The first six months of 2022 have been anything but ordinary for the Hindi film industry. A new wave of Covid-19 in January meant release dates were pushed back and the pressure to salvage the accumulated losses of multiplexes intensified.
Finally, after two rounds of postponements, SS Rajamouli’s RRR was released on March 25. The film earned approximately Rs 270 crore with its Hindi-dubbed version, making it a much-needed hit. The bigger surprise was the Kannada film, KGF: Chapter 2 by Prashant Neel, which defied all predictions by earning an estimated Rs 430 crore from the version dubbed in Hindi. Before and after RRR and KFG: Chapter 2 were a host of mainstream Hindi films that were considered sure-shot hits in the pre-pandemic industry — Jayeshbhai Jordaar, Samrat Prithviraj and Bachchan Pandey. All of them tanked. Instead, the highest grosser among Hindi films was The Kashmir Files.
Does this mean mainstream Bollywood has lost its mojo to films from the so-called ‘South’ (referring mainly to Tamil and Telugu cinema)? Is the success of The Kashmir Files an indication that audiences are looking past big stars and choosing content-driven films? Has the golden period of the ‘small town social drama’ passed?
Here’s how chief executive officer of Ormax Media Shailesh Kapoor and Harminder Sandhu, editor at Box Office India, have made sense of the year so far.
Bollywood vs ‘South’
According to Kapoor, the Hindi film industry is expected to earn an estimated Rs 1,700 crore in the first half of 2022. This includes Rs 100 crore from Jugjugg Jeeyo, which, according to Kapoor, is a conservative estimate since director Raj Mehta’s film earned Rs 36.9 crore in its first three days. However, the Rs 1,700 crore includes the Hindi versions of KGF: Chapter 2 and RRR, which together have brought in Rs 700 crore. This success has prompted theories about cinema from the ‘South’ enjoying clout across India, but Kapoor thinks the two films are aberrations, rather than the norm.
“I don’t think the audience is seeing them as ‘South films’, especially after the exposure everyone got during the pandemic,” said Kapoor. KGF’s success can be explained as a franchise film that was able to capitalise on the decent theatrical success of its first part and the increased popularity that came from being available on streaming platforms. RRR banked on Rajamouli’s equity as the director of fantastical action adventures, particularly since the Baahubali films.
According to Kapoor, it was a happy coincidence that RRR and KGF also delivered on spectacles, which have become an essential factor in a film’s theatrical success because it justifies a trip to the cinema hall. He also pointed to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, which has an operatic feel and reaped rewards during its theatrical run. Similarly, Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 and Jugjugg Jeeyo were designed to have spectacular elements, like elaborate song sequences. “The films need to be mounted in a way that they seem worthy of the big screen experience. Even the trailer has become a crucial factor in setting the tone for whether the audience wants to watch the film or not,” said Kapoor.
Meanwhile, the last two films from the Marvel cinematic universe — Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — earned Rs 270 crore and Rs 165 crore respectively, proving Indian audiences will brave the theatres if they think the film is ‘worth’ seeing on the big screen.
The Kashmir Files anomaly
Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files turned out to be one of the most controversial and arguably the most profitable release so far in 2022. Made on an estimated budget of Rs 15-25 crore, the film earned an estimated Rs 340 crore at the box office. “A film like Prithviraj is pushing for Hinduism while The Kashmir Files is showing Muslims in a negative way. There’s a big difference,” said Sandhu, while explaining why the film may have struck a chord with audiences in the current climate.
Ormax conducted an extensive study on the “organic” growth in the audience of The Kashmir Files, week over week. Opening with Rs 3 crore on its first day — Kapoor and Sandhu agree this was a good opening, considering the film’s budget — the daily collection peaked on the second Sunday (Rs 26 crore). According to the study, authored by Kapoor, The Kashmir Files had an unusually high percentage of “irregulars”. “A typical film will get 70-80% of its business from the core group of theatregoers who we call ‘regulars’ (visiting theatres once in four months at least). But The Kashmir Files had people who probably hadn’t gone to a theatre in three or four years,” said Kapoor. While the regular/irregular ratio for a mainstream film tends to be around 72/28, which was what Sooryavanshi had, the audiences of The Kashmir Files flipped that ratio to 39/61.
Both Kapoor and Sandhu feel endorsements from politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh helped the film find its audience of irregulars. Similar endorsements were doled out to films like Samrat Prithviraj, but The Kashmir Files’ greater success may be due to complementary factors, like corporates booking shows in bulk for their employees, and bureaucrats being given time to go watch the film.
“The environment is obviously conducive for such films, but one also needs to note that the conversation around The Kashmir Files was about the content of the film, and not about the star attached to the film. Simply making a film in this genre won’t guarantee success as we’ve seen in the last few years,” says Kapoor. While Sandhu agreed with Kapoor that the political push helped, he doesn’t think this growth can be called organic.
The end of the ‘small town social comedy’?
Films set in tier-two cities, like Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), made the small town social comedy one of the most lucrative genres in mainstream Hindi films in recent years. However, it seems to now be breathing its last. From last year’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui to Badhaai Do in early 2022 as well as the more recent Jayeshbhai Jordaar and Anek, films of that genre have failed at the box office. Badhaai Do is the only one that received unanimously good reviews.
“First, I think the films are starting to look like replicas of each other and I’m not sure how big-screen friendly they are,” said Kapoor. “We might start seeing some of these films on OTT [platforms]. Something like Panchayat 2 is performing exceptionally well on OTT. I think these films have similar elements,” he added.
Sandhu noted there was a sense of fatigue around the genre from before the pandemic. He pointed out that the numbers have dwindled since Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan (2020). However, Sandhu is in no hurry to write its obituary. “Never say never, who knows how things might change six months down the line, when things go back to ‘normal’?” he said.
The second half of the year will see some big and much-delayed releases. Karan Malhotra’s Shamshera, which had been held for release for almost two years, will release in July. Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra —in the making for almost seven years — will release in September. There’s also the Aamir Khan-starrer, Laal Singh Chaddha, a Bollywood adaptation of Forrest Gump.
Conventionally, the latter months usually outperform the first half of the year, especially since major releases are scheduled to coincide with public holidays (like Independence Day) and festivities like Diwali and Christmas. It remains to be seen whether Bollywood’s big Hindi releases are able to match the success of a Telugu film and Kannada film.
Also releasing in the second half of 2022 is the remake of the Tamil film Vikram Vedha, starring Hrithik Roshan. It will be Roshan’s first release since his career’s biggest hit, War (2019). Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif, will be the director’s first release after the success of Andhadhun (2018). Kartik Aaryan will be seen in Shehzada, a remake of Allu Arjun-starrer Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo.
While Kapoor and Sandhu are cautiously optimistic that at least half of the above films should fare well commercially, they have some concerns. Sandhu noted that Hindi cinema has been a “Saturday industry” in the last couple of decades, meaning a film’s performance can be judged by how well it does on the first Saturday after its release. It doesn’t help that in recent years, actors like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and even Salman Khan have seen a dip in popularity. In contrast, Tamil, Telugu and even some big-ticket Kannada films open to huge numbers because they feature superstars like Vijay, Ajith or N.T. Rama Rao Jr., who have dedicated (even rabid) fan bases.
Still, Sandhu seemed optimistic about 2023 being the year when Hindi cinema finds its equivalent of KGF or RRR. “I think we’ll have to look into the future for fresher films to be the hits that we’re seeing from the South,” he said. Could it be that Sandhu is a fan of Shah Rukh Khan…?