Bollywood suffers as cinemas are shut, but streaming services provide a lifeline during Covid-19 lockdown

Asha Negi, an Indian film buff, has been going to the cinema since childhood and boasts proudly that she has seen at least one film every week for the past 20 years.

“Watching films on a big screen and booming sound is definitely an enthralling experience, and if you are watching it with friends or family members as I prefer to do, it is great fun,” she says.

But the Covid-19 lockdown has brought about a paradigm shift in the viewing habits of tens of millions of film lovers like Asha, 39, who lives in the Indian capital, Delhi.

Cinema employees stand at the entrance to the closed theatre in New Delhi, India. Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

India, with over 2,000 films produced each year, is a country famously obsessed with films. People like Asha enjoy the theatre’s atmosphere and prefer watching films on the big screen as social engagements with family and friends.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably changed the way people consume media and entertainment in India.

An estimated 3.5 billion film tickets are sold across India each year, but due to a strict national lockdown across this country of avid cinema-goers, people of all ages have been forced to stay at home. They've turned to watching watch films on digital mediums where consumption has increased significantly for over-the-top (OTT) platforms which offers streaming media services directly to viewers via the Internet.

Indian film fans queue at a cinema pre-Covid. Credit: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Some 9,500 theatres are currently shut, and business at multiplexes and single-screen cinemas are unlikely to bounce back for weeks or even months, as infection fears linger and the amount of money people have to spend on luxuries plunges.

“Even when theatres are opened, I would avoid going in the beginning and wait for some time before I start going”, says Asha. It is a view echoed by many of Delhi’s residents. For the first time in the history of Indian cinema, film producers have skipped the theatrical release of movies and are now releasing directly onto OTT platforms.

This contrasts directly with many countries where screenings have been delayed because of Covid-19, most notably the latest James Bond ‘No Time To Die’ which had been due for release in April, but now will be launched in November.

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan's new film, Gulabo Sitabo, is now to be streamed on Amazon Prime. Credit: AP Photo

Amazon Prime Video, the American streaming giant, has secured rights to premiere seven Indian movies (initially scheduled for a theatrical release) directly on its Prime Video on-demand streaming service. These films include 'Gulabo Sitabo', starring Indian legend Amitabh Bachchan, and 'Shakuntala Devi', featuring Vidya Balan as lead, over the next three months.

“This family entertainer has the power to cut across geographic boundaries and we are pleased to bring ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ to audiences across the globe,” said Amitabh Bachchan, one of the India’s most famous actors.

Cinema fans may have expressed excitement on this unexpected change, but theatre owners in contrast feel gloom and great loss.

“Theatrical release is the best way for our film makers and this has been the case for decades”, says Sanjeev Bijli, Joint Managing Director of PVR Cinemas. His company runs 845 screens and is the largest chain of cinemas in India.

“We are definitely disappointed with some of our producers deciding to go straight to the streaming platforms,” says Bijli.

Theatre-owners fear that in future they may have to record customers’ names and addresses, while checking temperature and ensuring sanitisation, use of masks, and social distancing. This may spoil the audience’s experience, and likely boost costs.

It is predicted the film industry will take years to recover financially from the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: AP Photo

With a soaring number of Covid-19 cases, the morale is very low in India’s film capital city, Mumbai. Veteran film journalist and Entertainment Editor of NDTV Group, Rohit Khilnani, thinks that Indian film industry is going through its worst phase because of the lockdown.

“Small and medium budget films would go to OTT platforms for their survival as they don’t have deep pockets to hold on for long time, but big budget films would hold on for theatre releases”, says Khilnani, and adds: “Film producers are going through a rough patch and regular movie-goers would not go to theatres, even after restrictions are lifted.”

It is predicted the Hindi film industry will take at least two years to recover financially from the coronavirus pandemic, which is threatening big-ticket projects and risking tens of thousands of jobs, from movie extras to dancers, stagehands and technicians working on film sets on a day-to-day basis.

India’s media and entertainment industry, both directly and indirectly, accounted for almost three per cent of gross domestic product, and employed about one million people through the formal and informal economy, according to a 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group. So, the stakes are high, and no immediate relief from Covid-19 is in sight for conventional ways of enjoying film.

Yet, those involved in film remain confident that at some stage the traditional experience of enjoying the once flourishing Bollywood in packed, atmosphere-filled theatres will one day return.

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