Who will bell (bottom) the cat? Those dying to return to the theatre experience did a celebratory bhangra when a Punjabi film called Puaada, a mirthful regional comedy, registered collections of over Rs 12 crore. Theatre owners who yearned to remove the cobwebs from their workplaces, trade journalists whose existence rested on reporting box-office figures, and film people starved of the attention they got until March 2020 went orgasmic exchanging notes on how the audience had romped back to cinema halls.
Buoyed by the thought, Team Akshay Kumar congratulated itself for being the first big film to bell the cat and take Bell Bottom into theatres. Even though half of India, especially most of Maharashtra, had not thrown open the theatres, producer Vashu Bhagnani, his son Jackky — who minds the business while dad is in London — and their hero did a (mis)calculation. The positive returns of the Punjabi film were mentally multiplied into pan-India theatres plus 225 screens overseas.
To remind critics of what a big screen experience felt like, a charter flight took critics from Mumbai to Surat to watch Bell Bottom in a theatre. And the film industry was cajoled into lauding the team for taking the first bold leap into bringing the audience back to the theatres. However, a look at the anaemic box-office figures, which stood at less than Rs 15 crore, told the story of a premature celebration.
Shershaah, Bhuj, Bell Bottom were all Independence Day releases, based on true events that held the Tricolour high. Bell Bottom had it all in place with a physically-fit chess-playing hero and lines like “Abki baar, unki haar”. So was it audience fatigue over too much patriotic fare in one week? Was it because of a weak first half which intruded into the thriller and slackened its tautness? Was it because of its overt Punjabi flavour? Was it because, as one critic put it, it had no “goosebump moments” and had an “underwhelming climax”?
Whatever the reasons, two good takeaways from the Bell Bottom experience were: (a) reviews don’t entice the audience and (b) the audience has not yet returned.
The Amitabh Bachchan-Emraan Hashmi film Chehre is also thirsting to be seen on the big screen. But realistically speaking, this pointlessly verbose film too would have been better off with a viewership on a home screen. “It’s not as if they didn’t try for it,” commented an insider. “But OTT platforms were not willing to give unrealistic money to Bell Bottom or Chehre. They were willing to wait for the films to do their theatrical rounds and then come on OTT at a more reasonable price.”
Bell Bottom availed of the subsidies that the UK offers filmmakers and struck a deal with Amazon to come weeks after its theatrical release. The whisper is, it will probably face a bearable loss of about Rs 40 crore — chillar for a producer like Vashu, whose real money comes from the construction business.
Happier are those who went straight to OTT. The producers of Bhoot Police, also planned for the theatre, started shooting as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted and made their film as budgeted. But looking at the ferocity of the second wave, they signed up with Disney+ Hotstar for a September 17 release, and went home with a neat profit. It helped that they didn’t vacillate.
Ajay Devgn also played it smart. Last year, when OTTs were chasing big names at fancy prices, Ajay handed over Bhuj: The Pride Of India and The Big Bull to Disney and made a packet. So, although both had weak content, there was no risk of a beating at the ticket counters.
A bigger winner is Karan Johar. Shershaah, the Capt. Batra story, not only fetched him a handsome profit, it’s also the most well-received of all the recent releases.
This Independence Day it was Sidharth Malhotra vs Ajay Devgn vs Akshay Kumar. Who would have thought that Sid would be the season’s winner?
Bharathi S. Pradhan is a senior journalist and author