On paper, the week of August 15, with two consecutive long weekends, was the ideal date for a film release. Which is why the spectacular failures of the two films that did release last week, have led to worried speculations about the health of the commercial Hindi film industry. According to Box Office India, Raksha Bandhan (2022), starring Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar, earned less than Rs 38 crore in its first week. Laal Singh Chaddha (2022), with Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan, made a little more than Rs 50 crore in the same duration. That's how much Khan's last release, Thugs of Hindostan (2018), made on its opening day.
While there were some expectations from Raksha Bandhan, its box office failure hasn't felt surprising. This is partly because Kumar's last two films were also flops and also because the reviews for Raksha Bandhan were uniformly negative. Laal Singh Chaddha's numbers, on the other hand, have caused ripples of anxiety across the Hindi film industry. That two of Bollywood's shiniest stars failed to draw audiences while trending hashtags raged against them has raised concerns about whether Laal Singh Chaddha may be the first Indian film to see online hate impact its offline earnings. The call to boycott big-budget films, particularly those featuring an actor who has been labelled "anti-national", is now a standard part of Indian social media. In the lead-up to Laal Singh Chaddha's release, there were hashtags that ordered people to not watch the film and thousands of memes circulated with deliberate distortions of statements Khan has made in the past. A video showed a man standing in front of a multiplex with a megaphone, 'requesting' people to boycott Laal Singh Chaddha — it looked as though the virtual hate was filtering into the actual world.
There are no easy answers to why Laal Singh Chaddha has fared as badly as it has and industry watchers seem divided on social media's ability to convince audiences to stay away from a film. "I don't think one can attribute more than a 5% impact to these boycott campaigns, and that too in the rarest of rare cases," said Shailesh Kapoor, chief executive officer (CEO) of Ormax Media. He also pointed out that such discussions only take place when the film hasn't worked. On the other hand, Gautam Thakker, CEO of Everymedia (a digital media company that offers marketing and PR solutions) said a good digital campaign could make a significant impact. "A carefully designed campaign can lift a film's collections by 20-30%, and a negative campaign could result in a shortfall of 20-30%, which is a huge number," Thakkar said.
Vishek Chauhan, a single-screen exhibitor from Purnia in Bihar said both Laal Singh Chaddha and Raksha Bandhan saw average occupancy (50-55%) in the first week – which isn't terrible, but underwhelming considering it was a long weekend. According to Chauhan, neither film has 'strong legs' and therefore won't last long in theatres.
Both Kapoor and Thakkar believe the negative effects of social media trolling on Laal Singh Chaddha's final collections could have been overcome if the film had made more of an impact. In addition to getting mixed reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing, it also failed to start any positive conversations. According to Kapoor, the trailer for Laal Singh Chaddha tracked worse than expected. "The trailer was at 40-42% while Aamir Khan films usually track at 60-65% before release," he said. "When the trailer isn't liked much, all this conversation tends to stick to the image of a film." Thakkar said he and his team were surprised to find the low word of mouth about the film on the Monday after the film's release: "No one seemed interested, no one was talking about it, no one was propping it up, no one was slamming it. Neutrality is what kills the movie in a theatre."
Thakkar, who worked on the Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022) campaign, said the Kartik Aaryan-starrer is an example of how much tinkering must be done to a film's marketing strategies. Aaryan took a special interest in the cutting of the film's trailer, which became the first domino for its haul of more than Rs 200 crore at the box office. Thakkar said theatrical releases need the trailer and songs to communicate their 'worth' to the audience — something Laal Singh Chaddha failed to do effectively. He also said the film's makers should have done more to address the negativity on social media. "When you're facing a boycott campaign, you've lost a certain amount of goodwill, and you should be actively trying to mend that," said Thakkar. "You've got to address it. There's almost this head-in-the-sand or lock-yourself-in-a-fortress approach, rather than being more proactive and dealing with it head on."
In addition to getting mixed reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing, Laal Singh Chaddha also failed to start any positive conversations. According to Kapoor, the trailer for the film tracked worse than expected. "The trailer was at 40-42% while Aamir Khan films usually track at 60-65% before release," he said.
There are times when hate campaigns can end up working in a film's favour. Manish Pandey, a social media consultant and observer of digital trends, pointed out Padmaavat (2018) as an example. The Sanjay Leela Bhansali film was at the receiving end of some of the most vicious trolling and bullying on a national scale. Bounties were announced for the film's lead actors (Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh) and the name of the film had to be changed before its release. Despite all this, Padmaavat went on to do a lifetime business of around Rs. 570 crore, making it Bhansali's biggest hit ever. "Aap audience ko entertainment se vanchhit nahi kar sakte (You can't deny the audience their entertainment)," Pandey said. Similarly, Kapoor said, "There were similar calls [of boycott] for Gangubai Kathiwadi (2022) and Darlings (2022) – but when the content is good, the numbers also reflect it."
Pandey said he can't comment on whether Twitter trends are coordinated, but pointed out that it isn't particularly difficult to manufacture a national trend. "It's not some hidden truth. Most digital campaigns and social media consultants are aware you only need 2,000 tweets from unique IPs in a span of 30 minutes," he said. Having closely observed the digital trends over the last two years, Pandey feels they reflect genuine disillusionment with Bollywood actors and Sushant Singh Rajput's death remains a flashpoint. While there are hashtags that are manufactured around that incident, Pandey said he's seen enough tweets to indicate there are actual people who still haven't gotten closure. Is this a big enough demographic to actually influence the country-wide box office collections of films with stars unconnected to Rajput? There's no way to tell.
From an exhibitor's point of view, Chauhan said Laal Singh Chaddha wasn't suited to a theatrical release. "From my experience, I think if Thugs of Hindostan had released today, it would have done better than Laal Singh Chaddha. The 2018 film has more 'entertainment' chops," he said. "The star-driven drama is long dead. Also, our stars are no longer stars anyway. Even in their own heads, they are 'actors' first." He said Gangubai Kathiawadi was an example of a film that was made to be watched on a big screen – along with Bhansali's maximalist aesthetic, it had the dialogue baazi one expects from a mainstream entertainer. Similarly, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 ticked multiple boxes, including combining horror-comedy and romance, lavishly-staged songs, and good-looking stars.
The failure of Laal Singh Chaddha has come hot on the heels of SS Rajamouli's RRR (2022) and Prashant Neel's KGF 2 (2022) being massive critical and commercial successes. Stars from film industries of south India are growing in popularity in regions that were traditionally considered Bollywood's strongholds. Commercial Hindi cinema, which has enjoyed an exalted status as the most glamorous and influential of film industries in India, seems to be facing a crisis. If the string of flops is cause for introspection, it's also worth noting that films like Kashmir Files, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have shown audiences are willing to come to the theatres. These are unprecedented and confusing times for Bollywood, with more questions than there are answers.