Saturday, June 12

Bollywood, Reeling From the Pandemic, Shifts to Streaming

“Coolie No. 1” has all the hallmarks of a big Bollywood film: colorful costumes, larger-than-life sets, foot-tapping music and a melodramatic story about a man who pretends he has a twin to woo the woman of his dreams.

After shooting wrapped in February, the film was set for a May theatrical release. But when “Coolie No. 1” finally reaches screens on Christmas Day, it will not show up in one of India’s 3,000 theaters. Instead, it will debut on Amazon’s streaming service.

“I make films for the theater, but this time there was no way we could do that,” said David Dhawan, the director. After the coronavirus pandemic barreled in and shut down movie theaters, the wait for a theatrical debut became excruciating, he said. So a deal to send the film to Amazon after its release shifted to a direct streaming plan.

“It’s a compromise, definitely,” said Mr. Dhawan, whose movie is a remake of a 1995 blockbuster of the same name that he also directed. “But at least my film is releasing.”

Even as the government reopened theaters in October, PVR Cinemas, the country’s largest multiplex chain, reported a net loss of 184 crore rupees, or about $25 million, for the quarter that ended in September, because of the lack of new movies.

“Our revenues are abysmal because we’re still an incomplete offering,” said Ajay Bijli, the chairman and managing director of PVR Ltd., which has laid off nearly 30 percent of its employees. “It’s like having a restaurant with no food.”

The shutdowns have also forced some single-screen theaters to close permanently, which may mean less access to cinema experiences for much of India’s working class and rural populations.

All of this is making it easier for streaming services to land new movies, even with some theaters reopened. There is “an opportunity to get recent theatrical releases within four to eight weeks of their release, depending on language, to a large set of customers,” said Vijay Subramaniam, the director and head of content for Amazon Prime Video India.

The investments by streaming services in Bollywood content have also led to a surge of creativity. Instead of the usual romantic or action-hero films with all-star casts, more shows and movies are now centered on women, war and other topics, analysts said. More than half the Netflix films released in India this year were from a female producer or director, the company said, and more than half of its Indian films and series have women as central characters.

“That sort of lowest common denominator or one-size-fits-all content strategy is now slowly fading out,” said Vikram Malhotra, the producer of “Shakuntala Devi.” “People are demanding more nuanced, more intellectually relevant content. These stories need to mean something now.”

Mr. Dhawan, the director of “Coolie No. 1,” said there was still appetite for big, colorful, melodramatic love stories on streaming.

“Every time, I think I’ll make a different kind of film,” he said. “But the people don’t let me change. They come back to this great atmosphere, they laugh, they enjoy the sounds, they dance.”

And Sara Ali Khan, who plays the romantic interest, said she was just as exhilarated for “Coolie No. 1” to debut on streaming as in theaters.

“The excitement and nervousness before the release of the film is still there,” she said.

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