A Bollywood movie still. Photo: Indianactors (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Bollywood has taken a blow from Covid-19 as theaters are closed and studios shuttered. Photo: Indianactors/Wikimedia Commons

MUMBAI – In good times Bollywood films pack India’s theaters, with cinemas often running at full seating capacity from dawn to midnight. Last year, the country recorded more than two billion ticketed cinema admissions.

But the box offices are closed these days due to a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, with no sign in sight for when they may reopen.

Theaters have been closed since March 25 and will remain so until at least May 31, as the government recently extended a strict quarantine across most states.

If and how they will reopen under coronavirus social distancing measures is a question that now weighs heavy over Bollywood, India’s Mumbai-based equivalent of America’s Hollywood.

Bollywood movies earned $2.8 billion in revenues last year, with almost 1,800 movies released in various Indian languages on 9,600 screens nationwide, according to Ernst & Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (E&Y-FICCI), which released an industry report in March.

Last year, Bollywood-made films, television programs and other entertainment shows saw 9% revenue growth year on year, churning out 1.8 trillion rupees (US$23.4 billion). E&Y-FICCI estimates made before the lockdown predicted its revenues would rise to as much as $34 billion by 2022.

Those pre-virus up and up predictions were based in part on expanding urbanization, with over 46 cities with a population of at least one million and over 300 with over 100,000, and fast rising disposable incomes including among movie-going youths.  

Film and entertainment industry analysts wonder if India’s iconic movie-making industry will ever be the same after Covid-19 and what that will mean for the many businesses that depend on Bollywood for contracts and work.

A collage of Bollywood stars. Image: Facebook

Maharashtra state and its capital of Mumbai are the most Covid-19 affected in the country. The coastal state currently accounts for one-third of India’s cases, which now exceed 105,000. Mumbai accounts for two-thirds of the state’s cases. 

With the number of cases still rising, the concern is that restrictions on work and movement of people may extend well into the four-month-long monsoon rainy season beginning in mid-June.

“The future is dark. Everything is in a limbo,’’ says Ashoke Pandit, President of Indian Film & Television Directors Association in Mumbai. “It’s a very sad situation for the entire entertainment industry – movies, television, theatre, events, shows, and allied industries.’’

“Everybody is suffering huge losses and individuals are among the worst sufferers. We are trying to help provide relief and rehabilitation,” said Pandit.

That’s a tall order in an industry where jobs are largely informal and artists are paid by shifts and performances, not regular salaries.

“The back of many producers and exhibitors has already been broken by the virus,” says Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst who publishes the trade magazine `Film Information.’ Many film companies will be impossible to revive and there will be many Covid-19 caused bankruptcies and takeovers, he said

All studios across Mumbai are currently shut, as are post-production facilities for recording, editing, distribution and marketing.

Bollywood studios and production houses have been closed by Covid-19. Photo: iStock

“The financial distress at the moment is incalculable and could run into several billions of rupees,’’ said Pandit. “There is no clarity what will help bring the industry back on its feet. It’s a human-oriented industry, and there’s no way we can keep social distancing.’’

Indian movies generally feature dance and songs sequences, some of which involve hundreds of dancers choreographed in a tightly-knit group.

Producers are worried about persistent social distancing requirements as most movies require physical proximity of actors. And it will likely be some time before the need for social distancing is relaxed and shooting on sets can start again, industry executives says.

Traditional Indian society has come a long way from the time when romance could only be insinuated by a shot of love birds, butterflies or flowers rubbing against each other. 

Bollywood produced television programs are currently the main source of entertainment for most Indians, with households watching on average three hours and 45 minutes per day.

An estimated 885 private satellite channels broadcast daily to 200 million of the country’s 300 million households, the EY-FICCI report said.

Bollywood was also expanding globally before the pandemic. Many Bollywood films were released in the US, United Kingdom and Middle East to cater to India’s ever-growing diaspora.

A cinema goer watches a Bollywood movie at a safe social distance before the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Facebook

But it’s not clear either when foreign theaters will be reopening their doors to viewers. 

“Entertainment and travel are two industries that’ll figure at the bottom of a family’s priorities once they come out of the pandemic and restart normal lives,’’ said Taran Adarsh, a film analyst who writes for Bollywood Hungama website.

“The next challenge will be how to get audiences back into theaters,” said Pandit with a sigh.