In so many ways, the India we live in today is a product of the events and developments that took place in the 1990s. Chief among these is the economic liberalisation programme undertaken by the Finance Minister at that time, Dr Manmohan Singh, with the blessings of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1991.
The decision to carry out a drastic overhaul of the nation’s economic policies, to make them more market oriented, and the encouraging of private and foreign investment wasn’t really voluntary. The country was on the brink of bankruptcy and was literally selling the family silver to pay its daily bills. However, our politicians are not known to always read the writing on the wall even when it is in the maximum font size, in bold and underlined, so all credit to Messrs Singh and Rao.
That structural revolution contributed directly or indirectly to so many things that we take for granted today – satellite television, private airlines, cellular phones, Internet access, affordable computers and so much more. Above all, it was a game-changer for the Indian consumer and opened up a plethora of choices in goods and services, ending decades of putting up with an extremely limited range of options and often long waiting periods for the most basic of products.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of this paradigm shift is the fact that while, earlier, an Indian looking to buy a car had to choose from either the Premier Padmini ‘Fiat’ or the bulky Ambassador, we now have over 200 automobile models to choose from and dozens of new launches waiting in the wings.
Like every other sector, the film industry too has been impacted substantially by the unfettering of the Indian economy. The mushrooming of multiplexes emerging as the dominant exhibition platform; the corporatisation of film production, distribution and exhibition; the emergence of film studios; the entry and expansion of international majors; the growth in overseas collections and tapping of non-traditional foreign markets; and the discovery and maturing of ancillary revenues from satellite and Internet rights – all of these key trends can be traced back, in some measure, to wheels set in motion 25 years ago.
Undoubtedly, these changes have been, by and large, positive for the film industry, as can be said for the nation itself, in the liberalised era. However, change of this magnitude rarely comes without some challenges and heartburn in its wake.
Filmmakers of an earlier era were fortunate in one regard – then, movies were pretty much the only source of entertainment for the masses. Television services didn’t exist and even when Doordarshan entered our lives, the programming on the sole and state-run channel was hardly the kind of stuff that would give sleepless nights to investors in a film set for release.
Compare that to the situation now, where you have – hold your breath – over 1,800 registered private channels in India, catering to pretty much every audience preference, of interest, genre and language! Mind you, television isn’t even our main competitor when it comes to the most important market for our films, the youth, who have access to pretty much every piece of content literally at their fingertips, thanks to smartphones and other Internet-run devices.
And it is not just television or YouTube that we have to lure consumers away from while peddling our movies. A young person looking to while away a few hours typically weighs the option of buying a movie ticket against indulging in video games or visiting an amusement park or a bowling alley or just hanging out in the neighbourhood mall or at a café or a bar.
The key to meeting this challenge of plenty is to build on what makes us different, to harness the unique strengths of our medium for a value proposition that is like no other.
It is no coincidence that virtually every tent-pole release coming out of Hollywood rolls out extensively in 3D, IMAX and other formats that are best enjoyed in a cinema hall. The choice of subjects too – superhero adventures, apocalyptical epics and adrenaline rushes with car chases aplenty – are designed to fully underline the ‘big’ in the big screen experience.
Another aspect of the whole movie-going package that we perhaps don’t think about too much is the sheer communality of it all. The unique experience of a group of people, most of whom are strangers to each other, sitting together in a dark auditorium and embarking on a shared journey for a couple of hours. The collective gasp that escapes the audience when something awe-inspiring unfolds on screen; the chorus of laughter that reverberates through the hall when something funny happens or is said; tears shed openly or wiped silently as the narrative takes a tragic turn.
Most definitely, this it has happened to all of us – as the end credits roll and you file out of the auditorium with the rest of the audience, you make eye contact with a stranger. And in that moment of connection, a smile or a nod or a mock roll of the eyes is exchanged, a silent acknowledgment of a great (or lousy!) film experienced together.
Now that is something that cannot be replicated while watching a web series off your mobile phone screen in the privacy of your bedroom. And it is this unique phenomenon of the shared emotional experience that cinema provides that we need to tap into, and cater to, as we fight the good fight against multiple competitors.