Bollywood back with a bang; Why Pathaan wreaked havoc?
Bollywood is having a resurgence of sorts with its latest release ‘Pathaan’. With a lackluster 2021/2022, and with the South movie industry dominating the box office, multiple critics and pundits were quick to label the Bollywood brand as dead. However, with Pathaan churning numbers unheard of post-pandemic era, one needs to look at how this particular film is single-handedly rebranding the new Bollywood 2.0.
Before we get into why and how Pathaan is wreaking havoc at the box-office, we need to look into why and how Bollywood had such an extended lull period i.e. from 2020-2023.
Before the COVID pandemic, the superstars were sure to churn monstrous weekend box-office numbers. Such was the power of Bollywood superstars like Amir Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar… that even their worst performing movies would easily get into the 100 crore club. A film’s long term box office would be dictated by its overall content, however, brand Bollywood was so strong that the weekend numbers alone would be enough to turn profit. However, with COVID pandemic disrupting the global film industry with massive lockdowns all over, Bollywood faced its brunt too. India, with its sweeping preventive measures, shut down theatres for more than a year. This led to a shift in audience’s film watching behavior. Watching a Khan’s movie, especially, during festive seasons like Diwali and Eid had become an essential part of how an average Indian ‘celebrated’ the festivals. With massive lockdowns, however, the audience behavior significantly changed.
Rise of OTT platforms
Rise of OTT platforms like Disney+, Netflix, Prime video and fueled by the COVID restrictions, changed how an average Indian experienced a movie. Instead of going to the theatre, they could wait for the movie to stream on OTT platforms. Ergo, these platforms significantly removed any incentive to risk one’s health by going to the theatres. Additionally, OTT platforms stream movies from all over the world. This meant that Indian moviegoers were exposed to not just regional cinema or Hollywood, but to global cinema during this period. This helped create fatigue with the type of movies Bollywood was churning pre-pandemic.
However, it would be foolish to put the failure of Bollywood simply on COVID and OTT platforms. Come 2021, with COVID largely managed and mitigated in India, Southern movie industries kept turning blockbusters after blockbusters. In fact, they were able to fill the void left by Bollywood by releasing larger-than-life cinematic movies like RRR, Puspa, Karthikeya 2 and KGF 2. In fact, post-pandemic South Indian film industry has in-fact oustered Bollywood as the ‘pan-Indian’ movie industry. So, what gives?
Indian fatigue with woke virtue signalling
Much like Hollywood movies faltering post-pandemic with the likes of lackluster performance even from the MCU, minus the Spiderman- No way home, it seems Bollywood audience are sick and tired of woke virtue signaling that forcefully tries to ring home some or other sort of liberal social messages. Hollywood suffered the same fate with the likes of ‘All-female lead’ Ghostbusters, Charlies Angels and She-Hulk. However, with the spectacular success of Tom Cruise’s ‘Top Gun; Maverick’ and now with the havoc that Pathaan is wreaking, it seems clear, audience want to watch a full-on unapologetic over-the-top cinematic movies in theatres.
The curious case of the Kashmir Files
While as mentioned above, by and in large over-the-top ‘Masala’ flicks are being preferred by the global movie goers, with India there is a glaring exception. The Kashmir Files minted 300 crores against its miniscule 16 crore budget. And unlike the South Indian movies like RRR, KGF2 and Puspa, the movie is dark, somber and deeply dividing. Also, unlike these movies, The Kashmir Files is a very difficult to watch movie meaning even for those who loved this movie, the movie does not have much of a repeat audience. Moreover, unlike these high budget movies, the ticket prices were also relatively lower. What it means is that if you look at the footfalls ( how many people watched this movie) instead of just the box office numbers, the number will easily be higher than the eventual footfalls of biggies like Pathaan.
What this tells us is that there is a sort of cultural renaissance going on in India right now. It is the same audience who lapped up contents like ‘Bodyguard’ or ‘PK’. While we can go into a lengthy political debate over whether this is a right or wrong thing, Indians post-2014’s massive Modi victory seem to be increasingly assertive in their patriotism and cultural heritage. They seem to increasingly be willing to challenge the status quo historic labels. For example, The Kashmir Files was successfully able to relabel the Kashmiri ‘mass exodus’ as a ‘genocide’. Whether you disagree does not matter. An average Indian today firmly believes that the Kashmiri pundits were massacred.
Pathaan finally cracks the code
With Bollywood movies with minor exceptions like Bhool Bholaiya 2, Drishyam 2 and The Kashmir files, bombing at the box office even with big ticket stars like Ranbir Kapoor, Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh, Bollywood had been covertly trying to tap into this Socio-cultural Indian renaissance with the likes of movies like ‘Ramsetu’ and ‘Brahmastra’. These movies tried to tap into the ‘Indianness’. However, they faltered as the effort seemed to be purely from a business perspective.
It seems this rebranding and re-shifting Bollywood to its roots i.e. complete Masala entertainers that is unapologetically Indian in its roots was what was missing. Pathaan is not a masterpiece by any means. What it is, however, is unapologetically Indian. The lead character is a diehard Indian patriot. While the movie tries to virtue signal a bit by incorporating a ‘good’ ISI agent and tolerant Afghan community that nurses an Indian solider on a peace keeping mission back to health, this is a minor hurdle to the overarching theme of Indian patriotism and a godlike persona of our very own Shahrukh Khan( SRK).
Dying breed of superstars
While in the South Indian industry, new actors keep becoming superstars, it seems like age of superstars in Bollywood is truly gone. It is not like Pathaan cracked this ‘Indianizing’ code first. If you have a look at the string of latest Bollywood releases, all of them are trying this formula in one way or the other. However, the fact that Bollywood still needed a 60 year old superstar to bring itself out of the box office slumber is very telling.
The scene where Tiger, aka Salman Khan, enters to aid Pathaan created pandemonium at most Indian theatres. Also, they engage in some inside joke saying something to this effect, ‘ Even after 30 years, it seems we have to get it done. We can’t rely on the youngsters’. This self-awareness that Bollywood has not managed to create any viable alternatives to the Khans is worrying.
While for now, Bollywood can finally heave a sigh of relief, it really looks like the age of superstars is dead with the Khans, Ajay Devgan, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan.
To conclude, it seems at least for now, Bollywood is finally on track. With the kind of response Pathaan is getting, and with the chaos at theatres the entry of Tiger provided, it is safe to say these superstars are the brand themselves. Additionally, with the success of this movie, in addition to unapologetically ‘Indian’ movies like Kantara, Kashmir files, KGF 2 and RRR, the audience have given their verdict. They will take their woke liberal teachings in their social studies class. If you want to make a financially successful movie, stop preaching. With the rise of OTT, cinemagoers want larger than life stories. Cinema is a hyperreal medium, and audience go to theatres to experience the hyperreal. Real can be experienced in reality! Brand Bollywood has been looking to find its footing for quite sometime now, and it looks like this revised branding to old Bollywood is here to stay!