Via Financial Times

As India grapples to contain the economic and humanitarian fallout of the coronavirus lockdown, Shah Rukh Khan, the country’s biggest film star, has frequently appealed to his followers on social media to stay at home and wash their hands.

“Coronavirus is slowly creeping into our souls. Things are becoming overwhelming,” he said in a video. “We shall overcome this.”

With the country in the midst of a strict curfew to stem the spread of Covid-19, stars such as Mr Khan and India’s cricket team captain Virat Kohli command a unifying pull among India’s 1.4bn citizens like few others. They also have time to spare.

The virus has brought India’s enormous entertainment sector — with its larger-than-life stars, relentless calendar of film releases and ubiquitous cricket matches — to a halt in a way previously hard to imagine.

“I’ve always maintained that cricket and films are the umbilical cord of this nation. Now we’re dealing with a situation where both have been severed,” said Vikram Malhotra, a Bollywood executive and founder of studio Abundantia Entertainment, who has had to postpone production on two shows and expects his schedule to be set back for months.

“From that point of view, these are difficult times made even more challenging with the absence of these two.”

Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s biggest film stars
Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars, has led appeals to people to protect themselves against the virus © Hannah McKay/Reuters

The disruption to these pursuits, whose popularity has endured historic upheaval and previous tribulations, ripples beyond simply depriving homebound Indians of entertainment.

India’s film industry, while itself spread across Hindi-language Bollywood and other regional language cinemas, is the world’s largest by both tickets sold and output, churning out about 2,000 productions a year. 

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And cricket, which India often dominates both on the pitch through its team and off it thanks to its enormous, revenue-generating fan base, accounts for a thumping 80 per cent of sports viewership, according to EY. The 12-year-old Indian Premier League attracts more than 1bn viewers and is valued at more than $6bn.

“These are two national pastimes,” said Rakesh Jariwala, media and entertainment partner at EY. “It’s going to have a massive impact.” 

A series of big-ticket films have either flopped or been postponed, including the star-studded 83 which depicts India’s journey to the Cricket World Cup victory of 1983 and whose launch was timed to precede the start of the IPL, now delayed until the middle of April.

With India in strict lockdown until at least April 14, many expect it may follow the path of the Tokyo Olympics and Wimbledon and be pushed back further or scrapped altogether.

The stakes are high. India’s media and entertainment industry, both directly and indirectly, accounted for almost 3 per cent of gross domestic product and employed about 1m people through the formal and informal economy, according to a 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group.

The share prices of large Indian cinema chains have tumbled, as analysts fret over the scale of the hit they could take. The IPL, a cash cow for broadcasters and advertisers, brings with it a frenzy of product campaigns and launches that are now in jeopardy. Many thousands of daily labourers who work as carpenters on film sets or sell snacks to cricket fans face losing their income.

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“There are serious financial repercussions,” said Ayaz Memon, a prominent cricket writer, speaking of the IPL. “If the IPL has to be suspended or scrapped, it’s not just the moneybags who own the franchises that can suffer . . . This is a 50-day league which offers people a year’s worth of livelihood.”

Industry insiders question whether the crisis could force bigger changes that outlast the lockdown. BookMyShow, a booking platform that sells tickets for both films and sports, is dabbling in streaming stand-up comedy in an effort to tap into the rising popularity of online video.

But founder Ashish Hemrajani said he was confident demand would rebound, even if it took longer for consumers to feel safe returning to packed venues.

“People ask me, ‘Are movies not going to be a part of the DNA of the Indian consumer mindset going forward?” he said. “My parents and their parents went to the movies. I go to the movies. My son also goes to the movies . . . As people think this is well and truly behind them, [that’s] the first thing that’s going to pick up.”

In the meantime, even the Indian government has recognised the need to keep its homebound population entertained. It announced that the public broadcaster would air reruns of legendary television shows, such as Ramayan, a beloved 1980s dramatisation of the Sanskrit epic poem.

Swapna Gupta, who watches cricket with her family and used to go to a cinema across the road once a week, said she was feeling the absence. But the 34-year-old, who runs an animal rights charity in Mumbai, reasoned that she had an ample backlog to keep her busy.

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“Every weekend you have two or three [film] releases. It’s not feasible to see two or three movies per weekend,” she said. “Now is the time I’m catching up.”