A Regenerated Bollywood Coins Money

Although India’s economy has slowed it is raining Bollywood blockbusters, the latest being the Salman Khan megahit Ek Tha Tiger, which has taken in Rs2 billion (US$35.9 million) in combined collections so far, only the second Hindi movie ever to do so.

Multiple sectors in India, ranging from manufacturing to software, have increasingly reported sluggish growth. Car and telecoms sales have dipped. But Bollywood has churned out one big hit after another.

The new benchmark per successful movie is Rs1 billion in domestic revenues earned, an unthinkable level five years ago -- about the same time that India’s gross domestic product growth began to decelerate. A series of movies have since breached the magic mark --- Three Idiots, Ghajini, Housefull-II, Bodyguard, Dabangg, Ready, Singham, Bol Bachchan, Don-2, Agneepat and more. Given the talk of overall recession, economic uncertainties, rising cost of living, this is a remarkable achievement.

The current annual Rs100 billion Indian film industry is projected to grow to Rs150 billion at the box office by 2016, recording10 percent annual growth, double that of the country’s. Bollywood, of course remains one of the two ultimate entertainment avenues that Indians love, the other being cricket, with the two often competing for business space, eyeballs and celebrity endorsements.

The industry, centered in what was previously known as Bombay – and hence the Bollywood tag – churns out up to 800 so-called masala movies per year, the word for a collection of spices. Movies normally go for three or four hours and mix song and dance, drama, action, comedy, music, tragedy and whatever masala directors can stir into the mix to get a happy ending. Indians are in love with them.

It is difficult to pin down a universal factor that makes Hindi movies such a draw. The majority watch cricket on TV for free at home. Films aren’t cheap. Weekend multiplex ticket prices when viewership is at a maximum can range Rs250-300. Parking could cost over Rs100. Even driving to a cinema hall is expensive given the rising fuel prices.

A family of four could easily spend in the range of Rs 2,000-3000, including meals that are usually mandatory in Indian outings, to catch the latest release. Then there could be some shopping as movie halls and shopping malls usually adjoin.

These revenue increases are taking place at a time when pirated DVD copies with reasonably good prints of the latest releases are readily available for as little as Rs50 at any local market.

Predictably, the actors are the main draw --- the Rs1 billion winners boast an A-list of superstars -- Shahrukh Khan, Salman, Aamir, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, all incidentally in their 40s, but supremely fit and boasting sixpack tummies, bulging tattooed biceps and perfectly honed hip-thrusting dancing skills that form the essential ingredient to any mainstream masala film.

This is important to appeal to a pre-dominantly under-30 Indian population, though Bollywood’s reach cuts through age, language and socio-economic barriers. Movie he-man Salman Khan, whose robust bachelor life attracts as much gossip interest as the much younger Prince Harry, sits at the top in terms of number of top hits.

Predictably, top actresses, essentially essaying the role of perfect-bodied dancing eye candies including Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor, Asin too feature in the potboilers.

While the stars do matter quite a bit, it would be still be premature to assert that the big Bollywood hit story ends here. There is clearly more. Script is important, especially with the ever cerebral Aamir Khan or even Salman’s Dabangg. But, they still don’t justify the collections. Many creative efforts are produced regularly, Vicky Donor being one such latest. But, they don’t gross Rs1 billion.

Indeed, block buster Hindi movies also offer an overall experience to the viewer that is unmatched in entertainment value. A rich canvas that mixes at least some of the following elements is invariably fitted into a story line that can be weak – fantastic locales, great music, latest fashion, hair styles, the accessories, eccentric dance moves, smart one liner’s, comedy, action, latest gadgets, fast cars, perfect bodies and more.

In short, the Hindi biggie panders to varied emotions – the viewer is transported to a supermarket of multiple stimuli all neatly packaged and arranged in a time span of under three hours.

The big screen is the closest to the real adventure without the discomfort of wearing ill-fitting, irritating 3-D goggles - it could be traversing travel hot spots from Prague to New York to New Zealand or a visit to a high end mall peddling latest shoes and apparel. Then there is the story, music, laughs and tears, the hero and heroine up close, sixpacks showing or in a bikini that everyone obsesses about -- the whole package for just a couple of hundred rupees.

It is worth every penny, with the audience yearning for a similar experience next Friday, when the new movies hit the theatres. The family invariably goes back home sated and satiated. In local dialect it is paisa vasool or money well spent. After all an actual visit to Prague could cost Rs200,000. Quite a few do that taking the movie cue, but many more do it too via the great escapist Hindi movie experience, at a much lower price. The producers could still price the tickets higher and get away with it, I think.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)