Bollywood is in a crisis — it either changes, or dies

The Hindi film industry needs to learn from its South Indian counterparts and reinvent its storytelling.

In this picture taken on September 30, 2022, people get their tickets checked before entering the Maratha Mandir Cinema Theatre in Mumbai. - India's Bollywood film industry, long part of the cultural fabric of the movie-mad country of 1.4 billion people, is facing its biggest-ever crisis as streaming services and non-Hindi language rivals steal its sparkle. (Photo by Punit PARANJPE / AFP) / To go with 'Entertainment-India-Cinema-Lifestyle-Film', FOCUS by Glenda KWEK
People get their tickets checked before entering the Maratha Mandir Cinema Theatre in Mumbai. India's Bollywood film industry is facing one of its biggest-ever crises with successive flops at the box office [File: Photo by Punit PARANJPE/AFP]

This year has been one of the toughest that Bollywood has faced in decades. Its age-old formula of male-led dramas with weak or non-existent storylines, coupled with the belief that stars can do no wrong, have brought the Hindi film industry to a critical crossroads – one where its identity is in crisis.

Big budget movies with many of India’s most bankable megastars such as Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Ranbir Kapoor have sunk without a trace. These heavily advertised flops include Kumar’s Bachchan Pandey, Kapoor’s Shamshera and Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha – a Hindi remake of Forrest Gump.

Another of Kapoor’s films, Brahmastra — which is The Da Vinci Code and the Marvel universe rolled into one — debuted so badly that the shares of India’s leading theatre companies, Inox and PVR, tanked. Producers and theatre owners had to slash ticket prices to get the audience into halls, eventually recouping its budget.

So what is going on with the Hindi film industry?

It is not as though people are not coming to the movies after the pandemic. Just look at the stunning success of South Indian film industries this year. The epic RRR and action drama Pushpa: The Rise – in Telugu – are among India’s top-performing movies of 2022. RRR has smashed records to become the third-highest grossing Indian film of all time, garnering about $160m worldwide. The Kannada film KGF:2 is also among the country’s biggest earners this year.

Most recently, ace director Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyan Selvan: I, based on a classic Tamil tale, has become the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time in that language, and the 16th highest-grossing Indian film of all time. And Kannada action thriller Kantara has become the third-highest grossing Kannada film of all time.

Could it be that the periodic calls for boycotts that Indian films face –  especially from supporters of the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or if the movie features a critic of the government – are keeping viewers away? Well, no, because films with Akshay Kumar, who has been a vocal proponent of this administration and has faced no boycott calls, have also flopped.

The answer to what ails Bollywood is actually simple. Stories – or the lack thereof.

India is a movie-hungry country, and its popular culture is heavily dominated by its film industries, particularly Bollywood. Nothing – not calls for bans, not even public health worries – can stop the average Indian fan from watching a movie that ticks all the right boxes.

Before over-the-top (OTT) services, the bulk of Bollywood’s financing went into producing movies that were clichéd and dependent on big and supposedly reliable stars. Going to theatres to watch a film – any film – was the norm. Indian television serials never had the kind of viewership that Western networks enjoy.

Now, though, the variety of content on OTT platforms is practically unending, and the Indian viewer can binge on international productions like House of the Dragon, the recently released Game of Thrones prequel that has shattered records for HBO. With that exposure, why should the viewer go to theatres to watch unimaginative movies with zero value?

That is where OTT platforms hold valuable lessons for mainstream Bollywood. The rich bouquet of content available on streaming platforms has not come out of thin air.

OTT services have made it easier for filmmakers to work with lesser-known but talented actors on a wider range of narratives than traditional Bollywood allows. This democratisation of the industry has dealt a blow to poor storytelling. The competition is high too since the audience is global and not just Indian: This helps with quality control and pushing boundaries with the kind of stories coming out of the industry.

The pay is fairer and moderated, so fledgling writers, directors, cinematographers, producers and actors – including women and people from less-represented communities do not struggle as creative talent as much as they did in a previously unregulated industry. For example, as an industry outsider with no connections, I have had opportunities to meet, discuss and work with Bollywood veterans, which would have been unimaginable even five years ago. It has been the same for countless writers, cinematographers, directors and producers who would have struggled for steady work if not for OTT platforms.

This is not to say that mainstream Bollywood theatrical releases cannot aim for the success of their South Indian counterparts in the months and years ahead. What it means is that Bollywood’s old formula is not working any more.

A well-told relatable story is key. In fact, writers and directors from South India point out that this is where their industries shine – the ability to stay rooted to the masses by consistently addressing the common man’s dilemma. RRR and Ponniyan Selvan are larger-than-life narratives built around real historical events that Indian cinema has traditionally ignored. Kantara, likewise, highlights the animist beliefs of parts of the coastal state of Karnataka that much of India never knew about.

Hindi cinema could also look within for answers from the kinds of stories that have resonated with audiences this year. These include movies such as Jugjugg Jeeyo, which deals with marital conflict born out of women being more successful than their husbands; Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, an entertaining comedy horror film; and Gangubai Kathiawadi, a crime drama based on the life of a mafia queen. Gangubai even became a surprise hit in Thailand.

Bollywood must follow the path of change to survive. It must listen to what audiences have to say. The point is to offer variety – the kind that covers every aspect of the storytelling spectrum.

India is a diverse country with thousands of years of stories to tell. We need to respect the average Indian’s desire for a good story – one that is interesting, relatable and thrilling. It is the only way to stay relevant. And to survive.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.