In a Zoom conversation with journalists on Monday, Salman Khan let out one of the Hindi movie trade’s worst-kept secrets: his new release Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai was going to come a cropper at the Indian box office.

“I apologise to cinema owners who were hoping to earn profits with the release of this film,” said Khan, according to News18. “We waited as long as we could, hoping that this pandemic would end and we would be able to release in theatres all over the country. But that did not happen.”

Radhe was aiming for a multi-platform release on March 13, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramzan. According to the original plan, Radhe was to be released in theatres as well as on the Zee5 streaming platform on a pay-per-view option.

Although several states announced lockdowns early in April, others such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Gujarat excluded theatres from the list of establishments that had to stop opoerations. At least on paper, these cinemas were open. Though they didn’t have any films to play (the last release was the English-language Mortal Kombat on April 23), they hoped to resume business with the latest Salman Khan movie.

With a lockdown or some form of restriction in force in every single state in India to combat the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Radhe will now only play online. However, it will get a traditional release in overseas territories where theatres have reopened, such as the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

Directed by Prabhudeva, Radhe stars Khan, Disha Patani, Randeep Hooda and Jackie Shroff. The movie’s hero shares his name with characters played by Khan in Tere Naam and Wanted.

Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai (2021).

In his Zoom interaction, Khan appeared to already be discouraging fans from thronging the cinemas. “Some people have booked auditoriums and are planning to screen my film, which I won’t encourage because I don’t want people to say ‘Salman Khan ki picture dekhne gaye aur corona phail gaya [they went to see a Salman Khan picture and corona spread],’” he said. “Once this pandemic is over and theatres reopen, if people like the film, we will try to release it on the big screen.”

As an actor-producer and second-generation film industry professional, Khan is well aware of how distribution and exhibition work. As an early adopter of social distancing practices soon after the pandemic broke out in 2020, he knows the perils of encouraging crowds to gather in a closed space, even though that might be a cinema hall running at half capacity. And as a philanthropist through his Being Human Foundation, he is aware of the immense suffering that the virus has brought in its wake.

All of which begs the question: why was Radhe aiming for a big-screen release in India at all?

Khan announced on March 31 that Radhe would be an Eid release. Once I commit to something, even I can’t convince myself to change my mind, Khan tweeted, quoting a line from his 2009 film Wanted.

At the time, the pandemic had already begun coursing with renewed force through Kerala and Maharashtra and would reach other states very soon. Khan and his co-producers, which include Zee Studios, possibly calculated that the second wave would be shorter than the first. They could not have known that the new phase of infections would be far worse and would lead to some of the most horrific scenes of death and desperation ever seen in Independent India.

Between March 31 and April 21, when it was announced that Radhe was to be a multi-platform release, ample evidence was mounting against a conventional exhibition strategy. Even as Radhe’s producers were releasing trailers and songs on YouTube, other clips were demanding our attention: of Covid-19 patients gasping for oxygen, family members beseeching whoever would listen for medical attention or a hospital bed, bodies queued up at crematoriums like in a grocery check-out line, corpses dumped in rivers.

The relentless flow of heart-rending news reports, photographs and clips has spooked even supporters and voters of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. In Gujarat, on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf, newspapers have turned against their beloved former chief minister. In Uttar Pradesh, art least one BJP legislator posted a video begging for help for his ailing wife even though the state is ruled by his party man, Adityanath.

In the middle of this health crisis, the debate about Radhe’s distribution strategy seemed like an academic experiment or, at worst, a bad joke from one of Salman Khan’s lesser movies.

Khan is fully aware of the widespread economic anguish caused by lockdowns and the expenses involved in Covid-19 medical treatment. “Incomes have reduced for many, so now, instead of spending a lot of money on tickets at the cinemas, people can watch it at a much cheaper rate at home,” he said about the film’s release on Zee5. “I want to provide some entertainment to people at a grim time like this.”

The story of how Hollywood thrived during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s is well-known. The power of crowd-pleasing cinema to temporarily alleviate misery and loneliness is undisputed. But an economic crisis isn’t quite the same thing as a pandemic, especially one caused by a virus that thrives on close, prolonged contact.

Could the producers of Radhe have opted for a television premiere right from the start, followed by a repeat telecast or two, and then placed the film on a streamer? Could they have simply put out a statement on the lines of, sure, we did announce an Eid release, but circumstances force us to put the movie on hold or bypass the cinemas because it isn’t safe enough at the moment?

The release of Rohit Shetty’s action thriller Sooryavanshi has repeatedly been postponed, even though it means paying a heavy price. It will pinch the movie’s financiers, but it’s the right thing to do.

It’s not like anybody was going to troll Radhe’s collaborators for not releasing a Salman Khan film in cinemas just because it was publicly announced a few weeks ago. Surely Khan’s “commitment” wasn’t carved into a Himalayan mountainside.

The pandemic has forced filmmakers into adapt-or-perish mode. Some of them have retreated to the safety offered by streaming platforms. Others released their films in the period between the pandemic’s waves, when going into a theatre didn’t resemble walking into a minefield. Yet others have chosen to wait.

In the bargain, theatre chains have been among the biggest losers. The lakhs of workers involved with various departments of filmmaking have also suffered from interrupted employment or job losses.

There’s no doubt that the Hindi film industry, like every other sector of the Indian economy, has been grievously wounded by the pandemic. But Radhe’s obsession with the big-screen experience wasn’t going to solve this problem. The timing simply wasn’t right.

Khan usually plays a superhero who can punch his way out of just about any situation. But even this mass hero found it hard to justify releasing a film in cinemas at a time of mass illness and death.

Seeti Maar, Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai (2021).