The very nature of Bollywood films is changing. Though big-budget films are by no means extinct, such productions are increasingly viewed as financial gambles that must compete with the wider range of high-quality options available to viewers. Even if quite a few Bollywood releases have sold more tickets by virtue of their wider releases, it’s the smaller, more critically acclaimed releases like Newton and Hindi Medium that were among 2017’s most profitable films. This apparent shift has been underway for the past decade—it’s the sense of panic gripping the industry that is new.
There are a number of potential explanations. In 2009, the domestic box-office share of films produced in Hollywood was 7.2 percent. This year through October 1, the figure was 19.8 percent, according to Box Office India, with blockbusters like The Fate Of The Furious and Thor: Ragnarok among the biggest hits in India. These films receive releases as wide as mainstream Bollywood movies. And because they’re dubbed into a number of Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu, they reach more viewers than films in Hindi, which isn’t spoken as widely in the south and northeast corners of the country.
Many Indians also now prefer to consume their entertainment on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar, whose combined subscriber base has grown 160 percent in the past year. Piracy also costs the Indian movie industry roughly $2 billion a year.
Still others eschew Hindi movies in favor of regional language films. The southern Tamil and Telugu-language film industries, which each produce nearly as many films as Bollywood, have long dominated their regions, and are beginning to capture more of the national box-office. This year, the Telugu-Tamil bilingual fantasy epic Bahubali 2: The Conclusion was far more successful than any Bollywood film; its dubbed Hindi version alone has taken in $74.8 million, while the highest-grossing Hindi film, Golmaal Again, has managed only $31.6 million.
While Bahubali 2 was praised for its imaginative storyline and inventive, CGI-driven combat sequences, Golmaal Again is regressive, formulaic, and puerile. Industry experts said that the latter’s relative success at the box-office stemmed from the fact that it had a wide release and opened during the Hindu festival of Diwali, traditionally a popular time for going to the movies. In 2017, star-led films such as Mubarakan, Haseena Parkar, Baadshaho, stumbled at the box office, while the success of Golmaal Again is being seen as an anomaly—a telling sign.
Meanwhile, the industry is banking on the “small big film” as well as web-only shows to get itself out of its ongoing creative rut. “You can’t have uniformity of taste in a country as vast and diverse as India,” Gaurav Verma, chief revenue officer at Red Chillies Entertainment, a prominent film production house, told me. “Filmmaking is a long process … and we often find that tastes have changed by [the end of a production]. The challenge is to find something that doesn’t age so easily. Also, longform [shows] helps you make challenging content on subjects you wouldn’t have touched earlier.”