Whether or not you even know what an NFT is, there’s no denying that the unique digital asset is disrupting the art world. These non-fungible tokens, which are essentially a valuable form of digital memorabilia recorded on a blockchain, popularised creators like Beeple, and characters like Cryptopunks and Bored Apes, to build a market worth an estimated $40 billion (that’s an unreal $40,000,000,000 – go on, count the number of zeroes in there).
So, it’s no wonder then that Bollywood – one of the world’s biggest film industries – is rushing to cash in too.
As celebrities across the globe get into cryptocurrency, iconic Indian actors including Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Sunny Leone and Kamal Haasan have also launched their own NFT collections. And given that Bollywood is an industry revered by billions with a fandom often more OTT than the plotlines themselves, some of these NFTs are now earning them big, big bucks.
“Earlier, people would flex about owning a Rolex or driving a BMW, but as we increasingly interact through digital mediums, even the flexing has moved to digital assets like NFTs,” Ramkumar Subramaniam, the co-founder of GuardianLink – a blockchain-enabling platform that created Amitabh Bachchan’s NFTs, the very first in Bollywood – told VICE.
Subramaniam explained how the association of Bollywood with NFTs instantly brings credibility to the digital medium that many still harbour doubts about. “NFTs are all about emotional commerce, and that’s why the nostalgia and star value that drives Bollywood NFTs makes them sell so well. We approached Big B (a term of endearment used by Bachchan’s fans in India) because we felt he could bring credibility to the concept of NFTs since he is also the face of many public awareness campaigns (like India’s COVID-19 awareness campaign).”
According to Subramaniam, the market for Bollywood NFTs, like most NFT markets around the world, is currently dominated by Gen Z and millennial investors trying to keep up with the trend.
“Our buyers are in the age group of 18 to 35,” he said. “They are the OGs of the market because they have grown up in a digital world and are able to identify the high-value NFTs as a result, even when they haven’t watched the movies.” He recalled a conversation he had with a young buyer on Clubhouse, who had bought an NFT of the Sholay poster even though they hadn’t seen the hit 1975 film. “They’ve heard about these films and their dialogues being iconic, maybe from their parents, and want to now be a part of the cultural moment.”
Like most things that come out of Bollywood, the NFTs are also heavily inspired by their Western predecessors.
“We created these Big B Punks inspired by the Cryptopunks, which have a pixelated form and are character-driven,” said Subramaniam. But besides serialised posters of Bachchan’s iconic films like Sholay and Divar, the most popular NFT minted for his collection is the one in which he reads out his father’s poem titled Madhushala in his signature booming voice, which sold for over $100,000 in an auction. According to Subramaniam, the entire collection of NFTs dedicated to Bachchan sold within three days for a cumulative $1 million.
Bollywood is an industry with a massive and avid fan base that does everything, from turn actors into idols with actual temples for them to be worshipped in, to build museums filled with posters and action figures of their favourite stars. Tapping into this fandom then allows the Bollywood-based NFTs to thrive.
“Bollywood is almost like a religion in India, so anything you make of it [in the NFT space] will have a wide reach,” Aaliya Kanuga, the co-founder of Bollycoin, the Bollywood-based cryptocurrency and NFT platform that created actor Salman Khan’s NFTs, told VICE. According to Kanuga, the first Khan NFT that was launched sold for $85,000.
While the NFTs released by Bollycoin in association with Khan include art collectibles, posters and legendary dialogues from his films like Dabangg, fans are also given the option of owning a part of a film or songs from them on the blockchain. However, while the investor then becomes the de facto owner of that particular scene or song, they can only resell it as an NFT, and not get any distribution or commercial rights over it.
“It’s more like owning a piece of art that you can appreciate as a die-hard fan,” said Kanuga, explaining that in this case, the value of the NFT lies only in its resale, similar to the model followed by the NBA Top Shot NFTs.
Amid the ongoing debate on whether NFTs have any real long-term value or are more a bubble that will eventually burst, NFT creators are increasingly expanding their models to include roadmaps, a document that maps out the goals and strategies of an NFT project to determine its long-term value. In the case of Bollywood NFTs, this addresses an interesting intersection point where the NFT holder then gains access to exclusive events or interactions with the celebrities involved, similar to the Bored Ape Yacht Club with prominent members like Jimmy Fallon and Eminem.
“Our NFTs give you access to our ‘Green Room’, which is an exclusive club for Bollycoin NFT holders, where they get access to [offline] movie premiers, screenings, and meet-and-greets with Salman Khan,” said Kanuga. Meanwhile, buyers of Amitabh Bachchan’s NFTs will soon be able to access a similarly exclusive club built within the Metaverse, where they could also interact with their favourite celebrities, attend workshops, discussions, and movie screenings, Subramaniam said.
Creating these exclusive members-only clubs adds a layer of interest for loaded buyers, who may hop on to the trend just to score an encounter with the celebrity they stan or at least the demigods who surround them.
“One of the reasons I’m considering investing in [Bollycoin] NFTs is because it not only links me to a celebrity like Salman Khan but also a community I can network with,” Zahaan Karachiwala, a 23-year-old Mumbai-based digital marketing specialist, told VICE.
In some cases, NFT creators also offer physical collectibles related to the NFTs to drive up their value. “We sold a jacket from the movie Shahenshah along with the NFT for $16,000,” said Dhruv Saxena, the chief strategist of NFT and gaming company Fantico.
Fantico has created NFTs for actors like Kamal Haasan and Johnny Lever, and also has tie-ups to offer IRL collectibles from movie sets to capture audiences that may not fully understand the value of a digital asset. “An NFT is a collectible, but some people still prefer physical collectibles over digital ones,” said Saxena. “So, we offer props from movie sets, clothing owned by celebrities or even musical instruments used to compose famous songs to bring in a wider range [of buyers].”
Bollywood as an industry is estimated to be worth 183 billion Indian rupees. Naturally, Gen Z investors were quick to perceive its potential to maximise their profits.
“I bought an Amitabh Bachchan NFT for $10,” Samantha J, a 20-year-old media student from Chennai, told VICE. “Today, I have listed it for $1,000 on an NFT marketplace, and already have bidders.”
As an early adopter who got into NFTs after following the buzz on Twitter last November, Samantha J believes she has the rare opportunity to profit a hundredfold from her initial investment. “When I bought the NFT, its utility was not disclosed,” she said. “Now that they’re launching [roadmaps] in the Metaverse, their value has automatically increased. Many believe it could just be a trend, but I do see a stability to it.”
Newbie investor Karachiwala got into cryptocurrency and NFTs because of the memes about them and didn’t expect them to get so big. “An NFT has value because we give it that value,” he said. “When you have a star as big as Salman Khan who has a huge fan base, there is an inherent value.”
Although Bollywood NFTs offer a promising investment for India’s Gen Z and millennials, questions on how to regulate and tax NFT transactions may spook prospective buyers from making such big investments on their first try. However, NFT investors are hopeful the market will keep expanding as more people are drawn into it.
“If even 1 percent of the Bollywood audience gets to invest in NFTs, it already brings great resale value,” Hasan Iqbal, a 34-year-old bank employee who’s bought Bachchan NFTs, told VICE. He says he bought 26 NFTs for $10 apiece and now has offers of up to $100 for each.
Given the global unease around the NFT trade, creators and investors see Bollywood NFTs as an experiment that could take NFTs to the mainstream. Or at the very least, it offers early adopters a potentially huge value.
“In the next couple of years, we will all probably be using NFTs, but the question is whether they will hold their value or not,” Kyle Lopez, a co-founder of Bollycoin, told VICE. He added that like most trends in the stock market, such as the dotcom bubble, NFTs will have their share of ups and downs, and ultimately which ones will keep their worth depends on how much the public values them. To keep its values up, Bollycoin is experimenting with a model that can turn ideas or scripts into NFTs that the community could then invest in like producers.
“It all depends on the content of the NFT,” said Lopez. “If you’re buying a piece of a movie or film, the iconic value already exists, so people already know about this film and want to own a part of it. And especially if it is 1 of 1 (an original and unique product with no duplicates), its exclusivity will always give it value.”
For industry experts, the more bankable value of Bollywood NFTs lies in their being alternative vehicles for movie stars, especially since movie screens went black during the pandemic.
“The trend is fast picking up in the movie business because the pandemic led to a standstill in most film production,” Vishakha Singh, vice president of NFT and cryptocurrency marketplace platform WazirX, told VICE. “With not a lot of options at hand, these celebrities are now turning to NFTs to connect with their audience. But despite that, Bollywood NFTs are not more special than regular NFTs. They are in fact a new use-case.”
Big money could indeed be waiting for brave investors, but it’s hardly a promise, another expert said. As in all transactions, let the buyer beware.
“They [buyers] should see it more as a collectible than something to make money off of,” said Om Malviya, the president of president of Tezos India, which is working to popularise the Tezos blockchain in this region. “There are a lot of uncertainties and misinformation around NFTs in general, but those who are buying these NFTs should do it as a way to take part in an experience rather than look to profit off it.”