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Akshay Kumar in upcoming movie 'Bell Bottom'. Image Credit:

“The show must go on,” declared top Bollywood star Akshay Kumar as he promoted his newest release ‘Laxmii’ in November. But there’s a caveat — “the show must go on … even if it’s in the cinemas or in an OTT [over the top — term used for streaming services]”.

Welcome to the new normal facing the prolific Hindi film industry as it gears up to embrace 2021.

“After being in a lockdown for all these months, the industry is back in action and is now in full swing. Most of my colleagues have resumed shooting. So, the only way forward for Bollywood is work, work and more work,” says Kumar.

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Kumar and Kiara Advani in 'Laxmii', which was partly shot in Dubai.

The star led by example during the pandemic as he flew to the United Kingdom to wrap up the filming of his project ‘Bell Bottom’ along with co-stars Vaani Kapoor, Lara Dutta and Huma Qureshi.

Kumar’s optimism seems like the much-needed antidote to the ailing Hindi film industry, which has suffered a blow due to restrictions triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak and the sudden vilification of showbiz following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14.

But the tainting of the industry, halt in film shootings and temporary closure of cinema halls in India is a minor bump, believes Bollywood industry experts spanning the acting, distribution and production sections.

“Bollywood is too big to be affected by smear campaigns... Things will be back to normal in a few months after the COVID-19 situation improves. It’s a matter of time and we are confident that everyone will feel comfortable at the prospect of watching Hindi films in the cinemas again,” says Dhruv Sinha, Head of Hollywood and Overseas Business at Reliance Entertainment.

A still of 'Sooryavanshi'.

Sinha’s production company has two big ticket releases coming up in cinemas — Ranveer Singh-led sports biopic ‘83’ about cricket legend Kapil Dev, and star-fuelled cop drama ‘Sooryavanshi’, directed by Rohit Shetty.

“The truth is that every filmmaker and actor wants their films to release on a big theatrical scale. That’s still every actor’s dream. It’s just a matter of time before the revenues start coming in too,” added Sinha, who’s confident that Bollywood cinemas will see growth in the coming months. They postponed two major films due to the pandemic. According to news reports, Bollywood has suffered a loss of over Rs40 billion (Dh1.9 billion) from mid-March to Diwali.

However, UAE distributor Ahmad Golchin of Phars Films, who handles all the major Hindi film releases in this region, is cautiously optimistic.

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Ahmad Golchin.

“We are hopeful that conditions improve in the next few months. We are slowly beginning to get normal. I am positive that cinema halls will survive although we have suffered losses this year … It will take time for Indians in this region to step back into the cinemas to enjoy the films on the big screen,” says Golchin, Founder and Chairman of Phars Films.

While his latest acquisitions — including Manoj Bajpyaee’s ‘Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari’ and Akshay Kumar’s ‘Laxmmi’ — saw an underwhelming number of admissions over the Diwali weekend, he’s hopeful that big ticket films such as ‘Sooryavanshi’ and ‘83’ will shake things up.

We are hopeful that conditions improve in the next few months. We are slowly beginning to get normal.

- Ahmad Golchin, Founder and Chairman of Phars Films

“We will take some time to recuperate … But we are optimistic and hopeful that things will improve by the beginning of 2021. The admissions for ‘SPBM’ and ‘Laxmii’ since its opening wasn’t particularly great, but we hope things improve” he adds.

Nelson D’Souza, Associate Vice President (International Distribution) Yash Raj Films, points out that the films that streamed since mid-March weren’t always meant for those platforms.

“I feel there’s hope for cinemas. Don’t go by what has been screened on OTT platforms during this pandemic. That was just the need of the hour since the cinemas were shut. Bollywood movie fans still yearn to watch movies on the big screens,” says D’Souza. Their production ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’, which re-released in UAE cinemas to mark its 25th release anniversary, also saw remarkable footfall.

Actor Namit Das, who was last seen in director Mira Nair’s web series ‘The Suitable Boy’ on Netflix and played Ranbir Kapoor’s friend in ‘Wake Up Sid’, believes the future of Bollywood is bright.

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Danesh Razvi, Mikhail Sen and Namit Das in ‘A Suitable Boy’.

“It’s already back on its feet … There’s hope and positivity. We are going through a phase where we have started shooting and we are coming off what the lockdown did for us. I don’t see it as dark,” Das says.

He adds that his projects that were stalled in March are already back in business and they have resumed shoot.

Bollywood movie fans still yearn to watch movies on the big screens.

- Nelson D’Souza, Associate Vice President (International Distribution) Yash Raj Films

While many may believe that the Bollywood industry runs on goodwill and the aura of perfection around stars on the big screen, the pandemic and the tragic death of a talented actor has put several idols under the scanner.

“Bollywood doesn’t run on goodwill, it runs on good stories … How can an industry which has been around since pre-independence run on goodwill for so many years? We can’t run merely on perceptions of people … These are just minor setbacks,” added Das.

National Award-winning actress Shabana Azmi, while promoting her psychological thriller ‘Kaali Khuhi’, claims change is the only constant in life and in Bollywood.

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Shabana Azmi.

“I’m an optimist by nature like my father was and I see this as cyclic thing. I think every industry goes through change every 30 years or so, nothing is permanent … The fact that content is king is finally becoming real,” Azmi says. “Everyone in this industry has realised that you have to invest in good content and that will lead to change. Look at all the interesting actors that are now available from theatre … Our obsession with urban western talents with rich people are now giving way to small-town aspirations. Our protagonists are changing from the make-belief work to a much more real world.”

True to her observations, movies set against the backdrop of small-towns such as Rajkummar Rao and Nushratt Bharuccha-starrer ‘Chhalaang’ on Amazon Prime Video are plenty.

“This pandemic has taught me about the importance of adapting to new situations. If we don’t adapt we will actually be stuck in our own expectations and in our own sort of disappointments. Remember, we can always snap out of a situation and find new ways to survive by adapting to the new normal,” says Bharuccha, while promoting her film.

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Arun Rangachari.

Dubai-based producer Arun Rangachari, whose credits include the award-winning ‘The Lunchbox’, expresses his faith that superstars such as Aamir Khan and Salman Khan have the power to reinstate the appeal of Bollywood films.

“Once Aamir Khan’s ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and Salman Khan’s ‘‘Radhe releases, people will flock into the cinemas again … It’s just a matter of time,” Rangachari says.