East Side Story
As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of its independence, here’s a look back at the history of Indian cinema through the eyes of Uday Singh, managing director of the Motion Picture Association’s India office and an industry veteran of 26 years. Singh was interviewed by email.
Can you walk us through the changes you have witnessed from a ring-side view of the Indian entertainment industry?
Since the lights went down and the screen lit up for Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, cinema in India has grown, domestically and overseas, reaching audiences in as many as 190 countries around the world.
During the struggle for freedom, Indian cinema voiced the opinions of Indian Nationalist leaders, demonstrating anger against British rule. In the 1950s, films addressed the social ills and pressing issues of the day. Then came the 1960s and ‘70s, when films captured the vibrancy of an emerging India, addressing topics such as poverty, relationships, and the values of that time. The 1980s were dominated by action films where the “angry young man” protagonist captured the zeitgeist. In the 1990s, the imagination of audiences was captured by the return of the romantic hero and stories of youth. Since the new millennium, Indian movies have come into their own and have reached global audiences with diverse stories. Indian films feature more prominently at film festivals and the awards circuit. Likewise, box office revenues have been buoyed by success in emerging markets for Indian stories, exemplified by the huge success of Dangal and Secret Superstar in China.
The latest trend is the emergence of National Cinema, where films from the south of India such as KGF2, Bahubali 2: the Conclusion, Pushpa and RRR have become massive pan-Indian hits, overcoming the fragmented viewing habits of the audience’s parochial language preferences. A low-to-mid-budget Hindi film, Kashmir Files (which deals with the exodus of Hindus in the 1990s from Kashmir), outperformed every major movie on the exhibitor’s schedule and became a runaway hit.
Some commentators have suggested that this phenomenon is due to streaming services encouraging new viewer habits during the pandemic when language barriers were viewed as less of an obstacle to enjoying content from other regions. International films and series from Israel, Spain, Turkey, and South Korea became accepted, as did films in regional languages. Hollywood films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have attracted audiences around the world, and in India, back to the theatre in growing numbers. The pan-Indian films from the south of India are similarly visually spectacular or have managed to capture a mood that connects with today’s audiences.
How has the screen industry evolved?
In the 1980s in India, prints were shipped to theatres and played on reel projectors, yet the home entertainment industry was waking up to the emergence of the VCR. Come the 1990s, while cinema remained analog, the emergence of pay television presented a significant new opportunity. The VCR gave way to the VCD and DVD, and India experienced a proliferation of video parlors mostly playing pirated content, not helped by the low screen density of around 10,000 cinema halls. In the 1990s, PVR built India’s first multiplex, a four-screen theatre in Delhi’s Saket. The early 2000s saw many players get into the multiplex business. Cinemas transformed to a digital format and Imax screens appeared as multiplexes expanded. Dispiritingly, the screen density today remains at a total of 9,423 screens. During this time on the supply side, well-funded local studios like UTV, Eros and YRF geared up to produce a slate of films.
The Hollywood studios, seeing the attraction of local fare, began to invest in Indian films. Sony started up a local production slate, followed by Warner Bros and then Disney. Paramount acquired a 50% stake in Viacom 18, including a local film production entity. The period between 2010 through 2020 saw a wave of consolidations. Disney bought UTV, Eros got listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and broadcasters such as Star & Sony started producing films, as did big Indian corporates Zee and Reliance ADA. Reliance Jio acquired a controlling stake in Viacom 18, which continued to make feature films.
Around 2016, new players like Netflix and Amazon Prime entered the Indian market. Broadcasters started pivoting to video-on-demand services. The new services stimulated a binge-watching culture that changed the narrative style, and during the pandemic, they grew a whopping 28%. Since the relative return to regular business in 2022, the box office has boomed, driven by films from the south of India, Hollywood films and “revenge consumption.” The largest multiplex chains, PVR and Inox, have decided upon merging their businesses, as have Zee and Sony, and Viacom18 is getting a capital infusion from Uday Shankar and James Murdoch’s Bodhi Tree. Through all this, Indian films continue to generate revenues through multiple media channels, as they remain the mainstay of music, television, video on demand, and other ancillary businesses.
How significant is the contribution of the film, television and streaming services sector to the Indian economy?
Business by box office numbers in today’s dollars is unadjusted for inflation.
$100 in 1958 = $8,642.19 in 2022, accounting for inflation as per Statista.
In the 1950s, the #1 ranked Indian film was Samadhi, with a box office of Rs 7.5 million
In the ‘60s, it was Aradhana with Rs 35 million ($467,000).
In the ’70s, Suhaag made Rs 50 million ($667,000).
In the ’80s, Maine Pyar Kiya made Rs 140 million ($1.8 million).
In the ’90s, Hum Saath Saath Hain made Rs 390 million ($5.2 million).
Between 2000-2009, 3 Idiots made Rs. 2 billion ($26 million).
Between 2010-2022, KGF made Rs 4.12 billion ($55 million unadjusted for inflation).
The biggest-ever Indian films at the box office are Dangal, Rs 20 billion ($260 million worldwide driven by China); Bahubali the Conclusion 2 – Rs.18 billion ($240million), and the recent KGF 2 which is still in release – Rs.11.7 billion ($146 million).
In 2019, the film, television, and video on demand businesses had a gross output of close to $50 billion, a value-added of $25 billion, and employed 2.67 million people. India in 2019 was the 6th largest box office market in the world with $1.6 billion.
With smart and creative storytelling, content, and regulatory input, India could soon emerge as a global content hub and contribute significantly to the Indian economy. The digital media ethics code (the self-regulatory code) that regulates video-on-demand services seems to have settled down well. Production and tax incentives at the federal level designed to encourage foreign film shoots in India also are a positive signal of the Ministry’s intent to attract offshore productions and FDI. Over and above this, several states offer production incentives. With the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s plan to facilitate screen building in the various Indian states, the box office could also see substantial growth. India is the second-largest internet market globally; the growing internet penetration, smartphone growth, and the impending introduction of 5G could provide a further fillip to the content and streaming services sector.
This article was first published on GoldenGlobes.com