Bollywood 2021: Back to the future or the future of our past?

2020 has thrown up both challenges and opportunities. Lockdown and OTT have forced Bollywood to introspect about content. The age of the superstar clearly seems to be over

Bollywood 2021: Back to the future or the future of our past?
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Monojit Lahiri

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Suddenly a series of firsts. Up-the-down-staircase is no longer just the name of a film. ‘Zoom’ has overnight become an accepted verb with lockdown and OTT emerging as both game-changers & life-transformers!

While 2020 began with the Unsung Warrior, Tanhaji, the hi-jinks drama on Maratha Warfare, smashing its way to register as the biggest blockbuster of 2020, the much-touted trio of feminist films – Chhapak, Panga and Thappad – flattered to deceive. Even Shakuntala Devi couldn’t manage to assemble the numbers one imagined it could at the BO. In comparison, the modest Gunjan Saxena, flew higher than expected bringing a smile on Karan Johar’s face. Sadly, thereafter he didn’t have much to smile about. His three massive projects Sooryavanshi, Takht and Brahmastra were shoved into cold storage as the gigantic new and unknown evil force COVID-19 took centre-stage. Preceded by lockdown, Bollywood suddenly – along with planet earth – went into panic zone about what to do, where to go, whom to ask and how to navigate this terrifying, unknown menace!

One school of thought believes that movies were, are and always will be connected to the movie halls and the big screen. 2020 was a bad dream, an aberration, a nightmare, an accident of the worst kind, an evil spell cast by Satan to show the world his power over mankind and frighten the collective wits of us poor mortals. However, they insist this too will pass once the angels step in with the vaccine and destroy this evil virus once and for all. The trickle they indicate has started with many of the biggies already hitting the theatres with their movies and prepared to play the waiting game as far as audience footfalls are concerned. More are bound to follow. No matter what, can the size of the Home Theatre ever compare to the aura and magic of the big screen?

Others are convinced (realists? kill joys?) that OTT has changed the face of movie-viewing. The future of the horrific past is a moving target and has shifted to home delivery from retail ... to OTT from movie halls. It clearly and firmly epitomises the shape of things to come and from now, will forever give the big screen (read Bollywood & its artistes who are forever indulging in kitsch, are of low taste and have turned their work into cash cows of ecstasy pills for sensual stimulation) a solid fight as contender along the lines of the fabled face-offs between Pepsi v/s Coke! Their rationale is simple. The lockdown has boomed OTT audiences a zillion fold, forced them to move to home viewing and introduced them to a space, that goes well beyond the Tanhajis and Good Newz. Over time, a gigantic number enjoyed big comfort levels with the format, style & substance across the huge variety of content available on OTT, with many converts actually wondering whether they need to see a shrink or go in for a brain transplant to have enjoyed the junk they so actively rocked with!

Fact is there are no easy answers. As the raging pandemic pushed us from the real to the virtual world – with every single major event like School, Workplace, Birthday, Wedding receptions, even Funerals dependent on zoom – zooming-in became the primal language of communication and with OTT, became the new twin forces to drive this new normal. However, with hysterical headlines blitzing our media about the vaccine arriving any moment, confusion is confounded! On the flipside is the fear factor that the Pandemic has unleashed. Even if the vaccine does arrive, won’t there be tremendous apprehension, both about it covering all bases and efficacy? Will one unconditionally demonstrate belief and confidence in the vaccine’s success without solid proof playing out across the world? Here, instinct and inner voice doesn’t work. Solid, proven evidence does. So until that happens – which is anyone’s guess – OTT could well reign in its monopoly zone. However, sooner or later, life is bound to return to normalcy, then what? Will House Full greet every theatre and OTT be cast away and abandoned, left to die?

My feeling is that 2020 has thrown up both challenges and opportunities. Lockdown & OTT have forced Bollywood to introspect about content. The age of the Superstar clearly seems to be over. While the Khans and their glamorous, larger-than-life colleagues will have to seriously re-look at their posturing, the production houses, story-tellers and directors need to forge an MOU with content that engages while it entertains. OTT has definitely offered a glimpse of what can and should be done to attract eyeballs. While Star-power and sexy razzle-dazzle will not disappear, they will no longer automatically spell success. Bollywood has the resources in terms of funding and talent and this challenge is their opportunity to turn a new leaf and blur the boundaries between class and crass, snob and slob, so that the journey of returning to the future and defining the future of our past becomes a seamless template where the viewer can enjoy narratives that embrace both head and heart.

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