The suspension of theatrical releases during the lockdown has come as a blessing in disguise since the films are no longer merely judged by box office pull.

Let me state at the onset that I am not a dedicated home-watcher. I would usually prefer going out for movies than watching them within the comfort of my home. There is no grander thrill above witnessing the magic unfold on the big screen. But there is no bigger disservice to movies in cinema halls than to reduce them to their box office collection the following day.

When Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo released last month on Amazon Prime Video India, bypassing a theatrical release, it was a relief to not devote any attention to the opening day box office collection on the following Saturday. Ayushmann Khurrana’s films anyway follow a predictable trajectory now — trade predictions regarding the outcome of the ‘risky’ taboo subject Khurrana has put his finger on this time, and the impressive opening-day collection reiterating that whatever he touches, “becomes gold.”

Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Gulabo Sitabo

It came as a breath of fresh air when the same conversation did not hijack Gulabo Sitabo, a film that neither had Ayushmann nor a taboo as its focal point. In fact, his co-star Amitabh Bachchan was lauded for taking on a ‘risky’ role — of a greedy, selfish old man with no redeeming quality till the end of the film. More plaudits were reserved for Farrukh Jafar, the 88-year-old veteran actress who played Fatima Beghum, the character who ends up stealing the spotlight from Khurrana and Bachchan, the ones assumed to be the lead characters of Gulabo Sitabo.

The direct-to-digital release of Gulabo Sitabo allowed the audience to drive the conversation around the film, rather than rely on the trade pundits for their nod of approval.

There have been instances when the audience has lapped up a film on its release day but back-tracked on their kind words once the box office figures surfaced the next day. The reverse scenario is equally common, when a film that viewers didn’t warm up to suddenly becomes more loved the next day when a number is attached to it.

In the case of Gulabo Sitabo, not only the supporting cast or the director/writer but also the technical crew grabbed a lot of eyeballs for their work. Shantanu Moitra’s background score was appreciated despite not having a single heavily marketed dance number. Avik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography was widely discussed for capturing the decaying beauty of Lucknow. Rarely have I ever seen people enquire or search the name of the sound designer, Dipankar Chakri, for aurally transporting the audience to Lucknow.

Similarly in the case of Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul, which has only benefitted with a release on Netflix. Otherwise, in the case of a theatrical release, her praiseworthy first attempt would have been reduced to a number. But the residue of Bulbbul on Netflix turned out to be her striking visual palate and fine taste for the atmospherics. The army of technicians put together by Clean Slate Filmz got as many compliments. Siddharth Dhiwan’s frames soaked in red lent a distinct appeal to the film. Meenal Agarwal’s production design and Amit Trivedi’s background score were also spoken highly of.

With Bollywood heading straight to home box office may no longer remain the primary criterion of success

Tripti Dimri in a still from Bulbbul

The romanticisation of watching a film on the big screen may have been suspended for a few months now. But on the upside, it has taken the box office enslavement down with it. Yes, there are always the chances of viewers switching off or moving to another title in the whirlpool of content that streaming platforms are. But with as many as a dozen big films now heading straight to streaming, one can hope that ‘the new normal’ entails giving credit where it is due.

The next streaming release, Mukesh Chhabra’s romantic drama Dil Bechara on Disney+ Hotstar, may be promoted as our “last chance to celebrate Sushant Singh Rajput”, but AR Rahman’s soundtrack stands an equal chance of getting noticed. Or say the buzz around Raghava Lawrence’s Laxmmi Bomb would now not be restricted to Akshay Kumar’s box office supremacy. The audience is likely to acknowledge the team of technicians it takes to build a gripping horror comedy.

With Bollywood heading straight to home box office may no longer remain the primary criterion of success

Akshay Kumar in Laxmmi Bomb poster

Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak 2 would no longer revolve around whether Alia Bhatt can reclaim her box office streak after Kalank. Bhuj: The Pride of India will finally be that one Ajay Devgn film where he will not be expected to deliver Rs 100 crore like he did with Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi can now do away with the tiresome discussion on whether a ‘woman-led film’ can push the envelope at the box office, and hopefully encourage discussions around what insight Vidya Balan’s costumes give into the personality of Shakuntala.

With Bollywood heading straight to home box office may no longer remain the primary criterion of success

Vidya Balan in a promotional still of Shakuntala Devi

These are some conversations that merit our attention rather than merely the trade talk that dominates the criteria of how a film holds up. The reviews can no longer be checking boxes like “entertaining”, “powerful”, “emotional”, “music,” and “acting.” The rating can no longer be “paisa vasool,” “time pass” or “flop.” As films conventionally riding on huge stars find a new temporary home, one can hope it is widely acknowledged that the stars are not the only ones carrying those films on their mighty shoulders. And it doesn’t hurt to hope that this practice will stay beyond the current short-term absence of theatres.

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