From navigating both theatres and streaming platforms, to star vehicles and breakthrough performances, here’s a look back at all that Bollywood had to offer during this pandemic-hit tumultuous year
Even as the pandemic hit the film business, audiences were spoilt for choice in 2021, with a lot of content shifting to the streaming universe. Here’s a look at what happened in the Hindi entertainment space in a year, when heroines found greater heft in storylines, nationalist agenda got deeper, and regional cinema pushed the boundaries further.
Gasping for breath
The pandemic continued to plague the film industry, as theatres were the first to close down and last to open. According to an Ernst & Young report, the theatre business was reduced to half in 2020, with revenues crashing to ₹76 billion compared to ₹191 billion in 2019.
“It is estimated that the Indian cinema exhibition industry lost theatrical revenues of close to ₹12,000 crores in 2020-21,” says Pramod Arora, Chief Growth & Strategy Officer, PVR Limited. He says thousands of screens countrywide were forced to close down, and many employees, not just of cinemas, but even their supply chains and other stakeholders are facing personal hardships.
“Things didn’t look up till the last quarter of 2021. We received stepmotherly treatment from the government as we didn’t get any relief in taxes. Small producers and theatre owners were the worst sufferers. In states like Uttar Pradesh, the situation was like the title of the Hindi film Batti Gul, Meter Chalu as the electricity bills, rentals and property taxes kept on mounting,” says Sanjay Ghai, Chief Operations Officer of Mukta Arts.
The Producers’ Guild and big players like Yash Raj Films set up relief funds, and after Deepavali, the industry started showing signs of recovery. But insiders say that there is still a long way to go for normalcy to return.
Some of the big producers chose to hold on to their films that added interest to their investments, and prevented them from making new announcements. Others opted to strike a deal with streaming platforms that emerged as a silver lining during this dark period. Rohit Shetty’s gamble to wait for almost two years to release Sooryavanshi in theatres paid off, but others like T-Series were not as lucky with Satyameva Jayate 2.
A still from Rohit Shetty’s ‘Sooryavanshi’
The film business remains a gamble, says Bhushan Kumar, who has 10 to 12 films on the floors. “Selling a film to an OTT platform covers the risk, but not every film suits the small screen. As creative people, we seek audience applause and a standing ovation; that is only possible in theatres,” says Kumar, who had to dismantle the sets of Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 multiple times during the pandemic.
For all the talk of forging a united front, the stars, insiders say, have increased their hefty fees over the last two years. The tussle between multiplex chains and producers over commissions made it to news pages and top directors suffered from self-doubt after choosing OTT platforms over theatrical releases. “There is no provision to revisit the decision if the pandemic situation improves,” says a senior filmmaker requesting anonymity.
The impact of COVID-19 could also be felt on content. “Cinema, by its very nature, keeps on changing. Earlier, after every five to 10 years, either a filmmaker used to go through a transformation or the audience used to change; there used to be one variable. In the last two years, both have undergone a change,” says director-producer Aanand L Rai, whose latest film Atrangi Re brought the curtains down on a tumultuous year.
Audiences spoilt for choice
With close to 50 streaming platforms on offer, the audience had plenty to choose from. The E &Y report also states that digital subscriptions are showing a jump, predicting the figures going up to ₹54 billion in 2021 compared to ₹28.2 billion in 2019.
Though Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ Hotstar remain in the news, audiences are also downloading the likes of Hoichoi and MX Player as well. A senior executive of a streamer reminds us that the Indian customer looks for both quality and mileage, though not always in that order. The race for garnering maximum eyeballs means that platforms are also not finding it easy to flourish in a price-sensitive market. But industry experts say that in the long run, there will be mergers and only the ones that provide value for money will survive.
As far as content goes, thrillers remained the predominant genre, but there were exceptions such as The Empire which narrated the intriguing tale of the birth of the Mughal empire. The fact that the cherubic Dil Bekaraar and the immensely-watchable second season of Gullak also found favour, indicates that there is still space for the family audience. Not to forget Leena Yadav’s visceral documentation of the Burari deaths in House of Secrets.
A still from ‘The Empire’
It is the long-form episodic web series that is moving the audience decisively away from the television soaps, at least in the urban centers. The format that allows the content and characters to be cooked on a slow fire is proving to be challenging to filmmakers as well.
Does this mean the end of big-screen entertainment? “I have lived through the video parlour period, as well as the days of satellite invasion when the number of channels crossed 400. Since theatres opened again, we are seeing a steady rise in numbers. The simple point is that a small four-foot screen cannot counter the experience of a 40-feet wide celluloid. However, Hindi cinema has to deliver solid larger-than-life imagery for theatres to keep working,” adds Sanjay Ghai.
Strong regional flavours
During the second wave when the supply of Hindi content dipped, the audience checked out regional cinema and got hooked to the taste. Films like Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai and Malik offered a fresh concoction of action and emotion. Later in the year, when Sooryavanshi was trying hard to inject new life into a jaded formula, Suriya’s Tamil film Jai Bhim, with its sharp attack on regressive social traditions, emerged as the new slogan in the mass entertainment space.
Meanwhile, for all the niche Hindi content on OTT platforms, two of the best works of the year – Tabbar and Mandaar – were in Punjabi and Bengali respectively.
A still from ‘Tabbar’
“The content flow from Bollywood and Hollywood was constrained with only a handful of movies releasing in the fourth quarter,” says PVR’s Pramod Arora, adding that the south Indian box-office continued to perform, with movies like Uppena, Jathi Ratnalu and Vakeel Saheb doing well, increasing optimism around business recovery.
“It is no longer just about Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Mohanlal. Hindi audiences now know what Fahadh Faasil and Allu Arvind are up to, and Dhanush is already a familiar name in the hinterland,” says film critic and researcher Brahmatmaj, who has just watched the Hindi dubbed version of Allu Arvind’s (Shreyas Talpade lends his voice) Pushpa: The Rise.
Diminishing star value
A transwoman falling in love with a bodybuilder, a hard-nosed news anchor melting in the wake of breaking news, a homosexual Muslim police officer who is not ready to compromise on his ethics while solving a high profile case, a female forest officer taking on the predators in the jungle and the system; the characters and plots of the Hindi cinematic universe is definitely expanding.
Is it finally pack-up time for star culture? Ayushmann Khurrana, who played the bodybuilder in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, says content is the new star, but also reminds us that Akshay Kumar’s cop thriller Sooryavanshi is the biggest grosser of the year so far.
Ayushmann Khurrana and Vaani Kapoor in ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’
But film critic Brahmatmaj adds that an Akshay Kumar film is no longer ‘an event’ anymore. “He releases a film every two months. The credit for Sooryavanshi’s success goes to Rohit Shetty, which suggests the return of the director’s pre-eminence,” he reasons.
Salman Khan’s Radhe bit the dust, Antim will be remembered for Aayush Sharma, and Ranveer Singh is being praised for getting into the skin of a character in 83. “The OTT space has made the viewer content-crazy. Aamir Khan’s Lal Singh Chaddha will decide the future of star culture,” predicts Brahmatmaj.
Nationalist sentiments and crowd censorship
Different shades of patriotism emerged, as biopics and tales of men in uniform continued to be the running theme of Bollywood in 2021 as well. Shershaah, Sardar Udham, Mumbai Diaries, Special Ops, and 83 hit the right notes. Then there were shrill propaganda vehicles like Satyameva Jayate 2, Bell Bottom and Bhuj: The Pride of India that failed to find favour.
Kiara Advani and Siddharth Malhotra in ‘Shershaah’
Pushed by the mob attack on the Aashram crew and multiple FIRs against Tandav, even OTT platforms seem to be indulging in self-censorship. Interestingly, screenwriters are increasingly imbuing their screenplays with jokes and comments on the National Register of Citizens and the Muslim factor in films. It came through nicely in projects like Dhamaka, Bhoot Police and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.
“Filmmakers are taking time to find creative ways to subvert censorship. Right now, every production house and platform has hired a legal team to vet the content and remove anything that could hurt sentiments – political, religious, or otherwise,” remarks Brahmatmaj.
Heroines find greater heft
In a crucial courtroom scene in the second season of Sushmita Sen’s Aarya, the judge, the defense lawyer, the public prosecutor, the inspector, and the protagonist in the witness box, were all women. It signifies a marked shift from the patriarchal depiction of our public spaces in popular culture.
From Sherni, Haseen Dilruba, Bombay Begums and Pagglait to Ajeeb Dastaans, Rashmi Rocket, Meenakshi Sundereshwar, Mimi and Chhorii, the year saw a long list of films and web series which suggested that female actors are not only finding greater heft in storylines, but are also offered parts that were considered socially and morally untenable till a few years back.
Sanya Malhotra in ‘Pagglait’
Simultaneously, in these films, we witnessed the coming together of male protagonists who are against the macho, patriarchal image of the hero, but stand their ground nonetheless. It was best reflected in Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, a hard-hitting social commentary garbed in the form of a thriller, where the hero was named Pinky and the heroine was called Sandeep Kaur.
The most winsome performance came from Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev in 83, but the biggest surprise was Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra nailing their parts in Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, followed by Vaani Kapoor’s excellent turn as a transwoman in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. Not to forget Vicky Kaushal’s deftly-etched performance in Sardar Udham, Vidya Balan’s roar as Sherni and Dhanush as a medically student hopelessly in love in Atrangi Re.
Ranveer Singh in ‘83’
The OTT space also opened up challenging opportunities for out-of-work actors and stars who had lost their box office appeal. The limited series format allowed audiences to watch veterans like Raj Babbar, Shabana Azmi, and Padmini Kolhapure in challenging roles. The webspace also allowed filmmakers to rope in competent actors from regional cinema like Samantha in The Family Man 2 and Parambrata Chatterjee in Aranyak.
Samantha in ‘The Family Man’
However, Yash Raj Films replacing Abhishek Bachchan with Saif Ali Khan in Bunty Aur Babli 2, and Abhishek Bachchan being chosen over Saswata Chatterjee in Bob Biswas also raised questions. Not to forget Salman Khan’s dour turn in Antim, in a role that could have suited Sunny Deol.
Anthologies hit the expiry date
The fad for anthology films resulted in multiple experiments this year, but none could provide a wholesome experience. Be it the much-touted Ray (based on the maestro’s works), or the romantic experiments of Ajeeb Dastaans, the format came across as a way to plug three poorly made shorts in the name of one quality product.
Coaching institutes emerge as a new setting for stories
Once, college and college students provided the backdrop for creative content. Now stories are being set in Kota and Mukherjee Nagar to tap the coaching centre-going youngsters! This year, Aspirants and Kota Factory 2 hit the right buttons as they managed to humanise characters that populate these spaces, and provided healthy nostalgia to a section of the audience who want to relive their tryst with formulae.
A still from ‘Kota Factory’
Adaptations of foreign titles
There was a time when international game shows were adapted for Indian audiences. Now producers, perennially short of original stories, are adapting international series for content-crazy viewers that are no longer happy with dubbed or subtitled originals. After Hostages, Criminal Justice and Aarya, this year we saw Call My Agent: Bollywood, an adaptation of the French series Dix Pour Cent! It was an interesting experiment, but a lot was lost in translation and casting.
Finally, the musical aspect of Hindi cinema was the biggest casualty of the streaming market’s proliferation. A young filmmaker told this journalist that he was specifically asked by a streamer to take out the songs, as they add to the cost and are jarring for the international audience. Only those films shot with a theatrical release in mind are now focusing on songs.
Even otherwise, the quality of music is suffering, as only the scores of Shershaah and Atrangi Re managed to infiltrate the mind in recent times. In the OTT universe, the focus seems to be more on the background score; some of the more intuitive directors fill it with old songs, but the rights cost more than making a new melody (!)
Dhanush and Sara Ali Khan in ‘Atrangi Re’
Bhushan Kumar of T-Series holds the new-age storylines responsible for the diminishing demand for songs. “However, with platforms now seeking to reach smaller towns, the demand for music is going to increase. Our next with Ranbir Kapoor is going to have at least half-a-dozen songs,” he concludes.