New Indian films lift lacklustre industry

NEW DELHI • A revenge fantasy and a female wrestling drama are smashing box-office records in India and abroad, giving the country's film industry a shot in the arm after a lacklustre couple of years.

But despite producing more films than any other country, the business is hobbled by issues from outdated infrastructure to rampant piracy, generating only a fraction of Hollywood's income.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion has earned more than 15 billion rupees (S$321.1 million) since being released on April 27. It is the most successful film in India, according to analyst Ramesh Bala, who tracks box-office collections.

About a prince's quest to reclaim the throne from his evil uncle, it is being compared with 2006 Hollywood epic movie 300, given its visual effects, muscle-ripped star and US$40-million (S$55.2-million) price tag.

Dangal, the story of an ex-Olympic coach who led his daughters to win medals in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games, has also proven to be a hit since its December release, unexpectedly winning audiences in China too.

The movies come after a few slow years for Indian cinema. Box-office revenues in India slipped 1.6 per cent last year while the industry as a whole - including the sale of overseas rights to Indian films - rose only 3 per cent to 142.3 billion rupees, according to a March report from KPMG and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI). That compares with an average of 7 per cent in the previous three years.

India produces 1,500 to 2,000 films a year and generated about US$2.2 billion last year. That compares with income from about 700 films produced in the US and Canada of about US$11 billion in 2015, according to a report from Deloitte in September. 

The number of Bollywood movies that generated a positive return on investment fell to 18 last year from 27 in 2014, said KPMG-FICCI.

Chalk it up to the issues that bedevil much of the Indian economy: poor infrastructure, low skills, a complicated tax regime and the black market.

For example, the country has about six screens per million viewers, versus 23 per million in China and 126 per million in the US, said Deloitte. And while more than 200,000 people are employed in the industry, most are trained on the job and are unprepared to handle new technologies such as virtual reality.

There is, however, good news. Regional cinema has seen a surge of activity. Baahubali hails from southern India's Tollywood, a portmanteau of the Telugu language and Hollywood.

Also, the introduction of India's goods and services tax on July 1 will make the tax system simpler and allow film-makers to claim a credit on the services, lowering production costs, according to Deloitte.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'New Indian films lift lacklustre industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe