Former Disney India head and producer of Sony LIV hit “Rocket Boys,” Siddharth Roy Kapur has hailed the reinvigorated Indian box office and robust streaming space. Nevertheless, he sees challenges ahead.
After Shah Rukh Khan’s “Pathaan” ignited a stagnant post-pandemic box office in January, hits have been sporadic. While there were sparks across India’s various language-specific film industries, including the Hindi-language “The Kerala Story,” “Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar” and “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke,” the Telugu-language “Waltair Veerayya” and “Veera Simha Reddy,” the Malayalam-language “2018” and “Romancham” and the Tamil-language “Ponniyin Selvan: II,” the overall box office remained sluggish for the first five months of 2023.
The Indian box office caught fire in the June-July period with hits including the Hindi-language “Satyaprem Ki Katha,” Marathi-language “Baipan Bhaari Deva,” Punjabi-language “Carry On Jatta 3,” Telugu-language “Bro” and “Baby” and Tamil-language “Maaveeran” keeping the turnstiles ticking over.
Hollywood enjoys a 10% market share in India and, after the success of “Fast X” in May, the twin releases of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” in July saw audiences surging into cinemas. Multihyphenate Karan Johar’s star-studded “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” hit cinemas in the wake of the “Barbenheimer” juggernaut and is on its way to becoming a major hit.
“In the film business, six months is a lifetime, so it felt like a very long time after ‘Pathaan’ where the box office had not really come back other than for a few films,” Roy Kapur tells Variety. “For it all to happen at the same time means that then you’re creating a regularity of habit once again, for people to want to come back to the cinemas on a regular basis, to fall back into the virtuous cycle of considering cinema as their weekend option.”
“‘Rocky Aur Rani’ is wonderful for the industry, it’s a mainstream commercial Karan Johar film that’s going from strength-to-strength day-after-day in its collections. ‘Oppenheimer’ is another very interesting result because for a three-hour drama — a Christopher Nolan very layered and complex film, not a dubbed version — it’s mainly the English business that’s really driving the film, not really any known stars in the Indian market, like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, and a narrative and a subject itself that can be pretty dry. For that to be working as spectacularly as it is at the Indian box office gives a lot of hope for genres like drama, which a lot of people had written off and said, ‘This has become a streaming genre.’ That actually gives a lot of hope that if you do drama in a way which is cinematic and compelling, people will still come,” Roy Kapur says.
Roy Kapur says that while “Barbie” and “Rocky Aur Rani” are “cinematic experiences and spectacles,” films like “Zara Hatke Zara Bachke” and “Satyaprem Ki Katha” have worked in the smaller cities and metros respectively. “And then you’ve got an ‘Oppenheimer,’ which breaks all the rules and is non-sequel, non-IP, that holy grail of pure cinema,” he says.
India is the only major market where “Oppenheimer” has outgrossed “Barbie” 3:1, with 3:30 a.m. screenings being sold out. “We should take a lot of pride in that — ‘Oppenheimer’ has reversed the ‘Barbenheimer’ trend of ‘Barbie’ being on top,” Roy Kapur says. “All the signs are very positive and I am very optimistic about the next few months as well.”
Some of the big releases lined up for the second half of the year include Shah Rukh Khan’s “Jawan” and “Dunki,” Rajinikanth’s “Jailer,” Sunny Deol’s “Gadar 2,” Prabhas’ “Salaar,” Ranbir Kapoor’s “Animal,” Dhanush’s “Captain” and Dulquer Salmaan’s “King of Kotha.”
Roy Kapur says that despite Indian streamers gaining a massive amount of eyeballs during the pandemic and being eminently affordable, there is a market for smaller films theatrically if they find new, relevant themes, have great music and provide the laughing, crying all-around experience so dear to Indian audiences. “Even with a more limited budget and with actors who are stars but not superstars, you can actually have a return on investment that is very significant,” Roy Kapur says.
The streamers, meanwhile, have kept pace this year with a slew of hits across services including “Kohrra,” “Scoop,” “Dahaad,” “Rocket Boys” Season 2, “Jubilee,” “The Night Manager,” “The Trial,” “Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo” and “Farzi,” to name a few.
“Creating premium quality streaming content is not something that India ever did before, say, the last five to seven years,” Roy Kapur says. “So, the learning curve has been quite steep. More and more, all those involved in the process have realized, through trial and error, probably, what works and what doesn’t work and have therefore managed to be able to engage audiences with a varied smorgasbord of content.”
He continued, “Zooming out to the streaming versus cinema debate, the beauty about India is that we’re an ‘and’ market, we’re not an ‘or’ market, which means that all modes of delivery of entertainment can grow at the same time, not necessarily at the expense of the other, because we’ve got so much of our population that has not been covered yet.”
Roy Kapur says that India’s young population is moving from below the poverty line into the middle class, which is fueling more people to consume terrestrial television, tech, cable television, streaming, cinemas, radio and print. “It’s all growing simultaneously, at obviously different rates of growth, which you don’t see in the more developed markets. On a macro basis, that is the beauty of the Indian story at this point of time,” Roy Kapur says.
For the immediate future, Roy Kapur has three observations. The increasingly discerning theatrical audience means that stars alone won’t guarantee box office success, forcing creators to innovate. Secondly, the producer hopes that the recently announced anti-piracy measures come into play and can halt the revenue leakage. Lastly, the producer wants consumers to understand the value of content.
Roy Kapur says that while driving down prices attract larger numbers of consumers, the corollary is that increasing prices becomes that much more difficult. “There could be the danger of value erosion in the market, the way that it happened in telephony, the way that it’s happened in so many other areas where a land grab can actually lead to devaluing of an entire market, and that has a ripple effect on the other streams, because once your consumer is trained to pay less for content, that means your subscription numbers are lower, that means you have less money for creation of content, and therefore the value of the industry shrinks, despite your viewership numbers going up. We should be very wary of eroding value in the industry. And we should give a lot of importance to making sure that the consumer is trained to pay for content. And the consumer will then reward good content and not reward bad content,” Roy Kapur says.
Coming up for Roy Kapur Films are war epic “Pippa,” comedies “Bas Karo Aunty!” and “Woh Ladki Hai Kahaan?” and an untitled thriller. Historical series “The Anarchy” is an international co-production with Wiip, and eight more series with directors including Nagraj Manjule, Vishnuvardhan, Mahesh Narayanan, Hardik Mehta, Abbas Tyrewala, Anubhav Chopra, Bhavesh Kapadia and Arati Kadav, spanning genres from historical action to sci-fi and romance, are in development.