COVID-19 deals crippling blow to Bollywood

A hairdresser gets to ply his trade again in Chennai after the government eased the nationwide lockdown on Monday. (AFP)
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Updated 02 June 2020

COVID-19 deals crippling blow to Bollywood

  • Content creators turn to digital platforms with cinemas closed due to outbreak

PATNA: With the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) taking its toll on most Bollywood releases this year, the Indian film industry, which was anticipating revenues worth INR183 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2019, is now staring at losses of INR24 billion ($330 million), experts told Arab News on Monday.

If the nationwide lockdown, which was imposed two months ago, continues, it would have an even more devastating impact on the bottom line.

“The overall revenue loss … for the industry will translate to significantly lower profits for companies despite cost-cutting measures,” excerpts from a report released by Credit Rating Information Services of India Limited showed.

With such gloomy predictions in place, experts are mixed in their opinions as to whether releasing movies on a digital platform is a viable — or perhaps the only — antidote to the blow dealt to the Indian entertainment industry.

Internationally acclaimed film director Shekhar Kapur poses a pertinent question to the debate: Would the average moviegoer be willing to brave a visit to cinema halls under the current circumstances?

“Let’s say movie theaters were to reopen now,” he said. “You would first have to go through a COVID-19 testing screen, followed by security. Then only every fourth seat could be occupied, as we need three empty seats to make for a 6-foot distance. Imagine someone were to start coughing in the middle of an emotional scene. Would you stay? Now tell me whether you would rather or not stay home and watch Netflix.”

Kapur, whose claim to fame includes films such as “The Bandit Queen” and “Elizabeth,” told Arab News that drive-in theaters “could soon make a comeback.” Moviegoers agree.

Sudhir Patwari is an entrepreneur and movie buff from Patna, capital of the northeastern state of Bihar, who said that although he loved the experience, he would not risk going to a movie theater anytime soon.

“I love watching movies on the big screen only. In fact, before the lockdown, I never watched movies at home. But now, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to theaters until the end of the year at least. I can’t risk it,” he said.

In response to the pervasive sense of anxiety among the movie-loving public, several filmmakers are switching to over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, to release films.

India is currently home to more than 30 streaming platforms, including American players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and home-grown ones such as ZEE5, ALTBalaji, VOOT, Disney+ Hotstar and others.

Revenues from digital platforms, however, are hard to estimate because they depend on how many movies OOT platforms purchase — and this is just the tip of the iceberg of potential obstacles facing the industry.

“I’m afraid the film industry, like other industries, is facing huge losses. We don’t know yet how many film and theater workers were part of the unorganized labor sector, so even completing films may be an issue,” Kapur said.

Akshaye Rathi, a prominent movie exhibitor in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and home to the Indian film industry, feels that it is too early to throw in the towel.

“Watching movies in cinemas is not a luxury for a majority of Indians; it’s a necessity. And honestly, for most Indians, a movie theater is the only place they can go out to have a good time with their families. There aren’t parks or beaches everywhere in India,” Rathi said, adding that he has taken measures to ensure “audiences feel safe.”

“Everyone’s temperatures will be checked. There will be staggered seating, and movie halls will be disinfected after every show. We will have to win moviegoers’ trust, initially. But eventually, I’m certain that it will be business as usual,” he added.

Taran Adarsh, Bollywood’s most respected trade analyst, feels there is no need for the movie-theater business to feel threatened by OTT platforms.

“We keep hearing of several films going straight to digital, but there hasn’t been any official communication to that effect. We should wait and watch before speculating,” Adarsh said.

Trade analyst Girish Johar agrees, reasoning that the “anxious leap” into the digital domain is a “short-term phenomenon.”

“OTT platforms are only for films that are almost ready to be released. Furthermore, going digital is a step being actively considered by individual producers, who have financial constraints.”

In contrast, producer Ashoke Pandit views digital platforms as the future of the movie business.

“As a producer, I have a right to release the film wherever I want to. Things change as per the situation and time. Producers’ investments have to be fulfilled. Digital platforms are the future,” Pandit said.

Filmmaker Hansal Mehta, who has dabbled into both feature-filmmaking and directing digital content, feels there is ample space for both platforms.

“OTT is a welcome addition. It cannot replace cinema halls, but it can bring some excellent cinema to audiences. I welcome the trend without ever writing off cinema halls. The magic of the big screen will always be there,” Mehta said.

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 11 July 2020

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.