How the Indian movie-goer’s tastes are changing

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Urban Indian youth, with increased exposure to English content, are experiencing a waning of interest in Bollywood’s formulaic filmstar-centric approach to cinema.

The massive collections for Avengers Infinity War at the Indian box office shows Bollywood has to up its game in order to compete with English content. | AP

16-year-old Arushi Sinha is rushing home around 11 p.m. on a weeknight. She’s just finished watching Avengers: Infinity War, kickstarting summer break after a busy semester at school — a top-ranked institution in suburban Mumbai — and hung out with her gang of girls for a much-needed breather at a posh multiplex. “We will always choose an Avengers: Infinity War or a Deadpool movie over anything else. Bollywood’s standards have really dropped. I heard so much about October, but really, it was disappointing!”

Arushi’s friends and peers rarely discuss a Bollywood film, let alone watch it. And their indifference indicates a major and possibly permanent alteration in cinematic tastes among India’s urban youth.

Movie-going has changed. In choosing a film or a TV series to stream, Indian urban youth tend to be part of a quasi-global fraternity of sorts — one that has it’s own heroes, superheroes and urban legends. And no one but our homegrown mainstream Hindi film industry is to be thanked for it.

Seasoned film trade analysts in India hailed Avengers: Infinity War as a film event. They can’t ignore the potential game-changing impact the film has had in Indian theatres.

 

 

Consider this — releasing with less than 2,000 prints across India, in dubbed and subtitled versions, the MCU film made over ₹120 crore in its first weekend of release. In less than three weeks, it has crossed ₹250 crore across the country, making the film’s collections in India among the five largest across the world outside the United States and Canada. This detail becomes important as the other leading grosser markets for the film include Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico and South Korea. None of these nations have a thriving homegrown film and entertainment industry of their own. And yet, in terms of promotion and publicity, Infinity War did nothing at all beyond beam its trailer in the Indian market.

I noticed a gaggle of twenty under-12s at an upmarket multiplex in Mumbai while collecting my ticket for Infinity War. Chatting with them showed just how different their forms and vehicles of entertainment have become. The kids were getting together for a second viewing of the film, as a birthday treat. Recliner seats, premium F&B and the immersive 3D experience was totally worth spending time on. With busy school, sports and tuition schedules, these kids were game for Deadpool as the second summer release to round off their vacation. At home, they watch Netflix. They are clued onto Jessica Jones and Daredevil. And they love watching supernatural series like the American Stranger Things, or the European Dark. It’s as if they exist in an invisible, separated sphere from their parents and the Hindi-speaking people of the city.

Nupur Singh Riat, a digital marketing expert who regularly targets young adults as part of her briefs, explains, “What we have as superheroes in Hindi cinema — like a Ra.One or Krishh — are insufferable when you compare it to Black Panther in terms of extravagance and narrative. Besides, Internet penetration and better speeds have ensured that we now have a substantial market that streams subtitled content. So the youth consumes American content more than ever before.”

 

No longer is it Indians’s lot to depend on show reruns that would become available several months or years after a show has been released in America or Europe. Increased equity of access to content today has generated an affinity among young urban Indians with a global community. A simple Facebook search reveals sustained interest after watching the film. Conversations, memes, responses to the post-credits scene, and general chatter around a possible sequel dominate social media feeds.

Siddharth Thyagarajan, a policy adviser based in Delhi, says, “With Avengers, the phenomenon is like a book that one grows up with. I watched the first Iron Man movie 10 years ago and it’s fascinating to connect with how the characters have evolved over time. These films have managed to sustain interest through classic [post-credits scenes], leaving us curious. Much like why did Kattappa Kill Baahubali — only on a much larger scale.”

Film trade analysts concur that young audiences choose quality entertainment above all else. To them, no film star’s name is big enough to draw them to the theatre simply by dint of their cachet. Leading film exhibitor Akshay Rathi says, “If you add up the cost of commuting, a multiplex ticket and the F&B, one will not opt to spend time or money unless they can find quality and value. This is the Netflix generation for whom English is no longer a language barrier. So an immersive experience will bring them in [to a theatre],” he concludes pointing out to the pan-Indian appeal that the Baahubali films have.

As is evident from the amount of fan-based content that Infinity War has generated on social media, films like this one also create a massive FOMO factor (Fear Of Missing Out). Naomi Datta, a digital media professional, says, “The Indian market is kind of replicating what has happened globally and in the U.S. market. People go to movie theatres to watch big tent-pole spectacles. A movie experience in India has to be something that cannot be replicated on your phone, laptop or TV set. Which is why when something like Avengers comes along, going to the movies is non-negotiable.” As she specifies, she can always watch an Indian film on a streaming platform later on.

 

Backing up the mind-boggling visual effects and spectacles, are solid storylines that feed myths around these Marvel superheroes. Explaining how smartly MCU films have tapped the social media, Mitali Laungani, a social media content creator explains, “Superhero films don’t exist in Bollywood and [therefore] hold a huge novelty factor. I would add that smart marketing on social media platforms [using popular Indian comics] created and sustained desired hype in India for Avengers: Infinity War.”

Hollywood’s expanding footprint in Hindi cinema is not new. It’s the pace at which American cinema and Western TV are conquering the Indian movie theatre that’s worth taking serious note of by makers of Hindi films. For, this is the audience, those below 16 years of age and going on to 45 today, that will determine who spends what on which film in the future. Like it happened to Hong Kong–based films and European cinema a couple of decades ago, Hindi films might become a niche indulgence and a rural product, if it doesn’t adapt to survive. Meanwhile, with 7,000 comic book characters to choose from, and a South Asian woman superheroine in the making, superheroes are only set to become more integral to the Indian youth’s imagination.

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