How long should the ideal Bollywood film be?

Shah Rukh Khan’s “Happy New Year”  is 188 minutes long.
Shah Rukh Khan’s “Happy New Year” is 188 minutes long.
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If multiplex programmers ruled the planet and all the cinema it produces, what would the ideal length of a movie be?

“Two hours 15 minutes,” said a senior programmer at a leading multiplex chain, on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting sensitive producers who will hear no objections to films that breach reasonable time limits.

This month’s Diwali release reportedly clocks three hours and eight minutes, perhaps in deference to the three genres it straddles. Farah Khan’s dance-themed heist comedy Happy New Year stars Shah Rukh Khan as the leader of a pack of thieves who disguise themselves as dancers in a talent hunt content. The movie also stars Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan, among others, and is the major release on October 24. Even if Happy New Year shaves off a few minutes, it would still take its place as one of the lengthier films in a year full of long films.

Shorter is better

A trim film has several advantages for programmers of multi-screen cinemas – for one thing, they can run a greater number of shows. A relatively short big-ticket movie also leaves room for other films to also be programmed into the schedule, and gives audiences a choice. This Diwali, for instance, the Tamil productions Katthi and Poojaiare opening on the same day as Happy New Year, as are the heavily awaited crime thriller Gone Girl and the horror film Honeymoon. They will be programmed along with Happy New Year, but what kind of shows will they get if the main feature is more than 180 minutes long?

Indian cinema has a well-deserved reputation for back-breaking epics. Some of the most popular films since the nineties are also among the lengthiest: Hum Aapke Haain Koun…! (206 minutes), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (181 minutes), Border (176 minutes),Gadar Ek Prem Katha (170 minutes), Lagaan (224 minutes), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (177 minutes), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (210 minutes), 3 Idiots (170 minutes), Dhoom: 3, (172 minutes), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (189 minutes).

Such hits as Chennai Express (141 minutes), Barfi! (151 minutes), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (160 minutes) and Krrish 3 (152 minutes) seem positively disciplined in comparison.

An ego trip

Some detractors might see films longer than 150 minutes as an ego trip without a destination, but skilled filmmakers can make the journey worthwhile, argues Devang Sampat, business head of strategic initiatives at the multiplex chain Cinépolis. “If a movie has merit and a message, and if it works on all levels, then it shouldn’t be a problem,” Sampat said. “Such movies especially work during the festive season.”

Audiences on vacation and in the mood for an immersive experience might not complain. But there is no ignoring the dissidents – irritable children, distracted parents, bored patrons who are forced to wait until the climax simply because they don’t want to waste money on tickets that have been purchased at higher prices than usual (a standard festive weekend practice). The attention-span problem has been exacerbated by the uptick in the number of distracting devices and phone applications. “If a film is not absorbing enough, people will start talking loudly and WhatsApping,” the unnamed programmer observed. “In any case, a movie’s business doesn’t always depend on the number of shows, but the capacity in each show. Which is better, ten shows for a film with half the capacity of six shows with full capacity?”

Perhaps a movie’s duration should be the top item on the agenda of focus group screenings at which films are tested prior to their release. Life is short. Does whatever is left of it have to be lost at the movies?

This article first appeared in Scroll