What's common between Sholay, the all-time great Bollywood film and blockbusters such as Deewaar, Chupke Chupke, Apoorva Raagangal, Julie, Hera Pheri, Kabhie Kabhie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Annakkili, Chattambi Kalyani and 16 Vayathinile? Well, all of these films were released during the “dark years” of Emergency (1975 to 1977). Emergency is just one of the many examples of distress periods in which the public mood in general turns sober. Trade analysts and producers routinely tom-tom about the collections of big festival releases, but they seldom talk about films that have done well during a period of gloom.
Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad quoted the record collection numbers of three Bollywood films on October 2nd to drive home his point that there is no recession in the economy. Though Prasad is known for making such dubious claims that are fit to be readily dismissed (he had famously claimed earlier that prostitution and supari killings have nosedived after demonetisation), this statement triggered angry reactions as it confirmed that the government is in denial mode even on the face of towering evidences about a slowdown. The analyst he had quoted later clarified that though the number is correct, there is no basis for the minister's claim about recession because Bollywood collections form a minuscule part of the country's GDP.
Ravi Shankar Prasad may be the first to cite movie collections to dismiss economic slowdown, but scores of psychologists and economists have directly or indirectly linked increase in smaller indulgences such as movie watching with economic distress.
Movies during Great Depression and Great Recession
Hollywood's response to the Great Depression in 1930s is a curious case in history. Hollywood productions proved to be a therapeutic diversion to the public that wanted a break from their financial woes during those years. The film industry in general was witnessing big changes and the big investments producers were making to upgrade studios and theatres to enable the latest advancement in the industry—the addition of sound—suggested that the industry was isolating itself from the gloom outside. 42nd Street, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz were some of the timeless cult films that came out and created new collection records during the Great Depression.
There were many big-ticket releases during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 too. The all-time biggest grosser Avatar was one of them. Avatar, made on a budget of Rs 1,680 crores, grossed over Rs 1,8957 crores worldwide when the ripples of economic recession were being felt all over the world. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, The Mummy, Quantum of Solace and The X-Files were some of the other noteworthy blockbusters of this period.
Psychology behind ticket sales during recession
Stress is a condition that has a direct connection, among other things, with one's job and financial status. Your employment status, salary, job security and anxieties about the future contribute to your stress levels, which typically is high during economic downturns. If you are not a movie buff who make it a point to visit the cinemas every week, when do you typically think about watching a film? A good number of people go to the movies when they feel that they need a break from their daily struggles. There aren't many better ways to escape from the worries of the real world than to sit back and watch a movie in a comfortable air-conditioned environment. Perhaps, the going out part adds to busting the stress.
Psychologists who studied the effect of films on the mind have come up with some interesting findings. Researchers of University of Maryland had found that when you heartily laugh watching a comedy film, your blood pressure lowers as much as it would when you exercise. Movies, especially comedies, is a popular prescription for relieving anxiety and stress. You can attribute the same effect to romantic films and musicals, but not so much with horror and 3-D adventure films that are the most popular genres these days. There are exceptions like singer Lady Gaga whose favourite relaxation is watching horror films. James Cameron successfully combined several elements such as fantasy, 3D effects, action, adventure, comedy, and romance in Avatar to appeal to a wide range of audiences during the recession time and beyond. It remains to be a repeat watch for many.
Watching movies, unlike reading or doing some activity, requires much less focus and involvement. Movies relax you and gives your brain a break as you don’t have to think too much while watching a film. The audio-visual experience triggers a range of emotions in the mind, makes you feel in the company of others, and sometimes momentarily transports you to another world outside of yours, like the planet Pandora of Avatar. Who wouldn’t like to indulge in such an experience when feeling low?
In economic terms, the ‘lipstick effect’ explains consumer behaviour during an economic crisis. As per this theory, when the confidence of consumers in the economy goes down during a recession, they cut spending on items that put a hole in their pocket but will go for less costly luxury items such as lipstick. The theory is known to work in case of movie-watching habit too, as it is easy to find a theatre nearby to catch a film without spending much on travel. It is also a known fact that the ‘sin industry’ that includes liquor and tobacco, and the entertainment industry at large do well during bad times.
Binge watching, much like binge eating, is another habit associated with stress and anxiety. Many of us try to relieve stress with either or both of these. Simply put, we tend to eat more of junk and get ourselves hooked on to TV or movies for long hours to turn ourselves away from stressful thoughts and tough situations.
The all-weather film industry does not seem to be concerned about the prevailing economic conditions but it seems to be cashing in on depressions as much as they do on booms. Come rain or shine, filmmakers will continue to dream in bigger budgets and people will continue to consume the easiest, cheapest and universally available form of entertainment. Consider War as just an Indian Avatar of this recession. A better way for the minister and others to momentarily escape from the reality of recession is watching film at the nearest multiplex, than to negate its existence by counting the people queuing up to buy tickets.
(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)