The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly altered the entertainment landscape. As the world moved more and more inwards, consumer-facing businesses were hit the hardest. Aviation, hospitality and tourism are still reeling from the impact of national and localised lockdowns that were imposed to contain the spread of the virus. The entertainment industry, too, changed remarkably. The large screen suddenly disappeared. Big-budget films were released on several OTT video-streaming platforms and the pandemic-induced lockdowns resulted in a boom in content on these platforms.
A report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), titled Lights, Camera, Action … The Show Goes On that was released at the CII Big Picture Summit 2020, found that Tier II, III and IV towns have taken the lead in availing OTT services by clocking 1.5 times the number of new OTT users in metro and Tier I cities during the pandemic.
Big-budget films, like Coolie No 1, Gulabo Sitabo, Sadak 2 and Bhuj: The Pride of India among others, were released on online platforms. Not just movies, even exclusive online content is being increasingly created to target a very different kind of audience which very few films targeted earlier. Family Man on Amazon Prime, which has Manoj Bajpayee as the protagonist, is a prime example of the changing idea of a star or the main lead in these times.
The OTT platforms also saved the entertainment industry from going completely bust during the pandemic, which also hastened the growth of the space. As film shootings gradually began after the national lockdown was lifted in 2020 with several social distancing norms, many filmmakers stuck to online releases which helped the sector survive. Its primary examples are the film industries in the south that not only stayed afloat but also stitched together a completely new audience base that did not speak Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam or Telugu. They broke viewership records on Amazon Prime, as 50% of the audience of these films were not from the states primarily speaking these languages, Manish Menghani, head of content licensing, Prime Video India, had said in an interview.
As the OTT space started growing and a significant audience base was created, big production houses and stars from the Hindi film industry, too, started vying for this space. Several stars signed up for film deals with the platforms and, except Shah Rukh Khan, almost every big name has had an online release.
Ira Bhaskar, a professor of cinema studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, points in the direction of stars who had started seeing a downside in their careers but have suddenly become popular again. Saif Ali Khan, for example, with shows like Sacred Games and Tandav, reinvigorated his career. Other actors like Madhuri Dixit and Sushmita Sen are all reinventing their careers through content on OTT platforms, she adds.
Since films no longer require a big-screen release, the traditional definition of a matinee idol—the male lead whose name was enough to get the box office ringing—seems to have lost its relevance. The pandemic came as a rude shock to many, reminding them that good content does not always necessarily need big stars to be successful. For the makers, too, OTT platforms have become the biggest outlet for intellectual sincerity. It is easier to make meaningful content when they are not chained by the concerns around the distribution of films. Online platforms allow makers to create without being limited by budget concerns.
“The OTT boom opened doors for several character artistes, like Pankaj Tripathi, Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who are powerhouse performers but would not have had the same kind of space if the OTT platforms were not there. It created scope for narratives that were not star centric. It created a space for indie cinema. In a sense, it opened up a space that was not inherently a ‘matinee idol’ kind of a space,” explains Bhaskar.
In a country as diverse as India, the idea of a star or a matinee idol is not homogeneous either. While most of regional cinema has been significantly star dominated, there are region-wise shades of difference. In the south, it is common for heroes to attain God-like reverence. Hindi and Bengali films, too, have a history of star obsession, but it is more about star-struck wonder than godly reverence.
“The concept of a star or a matinee idol is different for Hindi movies than, say, in southern movies. The south has Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith. These are big stars. In Bollywood, at one point, there was Amitabh Bachchan. Then, of course, it was dominated by the Khans. But, it all boils down to how important the project is. In the south, irrespective of content, the hero is big,” argues trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
He believes that despite digital enthusiasts saying that OTT platforms will replace movie theatres, that will not be the case. The Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi, which had a theatre release in November, collected over Rs 230 crore. It became Bollywood’s first blockbuster in the new normal. “The emergence of OTT as a credible force has not yet had any significant impact on the idea of a star. It has its own advantages, but nothing can replace the magic of watching a movie on the big screen,” says Adarsh.
Manoj Desai, executive director of the G7 multiplex and Maratha Mandir cinema, says that Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge continues to run successfully even after 26 years of its release. He says that Maratha Mandir’s location gives him the advantage of targeting an audience that travels to Gujarat. “The state transport buses stop near the hall. People stop for a show and then take a bus to Gujarat. It still is the same, with a temporary pause caused last year. Movie halls give you the opportunity to target all kinds of audience,” Desai explains.
Sooryavanshi, he says, ran full house in all of his three theatres in which it was screened. “Houseful at 50% capacity. So, stars are still big. Of course, a lot has changed. People can connect their smartphones to smart TVs to watch movies, series and everything. But, this has been there for some time now. It is nothing new,” Desai says, emphasising that stars and big screens will never go out of vogue.
Bhaskar believes that both the platforms will coexist as OTT has its advantages of individulised and choice-based viewing experience. At the same time, she agrees with the others who say that the big-screen experience is not so easily replaceable. “The whole big-screen experience now is part of a larger aspirational culture. These theatres are all inside malls which anyone can enter. So, going for a film is a whole day’s outing for several middle-class families. The kind of stars might change but the concept will not. Even OTTs now are star-driven. I do not think stardom is so easily replaceable,” she adds.