Despite the big banner headlines talking about Bollywood money buying into Hollywood, things are not going too well on the ground floor in Mumbai at the moment.
The first six months of 2008 have been a disaster with only three or four movies that could be considered commercial hits at this point — Race, Jannat, Jodhaa Akbar and to a slightly lesser extent, Sarkar Raj. With a total investment at this stage of 3 crores and a return of only 1.5 crores, this is not going to keep the accountants happy.
It’s possible that other movies will climb into the black over time with DVD sales and downloads an increasingly large part of the market, but this is only likely to buy the producers a little time.
One of the problems forcing the executives in their big offices in Mumbai to scratch their heads is the lack of consistency in the hits. Race was an action adventure, but so was Tashan which failed dismally; Jannat was character-driven, Jodhaa Akbar was a costume drama and Sarkar Raj was focussed on the Mumbai underworld of organized crime and politics. Three of the movies had big stars but the fourth — the surprising hit Jannat — had two relative newcomers in Emraan Hashmi and Sonal Chauhan.
Some big stars have been left with egg on their faces during this first six months — including Amitabh Bachchan whose Bhootnath has performed below expectations. Ajay Devgan is in particular trouble having notched up losses on a hat-trick of duds in Halla Bol, Sunday and U, Me Aur Hum.
So what are the causes of the disaster?
In the short term, the IPL cricket series made a big impact, keeping people out of the cinema and forcing producers to delay release plans. But the problem faced by Bollywood is that IPL cricket was so successful that it’s not going to disappear. In one form or another, Twenty:20 cricket is here to stay and will reappear for three or four months every year.
A second cause is the growth of television and in particular reality TV and chat shows, both of which have become immensely popular formats in India. As the shows become more controversial — and Rakhi Sawant’s new show that begins with Aamir Khan’s interview next week will be a good indicator — it will create more of a threat to the movie-going tradition.
Thirdly, there is the rapid rate of economic growth in India, at about 6-7% a year. Economic growth generates new forms of entertainment — video games, clubbing and so on. As the masses of India begin to reach this economic level, it could pull away viewers from the cinema.
In addition, the filmi caste tradition of Indian movies, where much of the industry centers around just twenty key families, may prevent innovation, imagination and talent from emerging from the rest of the population. Once an atmosphere of ‘same old…same old…,’ gets a grip on the popular imagination, it might cause problems.
And then of course there’s Hollywood itself. Until recently, Bollywood has had the Indian subcontinent pretty much to itself — but now that Indians have money in their pockets, the Hollywood producers will take more interest in this huge market of over a quarter of the Earths’s population. More Hollywood movies will be promoted in India, more Indian cinemas bought by US distribution chains, more Bollywood movies made with Hollywood cash and with American actors so they can be sold worldwide and so on.
If Bollywood is to survive, it will need to become more innovative, more flexible and more willing to migrate to other media such as video games, downloads, rental, merchandising and servicing emerging markets.
Perhaps the first six months of 2008 have been the warning shot that Bollywood needs.