Every Friday when a new Bollywood release hits the screen, it is either the content or the star cast or both that determine its fate at the box office. But now, as in all other aspects of commerce, demonetisation appears to have redefined business in tinsel town. The ambitious scheme of Prime minister Narendra Modi to do away with the high-denomination currencies and the resultant commotion caused by the short supply of new notes have wreaked havoc at the turnstiles in the largest film industry in the world. With the average cine-goer feeling the pinch of cash crunch over the past fortnight, the footfalls at the multiplexes as well as single-screen theatres have gone down sharply, hitting the recent releases with a sledgehammer.
Farhan Akhtar’s Rock On 2, a much-awaited sequel to his 2008 hit, had everything going for it—good music, an ensemble star cast, and a positive word-of-mouth after its previews. Everybody associated with the film, from Arjun Rampal to Shraddha Kapoor, appeared gung-ho about its prospects at the cash counters, hoping for a repeat of the success of its prequel, until Modi declared Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes as worthless pieces of papers two days before the film’s release.
Rock On 2 ended up doing a business of a paltry Rs 10.50 crore, becoming one of the biggest commercial duds in recent years.The next big release, John Abraham-Sonakshi Sinha starrer, Force 2, another sequel of a 2011 money-spinner, fared better than Rock On 2, collecting about Rs 21 crore over the weekend, thanks largely to the coordinated attempts by the producers and the multiplex owners to promote online ticket booking in a big way. Film trade analysts, however, believe Force 2 could have done better business had the currency crisis not happened.
The failure of the two big movies has left the industry worried. With four major films, including Shah Rukh Khan’s Dear Zindagi and Aamir Khan’s Dangal, lined up for release over the next few weeks, Bollywood is keeping its fingers crossed. Pahlaj Nihalani, chairman, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) tells Outlook that the film makers would do well not to release their movies until December 30. “The average man is still facing the cash crunch because of the Rs 2,000 limit on withdrawals from the ATMs,” he says.
Nihalani, in fact, has issued an appeal to the producers and distributors “not to be adventurous enough to release their ventures and burn their fingers in this period of uncertainty”.
Nihalani believes that the cash crisis situation is likely to ease off after December 30, the deadline fixed by the Modi government for the exchange of old notes. “We must wait for the situation to stabilise and for liquidity to return to the economy before we can expect movies to do well,” he states.
The maker of many a commercial hit in the 1980s and 1990s, warns the producers that their new films will be “destroyed” if they dare to release them in the coming weeks. “Those who try to play clever by trying their luck in such uncertain times will destroy their own products and only burn their fingers,” he says.
But it is easier said than done. Noted film trade analyst Komal Nahta says it’s not easy to defer the release of a film at the eleventh hour. “The release date of a new movie, especially a big one, cannot be simply put off on account of issues such as promotion and clash with other films,” he says.
Nahta, however, agrees that the cash crunch has already harmed both the sequels of Rock On and Force in the past fortnight. “Demonetisation has surely kept the audiences away from the theatres, but then, the content of the film also matters. A film like Rock On 2 would have flopped anyway,” he says. “The common man is much more concerned about the daily needs of his family with the little amount he is able to withdraw from the ATMs. Buying movie tickets for entertainment is certainly not his priority at the moment.”
According to Nahta, the impact of the ban on old currencies will be felt on all the movies slated for release over the next month. “But its real impact will be properly assessed only after the box-office verdict on Shah Rukh Khan’s Dear Zindagi comes,” he states. “It is a big film which is being released only a week after Force 2.”
Owing to Shah Rukh’s huge fan following, the industry expects his latest release to come out unscathed from the troubled times. Shah Rukh, whose films are known to be big successes at the box office both in the country and abroad, also has a lot at stake in his new film directed by Gauri Shinde of the English Vinglish fame.
But Shah Rukh’s movie is not the only mega project facing the litmus test of demonetisation in the days to come. In subsequent weeks, Vidya Balan’s comeback vehicle, Kahaani 2 (another sequel), Yashraj Films’ Befikre, directed by the reclusive Aditya Chopra and, above all, Aamir Khan’s Dangal, are all slated for release before the year-end. Regardless of Nihalani’s suggestions, the release of none of these movies is likely to be deferred because of commercial complications.
Curiously, even though demonetisation has stanched box office earnings, Bollywood has hailed Modi’s move in unison. Ajay Devgn’s Diwali release, Shivaay was all set to enter the Rs 100-crore club in its third week in the domestic market when Modi’s demonetisation gambit put paid to his hopes. Not only that, it also held up the shooting of his next film, Baadshaho.
Still, Devgn was the first among Bollywood personalities to sing paeans to demonetisation calling it a ‘historic step’ and a ‘masterstroke”. “Sau sonar ki, ek lohar ki (One solid stroke instead of piecemeal gestures),” he tweeted. Devgn admitted that his film was suffering because of demonetisation but he found the inconvenience trivial in view of the national interest.
Aamir Khan, too, says he has not been affected by demonetisation at all. “I had to face no trouble because all my money is in the bank and payments are through cheques,” said the 51-year-old actor, who was recently in Haryana attending the wedding of wrestler Geeta Phogat, on whose family his upcoming movie is based.
Like Aamir, most of the Bollywood stars appear to be unruffled by demonetisation. Nahta says most of the stars deal in white money now and transactions are done through cheques only. Nihalani says that stars such as Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan are among the highest individual tax payers in the country. “Gone are the days when it was said that Dawood Ibrahim finances Hindi movies,” he says.