Coronavirus outbreak may not erode movie superstardom in India, but change the definition as we know it today

Devansh Sharma

If there was any threat to the traditional theatrical model of film exhibition from the influx of streaming services in India, it has gotten accelerated by the coronavirus outbreak. With movie halls closed to ensure nationwide lockdown, digital platforms are making the most of the situation by boosting their content. Besides offering a vast library of global films, they have not only rejigged their 2020 calendar but also eyed the completed films lined up for traditional release later this year.

(Also read: Major Indian films premiering on OTT platforms during coronavirus outbreak means a paradigm shift for the movie business)

Several films like Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo (Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana) and Anu Menon's Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan), designed and planned as theatrical releases, have been bought by Amazon Prime Video India for direct-to-digital premiere. As uncertainty looms large over the fate of movie halls, it will not be presumptuous to guess that more films will skip theatres.

Representational image

Representational image

Along with the distributors and exhibitors, whose roles have been eliminated during the ongoing lockdown, their allies, i.e., the superstars, have been hit hard by this paradigm shift. Superstars like the three Khans, Akshay Kumar, and Ajay Devgn were known to inject money into the traditional model through their star vehicles over more than 25 years. On a few recent occasions, when their films had failed to fetch substantial returns for the distributors, the superstars supported them financially; most notably Salman Khan for Kabir Khan's Tubelight in 2016.

"The double whammy is that now, even when the theatres open, we don't know if even the superstars will be able to put bums on the seats. We're constantly reworking guidelines to make movie halls functional while maintaining social distancing. One-sixth of the capacity is the most obvious solution right now," says a distributor, who requests not to be named. He adds that theatre owners may have to increase the ticket fares to make up for the new seating arrangement and all the losses incurred so far. "But will the audience be ready to pay? Even when the fear of infection subsides, will they warm up to the new seating arrangement? Moreover, they won't have the same disposable income since the lockdown has aggravated every person's financial woes."

In that case, it is likely that audiences may skip the ordeal of visiting a theatre, and watch a buzzing title on a streaming platform they have subscribed to at an extremely nominal price. The opportunity cost was already high, and the current situation has only skewed the viewer preference towards home entertainment. The usual merits of choosing a digital service over a theatrical experience have always been countered by the romance of watching a film in a movie hall. But the argument will not hold water when the latter will put a hole in one's already-strained pocket.

Superstars may still be able to lure the audience into their movies but the medium may no longer be theatres as widely as it was say, five years ago. How Taapsee Pannu defined stardom in an interaction with this writer makes the most sense now.

"A star is someone who can get a respectable amount of opening to their film. That's not because they want to see the star but want to experience the content, the story backed by that star because they trust their choices.That's why I don't consider myself a star yet. But the day my stardom becomes bigger than the film is the day I feel I'll lose myself," Taapsee said.

This is exactly what the superstars have to aim for now. They need to back content, whether as producers or as actors, that benefits from their goodwill, to tell an engaging story. Also, in order to tell an engaging story in a post-COVID-19 world, it will have to go taken into account, if not address directly, the crisis the world has gone through.

There is certainly no 'one size fits all' solution, just like there is no panacea to the fading out of superstardom. Each star needs to assess what would work best for them. One quality they are sure to benefit from, however, is flexibility of medium. Digital ventures should not be considered 'crossovers' or 'demotion' since the audience has clearly indicated they are tilting towards OTT platforms as time progresses.

For example, a Scarlett Johannson can do a Marriage Story on Netflix, and yet go on to lead a Marvel solo superhero film in Black Widow, which was initially scheduled to release in theatres on 1 May.

"Shooting hugely mounted projects, traditionally reserved for the big screen, will come with challenges of its own. With social distancing measures in place, crews in huge numbers may not be allowed to function on a film set. Renting larger spaces in studios will not yield encouraging results for producers either. The only replacement to manpower is technology, an area which the Indian film industry severely lags behind in," says a producer on the condition of anonymity.

In that case, the stars have to be enablers more than leaders. Shah Rukh Khan was already in a long state of introspection before the lockdown. Constantly at the centre of several rumours of films with Rajkumar Hirani, Raj and DK, Farhan Akhtar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others, SRK is leading a blissfully unaware life, spending time with family and putting his might behind small films like Hardik Mehta's Kaamyaab, and Netflix shows Bard of Blood and Betaal, led by much smaller stars. One may not necessarily see SRK play a dad to the heroines he has acted opposite, but he can sure pull off more 'age-appropriate' roles, where he is not bogged down by the pressure to be a star and sell the film. Because he can just be an actor, and the film can go directly to an OTT platform.

Salman Khan has been dishing out one hit after the other for the past few years. There were some misfires but he is surely a beast made for the big screen. He may continue to do his one tentpole film a year as long as he can. However, the film may now need to ride on the story, and not just his charisma and mass appeal. Since the audience has spent months at home, away from the escapist big-screen spectacles and consuming quality content from around the globe, they may not flock in similar numbers when the next Salman Khan film opens. Even if Salman cannot adapt to the changing times, he will continue to get seen on the small screen (All hail, Bigg Boss), and produce other TV attractions like The Kapil Sharma Show.

Aamir Khan's primary source of income and recognition are still the movies. He may want to change that, and go back to encouraging more socially relevant projects like Satyamev Jayate, Rubaru Roshni, and Peepli Live. Sure, there may be a Delhi Belly thrown in somewhere into the mix, just like he may choose to do three small films like Kiran Rao's Dhobi Ghat in the two years he takes to make a Thugs of Hindostan.

He is doing Laal Singh Chadha, the Hindi remake of Forrest Gump, and Moghul, the biopic of Bhushan Kumar, next. While these may work on the big screen, they could also prove to be far more suitable for a digital platform. A perceptive actor like Aamir is likely to gauge the pulse of the nation and act on it accordingly.

Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn seem to be going on the right path, bringing in more money into the industry by telling diverse, engaging stories. The next step for them might be to do as many films, but let some go directly to digital on the basis of the cost-to-profit analysis. A Tanhaji can very well make its way to the big screen but a Mission Mangal can afford to skip the theatrical round.

These five stars are likely to bounce back with some creative adjustments. But the void left by them in the mainstream market can be filled by younger stars like Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan, Ayushmann Khurrana, and Tiger Shroff among others, since they have youth on their side. But as the audience and the industry takes an unexpected turn, they should be foresighted enough to become the new-age stars, who do not differentiate between putting bums on theatre seats and getting more eyeballs to smartphone screens.

All images from Facebook.

Also See: Coronavirus Outbreak: Shah Rukh Khan seeks citizen contributions to Meer Foundation to support 'healthcare soldiers'

Eid without Salman Khan: With no ritualistic film release on the festival, even Bhai can't beat the virus

Taapsee Pannu, Pooja Bhatt, Hansal Mehta, Apurva Asrani back digital release of Gulabo Sitabo, Shakuntala Devi

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