Bollywood has come to a grinding halt as the industry bleeds jobs and money once again.
This is the grim picture being painted by a cross-section of industry insiders who are grappling with filmmaking, post-production world, TV serial shoots, and theatres being shut indefinitely in most states with India fighting off a fierce second wave of COVID-19 infections.
“There’s no silver lining. We are in a critical stage where our exhibition sectors like our theatres expect zero revenue in the coming months. With shootings being halted and theatres being the first to close and [the] last to open [during] this pandemic, our situation doesn’t look optimistic… It’s a huge setback,” said Nitin Tej Ahuja, CEO, Producers Guild Of India, in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.
Big-ticket films poised for release with formidable stars such as ‘Sooryavanshi’ starring Akshay Kumar (meant to release on April 30 as per last update), ’83 featuring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone (meant to originally release in April 2020) and Mohanlal’s multi-lingual warrior epic ‘Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham’ (meant to release this Eid, but postponed to August) have been delayed multiple times due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in India. Uncertainty is a common sentiment among Bollywood industry players now.
“We are in the proverbial Catch-22 situation. We are in the midst of a deep humanitarian crises and it will take time to dig us out of the hole that we are in. The pandemic is indiscriminate,” said Ahuja.
Even the statistics, put together by FICCI Frames, isn’t particularly heartening.
According to their recent survey, 441 films released in India during 2021, when compared to 1,833 releases in 2019. Plus, there was an 80 per cent decline across domestic and international theatrical revenues in 2020, with broadcast rights values falling by 68 per cent.
“These statistics will give you an idea of the wide-spread damage. We need to think of long-term solutions. We have already written to the Maharashtra State Government seeking permissions to allow some post-production work like sound-mixing and special effects where it’s just one or two working together in a studio. We have also floated the idea of creating safe bio-bubbles for film shoots. We must think of ways to come out of this and survive,” said Ahuja.
Bio-bubbles for a film shoot would essentially involve production being limited to a restricted location such as a large resort with limited crew. The show must go on, with safety protocols in place is another common sentiment.
“We are thinking of filming in bio-bubbles where a lot of attention is given to safety protocols and the sets can be monitored closely. Everyone in the film industry has been affected terribly,” said Ahuja.
While the ground realities are sobering, Reliance Entertainment — whose production slate includes big-budget films such as ‘Sooryavanshi’ and ’83 being held hostage by the global pandemic — are cautiously optimistic.
“There’s a lot of unpredictability that has set in. We just don’t know how long this pandemic will last and when it will let go of us, but we are confident that people will return to all theatres once it all settles downs. Films such as ‘Master‘, ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ and ‘Tenet’ that released after the first wave of COVID-19 in India and when restrictions eased, all did brisk business. Indians have traditionally been addicted to watching films on the big screens. So we are optimistic that things will return to normal once the pandemic is under control” said Dhruv Sinha, Business Overseas Head, in a separate interview with Gulf News.
The second wave of infections has seen at least 300,000 people test positive each day for the past week taking India’s tally of infections to nearly 18 million, according to a report in Reuters. But the situation wasn’t always this bad.
In June 2020, Bollywood began slowly limping back to normalcy as restrictions in film productions and shootings relaxed marginally as India got the first wave of COVID-19 under control.
Actors including Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn and Aamir Khan were seen scrambling to complete their unfinished projects put on hold by the pandemic.
But their collective optimism didn’t last long when actors and film crew started to contract COVID-19 after resuming shoot. For instance, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s resumed shoot of the Bhatt-starrer ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ in September 2020 in Mumbai’s Film City, but he had to put it on hold again after the director himself and Bhatt tested positive for the virus.
According to a report in PTI, producer Bhushan Kumar’s ‘Ek Villain Returns’ was adversely affected as the makers had to re-plan their shoots in different locations. Prabhas-led film ‘Adipurush’, which was being filmed in Mumbai with restricted cast and crew, and Kumar’s ambitious film ‘Ram Setu’, also ground to a halt after the second wave swept India.
UAE roster affected
The distribution scene in the UAE is relatively doing better when compared to India where theatrical releases for star-led films also seem like a herculean task.
For instance, Salman Khan’s Eid release ‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ will release on a streaming platform and in select theatres in India, if all goes well during Eid Al Fitr. The UAE is one of the few countries that are adopting a theatrical release solely for this film. Perhaps, that’s the reason why local distributors are adopting a pragmatic wait and watch stand.
“We are going through very challenging times where your enemy isn’t visible. It’s almost like we are battling a virtual enemy … But we are all in this together. In the UAE, I am making sure that Salman Khan’s ‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ and climate change film ‘Great White’ will release during Eid in the cinemas alone. We want to resurrect and revive our cinemas, even though we live in uncertain times. I have been here for 57 years and this is unprecedented times we live in,” said Ahmad Golchin of Phars Films.
Earlier, he also revealed that the makers in India have taken the decision to postpone the release of Mohanlal’s much-anticipated warrior epic ‘Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham’ from Eid to August.
Another regional distributor Anish Wadhwa revealed that lot of money is stuck in his big-ticket releases such as ‘Sooryavanshi’ and ‘83 , but he is confident that they will recoup all that ‘stuck-money’ when the movie is taken out of the freezer and rolled into the cinemas.
“I agree there is a lot of money stuck in those fully-ready projects, but we are confident that the situation will dramatically improve once the pandemic goes away. Right now, all we can do is wait and watch patiently. Being patient is the only way forward and we have absolute faith that things will return to normal,” said Wadhwa.
The second wave of COVID-19 rampage also meant that filmmakers, who were hoping to release their films in the coming months, had to take the difficult decision to postpone their releases, yet again.
Films including Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Chehre’ have fallen casualty to COVID-19 as they wait for an appropriate release window.
The new restrictions in filming, triggered by the second wave of COVID-19 in India, will also have disastrous consequences for the thousands of daily wage workers on the film and television industry.
The situation is bleak and unlike a happy ending guaranteed in a Bollywood song-and-dance spectacle, there’s no happily-ever-after promised here.