2016 Proved audience verdict really matters to box office collections

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As we had predicted nine months ago, the much-maligned audience that at the end of the day, just wants a buffet spread of diverse entertainment worth the time and money, turned ruthless, sending clear signals about what they wanted—and clearer signals on what they did not!

At no juncture in 2016 were these truisms clearer than in the September to November phase. Dear Zindagi claims a good opening, overseas and domestically, but this story of a confused girl who makes her audience go through an over-extended and preachy psychiatric session is set to plummet, despite the pulling power of Shah Rukh Khan and the growing chimera of Alia Bhatt. Yes, a comparatively reasonable cost may bail it out economically. May, we said.

The quarter began with Baar Baar Dekho, a cinematic calamity despite a couple of fleetingly popular tracks, which collected about Rs. 43 crore worldwide on a budget of about Rs. 46 crore. This means that with the kindest business deal, Rs 92 crore was needed to break even!

As November ends, we thus saw about 20 releases of some note and just two—you read that right!—two films that were hits: M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and Pink!

Correction: M.S. Dhoni was reportedly budgeted inordinately, thanks to the VFX (needed) and filming rights paid to the cricket ace. And so, with all revenue sources tallied against all costs, it probably just about broke even or made a threadbare to slim profit. In the technical meaning of the word “hit” (which in Indian film parlance means making a minimum 200 percent of investment, ideally from theatres but, practically speaking, from all revenue sources), the wonderfully-made-yet-tad-overlong biopic was no hit despite the domestic Rs. 140 crore collection!

And yet, the Dhoni biopic remains the last movie as of Nov. 28 to fully connect with the audience. A fortnight earlier, Pink had released, which cost less than Rs.30 crore but collected enough, in India and globally, to be called the only super-hit of the year after Neerja and Sultan. It also, in the best fashion of missionary movies like Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, started small but significant movements socially, with Amitabh Bachchan’s line “No means ‘No’!” becoming a catchphrase of import!

Let us also be very clear about one more aspect that prevented even these two splendid films from more business: their music. M.S. Dhoni… might have had a few transiently hit numbers, but nothing to endure or ensure repeat viewing. Pink did not need music, but whatever there was did not make the grade, though Irshad Kamil’s title-song lyrics made a passing impact.

Prestige versus merit

We now come to two prestigious releases that were pitted so much against each other (being Diwali releases) that their (actual) economics as well as aesthetics were completely relegated to the inconsequential side-lines: Shivaay and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

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Neither movie connected pan-India, though Ae Dil… obviously did better at multiplexes and overseas vis-à-vis the former, which scored more at single-screens. The lobbies were intense, passionate, and furious—but at the end of the day, not only were both these two movies losers (in terms of return of investment) but also disappointing (Hindi) cinema. The extravagant budgets helped in pulling down both movies further.

Ae Dil… was essentially a (confused) yarn of multiple losers, including the three lead protagonists, a stretched bore-a-thon that went nowhere, like a bigger budgeted Tamasha with a strong dose of Katti Batti. The only relief came with a few songs composed by Pritam.

While a section of the urban young accepted it to an extent, there were virtually no watchers (across age and social classes) who commended or recommended the film. For Diwali season, when the Indian people need cheerful, bright and positive movies to propel them into the theatres, it was a complete misfit, belying the promise of a bright, romantic movie experience!

Shivaay started its promotions on a wrong note: with the blurb “This Diwali there will be destruction”! The one long marathon of action (with the ‘emotional base’ of a father doing it all for a handicapped daughter) was based on a silly premise geared to show Ajay Devgn’s heroics and lavish VFX.

And so, Shivaay went wrong the moment the hero wilfully got into trouble abroad, which no sane man, especially on an emotional mission with his daughter to find her mother, would!  An intense, emotional treatment would have worked far better, helping it score over Ae Dil…, as Shivaay did have a positive culmination! Add ice-cold music and Shivaay at best was an over-shot, self-indulgent exercise.

In this box-office black Diwali, therefore, the audience had a Nelson’s choice—go watch an absurd hero, or three protagonists who seemed to revel in being loser ‘zeroes’!

A splurge of uninspiring sequels added to the woes in this quarter: the third film in the MSG: Messenger Of God series, Raaz Reboot, Chaar Sahibzaade: Rise of Banda Singh Bahadur and three more released in a consecutive row: Rock On 2, Force 2 and Tum Bin 2.

Raaz Reboot, claimed Mahesh Bhatt before release, would draw curtains over the series, as they wanted to move on. In a different sense it did, though it was not half as bad as other recent films in the horror genre. But the audience was disappointed in the sameness in the plot, execution and bad music, which is something for which this once-musical production banner is fast becoming known!

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The Importance of Music

Two other films that were disasters were Rock On 2 and Tum Bin 2. Like all sequels this year, these films were designed to cash in on brands, but they were the biggest croppers. The earlier films in this brand, just like the Raaz franchise, were good, if not great, musicals, and the audience never forgave the poor music here along with the hare-brained and clichéd plots respectively.

Force 2 too was a no-brainer, and maybe at that level it opened reasonably well, but in the long run, whatever limited business it does should be credited more to the famine of bearable movies around!

Akira (absurd, flawed and negative), Banjo (too done-before) and ‘smallies’ like Tutak Tutak Tutiya clearly stood no chance. Freaky Ali was a cute story, but its lack of newness (but for the inspired casting of the bankable Nawazuddin Siddiqui) undid it. The producers are now planning a franchise because of the positive feedback, despite the business not adding up.

Finally, the last quarter’s Mohenjo Daro was the kind of disaster that we get a couple of times—at most—in a decade. But this year will go down in dubious history as year of two such calamities: the other one being the biggest of them all—Mirzya.

Like Mohenjo Daro again, we saw all gloss and no substance—including the music. Above all, Mirzya proved that audiences could not be swayed by caressingly designed frames or over-promotion if the content was zilch. As Vidhu Vinod Chopra had remarked before the release of 3 Idiots, “If my film is bad, no amount of promotion will help.”

2016, however, may end on a good note. We have the dependable Aamir Khan film Dangal, exciting also because it is directed by Nitesh Tiwari of the internationally- and nationally-acknowledged Chillar Party; Befikre helmed by the astute Aditya Chopra with the bankable Ranveer Singh; and Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2 and the mass T-Series thriller Wajah Tum Ho. And we are likely to find, given the positive and negative results of 2015 and 2016, a severe correction to come in 2017.

Hope never dies. To mix metaphors, the ostrich film industry may remove its head from under the ground and smell the coffee.

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