This year has been one of the toughest Bollywood has faced in decades. Its age-old formula of male-led dramas with weak or non-existent storylines, coupled with the belief that stars can do no wrong, has brought the Hindi film industry to a critical crossroads – one where its identity is in crisis.
Big budget movies starring many of India’s most bankable megastars such as Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Ranbir Kapoor sank without a trace. These heavily heralded flops include Kumar’s Bachchan Pandey, Kapoor’s Shamshera and Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha – a Hindi remake of Forrest Gump.
Another of Kapoor’s films, Brahmastra – which is The Da Vinci Code and the Marvel Universe rolled into one – debuted so badly that shares of major Indian theater companies, Inox and PVR, fell. Producers and theater owners had to cut ticket prices to bring audiences into theaters, eventually recouping their budget.
So what’s going on with the Hindi film industry?
It’s not like people aren’t coming to the movies after the pandemic. Just look at the resounding success of South Indian film industries this year. The epic RRR and the action drama Pushpa: The Rise – in Telugu – are among the highest-grossing Indian films of 2022. RRR broke records to become the third highest-grossing Indian film of all time, garnering around $160 million worldwide. The Kannada film KGF:2 is also among the country’s top earners this year.
Most recently, director Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyan Selvan: I, based on a classic Tamil tale, became the fourth highest-grossing film of all time in that language and the 16th highest-grossing Indian film of all time. And the Kannada action thriller Kantara became the third highest-grossing Kannada film of all time.
Could it be that the periodic boycott calls that Indian films face – especially from supporters of the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or if the film features a government critic – are driving viewers away ? Well, no, because the films starring Akshay Kumar, who has been a strong supporter of this administration and faced no calls for a boycott, also flopped.
The answer to Bollywood’s ills is actually simple. Stories – or lack thereof.
India is a film-hungry country and its popular culture is heavily dominated by its film industries, especially Bollywood. Nothing – not calls for bans, not even public health worries – can stop the average Indian fan from watching a movie that ticks all the right boxes.
Prior to over-the-top (OTT) services, the bulk of Bollywood funding was spent on producing cliched movies dependent on big, supposedly reliable stars. Going to the cinema to watch a movie – any movie – was the norm. Indian television series have never had the kind of audience enjoyed by Western channels.
Now, however, the variety of content on OTT platforms is virtually endless, and Indian viewers can gorge themselves on international productions like House of the Dragon, the recently released Game of Thrones prequel that broke records for HBO. With this exposure, why should the viewer go to the cinema to watch unimaginative movies with zero value?
This is where OTT platforms hold valuable lessons for mainstream Bollywood. The rich bouquet of content available on streaming platforms did not come out of nowhere.
OTT services have made it easier for filmmakers to work with lesser-known but talented actors on a wider range of narratives than traditional Bollywood allows. This democratization of the industry has dealt a severe blow to bad storytelling. The competition is also high since the audience is global and not just Indian: this helps control the quality and push the boundaries with the type of stories coming out of the industry.
Pay is fairer and more moderate, so writers, directors, cinematographers, producers and entry-level actors – including women and people from less-represented communities – don’t struggle for creative talent as much as they do. were doing in a previously unregulated industry. For example, as an outsider to the industry with no connections, I had the opportunity to meet, chat and work with Bollywood veterans that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. So have countless writers, cinematographers, directors, and producers who would have struggled for steady work without OTT platforms.
That’s not to say that mainstream Bollywood theatrical releases can’t aim for the success of their South Indian counterparts in the months and years to come. This means that the old Bollywood formula no longer works.
A well-told story is key. In fact, South Indian writers and directors point out that this is where their industry shines – the ability to stay rooted in the masses by constantly addressing the common man’s dilemma. RRR and Ponniyan Selvan are larger than life narratives built around real historical events that Indian cinema has traditionally ignored. Kantara, likewise, highlights the animist beliefs of parts of the coastal state of Karnataka that much of India has never known.
Hindi cinema could also be looking inside for answers from the kinds of stories that have resonated with audiences this year. These include films such as Jugjugg Jeeyo, which deals with marital strife arising from wives being more successful than their husbands; Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, an entertaining comedy horror film; and Gangubai Kathiawadi, a crime drama based on the life of a mafia queen. Gangubai even became a surprise hit in Thailand.
Bollywood must follow the path of change to survive. He must listen to what the public has to say. The goal is to provide variety – the kind that covers all aspects of the storytelling spectrum.
India is a diverse country with thousands of years of stories to tell. We have to respect the average Indian’s desire for a good story – an interesting, relatable and exciting story. It’s the only way to stay relevant. And to survive.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.