There is a weird glass cage logic in the way Hindi films work. The glass is always tinted. The universe outside the cage, the world where diversity thrives with pain and exuberance in equal measure and where ‘Nach Punjaban’ is not an anthem, can never translate accurately on a production designer’s blueprint. The minds and hearts of the cage’s gatekeepers often care about formulaic, referential templates rather than authentic rootedness. Cancel culture in a primitive, insular form has been a given in this great industry for a very long time now.
The bigger problem is that rarely does anybody or any community try to break the tinted glass walls. And when someone does, like every right wing troll in the country is targeting Advait Chandan’s Laal Singh Chaddha (LSC) now because of reasons varying from Aamir Khan’s stray comment from 2015 about growing intolerance in India to Khan meeting the Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan while shooting LSC there, it is always out of fanatical spite.
In someone like me, who has been watching Bollywood films in theatres since childhood, has embraced Bollywood-style sangeet ceremonies and Punjabification of Assamese weddings with supreme glee, has covered the industry as a journalist since 1999 and for the past several years critiqued Hindi films as a reviewer, the soft target logic doesn’t evoke sympathy or more love—only exasperation.
It convinces me again and again, and now more than ever before, that the walls need breaking down from inside, for reasons other than hatred and trolling. The 20-plus families and studios that control all decisions related to Bollywood’s thriving—and now, also survival to a large degree—has a lot to gain once they step out and smell the grime.
What’s the urgency now? Look at how the past six to eight months, after the pandemic ebbed and theatres opened, have gone for Bollywood.
Industry heads and producers and movies-lovers alike were gung-ho about the possibility of returning to theatres. Theatres started running at full capacity in March, with a release line-up ready for the whole year and on to 2023. The movie theatres, for long a staple of family outings in our country, were up and running—cloyingly sweet, Aamir Khan’s “Andhera mein Roshni (light in darkness)” case for big screen magic in an ad selling 25 years of PVR Cinemas, has desperation written all over it.
Yet, the highest grossing film in the Indian box office this year, in these supposedly rejuvenating times for the big screen, is Prashanth Neel’s Kannada smasher KGF: Chapter 2, clocking Rs 1,000 crore. The highest grosser in Hindi was Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, a film about a Kashmiri Hindu youth’s journey that received open support and endorsement from Delhi’s power headquarters, fetching Rs337 crore. The Akshay-Kumar starrer Samrat Prithviraj, made with a reported budget of Rs300 crore, has made around Rs80 crore so far, even with its nationalistic story.
All hopes were on LSC, because an Aamir Khan film hardly goes off-kilter on profit projections. The film has made just over Rs 126 crore worldwide at the start of its third week at the box office despite running through two long weekends since August 11. It doesn’t of course help that #boycottlalsinghchaddha has had a real impact on its domestic returns, but it’s probably also unrealistic to expect a Hollywood film made 28 years ago, and which has been a worldwide Hollywood classic for all those 28 years, to have a following among one of the world’s most cinema-loving nations.
Can sophisticated de-ageing software make a 50-plus superstar’s screen journey from a college student to a middle-aged man seem seamlessly believable? Probably, justifiably, no.
Cinema from the South, of all budgets and with smaller as well as big stars, has crossed over convincingly to markets outside of the South with stories rooted in the culture and social realities of the states they come from. After being exposed to South Indian films in all major OTTs for several years now, it is safe to conclude that Tamil or Malayalam and even Telugu cinema has much more diversity in not only stories, but talents. In contrast, Bollywood producers have always gone to the same talent pool, perceived as successful because of past box office success, and believed in repeating their formulae over and over again.
We are an OTT audience used to watch K-dramas, Hollywood reality shows, South American gangster sagas as well as original indie gems from all over the world. MUBI has exposed us to breakout talents with original voices everywhere from Romania to Iran since it launched in India in 2019. It is obvious a star alone can’t attract audiences in India anymore—a star with a great script with authentic roots in storytelling, form and themes is perhaps the only dependable formula.
The task for Bollywood biggies is not just to break down the walls to embrace newer, more engaged ways of looking at stories and talents, but also to subvert social media troll campaigns in ways that “#boycott” somehow works in their favour, because hatred is not going anywhere from social media’s toxic chambers. In a recent interview with Galatta Plus, writer-director Anurag Kashyap said he completed nine scripts during the pandemic, out of which eight have no takers so far because the subjects aren’t producer-friendly because of their content. His remake of a Spanish time-travel thriller, Do Baaraa, released this week to box-office returns below Rs 1 crore in the first two days, with reportedly 2-3 percent occupancy and cancellation of early shows in some territories due to lack of audience.So from the glass cage, it seems impossible now to fool one’s way into a big bang BO weekend. The audience can smell a disaster coming and have better ways to spend their afternoons. Focusing on emerging audiences with an appetite for stories based on realism, or serious fantasies and epics mounted on big scales with visionary and original visual languages like, say, RRR, or idea-driven subjects seem to be the way forward—where characters matter more than actors, aligning with talent beyond big actors and big, so-called foolproof, names is the investment, and where the movies are not treated as a homogeneous product business. Ultimately it’s budgets that fail, and formulaic, insular thinking that fail, not films.