EXCLUSIVE: The impact of this global film and TV production shutdown is going to be felt for time to come, and perhaps nowhere more so than in India, where the world’s most prolific film industry has been forced to go on hiatus.
Bollywood produces up to 2,000 movies per year, dwarfing the number made in Hollywood. The production machine needed to facilitate that level of activity means the country has a colossal, widespread industry working on all manner of projects every day of the week. The coronavirus lockdown saw all production in the nation go on hiatus from March 19, and there’s no clear timeframe for it to resume. However, the Producer’s Guild Of India submitted its safety measures for resuming on-set shoots to the government this week, an important first step towards a return to work.
In Mumbai, India’s Los Angeles, producer Boney Kapoor – whose long career has spanned major credits including 1987 classic Mr. India and the Salman Khan-starring 2009 box office smash Wanted – is hard at work planning his return to action. The pandemic has been a gut punch for Kapoor, shutting down three of his productions including the $25M budgeted soccer story Maidaan starring Ajay Devgn, for which his company had purpose-built an enormous set that had to be completely dismantled after the lockdown, with international crew and talent sent home. Even once production gets the green light again, it will take months to rebuild the 16-acre site. Thankfully, his projects Valimai, an action drama starring Ajith Kumar, and Vakeel Sahab, starring Pawan Kalyan, should be easier to get back up and running.
Kapoor is part of a dynasty of Bollywood talent. He is the elder brother of actors Anil Kapoor (recognized by western audiences for his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and 24) and Sanjay Kapoor, and the father of actor Arjun Kapoor and actress Janhvi Kapoor. His family are also relatives of another Bollywood dynasty named Kapoor, which includes the recently deceased actor Rishi Kapoor. The producer was also married to Indian megastar actress Sridevi (the star of Mr. India alongside Anil Kapoor), who tragically died in 2018.
It’s a tough spot Boney Kapoor finds himself in, but he is staying optimistic that India’s vibrant industry will bounce back to make a full recovery once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. Below, he tells Deadline how he is planning to get soccer story Maidaan up and running again, what his take is on the recent spat of Bollywood films being sold directly to Amazon for streaming, and whether he will be able to secure insurance payouts on his shutdown movies.
DEADLINE: Your big budget production Maidaan was shut down by the virus – can you tell us a bit about the movie?
BONEY KAPOOR: Maidaan is based on real events between 1952 and 1962, also known as the “golden era of Indian football”. It has superstar Ajay Devgn who is one of India’s finest actors. This is one of the biggest films currently being produced in India, so it required a larger-than-life vision and the most talented creatives in our country. We built a massive outdoor set covering a 16-acre plot around Mumbai, with all the production infrastructure like make-up rooms, production offices, direction offices, toilet facilities and a separate PCR room for a 10 camera set up.
We brought in world class sports choreographers, VFX consultants, additional DOPs, and camera operators from overseas. We also hired the best football coaches and flew international level players to set. Just as the shoot was getting underway, the pandemic hit the world. We had to ensure the safety of our entire crew so had to stop all prep and send everyone home.
The set has now been dismantled as the rains are due to arrive in Mumbai. The rebuild will take at least two months, which earliest will start in September, so shooting can commence only in November. This has resulted in a massive loss for us.
DEADLINE: How do you plan to get up and running again?
KAPOOR: Thankfully all the indoor, and some outdoor, training portions of the film were shot in Lucknow and Kolkata so are already in the can. But we will have to wait for the set to be rebuilt to film the Olympic games of Helsinki, Rome, Melbourne and Asian games of Jakarta. Until then, we will strive to complete work on editing, sound, music etc., subject to and in full compliance with the government guidance on working rules during lockdown.
DEADLINE: How about your other shutdown movies, Valimai and Vakeel Sahab?
KAPOOR: Vakil Saab is a remake of the hit Amitabh Bachchan starrer Pink, this time with superstar Pawan Kalyan, who is back on the screen after more than two years. It’s a social drama with a strong message and we have just 10-15 shooting days pending. Valimai is a big action film starring Ajith Kumar, it happens to be his 60th film. That one is 50% complete.
DEADLINE: Are you able to make insurance claims for your shutdown films?
KAPOOR: Comprehensive insurance policies for all three films were secured before the start of production. Post COVID, claims have been filed. There is some ambiguity on whether pandemics are covered and discussions and deliberations are ongoing with insurance companies. We are also seeking legal opinion.
DEADLINE: Amazon recently caused a stir by buying up seven Indian features that had their theatrical releases cancelled during the lockdown, leading to speculation that we will see more deals like this in the future as those streamers grow in influence. You’ve told me Maidaan will definitely be a theatrical movie, how come?
KAPOOR: I have produced 36 films so far and made them for the big screen. I believe all forms of exhibition, distribution and consumption will co-exist but a certain type of cinema must be enjoyed first on the big screen where audiences can immerse themselves into a larger-than-life canvas. I cannot wait for audiences to come experience the magic that all three films will bring to celluloid.
DEADLINE: What did the industry make of those tiles going onto Amazon? Is there concern from cinema owners in the country about that deal and possible similar ones in the future?
KAPOOR: We are living in extraordinary times and trying to cope with this pandemic is testing us like never before. While it’s a global problem, our individual circumstances are different and require unique solutions. For producers whose films are ready and cannot wait for the unknown (when cinemas will open) OTT platforms offering to buy premiere rights for digital has come as a blessing. It means those producers can recover their investments, save on marketing and distribution expenses, fulfil their obligations in terms of payments, and move on.
As it is, when the lockdown ends, there will undoubtedly be a backlog of releases and cinemas that will not accommodate all exhibition requests. With programming windows shortened, some films will lose out despite their content having the potential to resonate with audiences. As for cinema owners, while they are unhappy about their premiere window being taken over by OTT players, they also have to understand the situation and collectively take a practical view to not oppose this move. After all. we are stakeholders in the same industry and like any family, we must fight this pandemic jointly.
DEADLINE: This is a boom time for streamers in much of the world – does it feel that way in India?
KAPOOR: Of course. With over one billion internet users and growing, global OTT players always had a keen eye on the Indian market. India boasts the cheapest per GB data pricing thanks to Jio [the internet service provider]. Due to the pandemic, audiences are compelled to stay at home in lockdown, cinemas are shut, and no production activity means TV channels have nothing new to show, so streamers have grown phenomenally over the last two months. Time spent watching content at home has grown exponentially. This trend to watch on demand is here to stay and will expedite cord-cutting in India as we have seen in the western world. With its large audience base and endless hunger to consume entertainment, the Indian market is just starting its growth trajectory.
DEADLINE: How has the lockdown impacted the wider industry?
KAPOOR: The impact of the pandemic on filmed entertainment in India, which currently produces approximately 2,000 films a year, is going to be severe. We have seen a complete halt in all activities across production, exhibition and distribution. Cinemas are closed. Production has stopped. Hence distribution companies have no work. This means companies in the industry will report nil incomes and losses. From white collar executives to daily wage earners, all are facing reduction in salaries and/or job losses.
The government revenue in terms of taxes will be impacted. Several films, which are in various stages of completion and due to release, will now have to wait for the lockdown to ease. Until then, all stakeholders will have to manage cash flows and bear the burden of interest costs. But I am most concerned about technicians, crew members and set workers, some of whom depend on daily income to run their homes.
It’s too early to account for exact industry losses, but there is no doubt the effects of the pandemic on the film business in India will be severe and is likely to wipe out the growth of the last 12 months. This is the impact in just two months, so you can imagine what is in store if this lockdown keeps extending and normalcy is not restored soon.
DEADLINE: What’s the government reaction been like?
KAPOOR: The Indian government has been proactive in its response to COVID-19. Focus has rightly been on saving lives and ensuring adequate healthcare for all those who need it. Recently the government also announced a Coronavirus Rescue Package worth US$260BN.
As an industry, we have expressed our concerns to the authorities and I have no doubt that relief measures specific to the entertainment industry will be announced soon. Collectively, we must endeavor to propose that all insurance policies cover us for epidemics and pandemics so that we will be adequately covered in the future.
DEADLINE: Has any production resumed yet?
KAPOOR: Some states have permitted post-production activities and shooting in pre-authorized areas with a unit of not more than 20 persons.
DEADLINE: When are you expecting cinemas to re-open?
KAPOOR: Multiplexes in India have submitted their proposed guidelines to the government regarding safety measures they would undertake upon re-opening, and they are being reviewed. A lot of deliberation and scientific advice will have to be considered before the entertainment industry is given permission to fully open. It is vital audiences feel safe and secure in cinemas post lockdown. I think, instead of working towards the ‘earliest possible time’, we should work on the ‘best possible time’ to open cinemas.
We can observe trends in other countries and take inspiration from them on how they are planning to revive cinema-going. Today, Bollywood is viewed and loved by audiences across the world. Overseas markets sometimes account for more than 1,500 screens, and this is excluding China. Maidaan is a film that has global appeal, not only for Asian diaspora but all film lovers. We will release the film on the same day all across the world.
DEADLINE: Are you confident Bollywood will bounce back to its former strength, or do you think it could be changed forever?
KAPOOR: I believe that the industry will bounce back stronger in the medium term in and in the long run, the Indian film industry will grow exponentially and be a big export for the country with better content, better technology, more screens and a varied distribution ecosystem.
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