“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.”
“Coolie No. 1” is just one of the movies from Bollywood — the shorthand for India’s nearly $2.5 billion Hindi-language film industry — that has shifted toward streaming in a year upended by the pandemic. In all, 28 big-star-led Bollywood features that were headed to theaters went straight to streaming instead, compared with none last year, according to the research firm Forrester.
Among them were “Gulabo Sitabo,” a dark comedy starring the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan, and “Shakuntala Devi,” a biopic of the Indian mathematician, both of which began streaming on Amazon in July. Another, “Laxmmi,” a comedy-drama featuring Akshay Kumar, was released in November on the Disney-owned streaming service Hotstar.
The shift echoes that of Hollywood, where the pandemic has caused studios to push back theatrical releases for many movies and, in some cases, toward streaming as part of a first run. In September, Disney debuted “Mulan” on Disney+. Last month, Warner Bros. said it would release “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously on Christmas Day. The studio later announced that it would send all 17 of its 2021 movies to streaming and theaters at the same time.
The number of Bollywood movies headed to streaming is just a small fraction of what the industry makes. Last year, Bollywood produced more than 1,800 films, or an average of 35 a week, and domestic theatrical releases generated more than $1.5 billion in revenue, according to a report by Ernst & Young.
But the pandemic-spurred shift toward streaming is unmistakable, Bollywood producers, filmmakers and experts said.
Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar have all been investing in India, one of the fastest-growing internet markets in the world. The companies, which combined have tens of millions of paying Indian subscribers, have poured billions of rupees into producing edgy, India-specific original content in a variety of regional languages. In 2020, they spent nearly $520 million to create content for Indian audiences, nearly $100 million more than in 2019, according to Forrester.
Netflix said it had invested about $400 million to license and create more than 50 films and shows in India over the past two years. Of those, 34 were original Hindi-language films.
“The current environment gave us some opportunities to add to our film slate, including some films which our members would have otherwise enjoyed on the service after a theatrical release,” Netflix said in a statement. It added that it “was already a big believer in original films for the service, and we’re investing in it.”
Disney+ also started in India during the lockdown in April, merging with Hotstar, one of India’s largest platforms. (Disney bought Hotstar in March 2019 as part of its $71 billion deal to acquire 21st Century Fox, which owned Star India, then Hotstar’s parent company.) The combination gives paid subscribers in India access to Disney’s library of global content.
Bypassing theaters is a huge departure for Bollywood. India’s film industry has long relied almost exclusively on theatrical releases for revenue. But when the pandemic sent movie theaters into lockdown, revenues fell as much as 75 percent, according to estimates by analysts at KPMG.
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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