With every new hit, flop or moderate box-office earner, the debate about the present and future of Hindi films is rekindled. Battered by the coronavirus pandemic, competing with dubbed releases and strafed by trolls, Bollywood appears to be more diminished and irrelevant than ever before.

The recent monster hits in Hindi include Hollywood titles such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, dubbed films Pushpa: The Rise, RRR and K.G.F: Chapter 2 and the outlier The Kashmir Files. Streaming platforms, which rose in popularity during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, have emerged as serious contenders for attention too. But the recent successes of Gangubai Kathiawadi and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 suggest that the picture is far more complicated, suggests Shailesh Kapoor, whose company Ormax Media is a trusted tracker of showbiz trends, box office data and media consumption patterns.

Kapoor, who set up Ormax Media with Vispy Doctor in 2008, also offers analyses of media developments on his company website. In a recent essay on The Kashmir Files, Kapoor, using data and the film’s endorsement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief ministers of states ruled by his party, persuasively argued: “There is an evident correlation between the states where the film has performed better and the political disposition chosen by the electorate in these states. It also serves as good research material to understand how religion is being seen in a social context in today’s India.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Scroll.in, Kapoor offered his insights into the “pan-Indian film”, the effects of trolling on audience behaviour, and the impact of streaming. Here are excerpts.

Is the death of Bollywood greatly exaggerated?
It isn’t dead, but it’s certainly in trouble. The Hindi film industry doesn’t seem to have kept pace with the way taste has evolved over the last few years, especially in the last one or two years. Maybe this is a backlog. What will come in 2023 and 2024 may look different from what we are seeing now.

There is a general upping of audience expectations in terms of style, the way of telling a story. Sixty per cent of Hindi cinema’s box office in the past four months alone has come from K.G.F: Chapter 2 and RRR. When Hollywood films dubbed in Hindi open at Rs 30-35 crore and Hindi films at eight-ten crore, you know that people are looking at cinema differently. Of course, Hollywood films have the advantage of being released in multiple languages.

Shailesh Kapoor, co-founder of Ormax Media.

Pushpa: The Rise, K.G.F: Chapter 2 and RRR are described as ‘pan-Indian films’. But is there such a thing as the ‘pan-Hindi’ film to begin with?
It’s complex. Hindi films have to cater to mini-metros and small towns. A Hindi film has to work in a Mumbai multiplex and a single-screen in Gorakhpur. The challenge is more for Hindi than for single-language films catering to a smaller geographical stretch. The distance you are travelling is shorter.

What is coming across in all our work is that the dubbing is no longer unacceptable. Dubbed content was earlier secondary to watching a film in the original language. It was seen as “South ki picture’, single-screen escapist entertainment that upmarket audiences wouldn’t watch. That has changed.

Is it dubbed, is it in Hindi – that has now become irrelevant, especially because of streaming. So you can’t say a South film has a starting disadvantage any more. In a report we did a few months ago, 80 per cent of viewership of Malayalam content on streamers came from outside Kerala, and a large chunk of that was not from the South.

So what then do we mean by the ‘pan-Indian film?
There are two definitions – a film that that works across India, like Baahubali or RRR, and something that is released in multiple languages. Technically speaking, Vikram is a pan-Indian film too because it has been dubbed into languages apart from Tamil.

The pan-Indian film really comes down to “The film from the South doing well in Hindi”. The language factor is more interesting than the India or region factor. You could have a situation where the future Hindi film stars might come from other languages. The insulation that Hindi cinema had from other languages isn’t there anymore.

Politician Jignesh Mevani was among many ‘Pushpa’ fans to imitate lead actor Allu Arjun’s now-iconic throat-slitting move.

Are Hindi films too gaining acceptance in the South?
Hindi-consuming viewers might looking at films from other languages, but the reverse isn’t happening. Hindi isn’t penetrating into the South. Recent releases like Gangubai Kathiawadi and Samrat Prithviraj didn’t do that well in the South. The Hindi film that has done the best in the South, in my memory, is Krrish 3.

This is true for streaming too. The exception is The Family Man season 2, which possibly worked in In Hindi because of [the casting of] Samantha. The southern audiences were far more receptive to a show like Money Heist, which was dubbed into Indian languages apart from English.

In Hindi, not that much stuff is being made in the generic action or VFX space. Conversely, love stories in Tamil and Telugu don’t do that well in Hindi, whether theatrical or streaming.

During the peak of the pandemic, several films were released directly on streamers. Will that trend continue?
For film producers, streaming was the saviour in the short term, but even that is now changing. Streamers are linking acquisition deals to box office performance. This will affect the mid-budget film the most.

That said, not every film is meant for a theatre, they just don’t have the big-screen value. You need a certain look, you need songs. Even for mid-budget films, these elements will need to be in place. This trend is being seen in other film industries too. Not everything that’s light and fun will work in a theatre.

Our research suggests that the Hindi film box office comprises three to four crore people buying 80 per cent of the tickets – that’s the regular crowd watching three or four films a year in the theatres. The figure has hovered in this range for the last seven years.

If there is a choice between a Hollywood film or a film from another language like RRR or K.G.F, they might let go of the mid-budget film, reasoning that it would show up in a streamer later in any case.

People watch about 10-13 hours of streaming content in a week. In such a scenario, they would go for one or maximum two films in a month.

Gehraiyaan (2022).

The Kashmir Files has been one of this year’s biggest blockbusters. You had argued in an essay that the film attracted an unusual number of non-regular moviegoers. What lessons can the Hindi film trade learn from this experience?
Our data suggested that the profile of the movie-goer for The Kashmir Files wasn’t from the regular set of people, the ones who buy 80 per cent of the tickets. If a film has done well on the back of non-regular theatre goers, then those people probably might not back for another film for a long time.

The film got the numbers that contributed to the box office and benefitted exhibitors. But it’s not indicating a trend just yet.

We do a survey based on the Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions – a psychological measure of the eight primary emotions. Most mass films like K.G.F or RRR evoke the emotions of joy, trust and anticipation. In The Kashmir Files, based on the responses of people coming out of theatres, the emotions were fear, anger and disgust. It’s a unique case of a film working because negative emotions having been triggered off.

How has the competition for audience attention affected film marketing? Is a movie made or broken by its trailer, or do other kinds of digital crumbs play a part too?
Films like K.G.F, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange are pull-based – you don’t need to market them beyond a point. There’s an organic social conversion happening around these films.

Earlier, you could create hype and buy audiences through promotions and hoardings. Today, when you look at the digital marketing ecosystem, something won’t go viral just because you spend money. This is very new for Hindi cinema.

There is a kind of film for which where there is pre-existing hype. If you came out with digital crumbs for Dhoom: 4, it would work because there is the anticipation of who is in the cast and who will play the villain. This is what Hollywood did well in terms of franchises, where the effects were felt a few films down the line.

When Hindi filmmakers created franchises, they went overboard, such as making sequels of films that hadn’t really worked, like Baaghi, or Kahaani 2, which was a different story. That is the most obvious thing to fix – to build franchises now that will give you returns later.

But for other kinds of films, you will need the trailer to work. In Tamil and Telugu cinema, you can carry it off because the stars have such a huge fan base. If there is a new Allu Arjun film, it would anyway create a high level of excitement. That method is riding on the equity of the star.

There are very few Hindi film stars anymore who have that kind of passionate fan following. So you can’t say a film will work just because so-and-so is in it. If at all, the argument is for a smaller marketing window and lower budgets and to let the trailer and organic conversations do the talking.

Marketing films through comedy sketches, such as this plug for Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, works well on social media platforms.

Trolling about the Hindi film industry and its stars has increased in recent months. Does trolling affect the box office?
I think the stars get more affected by the politics and the media perception [of trolling] and believe it in it more than the audiences. In general, audiences are less forgiving now, but that is more to do with so many options available.

Look at Gangubai Kathaiwadi – Alia Bhatt was the target of negativity, but her solo heroine film opened at Rs 10 crore. The Kangana Ranaut-starrer Dhaakad opened at Rs 50 lakh.

Hindi audiences judge films on their own merit. Take Gehraiyaan: there was two kinds of negativity around it. One was because of its producer [Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions] and Deepika Padukone, but it did well because it was a Deepika film for streaming. The people who watched Gehraiyaan and didn’t like it and made memes on it – which is legitimate.

More than social media content, films like K.G.F and RRR create the perception that Bollywood is not doing well. If Samrat Prithviraj didn’t do well, that conversation has more to do with Akshay Kumar. That is more film-centric and star-centric.

There is one school of thought that Hindi cinema has become too effete, which is why films like Pushpa and K.G.F have worked.
Pushpa and K.G.F worked for the same reason – they had a certain attitudinal swag. It seems to work in a theatrical context.

You saw traces of this in Scam 1992 and Kabir Singh in different ways. There are many common character traits between the series and the film. It’s the Angry Young Man archetype in a way, but without the moral or political context. The characters have negative and grey shades, but they also have a go-getter kind of attitude. They are semi anti-heroes who take on the system with a youthful swag. In Pushpa, this comes out very strongly.

It’s not exactly inspirational, but it’s almost aspirational – you want to be like that and express yourself like that.

A spoof of K.G.F: Chapter 2.

How closely are social, political and economic developments related to a film’s reception? After all, filmgoers don’t live in a bubble.
There are links for sure. We did a survey two-three years ago – the examples may be dated, of course. We asked people which films have they watched and liked, and later in the same questionnaire, we asked them what they thought of Narendra Modi.

Gully Boy isn’t an overtly political film, but those who liked Modi liked the film less. It was the same for Article 15 and Thappad. Subconsciously, people’s choices are being driven by their political ideologies. Perhaps this happens more with certain kinds of films.

Thus, if you were to make a left-of-centre film, it might get tricky. This is happening in streaming too, where ideas with such content have been put on the backburner.

Just how many Indians subscribe to streaming platforms?
In India, the paid subscriber base for streamers has not yet been saturated. Disney+ Hotstar is at the highest, at around 40 million (four crore). Amazon Prime Video is between 20 and 22 million (between two and two-and-a-half crore).

Then there is Zee5, which is around six-and-a-half million (60 to 60.50 lakh) and Netflix, which is close to six million (60 lakh). SonyLIV is around five million (50 lakh) and Voot Select is around three million (30 lakh).

The total is around 100 million (10 crore), which are not unique subscribers, since many of them have two or three subscriptions. This base is high in metropolises and has penetrated to mini-metros. The large part of small towns and a huge chunk of rural areas will take at least a decade to be saturated.

How serious is the threat of streaming to films?
Movie theatres are not just about the movies, of course, but about the social experience. They compete with picnics, restaurants, malls and that kind of thing. If anything, the competition is between television and streaming. In mini-metros and smaller towns, television survives because of the need to spend time with your family. Streaming will compete for TV in this case for specific kinds of content.

For a smaller film that doesn’t have a star cast, streamers would rather do seasons, since they have higher watch-time and there is a building of characters. From a subscriber acquisition point of view, the smaller non-star cast films don’t do much. They are more to engage the existing subscribers.

There is more energy and momentum creatively at streamers too. The bigger platforms are in an investment and growth phase at the moment. Streamers test shows at least six-eight months before their launch. You know that they are building a pipeline in a certain way that isn’t rushed.

Most of the series don’t have Bollywood names. It’s not like big-ticket names are being sold as ‘Bollywood on TV’. For the first two-three years, the thinking was that you needed Bollywood to break into the streaming space, but now you need all kinds of shows.

Also read:

Behind the rise of the Hindi dub of Telugu film ‘Pushpa’, a long journey of hits and misses

What dubbed films can teach Bollywood: Movies must be ‘larger than life, have mass appeal’

What movies about the movies can tell us about the crisis that has hit Bollywood