How the pandemic has temporarily overthrown the tyranny of box office



The box office has always been the great leveller in Bollywood. A producer once told me that any polarisation within the industry on religious lines would necessarily be superficial because the deity they worship is success. On the flip side, you could be the biggest name, the most adored face, but fail back-to-back and you’d quickly see your star begin to dim.

Years ago, I was talking to Farah Khan about gender politics in the business and she jokingly added that industrywallahs didn’t care who was behind the camera, man, woman or dog, as long as the film was a hit.

But until about a decade ago, success wasn’t defined so wholly by box office numbers. Critical acclaim, festival openings, even obscure awards could all be counted towards your tally of successes.

Then the box office boomed, and earnings became a spectator sport. The figures, once the exclusive purview of the trade pundits who huddled in Naaz building in South Mumbai, seeped into the mainstream media. Rupees 100 crore became the gold standard for success; the term was coined after Aamir Khan’s Ghajini (2008) became the first Hindi film to hit that figure domestically.

Soon, producers were touting box office figures in promotional material and these stats became a stamp of quality rather than popularity, the belief being that if it had a good run, it had to be good.

Opening-day figures were widely circulated and debated, especially for big-budget releases. I remember Kabir Khan telling me before the release of one of his Salman Khan-starrers that no one was even talking about the quality of the film. It was all about the opening and whether it had trumped Salman’s last hit. (Incidentally, the record for biggest Hindi cinema opening is held by Hrithik Roshan’s 2019 film War, which raked in ₹50 crore on its first day.)

As the 100-crore club became the 200-crore club, then the 500-crore club, the scrutiny of the numbers intensified. Opening weekend figures became how the industry defined its stars — actors who could get bums on seats for the very first show. An actor’s paycheck was based on his or her ability to open the run. After that, it was the film that worked or didn’t.

Incidentally, this factor has been cited as a key reason why female artists earn so much less than their male counterparts — no actress so far has been able to match the Friday figures of the industry’s top male leads.

The pandemic has temporarily relaxed the chokehold of the box office on Bollywood. On June 12, Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo premiered on Amazon Prime. It was a Friday, but the usual rituals were missing — the trade reports, the acerbic WhatsApp messages dissecting the good or poor opening, the chatter around the star power of Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan.

Instead, film Twitter was discussing the performances (how good was Farrukh Jafar!), the beautifully crafted melancholy that infuses the film, the terrific female characters, the measured pace. Which was a refreshing change.

I’m a great lover of movie theatres. But I wonder if this break will help us all to reshape the conversation. Sometime in 2013, I hosted a discussion with several artists on the tyranny of the idea of the ‘100-crore club’. During the chat, Rajkumar Hirani, whose films have netted multiples of this, said he found the box office chatter absurd. When you choose a restaurant to eat at, as he put it, you don’t factor in its business; you consider the quality of the food. No restaurant (apart from the fast-food chain McDonald’s, perhaps) markets itself on the number of meals sold.

He’s exactly right. This pause in theatrical releases has forcibly stalled our obsession with box office numbers. Perhaps we will now return to the basics of what makes a movie worthwhile — does it offer something new, is it worth talking about, is it actually worth watching?

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