Art & Entertainment

Starved Of Fresh Content, Bollywood Is Desperately Looking For New Ideas

Faced with stiff competition from the South Indian film industries, Hindi cinema is looking at an existential crisis

Starved Of Fresh Content, Bollywood Is Desperately Looking For New Ideas
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Some months ago, a journalist received a call from a well-known Bollywood director inquiring about a story she had done. It was the profile of a lady who was a drug lord and controlled the supply of the meow meow (meth) drug in Mumbai and Goa. This director was keen on making a film on this lady and wanted the journalist to write the screenplay. Though she declined the offer, he continues to call her, upping his offer with every call. Even as this director was trying to negotiate with her, two other directors too wanted the rights of that story. All three continue to pursue her for the drug lady’s story.

Bollywood, one of the largest cinema industries in the world, has been hit by a lack of quality content. The Hindi film industry is so hard hit that producers and directors are desperately looking for writers with newer perspectives and stories. Some are hosting writers’ hubs, where new writers are trained to write stories and screenplays. The ones that stand out will be used as the story base for feature films. A cross-section of people working in the film industry told Outlook that it is the emergence of streaming platforms that has led to this dearth of writers for Hindi films. “Presently, Bollywood is going through an existential crisis at various levels,” film director Vikas Chandra tells Outlook. “The biggest challenge is finding good stories for the films.”

Though people are watching more films than they did in the pre-pandemic era, they are doing so less in the theatres and more on OTT platforms. While writers for streaming platforms are busy giving wings to their creativity, the same cannot be said for Bollywood writers, said many. Directors, producers, trade analysts and film writers who spoke with Outlook preferred a cloak of anonymity when talking about Bollywood’s survival issues. “Today Bollywood needs a new crop of writers and ideas. The established ones are writing the same gheesa-peeta (run-of-the-mill) stories. The production houses are constantly on the lookout for newer story ideas and content. The failure rate of many of the established writers is very telling now. Their stories were lapped up in the pre-pandemic era, but not anymore. Frankly, they are unable to deliver,” says a producer.

The research teams of Bollywood production houses have been tasked with the job of looking out for new writers, stories and books that can be converted into films. A well-known crime writer with many books in the genre, expressed surprise at the interest his books have evoked with some established production banners. Even before the printer’s ink dries on these books, producers line up to buy the rights, this writer reveals. While his books have been transformed into films that have courted controversy, Bollywood loved the attention, he says.

In the last decade, silly comedies and films aimed at the below 30 age group have done well commercially. Sources point out that frivolous comedies and romances that do not “tax the brains” do much better than films that address intelligent themes. “Even films that were customised to appeal to the tastes and sentiments of mainstream Hindi cinema audiences, needed liberal doses of comic episodes and item numbers to make them more appealing,” says a source from SonyLIV. “Producers are not keen on investing money in serious dramas as they feel it appeals to a small, hard-to-please audience,” says a film writer.

Post-pandemic, it has become difficult to gauge the type of Hindi films audiences want to watch. “The audience does not want to go to the theatres to watch a film, however big the star cast. Those who do not want to go to the theatres to watch films clearly outnumber those who do. Filmmakers, production houses and distributors are getting caught in the middle of this divide,” says film writer Suchin Mehrotra.   

Indian audiences are not keen on paying for films, says another source. They would rather watch pirated movies. Due to this loss of revenue, several producers have stepped back from making films, said the source.  In the last two years, when people were confined to their houses, OTT platforms were a boon. Now the Hindi films lined up for release in theatres are finding it difficult to compete with over 70-80 streaming platforms offering content in different languages. “Regional-language films are doing well, as they have a committed audience, which is not the case with Bollywood, whose audience is more pan-Indian. Regional film audiences are loyal, unlike Bollywood’s, where films are driven  more by stars than content.”

Studios that have brand new films queued up for release are spending more time deciding on whether to release them in cinema halls or on streaming platforms. Another problem that plagues Bollywood is the non-availability of functioning theatres in the smaller towns, in the aftermath of the pandemic. Even after the lockdown was lifted, audiences did not come back to single-screen theatres in Tier-II and Tier-III cities, forcing a majority of them to down shutters. Bollywood has realised that it has to work alongside the streaming platforms. Many directors and actors have started accepting films that will be released exclusively on streaming platforms, signalling a shift in mindset, pointed out a source. Many producers have started negotiating with these platforms to set up time limit after which, a film released in theatres, can be shown on a streaming platform. The film 83, which was initially meant for a “theatres only” release, was released on a streaming platform 12 weeks after its theatrical release in the theatres. Meanwhile, the Telugu blockbuster Pushpa, which was considered a big success, was released on an OTT platform after just four weeks in the theatres. However, streaming platforms have not been able to match the box-office revenues, said a trade analyst to Outlook.

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According to Mehrotra, regional film industries are content-driven, yet they do not shirk from making masala films. “This is an odd, strange time for the Hindi film industry. It has become harder to entice people to come out of their homes and watch films in theatres,” he said. “Hindi films are not about masala content any more. Films that should have done well, like Runway24, Jhund, etc., have not done as expected. Meanwhile, KGF and RRR had a huge fan following, and did fine.”

The film 83 was shown on the streaming platform 12 weeks after its release in the theatres. but Telugu hit Pushpa was released on the same OTT platform after four weeks in the theatres.

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Those in the know say that Bollywood is fast losing its pan-India grip, as the dubbed versions of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films do much better in the Northern markets than the original Hindi version—reasons for which they are still trying to fathom. “It is the same film but in a different language. Yet, the dubbed version does better. This defies logic,” says producer Jayantilal Mehta. “While the Southern films do much better in the Northern sector, Hindi films are finding it tough to hold on to the theatres even for a fortnight,” Mehta tells Outlook.  If producers choose to take the theatre route, they are faced with low box-office returns as well as low prices for satellite and digital rights. “Bollywood is no longer about art and aesthetics. It is about making money, because of which there is a huge compromise on the story line. How we tell a story is also driven by the money. It is becoming very difficult to make thought-provoking films for mature audiences,” says a source working at Junglee Pictures.

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The release calendar is tight, and low and medium budget films are finding it difficult to get screens for release. Digital releases are giving producers only 20-30 per cent returns, thereby making it a less lucrative option for them. In April 2020, the Multiplexes Association of India urged producers and directors to wait for the theatres to reopen and to refrain from releasing their films on streaming platforms. In 2018, when director Shekhar Kapur announced the winners of the 65th National Awards, he said that Hindi films could not compete with regional cinema, which was churning out world-class content. Kapur had then also said that the standard of Hindi films was not good.

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The South Indian film industries are no longer second fiddle to Bollywood, says Mehta. “This industry tells their stories very well and establishes an instant connect with the audience. South Indian actors choose their films and touch a chord with the audience. Bollywood is definitely going through a churn,” says Chandra. Bollywood’s major problem is that it has neglected the mass market. While the pan-India appeal of Hindi films is declining due to its content, South Indian films are catering to all markets and recovering their money too. Some single-screen owners told Outlook that Bollywood makes films only for multiplexes. In the past, people in smaller towns were the core audience for the Hindi film industry and the films of yesteryear catered to them. “Bollywood has now become an industry of egoists. They have put themselves on this elite pedestal and stopped talking to their core audience. The industry is definitely staring at an existential issue,” says a film critic.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Bollywood: The Search for Content")

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