Monday, 29 May 2017

Baahubali: The Way Forward?

As I write, the box office collections of Baahubali 2 in India alone stand at nearly 2000 crores- a figure unprecedented in the history of Indian cinema and one that Hindi cinema can never hope to achieve on its own. For an industry facing an existential crisis, Baahubali could well prove to be the trailblazer showing the way forward.

Much as I hate the term 'Bollywood', it is a pretty apt description of the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, which has usually functioned as a poor man's Hollywood, recycling the plots of older movies or simply ripping off Hollywood movies. Add to it the fact that over the last two decades, Bollywood movies started looking less and less Indian, with very little by way of original content and frequently set abroad.

About the same time, Hollywood studios started releasing their movies dubbed in Hindi and other regional languages (which Bollywood never bothered to do). What that effectively did, was to leave Bollywood filmmakers in direct competition with Hollywood studios, with their deeper pockets and far bigger budgets. Predictably, dubbed versions of Hollywood movies have chomped off a huge slice of the pie. 

It must also be said that Bollywood filmmakers did themselves no favours with their sudden obsession with northern culture. Since the turn of the century, the vast majority of characters in Bollywood movies have been north Indians. Bollywood long ago stopped reflecting the socio-cultural diversity of India. In fact, in recent years we have been treated to absurdities like a Gujarati character singing about a 'Punjabi wedding song' or a South Indian character singing a song with the obviously Punjabi words 'Ghar nahi jaana'!

What that effectively did was to alienate a huge chunk of the potential audience which could not connect with the characters or cultural references. The resultant vacuum was filled by regional cinema, to the point where the budgets and box office returns of regional films started matching those of Bollywood films. There too the contest has become increasingly uneven, as regional films carry far lower risk, catering as they do to a specific audience. 

A striking example of the rise of regional cinema is Bahubali, which would have made a massive profit even if it had not been dubbed in Hindi. As a matter of fact, South Indian movies dubbed in Hindi have been appearing on television for several years now and there exists a significant audience for such movies, not least due to the fact that the characters and the settings are unmistakably Indian, quite unlike a lot of Bollywood movies these days. 

And so Bollywood filmmakers today find themselves waging an uphill struggle against Hollywood on the one hand and regional cinema on the other. This is not a passing phase but a struggle for relevance in a rapidly changing environment. There is only one way forward- unlearn and relearn. With the vast majority of movies sinking at the box office, the starting point is for Bollywood to realise that the existing way of doing things can no longer continue.

First and foremost, filmmakers need to do a serious rethink on their content. With access to Hollywood movies dubbed in their own languages, there is no reason why viewers would care to watch copycat movies in what is perhaps their second or even third language. The only way to win them back is to develop original content, which is hardly a challenge if the industry stops neglecting its writers. There's also the fact that that there exists an ocean of brilliant content if Bollywood wallahs took the trouble to explore pulp fiction in Indian languages.

Secondly, Bollywood needs to open up its eyes to the vast untapped potential of regional languages. If the makers of Bahubali could make a killing by releasing their movie in Hindi, there is no reason why Hindi movies cannot do likewise by dubbing their movies in regional languages. However, there are two things they need to be cautious about if this opportunity has to be exploited: one, the quality of dubbing is of paramount importance. Two, the characters and the content should reflect the cultural diversity of India, if the movies are to connect with the potential audience.

In this context, Bollywood could actually tap into hitherto neglected markets. There are several regions where the regional language industry is either non-existent or too small in terms of budget or scale. There is absolutely no reason why filmmakers cannot tap into that audience by dubbing their movies in the languages of those regions. Bringing on board regional actors could also help reduce the wildly inflated budgets. That would serve the dual benefit of opening up a new market while simultaneously giving a boost to the local cinema. Here once again, the relatability of the content will be crucial. 

Admittedly, there is the added challenge of piracy that Bollywood has been facing since several decades now. However, given the presence of torrents and other file sharing sites online, there is little that the industry can do. What it can do, however, is to explore new markets. While the likes of Aamir Khan have already shown the vast opportunity waiting to be tapped in the Chinese market, there remains a huge opportunity waiting to be exploited within India.

To my knowledge, Bollywood has made little effort to address the dual challenge from Hollywood and regional cinema beyond merely acknowledging the gravity of the situation. Predictably, industry wallahs have been pressing for protectionist measures, instead of stepping out of their comfort zone. It is a classic situation of attempting to treat cancer with band-aids. You can safely bet your last penny that the situation is only going to get worse from here.

The only question is whether the industry wakes up from its slumber before it gets too late.