Bollywood stars are returning to India’s big screens after more than a year, with the film industry hoping that declining COVID-19 cases and the festival season will bring audiences back to the cinemas.
Sooryavanshi (Descendants of the Sun), a police drama with four of India’s top actors, is the first A-list Bollywood film to premiere in theatres since March 2020, when a strict lockdown forced all venues to close.
Hardly any Bollywood movies have been released in theatres since then, with many producers preferring to release their films on streaming platforms like Amazon’s Prime Video, Netflix and Disney.
“It was tough to hold out for a theatrical release, but we still believe that audiences will come back to the theatres,” Shibasish Sarkar, who was group CEO of producer Reliance Entertainment during the making of the film, told the Reuters news agency.
“There are some films you can’t watch at home.”
Sooryavanshi, an action-drama in the Bollywood tradition, with flashy dance sequences and muscle-bound leading men thwarting villains, was released on Friday, a day after the Hindu festival of Diwali, traditionally a big box office day.
Initially due out in March 2020, its release date was pushed back three times as India grappled with waves of coronavirus cases and authorities locked down in several parts of the country, shutting theatres.
Also debuting this week will be Eternals, the latest installment in Hollywood’s Marvel franchise, and the colourful drama Annaatthe featuring Tamil superstar Rajinikanth.
Fans excited about Annaatthe sprayed milk on posters displaying Rajinikanth’s face in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai city on Thursday as a sign of respect for the actor, who inspires an almost god-like adulation in the state.
As the industry gets back on its feet, India’s largest multiplex operator PVR is also opening an open-air, rooftop drive-in cinema – pegged as the first in the world – in Mumbai on Friday.
‘People coming back to theatres’
India’s richest state, Maharashtra, which accounts for more than 30 percent of box-office revenue, opened cinemas with restrictions only two weeks ago, as cases fell and vaccinations picked up.
Rajendra Singh Jyala, the head of programming for INOX, the country’s second-largest multiplex chain, told the Reuters news agency he expected demand to bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels.
But the firm has consistently reported a net loss since March 2020 and Jyala said another wave of coronavirus infections and any new lockdowns could seriously hurt the already beleaguered industry.
“Producers have made money by selling their movies to Amazon and Netflix but it is the theatre owners that have really suffered,” said Shailesh Kapoor, of Ormax Media, which tracks films before and after release.
India’s media and entertainment earnings fell by a quarter to $18.7bn last year, according to accounting firm EY, and most multiplex chains suffered big losses. But the industry is anticipating a rebound with theatres now back in business across the country.
Film trade analyst Komal Nahta said there was a “massive backlog” of films worth an estimated 50 billion rupees ($668m) in production costs.
“We will have at least one major film released every week,” he added.
Christmas Eve sees the opening of Reliance Entertainment’s 83, a sports biopic charting India’s first Cricket World Cup win, also delayed by more than a year.
“In 2019-20 we estimated ($40m) in box office numbers, which was pre-COVID days,” said Shibasish Sarkar, the former chief of Reliance Entertainment and current chair of media firm IMAC. “For the coming releases, we hope (and) wish for the best.”
In a country where going to the movies has long been a central fixture of cultural life, the pandemic’s theatre closures prompted a surge in subscriptions to streaming platforms.
US giants Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar have rushed to tap into the growth in online audiences as smartphone adoption rises.
But Jyala of INOX said cinema owners were unfazed by the competition. “People are coming back to theatres … and there are several more big titles in the pipeline.”