Earlier on Thursday, Amazon Prime Video announced that the Amitabh Bachchan-Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Gulabo Sitabo will directly release on the streaming service, making it the first major Bollywood film in COVID times to bypass a theatrical release.
While there have been reports about a number of other films—Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb, Janhvi Kapoor’s Gunjan Saxena— going the same route, no official announcement has been made about those titles yet.
Gulabo Sitabo, written by Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar (Piku, Vicky Donor), was originally supposed to release on 17 April, but the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing national lockdown led to theatres shutting down and theatrical releases being postponed indefinitely. The last Hindi film to have a big-screen release, Irrfan Khan’s Angrezi Medium, played for only a few days before theatres had to be shut down.
Predictably, theatre owners aren’t happy with the development. In a conversation with HuffPost India, Kamal Gianchandani, CEO of PVR Pictures, the largest cinema chain in India, said, “We are disappointed with Gulabo Sitabo’s decision to go straight to a streaming platform. We were hoping that the producers would accede to our request to hold back their film’s release till cinemas reopened.”
Gianchandani added that this wasn’t the first time cinema chains have faced a challenge from emerging distribution platforms. “Cinema exhibition has regularly faced competition from new emerging distribution platforms over the last many years, and it has continued to enjoy cine-goers’ patronage and affinity,” he said.
The third phase of the lockdown in India is set to end on 17 May, and while many restrictions have been eased, there is no clarity yet on what the next phase will be like. Even after they receive permission to open up, cinema theatres, where several people sit close to each other in an air conditioned auditorium, will have to radically change their ways of operating before they can attract viewers again.
‘One has to adapt’
Explaining his position, Ronnie Lahiri, co-producer of Gulabo Sitabo, told HuffPost India that moving away from the traditional release system was a difficult decision. One of the things that played on their minds, he said, was the fact that once theatres open up, producers would be scrambling for release windows and each Friday could see as many as six releases.
“We’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, not seen since World War 2. These are the times when things change. Initially, people have apprehensions but one has to adapt. That’s how human civilisations have prospered. The minute we stop adapting, we’re done. Instead of waiting for the situation to get better, you tackle it with other alternatives.”
“We’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, not seen since World War 2. These are the times when things change”
Lahiri also pointed out that he’s had experience of a film lying in cold storage for a while (the yet-to-be released Bachchan-starrer Shoebite, again directed by Sircar) and didn’t want Gulabo Sitabo to meet the same fate.
“See, it’s not always about commerce or business. A film is a labour of love and you want people to see it as soon as possible. We were originally supposed to come on April 17 in theatres. In this bleak time, if we can entertain people who are only thinking about the pandemic, then why not?” he said.
PVR’s Gianchandani, however, maintained that a theatrical release was the “best way for audiences to experience the labour and creative genius of our filmmakers”.
“We are confident, once we get to the other side of this phase, there would be enough and more pent-up demand by cine goers who have been cooped up at homes for the last many weeks. We are likely to see demand by force when we reopen,” he said.
Since Gulabo Sitabo will never see a theatrical run, there’s no way of knowing how much the film would have made at the box-office. How did Amazon Prime and the film’s producer arrive at a figure that was acceptable to both without either party feeling shortchanged?
“That’s interesting because there isn’t a template for such a scenario,” Lahiri said. “We obviously wanted to recover the cost and earn a premium so we can make our next film. Finally, it wasn’t like we got insane money from Amazon because, well, they have the money, and neither was it a situation where we gave it away for nothing since theatres are shut. It was a win-win.”
Anu Menon, who directed Four More Shots Please! for Amazon Prime Video and also has a film, Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi, coming up, said that a middle ground has to be achieved in the theatres-vs-streaming conversation.
“We all have to work with each other. I feel some films can work in both places: OTT and theatrical. I think we need to be constructive about this. Having dabbled in both places, I feel what can be transferred to OTT should go there because once the cinemas open up there’ll be complete chaos.”
She said that while some films work better on streaming and some are designed for the big screen, there are many overlaps and theatre owners shouldn’t worry as in a few months, they’ll be scrambling to screen a catalogue of movies.
“People will always go to cinemas. It’s a social event and commitment. There’s space for co-existence and right now, it’s understandable that producers are looking to release their films online as they need to recover the cost. What will theatre owners play if producers themselves go bankrupt?”
Although Menon refused to confirm it, sources said Shakuntala Devi is also likely to premiere on Amazon Prime Video soon.
“I can understand when Akshay Kumar thinks of going with 'Laxmmi Bomb' online, but will he do that for 'Sooryavanshi'? I don’t think so”
‘Exhibitors and distributors will suffer’
Manoj Desai, who runs Gaiety Galaxy cinemas and is the executive director of G7 multiplex and Mumbai’s iconic Maratha Mandir theatre, said that exhibitors and distributors would suffer massively as a result of the Gulabo Sitabo deal.
“Only producers will make money,” he said. “And I can’t even say they shouldn’t go. If a producer is ready with the product, they want to sell it fast. I have been a producer myself. So I understand their situation. There’s interest on borrowed capital, anxiety around returns. When we ourselves don’t know when theatres will open up, what will we tell the producers?”
As a result of the lockdown, cinemas have suffered massive losses. Desai himself has said that he was finding it difficult to pay the salaries of his staff. If the pattern of straight-to-streaming continues, what does he think about the future of theatres?
“Nothing can beat the theatrical experience. The sound, the light, the community of filmgoers. I can understand when Akshay Kumar thinks of going with Laxmmi Bomb online, but will he do that for Sooryavanshi? I don’t think so,” said Desai.
Added Gianchandani of PVR, “This isn’t the first time a film has been released directly on a streaming platform. The SVOD (subscription video on demand) have a different revenue model which caps the upside of the producers. We see this as an aberration.” He also added that some of the producers have decided to stand by the theatre owners. ” I would also like to express appreciation for all the producers who have publicly voiced their support for the theatrical platform and have decided to reschedule their releases to accommodate the reopening of cinemas.”
After the story was published, Inox, another major cinema chain in India, issued a statement expressing disappointment over Gulabo Sitabo’s decision of skipping the theatrical run.
In a detailed statement, the chain said that it was ’disturbing to see one of the partners not interested in continuing the mutually beneficial relationship,” calling the producers of the film “fair weather friends” rather than “all weather, life-long partners.” You can read the entire statement below.