The last quarter, like all phases of Hindi cinema, has been quite illuminating. With the political frenzy over and the public mood settled into a clear and optimistic zone, they continued to exercise their choices with ruthless clarity. However, capriciousness seems to have set in along with the omnipresent quest for variety.
The first release in this June to August phase was the mega-budget Bharat, a Salman Khan-Eid vehicle. The treatment was long-winded and convoluted, and yet emotionally deficient, and therefore the audience was not all that enamoured, though unlike the last two Salman-Eid films, Tubelight and Race 3, the film was not a substandard product.
So the audience did patronize the film (Salman’s weakest movie is sure to garner a minimum Rs. 125 crore now). But the net(t) result was that it just made it to the right side of the flop-hit barrier despite its India collection of Rs. 209 crore, thanks to the high production and publicity-and-advertising cost of this star-studded extravaganza.
And that’s where we come to the “open secret” that was yet again unraveled in June 2019—that the budget must be on a leash vis-à-vis the prospects of the movie. Within two weeks, this was proved in converse fashion by the fate of another film, Kabir Singh, that was very sensibly budgeted given the track-record of its hero Shahid Kapoor and its non-star heroine Kiara Advani.
This remake of the South hit Arjun Reddy struck an extraordinary chord with the people, and its relatively shoestring budget of Rs. 40 crore gave it a blockbuster status when its collection crossed Rs. 278 crore!
Compared to the collection of Ayushmann Khurrana’s past two films, Article 15 only made a tepid Rs. 63 crore at the Indian box-office. Two things, however, helped it acquire the reputation of a “hit” (though logistically, it was only a success)—its low budget of Rs. 30 crore, and its critical and audience branding as a strong-themed well-made film.
At the tail-end of the quarter, we similarly got a huge hit in Mission Mangal, Akshay Kumar’s 11th consecutive success as a leading man and seventh 100-crore grosser (Pad Man missed out here) since 2016. The high on entertainment film with a patriotic theme on our triumphant and female-centric mission to Mars, released on August 15, and benefitted even more from its tight budget of —as per a Fox Star Studios spokesman—just under Rs. 50 crore. Not only was it Akshay’s highest opener, but it will flow past the Rs. 200 crore mark, making it his highest solo grosser ever.
By comparison, its co-release, Batla House, collecting, as of now, less than Rs. 100 crore on a similar budget, just fares past the plus mark, like July’s only success, Super 30, which had a higher budget (Rs. 70 crore).
All the collection figures above, of course, are independent of all other revenue sources—various rights and overseas collections—and are thus indicators of the Indian theatrical response to these movies. In normal circumstances, the Indian box-office works out to about 80 percent of worldwide theatrical incomes.
The three-month phase has ended with the trilingual Saaho, which is budgeted at an astounding Rs. 350 crore, which will make breaking even a difficult task, as per reports from the South. The Hindi version, unexpectedly, is said to have crossed over Rs 120 cr. nett already, apparently on the pulling-power of Prabhas! This emotionless surfeit-with-action-and-VFX package might sail through as it has done quite well overseas, and on the non-theatrical revenues, though there are estimates that predict that the distributors might lose only about Rs. 75 crore (!!!) overall for its three versions!
And so, as Bharat, Kabir Singh and Saaho conclusively prove, the audience has become decidedly more capricious. What is absolutely clear amidst all this is the clear-cut rejection of dismal cinematic experiences—the indescribably poor Malaal and Jhootha Kahin Ka, the atrocious Khandaani Shafakhaana and Arjun Patiala, the senseless Jabariya Jodi and the weirdly executed Judgementall Hai Kya.
Admittedly none of these films had a powerful star draw or any other clout like a hit song or soundtrack, but in a scenario where the only extraordinary blend of content and entertainment was Mission Mangal, the cost of production has suddenly assumed greater importance than ever before.
Spend, not splurge, seems to be the operative mantra now. And leave the rest to an audience that is now capable of appreciating anything from the non-star movie to the superstar-driven mega-budget extravaganza for reasons intrinsic to the film but not known prior to release.
So what is the only safe bet? A controlled budget, of course!