perhaps made people a bit reluctant to spend money on one film in a theatre, especially when they have the best of content readily available at home.
Kapoor, however, thinks that this may be the beginning of the Hindi film industry's post-covid era in the theatres. "Last year, between November 2020 and March 2021, when theatres were open across the country, a lot of Hindi producers missed an opportunity. They could've easily brought out some of the bigger films then. But they were too cautious and kept waiting for things to normalize further when the second wave started," he says. "I think this release is telling them that when you do get an opportunity, you should be able to use it."