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‘Kalki 2898 AD,’ ‘Aarya’ Teams, Siddharth Roy Kapur on India’s 2023

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The teams behind upcoming sci-fi epic “Kalki 2898 AD,” hit Disney+ Hotstar series “Aarya” and prolific producer Siddharth Roy Kapur spoke with Variety on what has been an eventful 2023 for the Indian entertainment landscape.

2023, the first full year of business since the pandemic, saw Indian audiences return in droves to cinemas. It was also a golden year for streaming with all the major Indian platform delivering global hits.

Roy Kapur had a packed year with Season 2 of Emmy-nominated Indian space and nuclear program-themed “Rocket Boys” on SonyLIV, epic war film “Pippa” making a direct-to-streaming debut on Prime Video and comedy-drama film “Tumse Na Ho Payega” bowing on Disney+ Hotstar.

“What we haven’t had is a theatrical release this year, which feels a little strange,” Roy Kapur told Variety, adding that “Deva,” an action thriller directed by Rosshan Andrrews and produced by Roy Kapur Films and Zee Studios, with Shahid Kapoor and Pooja Hegde in the lead, is gearing for an October 2024 theatrical release during the Dussehra holiday frame.

“It’s been an interesting year of water getting to find its own level after the pandemic, so things are still a little bit in flux overall. But the good part is that all the obituaries that were being written about the theatrical model dying out and people not coming back to cinemas, that’s been disproved completely this year, which is great,” Roy Kapur said.

“The human need to connect is is something that we maybe didn’t think was as strong as audiences have shown us it is,” Roy Kapur added. There’s a limit to being absorbed in the black mirror that you hold in the palm of your hand, or the one that you’re sitting at home and staring into, you need to go out and connect with other people, you need to enjoy shared experiences. And the good part is, across [various Indian] languages this year, we had movies that give them that sense of celebratory enjoyment in a cinema hall.”

Amita Madhvani, producer of Emmy-nominated Disney+ Hotstar series “Aarya,” now in its third season, recounted the experience of watching Karan Johar’s hit film “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” in the cinema. “The audience was singing, they sang the songs together, people repeated dialogues. People were clapping, people stood up and matched the steps. It was mad. I think this is just what we grew up on, this is what we know, let people connect. It’s a feeling,” Madhvani said.

“Aarya” director Ram Madhvani added, “It’s a collective euphoria, and a collective catharsis. And I think that’s really what has helped, apart from the movies also being stuff that you want to see.”

Next up for the Madhvanis is series “The Waking of a Nation,” set against the backdrop of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, an infamous event in Indian colonial history. It has just completed principal photography.

Producer Swapna Dutt, along with her sister Priyanka, have been consumed during the pandemic years with big-budget sci-fi epic “Kalki 2898 AD,” directed by “Mahanati” filmmaker Nag Ashwin and produced by Vyjayanthi Movies, with a cast led by Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, Deepika Padukone and Disha Patani.

“People are wanting to go back for the experience of it, laugh together, enjoy the momentum, go to event films,” said Swapna Dutt. “At the same time, are we are we in the mood to go to an average film at this point of time? No, because there’s also a lot of other interesting content on OTT [streaming], that challenge is still there. Probably back in the early days, when we didn’t have [streaming] even a mediocre film would do decent box office numbers, which is not the case now. That’s the clarity that we’ve got post-pandemic.”

The pandemic has also made the Indian audience language agnostic. “Kalki 2898 AD,” for example, will release in 2024 in the four south Indian languages – Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam – and north Indian language Hindi, with plans to release it in some international languages as well. “Aarya,” where Sushmita Sen plays the title role, was released across multiple languages and found audiences in all of them.

“‘Aarya’ has definitely penetrated, because as a character, she is not barred by any language. No language has controlled her emotion, what she’s trying to say, what’s happening to her, the entire world around Aarya,” said Amita Madhvani.

On the lessons from the streaming business over the last year, Ram Madhvani said, “We’ve been at the receiving end of the viewers’ patience. And I think that time is not the same that it was two to three years ago. That means that they’re asking for shorter episodes, they’re not asking for longer stuff – they want to keep it moving.” Madhvani added that streaming platforms provide a safeguard for stars who have a theatrical career and allow them to make off-mainstream choices.

Looking back at 2023 and anticipating 2024, Swapna Dutt hails the fact that the Indian industry is in the process of coming together as one big industry rather than several fragmented ones, with a flow of talent, technicians and finance between them. “Today, we’re talking about Indian cinema on par with world cinema, which is just the best thing for all of us in the last few years,” Swapna Dutt said. “Kalki 2898 AD” made a splash at the San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year.

Priyanka Dutt added, “Audiences are always changing, and as filmmakers, we have to be true to what is exciting me as a filmmaker, to put my heart, my energy, my whole hard work in it.”

“It’s important to just keep our minds open and flexible, and be driven by the stories rather than be driven by formulae,” Roy Kapur said.

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