Written by Madhur Chaturvedi
While the main source of global furor over the past few weeks has been centered on a certain virus and an election, the largest democracy in the world, India, has had another on top of their minds- Bollywood. Bollywood is the Hindi movie industry in India. Just to give non-Bollywood fans an idea of the size of the industry, here’s a sampling of some facts- India has produced the most films of any country since 2007 (in 2018 India made 1,813 movies compared to USA’s 576), it leads number of tickets sold over many years (with China beating it only once in 2019), and its actors feature regularly on the Forbes’ list of highest-paid actors (Akshay Kumar has been there the past 4 years with many others flitting in and out). The trigger point fro Bollywood’s surge in speculation this year was the demise of beloved up-and-coming Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) who reportedly committed suicide because the powers-that-be screwed him out of roles, contracts, and opportunities to give other people chance. Who are these other people you ask? They are byproducts of nepotism- children whose parents, aunts, and uncles are already big players in the industry and can get a film role with one call from their relatives. One of the main industry-implications of the suicide was the idea that talented people who break into Bollywood without familial ties to the industry struggle much more so called “insiders”. It’s the battle of nepotism versus talented outsiders- and there is a business implication to it.
Historically, Bollywood’s highest-grossing films star at least one actor who is the daughter, son, niece, or nephew of an established Bollywood presence. For instance, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the top 10 highest-grossing Hindi movies shows that every single one has at least one insider starring in the film. However, this is all set to change. COVID-19 has put paid to the possibility of large theatrical runs and SSR’s suicide has incited a resilience against the insiders of Bollywood like nothing else. A lot of films have gone straight to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar (India’s most-subscribed streaming service). Sadak 2, a production starring 3 actors all of whom are insiders, had its trailer release on 12th August, a few months on from SSR’s suicide. That trailer is now the 2nd most disliked video in YouTube history, with 13.27 million dislikes (94.77% of people who viewed the trailer disliked it). The film itself has overwhelmingly negative reviews. Even before that, big movies starring the biggest insiders have begun to flop massively and are exhibiting a clear trend. Producers also realize now the negative backlash associated now with handing films to people for “being somebody’s kid” as opposed to having talent. There has been a clear increase in talented outsiders finding unlikely fame, while there has been a steady stream of mediocre performances from new insiders in roles much too large for their talent and station. At the same time, Indian cinemagoers’ appetite has increased for ‘good’ acting and cinema, as opposed to the classic heroic, larger than life, insider actors and movies.
As all businesspeople know, return on investment is more important than an absolute return, and since 2014, the highest ROI movies are the ones where talented outsiders star in the films. Some examples include Stree, Badhaai Ho, Dream Girl,and Queen which all grossed above Rs. 1.5 billion with budgets under Rs. 200 million. The real risk-reward balance (along with the satisfaction of making a good movie, which can’t be measured really) lies in making these films, and not the massive blockbusters, bar a few exceptions. With the virus halting real ticket sales, streaming services now have a real opportunity to find their footing in their largest potential market with low cost.
A big part of the streaming experience is the original programming. Streaming services can leverage the lower cost of producing films with outsiders and still attract a large number of eyeballs. The cost of hiring traditional superstars or insiders is too high for streaming services to realistically recoup in subscribers, but the math works for hiring outsiders because of a higher potential return on a lower cost. India’s smartphone and internet data is quite high, and with cheaper mobile-only subscriptions, this could become a serious play for streaming services to consolidate their market share of the high-potential Indian space. There is one small hiccup though. In a post-vaccine world, when everything reopen, the might of cinema (not film, cinema) will be on full show. Visiting the cinema is a sacred experience in India. From luxurious multiplexes in metropolises to single-screen theatres in rural towns, the idea of going to a movie with your friends and family, buying a popcorn-Coke-samosa combo is not about the movie, but about going to the movies. That gives streaming services a small window to consolidate their positions as one of the sources of entertainment, because rest assured, the cinema experience is going nowhere in India. That’s also exciting for us to see how the backlash of insiders and rise of outsiders plays out financially in the real cinema world as we know it, and not just in 2020, that glitch in the matrix.