This is supposed to be a busy time of year for Bollywood. School exams are over and Hollywood’s summer blockbusters are typically still a couple of months away, making it the perfect time to release India’s big spring flicks.
Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the world’s most prolific film industry to a halt. Movie theaters have shut their doors, production companies have called off shoots, and film studios have delayed releases — including the debuts of at least two major films that were expected to carry the season. The highly anticipated action film “Sooryavanshi” and the cricket biopic “83,” the latter of which tells the story of India’s 1983 World Cup victory, were both pushed back for “health and safety” reasons. The producers did not say when they would be released.
“The films were huge,” said Shubhra Gupta, film critic for the Indian Express newspaper. “There was a huge deal of anticipation from the audiences. It’s a big loss.”
The pandemic has likely cost India’s film industry more than $330 million in lost box office revenue and canceled production shoots, according to Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst and television host of “ETC Bollywood Business.”
A ‘cascading effect’ on films
More than 1,800 movies were produced in India in 2018, according to Statista, a research and data website. That was more than any other country’s film industry that year.
While Hindi-language Bollywood films dominate the industry, there are other significant players, including the regional hub Tollywood (Telugu language), along with films made in Marathi, Bhojpuri and Bengali.
All told, box office revenue in India was estimated to have reached $1.4 billion in 2019, a nearly 12% increase over the year before, according to an annual report published by the consulting firm Ormax Media. Most of that came from Indian films; Hollywood represented just 15% of that amount.
Film producers in India don’t just want to please their Indian fans, either. Some of the biggest names in Bollywood, including Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone, help the industry rake in revenue from audiences around the world.
Last year, for example, the action thriller “War” took in $13.7 million overseas, about a quarter of its total box office haul.
“With India, the problems are manifold because all the cinemas across the world will have to open,” said Nahta, the trade analyst. “Overseas revenues for big Hindi films form a huge component of the total revenue.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has completely upended any plans to release movies in the near future. In late March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unprecedented three-week shutdown for India’s 1.3 billion people that required everything to shut except for essential services, including health services and grocery stores.
Even before the lockdown went into effect, film companies in India had already announced that they would suspend film, TV and web series shoots. Filming remains on hold during the nationwide lockdown, which now expires on May 17 after a couple of extensions.
“We’re going to see a cascading effect on films,” said Gupta, the film critic. “This will affect the entire slate of movies for this year.”
Even if movie theaters do reopen, they will continue to lose money if they are unable to seat full crowds, according to Nahta. He pointed out that Chinese cinemas have been selling movie tickets with social distancing rules in effect.
“If you’re selling tickets based on social distancing, you’re reducing your capacity because for every seat you sell, you keep one vacant,” he added. “If your capacity is 50%, it will not support the huge film budgets.”
Production crews on lockdown
With film production on hold, many in the industry have been left without much work to do.
Bollywood makeup artist Arti Nayar — who has worked for more than a decade with stars like Sonam Kapoor-Ahuja, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt — said projects and events she otherwise would have been involved with this spring have been pushed back indefinitely because of the virus.
“The light boys, the people who look after your food, all of us are essentially daily wage earners,” Nayar said. “So, when a shoot gets canceled, it is going to hit us financially because you plan your life according to what you earn.”
The Producers Guild of India (GUILD) has set up a relief fund for those paid per day such as hairstylists, makeup artists and assistants working within technical departments.
Siddharth Roy Kapur, president of the GUILD, urged members of the film fraternity to make contributions in an effort to “minimize the disruption in the lives of our valued colleagues and associates in this difficult time.”
The GUILD has also partnered with the Indian Film and Television Producers Council and the Federation of Western India Cine Employees to provide assistance to those most affected.
“The truth is we are not going to be working indefinitely,” Nayar said. “You can’t practice social distancing, everyone works so closely.”
When it comes to recouping lost budgets, Nahta predicted that big names — both in front and behind the camera — may have to take a pay cut. He noted that fees for top stars constitute the highest portion of the budget, and are especially likely to be targeted.
Meanwhile, Gupta said she believes the pandemic will prompt more conversations between production houses about release dates, so that two big films don’t release at the same time and eat into each other’s profits. She added that she thought the industry was likely to see other changes, too.
“There will be more rationalization, cooperation, empathy and the consideration of the long-term health of the industry,” said Gupta.
– Swati Gupta contributed to this report.