A Bollywood actor’s face tattooed on his arm, Sandeep Bacche’s devotion shocks few in India where stars enjoy semi-divine status, but even there the hallowed silver screen might be losing its shine to streaming services and pandemic fears.
“Whenever things get better and theaters begin operations, I will watch three movies a day for sure just as a way to celebrate,” said the Mumbai rickshaw driver, who is recovering from the virus himself.
However, others might not join the party.
With cinemas shut for months due to a COVID-19 lockdown, and little prospect they will reopen soon, frustrated Bollywood producers have turned to the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar to release films online.
Gulabo Sitabo, starring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, premiered on Amazon Prime last month. Other Hindi movies have followed a similar route, as have the huge Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam-language film industries.
This has sparked fury from cinema operators.
INOX Leisure Ltd, India’s second-largest multiplex operator, warned producers of possible “retributive measures.”
“Movie stars are not made on the small screen but on the silver screen,” INOX executive directorSiddharth Jain said.
However, noting the financial might of the competition, he said: “No business model in the world can compete with free money and Netflix is nothing but free money.”
Shoojit Sircar, who directed Gulabo Sitabo, said that “a digital release was a tough decision,” but financial constraints pushed him to do it.
“A lot of technicians are dependent on me,” Sircar said. “Cinema magic cannot be replaced by TV, iPad or laptop experience, but I needed to move on.”
India has the world’s most prolific film industry, churning out nearly 1,800 releases in 2018. Stars are worshiped like gods, with fans building temples and making pilgrimages to their homes.
Going to the cinema also remains a hugely popular and affordable pursuit, with 75 rupees (US$1) buying three hours of entertainment in an air-conditioned movie theater.
Yet with more than half of India’s population under the age of 30, and many of them consuming entertainment on mobile phones, the likes of Netflix were starting to make inroads even before COVID-19 hit.
Hotstar, the market leader now owned by Disney, boasted 300 million active monthly users in 2018 — offering some content for free and other shows only to subscribers. The shutdown has only accelerated the shift.
For years Mumbai-based teacher Nigel D’Souza, 27, was one of the holdouts, preferring to watch films in cinemas.
However, when India went into lockdown in late March, he bit the bullet and subscribed to both Amazon Prime — aggressively priced in India at just 129 rupees per month — and Netflix.
He is now hooked.
“It was very cheap ... as we don’t spend money on expensive popcorn or travel,” he said. Furthermore, he found he “could binge-watch any number of movies ... without worrying about the virus.”
Vijay Subramaniam, Amazon Prime’s director of content for India, said that the company was not looking to put cinemas out of business.
“Theatres play an important role in film distribution and we aren’t looking to change that,” he said.
However, he added: “As technology continues to change that landscape, customers’ preferences of what to watch and where will continue to evolve.”
Meanwhile, cinemas are getting ready for the end of lockdown, which would come with strict rules that would further eat away at their profit margins.
Some seats would have to be left empty and cinema halls would have to be thoroughly disinfected after every show.
However, it is not all doom and gloom.
“The cinema experience is ingrained in our blood ... [it] will never go out of fashion,” said Girish Johar, a Mumbai-based film trade analyst.
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