Bollywood has lost its sparkle – some 20 films that have come out this year have lost money, including movies from big names like Aamir Khan. That’s said to be double the pre-pandemic failure rate. And other Indian films, particularly from the south, are coming to the fore. So what will it take to revive Bollywood fever?
In this episode:
- Pavni Mittal (@pavnimittal), Al Jazeera correspondent
- Aseem Chhabra (@chhabs), director of the New York Indian Film Festival
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[MUSIC CHAIYA CHAIYA PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: When you hear a song like this, you know you’re in for a good time. This is, Chaiya Chaiya, from the film, Dil Se. And these songs and the films that go along with them have made Bollywood into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Halla Mohieddeen: This year, something’s off.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Newsreel: You’d see theatres running, packed houses, full house for at least a few weeks. What’s happening today is the exact opposite.
Halla Mohieddeen: Bollywood has lost its sparkle – some 20 films that have come out this year have lost money. That’s said to be double the pre-pandemic failure rate. And other Indian films, particularly from the south, are coming to the forefront.
Newsreel: Is Bollywood now dying a slow death?
Halla Mohieddeen: So what’s behind the industry’s decline and what will it take to revive Bollywood fever? I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: I’m talking today with two people who’ve covered the ins and outs of Bollywood.
Pavni Mittal: I’m Pavni Mittal. I am a correspondent for Al Jazeera. I’m based in New Delhi.
Aseem Chhabra: My name’s Aseem Chhabra. I’m a film entertainment journalist. I’m also the festival director of the New York Indian film festival, which is the oldest Indian film festival in all of North America.
Halla Mohieddeen: Both Aseem and Pavni have seen the love for Indian cinema at home and abroad. Specifically for Bollywood – that’s Hindi language films made out of Mumbai.
Pavni Mittal: I don’t remember the last time I’ve been on a holiday or on a plane or at immigration when someone’s asking me my nationality and hasn’t made a Bollywood reference. I’ll tell you, I was in the West Bank and I was talking to someone and he just kept saying, you know, I love Hindi films and, you know, during the intifada I was home and I would watch a lot of Hindi films. And he says, I’m a big Sharukh Khan fan, and I whipped out my phone and I showed him an interview that I did with Sharukh, and he was so impressed.
Newsreel: Some people will say he is the biggest movie star in the world. His record speaks for itself: 80 films over 20 years.
Pavni Mittal: It’s an adulation of just a different kind, from people who don’t necessarily even speak the language. They know the songs, they know the actors, and it’s really amazing. And its power, its soft power is unmatched.
Halla Mohieddeen: It was because of the power of actors like Sharukh Khan and the industry as a whole that I wanted to hear from Pavni and Aseem about what’s ailing Bollywood.
Halla Mohieddeen: Aseem, many people know India has the world’s most prolific film industry, but this year, we’ve seen something new: a string of films that flopped. What’s going on?
Aseem Chhabra: Well, several things are going on. First of all, we are just sort of coming out of the pandemic – I don’t know if we’re out of the pandemic or not.
Aseem Chhabra: So, the last two years – since early spring of 2020, as movie theatres shut down, films started dropping on streaming services, people were stuck at home because of lockdown and started watching those films. And they’ve gotten used to watching films at home. I mean, that’s a fact.
Newsreel: Keeping people away from the big screen, the rise of cheaper small screen streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime during the pandemic and a growing dissatisfaction among younger generations who see Bollywood as passé.
Halla Mohieddeen: Pavni broke down some of the numbers the industry we’re seeing.
Pavni Mittal: What we’ve read in industry reports, is that an overwhelming majority, about 70 percent of the new releases this year have not even recovered half their investment. So, that is considered to be a flop; if you spend X amount and you get less than half the X as your earnings, then, well, your film has tanked.
Halla Mohieddeen: And as Aseem said, there are a lot of factors behind that. For wealthy Indians, it’s the rise of streaming content. There’s also rising inflation that means many people are cutting back on expenses.
Newsreel: Higher edible oil prices, fuel prices and overall commodity prices.
Newsreel: That has had a big impact in a country where the average income is the equivalent of about $5 a day.
Halla Mohieddeen: But there’s also the issue of the content itself.
Halla Mohieddeen: The storylines just aren’t drawing the crowds – at least, not the ones written in Hindi. Away from Bollywood, there’s competition growing in the south of India, and increasingly, those are the films topping the box office. One of those industries is Telugu-language film, known as Tollywood.
Newsreel: Tollywood is now getting the edge over its better known Hindi-language rival Bollywood. Making more money and more impact in India’s $24bn media and entertainment market.
Aseem Chhabra: The Hindi cinema content is not up to par. I mean, that’s a big issue that’s happening. Many of the films, you know, the subject matters were not of interest. People didn’t like them. Also around the same time, because of the lockdown, a lot of people who were used to only watching Hindi languages started watching films in other languages, especially from south India, and the content has been very good there.
Halla Mohieddeen: And not even Bollywood’s biggest stars are immune, Pavni says. Take, for example, the three most well-known actors in India. They’re known as the three Khans.
Pavni Mittal: There’s Sharukh Khan, there’s Aamir Khan, there’s Salman Khan. They’re the three biggest movie stars, and each of them has a distinct personality, a distinct stardom.
Pavni Mittal: They are like superstars. I mean, they can fill stadiums, they can walk into a room and just have everybody fawning at them.
Halla Mohieddeen: And there was one Khan flop that tanked that set the alarm bells ringing. This one, with Aamir Khan.
Newsreel: Aamir Khan has a career spanning 30 years in Bollywood, the Indian film industry.
Pavni Mittal: Aamir Khan is believed to be the cerebral one. So he’s someone, you know, as an audience member, when you see a film by Aamir Khan, you know you’re getting very good acting, good solid script. It’s going to be quality.
Pavni Mittal: Now, he took on the job or the mantle to remake iconic Hollywood film, Forrest Gump, called, Laal Singh Chaddha, in India, and it also has Kareena Kapoor, a huge female star.
[LAAL SINGH CHADDHA TRAILER PLAYING]
Aseem Chhabra: Laal Singh Chaddha was a long time in the making. It’s a Sikh man, Aamir plays a role, Laal Singh Chaddha, aka Forrest Gump, and set in Punjab.
[LAAL SINGH CHADDHA TRAILER PLAYING]Aseem Chhabra: It also tracks Indian history, in the same way as, Forrest Gump, tracks American history, the wars and protests and everything else.
Halla Mohieddeen: Expectations were high. People thought this could be a film that breathed some life back into the industry. But it wasn’t to be.
Pavni Mittal: The film just didn’t do well. Like many others that released before it this year, it was underwhelming. There was barely any buzz. I mean, I’m a journalist, our office is opposite a movie theatre – that’s how I know that the movie released. Otherwise, a lot of people didn’t even know. And, you know, Aamir Khan has, you know, on record, been surprised.
Aseem Chhabra: Everyone thought that film, you know, it is bound to be a big hit, and people are shocked actually.
Halla Mohieddeen: The interesting thing, I think, is that many thought that, you know, you’ve got this big blockbuster guy coming into star, and this big film, Forrest Gump, was a huge success internationally. People were counting on this being a big success in India and it wasn’t. What do you think that says about the state of affairs?
Aseem Chhabra: Well, I think this has shown that stars don’t necessarily ensure that a film will be a big success.
Halla Mohieddeen: But Aseem said there may also be politics at play.
Halla Mohieddeen: There’ve been calls to boycott Aamir Khan’s films, he says.
Aseem Chhabra: The controversy goes back to, like, 2015, when Aamir Khan made a statement – sort of a foolish statement. He basically said that he and his wife at that time – they’re divorced now – uh, and she was Hindu – felt that the political situation in India was really difficult. And they were thinking of leaving India.
Newsreel: Actor Aamir Khan has joined the ranks of those protesting against growing intolerance in India, saying he’s been alarmed by the number of incidents that have taken place recently. And the fact that his wife Kiran Rao even suggested they should probably leave the country.
Aseem Chhabra: That really caught on, and seven years since he made that statement, he is still hounded by that statement.
Newsreel: He’s asked everyone, saying, ‘Please come watch Lal Singh Chaddha. There’s this misconception that I don’t like India. That’s not true.’
Halla Mohieddeen: How much that boycott affected ticket sales is impossible to know, and Aseem says the flops span the political spectrum. But the struggles are a real contrast to years past. Aamir Khan himself also noted the growing competition from south Indian stories. In an interview, he said he thought Hindi cinema was becoming more niche, while south Indian cinema had a broader emotional appeal.
Aamir Khan: I think south films and south filmmakers still have that, you know, they are very connected to their audiences. Perhaps we have lost that connection. Perhaps we need to re-look at that. And the south films are teaching us that.
Halla Mohieddeen: Aseem said as audience tastes are changing, Bollywood has been slow to catch up.
Aseem Chhabra: I mean, they’ve done some really good stuff. I’m not saying that Bollywood is completely sleeping. But especially with the pandemic, and before the pandemic, there was something not working, and they continued to sort of work on the same formula instead of saying to ask themselves, what else could they do?
Halla Mohieddeen: Right. Which brings me to ask you about the golden age of Bollywood.
Halla Mohieddeen: Can you set the scene for us for, for listeners who may be not as aware of this genre? What was the, the, the recipe for like a Bollywood hit? If we were talking, like, 10 years ago and you said, “I’ve got a bunch of money, I want to make a hit.” What are the ingredients you need?
[FILM REEL PLAYING]
Aseem Chhabra: You would cast somebody like Aamir Khan or Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan probably.
Aseem Chhabra: You would make it into a romantic drama.
Aseem Chhabra: You would get, uh, a music composer who would compose some really amazing songs that, you know, would last for decades.
Aseem Chhabra: You would set some of the plot outside India. And you know, a lot of the Bollywood films had very simple formulas. There was romance, there was action.
There was melodrama, uh, parents crying, everybody hugging
and, and, and lots of breaking into songs. A touch of comedy, a touch of violence, and those films used to be hits.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, what can bring back those golden days? One film might have the answer. More on that in a moment.
Halla Mohieddeen: So Aseem, the latest blockbuster that everyone is pinning their hopes on is, Brahmastra.
Halla Mohieddeen: What can you tell us about that movie? I mean, how would you describe it for an international audience?
Aseem Chhabra: So, Brahmastra, is sort of like an Avengers film of that scale, made with the sort of Hindu Indian mythology added to it. Now, there are some controversies in terms of the box office numbers, but it apparently is doing really well.
Aseem Chhabra: That was a long time in the making – seven, eight years. It’s got these two big stars, Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, who earlier this year got married. And so, you know, there’s an added attraction to the first time they’re in a film together and now, they’re a married couple.
Halla Mohieddeen: Pavni’s reference for the film was, Superman, meets, Avatar. And she said this film had one more thing going for it, a key Bollywood element – a hit song. This is called, Kesariya.
[MUSIC KESARIYA PLAYING]
Pavni Mittal: Don’t ask me to sing because you actually want audiences to listen to this podcast. So, don’t ask me to sing, but it’s a nice song, you know?
Pavni Mittal: A lot of hopes are pinned on, Brahmastra. Its performance will set the tone for the rest of the year, and actually, for producers in India, in Hindi films, about what’s going to work. This is an industry that’s really looking for a win. Brahmastra’s like its superpower right now. It’s the superhero that could save the film industry for a lot of people who are part of it.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it’s a superhero that Pavni says is much needed.
Pavni Mittal: People often forget there are millions of other people involved. There are obviously production staff. Then there are theatre owners. Then you have distributors. Then you have people who are, you know, part of the periphery. So, it sort of freaks everybody out, because you just see an industry that has always done very well go through an existential crisis and question things that have always worked.
Halla Mohieddeen: Aseem, do you have confidence that Bollywood is able to adapt and change and reinvent itself, and breathe new life into the industry, or do you worry that they might not be capable of making the changes needed?
Aseem Chhabra: I have faith. I remember the ‘80s, early ‘80s, when suddenly, VHS tapes started appearing, and again, people thought, “Oh, we can just watch these films sitting at home.” Bollywood is being tested right now. We’ll see how it shapes up.
Halla Mohieddeen: Aseem says he doesn’t see the film industry collapsing anytime soon. But content is king, and Bollywood needs to bring heart and soul back to its films.
Aseem Chhabra: There, there is struggle, but if you make a good film, the industry will survive.
Pavni Mittal: Just watching a film, a Hindi film, a typical conventional Hindi film in a theatre, I mean, it is unmatched entertainment. I lived in the south. I’ve lived in Mumbai. I lived in Delhi. I’ve lived in New York and, and I’ve seen people get up and dance while watching a Hindi film. People are watching it multiple times, so they know the dialogues. So, if you have a movie that really sings on the big screen, people will go. I would rather sit at home and watch Netflix – I would go. So, I can tell you that if you have a film that has great reviews, that has a song that is gonna make you dance, that you just feel you wanna go with your family and you wanna spend all that money and that time. All’s not lost.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. If you want to see some of these films for yourself, head to @AJEPodcasts on Twitter. We’ll have a thread with some of the clips referenced in the show.
Halla Mohieddeen: This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Ashish Malhotra, Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, Amy Walters, Negin Owliaei, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou Gad are our engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Wednesday.
This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Ashish Malhotra, Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, Amy Walters, Negin Owliaei, and Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Wednesday.