The writer is chair of Rockefeller International
India’s economy has as much entrenched rust as it has entrepreneurial dynamism. And no two industries illustrate these contradictions more clearly than its most iconic entertainments, Bollywood and cricket. Facing the same challenge — growing competition for fans in the internet age — cricket is killing it, Bollywood is blowing it.
Cricket’s growing popularity rests on the Indian Premier League. Since its launch in 2008, the estimated value of the IPL has risen from $1.1bn to more than $15bn. This year, the two-month season drew nearly 1bn viewers from live broadcast and streaming. Last year, the IPL sold five-year broadcast rights for $6.5bn — a higher per-game price than many other pro sports, including England’s Premier League.
Meanwhile, Bollywood’s box office take had been trending down for many years before falling sharply during Covid, with yearly footfall down from 340mn to 190mn, and revenue of $190mn so far this year — down nearly half from the same period in 2019.
The IPL understands and has adapted to the attention spans of the digital age. Its key innovation was shortening match times to under four hours, plus staging the full-on party that fans now expect: cheerleaders, DJs, dancing mascots and brightly coloured uniforms. Its streaming services allow viewers to pick a camera angle. Inspired by the IPL, Indian billionaires recently launched pro cricket in the US, aiming to draw American and Indian expat crowds to minor league stadiums where samosas will be on sale alongside hot dogs.
Bollywood, by sticking to stale scripts and ageing stars, is losing Indian audiences even at home. The industry blames Covid for changing viewing habits. But Hollywood was affected by Covid, too, and its box office take is down by nearly one-fifth, not Bollywood’s half. Young Indians used to look forward eagerly to Friday for the next big Bollywood release — that era is gone.
Ticket prices are rising for both Bollywood and cricket, but only the Hindi movie fans are increasingly staying at home. In 2021 and 2022, just 7 per cent of Bollywood films turned a profit, down from 30 per cent or more in the previous years. There are some quality productions but most of those are going out on streaming services, and many are made by newcomers and outsiders.
Bollywood has rarely won best foreign film awards at major festivals and never at the Oscars, showing limited appeal on the global stage. More and more often, Hollywood’s output is upstaging Bollywood’s in India. On their recent opening weekends, Oppenheimer outpaced one of the bigger and better new domestic productions, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.
Cricket speaks to the whole of India in a way Bollywood never has. Less than half of India’s population speaks its dominant language, Hindi, but Bollywood keeps rolling out films made for a Hindi-speaking audience. It is losing ground to increasingly vibrant regional film industries. India’s top grossing film last year was the Kannada language action-thriller K.G.F: Chapter 2; Bollywood scored none of the top five. Tamil and Telugu films attract more viewers than Hindi movies. Meanwhile, the IPL offers live match commentary in 12 languages on its streaming services.
Bollywood dates to the 1930s, when its home city of Mumbai was still called Bombay, and its management style is as outdated as its name. Resting on family ties and a star system that allows its leading (often ageing) actors to command a solid majority take of the profits on each film, there is little left to fund better productions or new talent.
By spreading the wealth the IPL is building momentum, sharing TV revenue and capping player salaries to make sure even small city teams can compete. It recruits talent from India’s least privileged corners. Rising star Yashasvi Jaiswal, 21, the son of a small shopkeeper in the poor state of Uttar Pradesh, lived for a time on the cricket grounds in his early training years.
The IPL now ranks among the most stunning commercial success stories in global sports, with Bollywood among the most clueless flops in film industry history. Rather than admit they have issues, however, the movie impresarios wait for one of their increasingly rare hits then declare Bollywood is back. That happened earlier this year with Pathaan, a star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan, aka “King Khan”. After 30 years in acting, he is one of those marquee names who can keep a majority of the profit on his films. Pathaan is a sign of decay not revival.
It’s hard to imagine the Mumbai film industry reinventing itself in a modern form but the lesson for India is clear. What its economy needs is more cricket, less Bollywood.