Flex boards, fan wars, box office records and houseful shows. This is traditionally what Onam season looked like in Kerala, a 10-day period when families and friends would throng theatres to celebrate the harvest festival. But all that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic when theatres in the state were forced to shut down for two consecutive years, including during the peak Onam season.
In 2022, film exhibitors and producers were banking on a revival but none of the three Onam releases – Ottu, Oru Thekkan Thallu Case or Pathombatham Nootandu – managed to draw crowds. To add to the gloom, Premam (2015) director Alphonse Puthren’s highly-anticipated film Gold, starring Prithviraj and Nayanthara, was postponed. “Onam 2022 was a washout,” acknowledged K Vijayakumar, president of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK). “There are only a couple of seasons when theatres make enough money to last us through the year, but Onam in the last three years has been dry. We are hoping that this year, things will be better.”
As of now, Dulquer Salmaan’s King of Kotha, Nivin Pauly’s Ramachandra Boss & Co and the multistarrer RDX featuring Antony Varghese, Shane Nigam and Neeraj Madhav are set to clash at the box office between August 20 and 31. The lineup is better than last year’s, with Salmaan’s gangster drama having the edge as far as pre-release hype goes. While Salmaan recently delivered a Rs. 100 crore blockbuster with his slick thriller Kurup (2021), Pauly’s last hit was Love Action Drama (2019) that came out for Onam four years ago. RDX has upcoming stars who have been embroiled in various controversies in recent years, but may yet prove to be the dark horse.
RDX producer Sophia Paul admitted that it was a challenge to get enough screens when a film was going up against releases with established stars. But Paul is confident about how RDX will be received this Onam. “The audience expects content that draws them to the theatres. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie has to be big. The content needs to compete against the option of viewing the movie a month later on OTT,” said Paul. In other words, the bigger battle today is theatre vs OTT, rather than star vs star.
The producer, who’s behind acclaimed films like Bangalore Days (2014) and Minnal Murali (2021) said the shift in the audience means that she not only thinks about the content of the film but also how the project is designed, executed and promoted. “There are no big stars in RDX, but we haven’t compromised on the movie’s budget or its promotion to reiterate the fact that it is a theatrical spectacle,” she said.
From January to April 2023, according to the newspaper Mathrubhumi, the Malayalam film industry is estimated to have suffered a loss of Rs. 200 crore, with just one film out of 75 releases hitting the jackpot at the box office. The film in question is the horror comedy Romancham (2023), which was made on a shoestring budget, had no big stars in its cast, and went on to make Rs. 42 crore, according to an Ormax Media report. May saw the release of the survival thriller 2018 (2023) that made over Rs. 100 crore, but other than these two films, no other release has set the box office on fire.
Film journalist Ralph Tom Joseph of The Cue pointed out that April is Vishu season (the Malayali New Year), a time traditionally considered favourable for film releases. “Yet none of films, including Aashiq Abu’s Neelavelicham and Muhasin’s Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham, sustained the interest of the audience. The satirical comedy Madonalsavam did fairly well in multiplexes but not in other screens,” said Joseph, adding that people’s reluctance to go to theatres is clearly visible in Kerala.
In 2022, the Malayalam film industry made 259 films, the maximum number among the south Indian film industries, including theatrical and OTT releases. But a report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) also stated that this film industry earned the least amount of revenue of the four at Rs. 816 crore. For a comparison, the Tamil industry, which made 225 films in the same period, earned the highest revenue at Rs. 2,950 crore. The Telugu industry made Rs. 2,500 crore from 227 films and the Kannada industry made Rs. 1,570 crore from 207 films (largely because of the phenomenal commercial success of KGF 2 and Kantara). Admittedly, Malayalam films on average have small budgets of less than Rs. 7 crore, but still, the numbers show the industry — and consequently theatres — are far from thriving.
Calling the state of theatres in Kerala “dire”, Vijayakumar said it was now a question of survival for them. “Last year, almost every theatre suffered a loss of at least Rs. 10,00,000. This year, other than Romancham and 2018, no film has done well. Even Dileep’s new release Voice of Sathyanathan just about scraped through. We can’t call it a hit,” he said.
In the south, Kerala has the highest internet penetration among the five states, with 87 subscribers for every 100 residents. This has translated to audiences being reluctant to spend money and time on going to theatres. “People have this perception that it’s enough to watch movies on their mobile phones, especially when these films come out on OTT within a matter of weeks. They don’t see the sense in spending over Rs. 1,000 to go to the theatre. Otherwise, the film has to be extraordinary in its making to draw them in,” said Vijayakumar.
Moreover, with as many six to seven films releasing every week, the audience prefers to wait and watch which film will sustain at the box office. “They don’t want to go to theatres unless they’re convinced that the film is really worth it. Most films are unable to last even a week in theatres. The Kerala audience takes reviews and word-of-mouth seriously,” said Joseph.
According to the journalist, the pandemic didn’t just trigger a switch to OTT platforms, it also left people rethinking their priorities. “The majority of fans – the sort who will go for first-day-first-show, spend money on flex boards and so on – are in the age group of 20 to 30 years. They were badly affected by the pandemic economically and mentally. Many lost their jobs, went into depression. They’re facing many challenges in real life, and don’t have the money or time to get into fan wars,” said Joseph.
All the fan extravagance that’s associated with box office clashes with big stars like Mammootty and Mohanlal may well be a thing of the past. Veteran film critic GP Ramachandran, who has witnessed several such clashes over the years, said that beyond the pandemic, the industry’s current dependence on PR agencies for film promos wasn’t helping.
“This strategy actually misguides producers, directors, actors, distributors, theatre owners and the audience through propaganda, paid reviews and inorganic information,” he said. This means that the “hype” generated over a film might be restricted to online social media platforms and not translate to footfalls in theatres. When genuine reviews and word-of-mouth start doing the rounds, the film wobbles and crashes – and the money spent on the marketing can’t salvage it.
However, Ramachandran added that Onam is a time when everyone has extra cash on them in the form of bonuses, pension arrears and festival advances. Since going to the theatre is no longer a regular affair for most families, they are likely to think of Onam as a special occasion and watch a film together, he said.
Will Kerala audiences snub their biggest superstars if their films fail to hold attention? What’s encouraging for theatres is that two of the three major Onam releases – King of Kotha and RDX – are “adi padams” (action films), and Pauly's heist film is also expected to have plenty of action and comedy. “The popularity of adi padams has shot up after the success of films like Bheeshma Parvam (2022) and Thallumaala (2022),” said Joseph. “When people go to the theatre, they want to see someone doing something that they can’t do themselves. They want to be transported to another world, and this is especially the case post-pandemic.”