Bollywood, Reeling From the Pandemic, Shifts to Streaming

“Coolie No. 1 ”has all the hallmarks of a great Bollywood movie: colorful costumes, larger-than-life sets, music and a melodramatic story about a man who pretends to have a twin to woo the woman of his dreams.

After filming in February, the film was set for a theatrical release in May. But when “Coolie No. 1 ”finally hits the screens on Christmas Day, it will not be seen in one of India’s 3,000 theaters. Instead, it will be introduced on Amazon’s streaming service.

“I make films for the theater, but there was no way we could do that this time,” said David Dhawan, the director. After the coronavirus pandemic hit theaters and closed them, the wait for a theatrical debut became unbearable, he said. A deal to send the film to Amazon after its release shifted to a direct streaming plan.

“It’s definitely a compromise,” said Dhawan, whose film is a remake of a 1995 blockbuster of the same name that he also directed. “But at least my film will be released.”

“Coolie No. 1” is just one of the Bollywood films – short for India’s nearly $ 2.5 billion Hindi film industry – that turned to streaming in a pandemic year. A total of 28 big-star Bollywood films that hit theaters were instead streamed direct, compared to none in the past year, according to research firm Forrester.

Among them were “Gulabo Sitabo,” a dark comedy starring veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan, and “Shakuntala Devi,” a biography of the Indian mathematician, both of which began streaming on Amazon in July. Another, “Laxmmi,” a comedy drama starring Akshay Kumar, was released on Disney’s own streaming service Hotstar in November.

The shift is reminiscent of Hollywood, where the pandemic has resulted in studios pushing back theatrical releases for many films and, in some cases, switching to streaming as part of an initial pass. In September, Disney debuted “Mulan” on Disney +. Last month Warner Bros. announced that it would release “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max and in theaters on Christmas Day at the same time. The studio later announced that it would broadcast all 17 of its 2021 films to streaming and theater at the same time.

The number of Bollywood films geared towards streaming is only a small fraction of what the industry is doing. Last year, Bollywood produced more than 1,800 films, or an average of 35 per week, and domestic theatrical releases reached more than $ 1.5 billion in sales, according to a report by Ernst & Young.

However, according to Bollywood producers, filmmakers and experts, the shift in the pandemic towards streaming is unmistakable.

Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar have all invested in India, one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world. The companies, which together have tens of millions of paying Indian subscribers, have poured billions of rupees into producing edgy, India-specific original content in a variety of regional languages. In 2020, they spent nearly $ 520 million creating content for the Indian audience, nearly $ 100 million more than in 2019, according to Forrester.

Netflix said it had invested around $ 400 million in the licensing and production of more than 50 films and shows in India over the past two years. Of these, 34 were original Hindi films.

“The current environment gave us some opportunities to add to our movie roster, including some films our members would otherwise have enjoyed on service after a theatrical release,” Netflix said in a statement. It added that it was “already a huge fan of original films for the service and we are investing in it.”

Disney + also launched in India during the April lockdown and merged with Hotstar, one of India’s largest platforms. (Disney bought Hotstar in March 2019 as part of its $ 71 billion deal to acquire 21st Century Fox, owned by Star India, then Hotstar’s parent company.) The combination gives paid subscribers in India access to Disney’s library global content.

Bypassing theaters is a big step forward to Bollywood. India’s film industry has relied almost entirely on theatrical releases for a long time for revenue. When the pandemic brought cinemas to a standstill, revenues fell by up to 75 percent, according to estimates by analysts at KPMG.

Even after the government reopened cinemas in October, PVR Cinemas, the country’s largest multiplex chain, reported a net loss of 184 crore rupees, or about $ 25 million, for the quarter ended September from a lack of new films.

“Our earnings are miserable because we are still an incomplete offering,” said Ajay Bijli, chairman and general manager of PVR Ltd., which has laid off nearly 30 percent of its employees. “It’s like a restaurant with no food.”

The shutdowns have also resulted in some screen cinemas being permanently closed, which may mean less access to cinema experiences for much of the Indian working class and rural population.

All of this makes it easier for streaming services to land new movies even after some theaters are reopened. There is “the ability to have current theatrical releases available to a large number of customers within four to eight weeks of their release, depending on the language,” said Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head of Content at Amazon Prime Video India.

Streaming services’ investments in Bollywood content have also resulted in a surge in creativity. Instead of the usual romantic or action hero films with all-star cast members, analysts now say more shows and films are focused on women, war and other topics. More than half of the Netflix films released in India this year were by a producer or director, and over half of Indian films and series have women as the main characters.

“That kind of lowest common denominator or single content strategy is slowly fading now,” said Vikram Malhotra, producer of Shakuntala Devi. “People are demanding more differentiated, more intellectually relevant content. These stories must mean something now. “

Mr. Dhawan, the director of “Coolie No. 1,” said there was still an appetite for big, colorful, melodramatic love stories while streaming.

“I think I’ll make a different type of film every time,” he said. “But people won’t let me change. They return to this great atmosphere, they laugh, they enjoy the sounds, they dance. “

And Sara Ali Khan, who plays the romantic interest, said she was just as thrilled that “Coolie No. 1 ”debuted in streaming as it did in cinemas.

“The excitement and nervousness prior to the film’s release is still there,” she said.

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