And the only thing certain about 2019 is that the Indian film industry will throw up some surprises, some old recipes and hopefully narratives that reflect not past cinematic bromides but more refreshing slices of life.
The story of the Hindi film industry this year was as befuddling as Sriram Raghavan's Andhadhun where nothing was as it appeared to be. And when the only predictable blockbusters were filmy weddings starring Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas.
These extended celebrations "broke the internet," engaged frenetically tweeting fingers and awe-struck eyeballs, and spawned destination wedding dreams and couture schemes for brides to be. (Clue: It's Sabyasachi or go home)
This was the year when the queen herself (Lady Beyonce Giselle Knowles Carter, Leader of the Beyhive and Saviour of the Masses) entertained guests at Udaipur during the big fat Ambani Sangeet, some superstars served food at the wedding hosted at Antilia (India's answer to Buckingham Palace), Lata Mangeshkar emerged from retirement to record the Gayatri Mantra for the very same wedding, and at least one (much critiqued and later deleted) article in The Cut, claimed that Priyanka Chopra was a global scam artist.
The now withdrawn piece also implied that her nuptials - and those we presume obviously included that 75 ft long veil - were fake and part of an elaborate marketing exercise. Was it? We don't know. The attending staff at the Taj Lands End would feel too bad if their "jijaji" turned out to be a publicity stunt.
Much more happened, including the untimely death of one of the brightest stars of the country, and these stories are what we will present to you in a few acts on this edition of our yearend podcast series. Three weddings and a funeral, and everything in between, on this episode of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol.
Hero to zero
The superstars were cut down to size, as in Aanand L Rai's Zero, and sometimes metaphorically when they realised they mere mortals as when Kannada star Yash's KGF Chapter 1 outstripped the much touted SRK starrer. This was also the year when mere mortals like Ayushman Khurana almost laid his hands on superstardom on the back of not one but two small-budget hit films that worked only because they did something Hindi cinema has forgotten to do - take its audience by surprise, and not for granted. Yes, we are talking about Badhaai Ho and Andhadhun.
Cliches about macho nationalism fell by the wayside as when a young female actor with more talent than can be contained in one-dimensional roles, got together with a woman director and gave the industry a Rs 200 crore hit called Raazi. A film that turned the commonplace notion of patriotism on its head and presented a Kashmiri girl as an all-sacrificing nationalist.
And this was the year when the audience did not just want to suspend their disbelief but to believe in a story, a character they could identify with, and to engage with cinema. But there was plenty more to occupy them in 2018.
The paparazzi's obsession with Taimur Ali Khan for instance, and the Airport Looks of stars. Priya Warrier's wink in Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love. Trivia about who danced with whom and who looked through whom at celebrity weddings. And another season of Koffee with Karan arrived where a new generation of stars regurgitated the same old gossip about family trees, love, and heartbreak. With an incentive to win an Audi for the best answer. (Quizzers across the country looked askance.)
And of course on display was Johar's continuous support for the top rung of stars and their siblings or children who got a free pass to fame and fortune thanks to that reviled word, 'nepotism.' A word that the spunky Sara Ali Khan defanged when she eloquently conceded that indeed she was aware of her privilege and the fact that she had bagged a Karan Johar film even before her first one had released. Perhaps Columbia taught her something after all.
There was Jhanvi Kapoor, who remained non-committal about everything except the most mundane details about her childhood and with rumours now claiming that younger sister Khushi will be making her debut also with Dharma Productions, it is clearer more than ever that Johar revels in his guardianship of fledgling starlings.
And come to think of it, if we just go by how Johar's star protege Alia Bhatt is faring, would it be fair to say that he is promoting talent rather than genealogy? Perhaps, but one only wishes he had a little more grace about it. "Stop Making Sense" might make for a half-decent tongue-in-cheek tagline for a frothy chat show, but adopting it as a life mantra is just that – nonsensical.
There were some heart rending shockers as well. The illnesses of Irrfan, Sonali Bendre, Nafisa Ali and Rishi Kapoor. And the biggest one of them all - the demise of a true goddess, Sridevi. And all the controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat that quietened magically post its release and contributed quite a bit to the massive amounts of audience interest and inevitable box-office success.
The usual suspects and few not so obvious ones
We can't seem to stop referring to Andhadhun's mind-bending plot twists while recounting this year's box-office numbers because really, nobody foresaw the possibility that of the 12 superhits in the Rs 100 crore club this year, four lead players would not be the usual money spinners or the invincible superstars who sometimes churn films with zero substance (seriously, no pun) and end up busting first day collection records. Well, not this year. And believe it or not, the star turn in one of this year's biggest hits, Badhaai Ho was by Neena Gupta. Yes. Her of Saans and Chholi Ke Peechhe Kya Hain? Range, I tell you.
And the biggies that failed to live up to expectations? Oh there were a few. Thugs of Hindostan and most recently Zero. And we don't need to tell you who starred in these films.
Some may say that this year, content was king, but the success of the banal-part-two Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (Ki Chaachi Ka Kutta) reminded us that misogynistic writing still scores big and strikes a chord with a large chunk of audience. Baaghi 2 earned ₹25.1 crore net on its opening day, marking the biggest opening-day of 2018 (ahead of even Padmaavat), the biggest Good Friday opening, the third biggest opening in the last 15 months (behind Tiger Zinda Hai and Golmaal Again), and the seventh biggest for an action film. It was a critically panned remake of Telugu film Kshanam. It also proved that a superstar in the making can make anything convincing, even a film that makes up for the absence of a story.
An honourable mention must be made of Stree (₹124.56 crore) that plays on obvious misogynistic tropes that demonise women but turn out to be a film that in fact asks the audiences to question their own prejudices in a way that is not preachy but surprisingly enlightening.
With Badhaai Ho (₹134.44 crore), Ayushman Khurana proved once again that he has a knack for picking up winning scripts and that he is aware of his limitations as a star and is instead willing to be an actor and play the flawed common man caught in uncommon circumstances in film after small-budget film. And this is a formula that seems to be working for him. And there is Rajkummar Rao who starred in Stree and who is fast becoming middle-of-the-road cinema's lucky mascot a la Amol Palekar.
An important thing to note is that there seems to be an emerging breed of producers and directors willing to break away from the clutter with films like Badhaai Ho (directed by Amit Sharma) and Stree (directed by Amar Kaushik) and both these films explored themes that are unfamiliar in the commercial context. Middle-age sexuality and an urban legend suffused with moving gender-sensitivity.
One cannot, any more, disregard the role that good writers play in the success of a film. Were we not once an industry that was built on the shoulders of writers, dare I say scholars, like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Abrar Alvi, Jainendra Jain, Gulzar, Gulshan Nanda, Satyadev Dubey, Salim Javed and many more? How, when and why then did it become all about pandering to the mythical superpowers of stars?
Perhaps what is suddenly making them look vulnerable after all is the fact that film-going audiences no longer have to put up with Friday releases for their dose of entertainment. Now they can watch the best of international and national programming in the comfort of their homes and they will make the trip to the cinema hall only when they smell a fresh plot.
That Meghna Gulzar's Raazi mined the wealth of information and research in Harinder Sikka's 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, bodes well for writers and we will not mention Chetan Bhagat here because he was in the news for all the wrong reasons.
And the average response to Manmarziyan proved that even habitual genre benders like Anurag Kashyap have to now replace their fast depleting bag of story-telling tricks. K.V. Vijayendra Prasad is a case in point of a writer's growing heft in the scheme of things because he wrote Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and has also written Kangana Ranaut's weird flex, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. And Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games in its Netflix adaptation outdid most big films with its ability to engross audiences worldwide.
It is however unfair to say that 2018 is a particularly path-breaking year because makers like Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla, Love, Sex and Dhoka, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Shanghai, Byomkesh Bakshi), Shoojit Sarkar, (Yahaan, Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe, Piku) Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan , Lootera), and of course, Kashyap among many others have been diligently chipping away at the formidable star system fed by big production houses for years now.
But it would also be foolhardy to believe that superstars are a spent force.
Even when some of them may seem to have left their glory behind, their life story can still sell tickets as was the case with Rajkummar Hirani’s Sanju that unabashedly hero-worshipped Sanjay Dutt, left out crucial details from his life, and still managed an opening of Rs 34.75 crore nationwide. If the film were a feature story in a magazine, we would call it a puff piece. That puff piece went on to earn Rs 334 crore.
Critically panned Race 3 with an ensemble cast of Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Bobby Deol, Jacqueline Fernandez, Saqib Saleem and Daisy Shah cornered an opening of Rs 29 crore and managed to earn Rs 166 crore. And even though, the numbers were less than expected, they were still decent enough. Their business is their business, and none of our business.
And now Duds of Hindostan which despite petering out after a Rs 52 crore opening still managed to earn over Rs 150 crore.
Akshay Kumar clearly has taken a few lessons from Professor Snape and has figured out the magic potion in which star power and nationalism combine to produce box-office gold, was able to succeed once again with Gold, which was his biggest opener ever, and earned Rs 25.5 crore on the opening day. The film that recreates India's hockey win at the 1948 Olympics, collected over Rs 104 crore domestically. His Padman despite charges of plagiarism did modestly well too.
And there was Veere Di Wedding that despite its token overtures to feminism, was essentially a slickly produced film about a wedding, designer sets and wardrobes and token female bonding over heartbreak, dysfunctional families, sterile marriages, weight issues, and too much money and too little love. Boo. Hoo.
Veere Di Wedding earned over ₹138 crore worldwide to emerge as one of the highest-grossing Hindi films featuring a female lead. And that is a good thing, we suppose?
And then there are some stars that apparently, go on and on.
Like Rajinikanth, Lord of the Memes, whose 2.0 was released worldwide in both 3D and conventional format on 29 November 2018, along with its dubbed versions in Hindi and Telugu. A film where even the heir to Manoj Kumar's 'Bharat' Akshay Kumar himself agreed to play the villain. <insert Rajinikanth joke>
The film went on to earn ₹117.34 crore worldwide on its first day, which was the second highest ever for an Indian film. The film crossed ₹520 crore in its opening weekend to be the highest-grossing film worldwide for that week. 2.0 is the second highest grossing film in India and is the sixth highest-grossing Indian film worldwide. And it is still running in theatres.
Post the uproariously successful Baahubali franchise, this is yet another example of South-Indian cinema's growing pan-Indian appeal. And has perhaps resulted in collaborations like Kannada actor Yash's KGF: Chapter 1 that is being brought to the Hindi film audiences by Farhan Akhtar.
Debutant Akarsh Khurana's road movie Karwaan had Malayalam star Dulquer Salmaan in an endearing role that brought home the fact that regional boundaries are blurring. Dulquer, son of the Malayalam legend Mammootty, also played Gemini Ganesan (actress Rekha's father to the unabashedly South-unaware) in the wonderful film Mahanati, a biopic of the iconic South Indian actress Savithri.
Despite an inaccurate interpretation of Sufi poet and Pir Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic poem Padmavat, a rather black and white portrayal of good and evil and disturbing glorification of self-immolation and caste chauvinism, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat scored big at the box-office and how.
Padmaavat had all the intellectual heft of a Tinkle comic (one of the bad ones, mind) but as was expected from a Bhansali film, it excelled at visual grandeur and all the violent protests by fringe outfits against its release, as we said before, in fact fuelled mass curiosity and worked in the favour of the film. With a production budget of ₹2.15 billion, Padmaavat released post many delays on 25 January 2018 in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D formats, making it the first Indian film to be released in IMAX 3D.
Despite not being released in some states, Padmaavat cornered a mindboggling Rs 100 crore haul domestically in the first week of its release and went on to garner over Rs 280 crore. So in this case at least, all was well, because the film ended on a triumphant profit-making note, despite vandalisation of sets and buses, threats issued to Deepika Padukone and numerous cuts by the Censor Board.
An official of the Haryana unit of the BJP, one sunny pal called Surajpal, even announced a reward of ten crore rupees to anyone who would bring him the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Our pal was only upping the ante, for his mate from Meerut had earlier declared a five crore rupee reward. It's like an auction at Sotheby's, except disgusting.
In another controversy, the 65th National Film Awards evoked quite a bit of reaction even before they commenced when it was announced that President Ram Nath Kovind would present only some of the awards. According to norm, the National Film Awards in all the categories are handed over to the winners by the President of India. Over 60 awardees wrote an open letter in protest and over 50 winners stayed away from the ceremony.
Tanushree Dutta's outspoken stand against Nana Patekar took on entrenched sexism and kickstarted a movement that sent heads rolling and brought stomach-churning casting practices in the industry out in the open. Despite names like Vikas Bahl, Alok Nath and Sajid Khan being cited by survivors, the big guns as yet remain impervious to the movement unlike Hollywood where even the likes of Kevin Spacey and studio giants like Harvey Weinstein have been named and shamed and have charges pressed against.
A Supreme Court lawyer filed a case against singer Papon who was caught on film kissing a minor contestant of a reality show and Annu Malik was also accused of inappropriate behaviour. Jeetendra was accused of sexual misdemeanour by a cousin decades after the alleged assault happened in a Simla hotel room in 1971. Mika Singh was arrested in Dubai for sending objectionable pictures to a 17-year-old Brazilian model but was back just in time to sing at TV host and actor Kapil Sharma's wedding. Show business!
The biggest collective heartbreak was experienced this year when India's eternal sweetheart Sridevi passed away in a Dubai Hotel on February 24 at the age of 54, leaving behind conjectures and occasionally insensitive social media posts. Her fleeting cameo in Shahrukh Khan's Zero will be possibly her last glimpse on the silver screen. Among the others who passed on this year were veteran actor Rita Bhaduri, everybody's favourite aunty Shammi and director Kalpana Lajmi.
Debates and clashes
The nepotism debate erupted once again when Shashank Khaitan's Dhadak, a film produced lavishly by Karan Johar watered down the caste questions raised by Nagraj Manjule's searing Marathi hit Sairat to create a sanitised, cosmetically pleasing launch vehicle for Jhanvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khattar.
And Sara Ali Khan managed to make quite an impression with Abhishek Kapoor's Kedarnath which also ran into a controversy because of its Hindu-Muslim love story and Sara’s battle over dates with Abhishek Kapoor. Salman Khan bankrolled the debut of brother-in-law Aayush Sharma in the forgettable Love Yatri (RIP Love Ratri) while the late Vinod Mehra's son Rohan made his debut in Nikhil Advani's Bazaar.
Queen of controversy Kangana Ranaut clashed with Director Ketan Mehta who accused her of ‘hijacking’ his dream project about the Rani of Jhansi.
In August 2018, Kangana took over the direction of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi after the film’s director Krish got busy with his biopic on NT Rama Rao. Rumours have suggested that Krish Jagarlamudi quit the project, after seeing a picture of a clapboard with Kangana’s name on it as the director. Clarifications were then issued that he is still the captain of the ship while the leading lady is helming certain portions, though later it was added, that Kangana would indeed be sharing directorial credit.
Top-notch producer Prernaa Arora, the force behind KriRaj Entertainment and films like Toilet Ek Prem Katha, and Pari, ran into trouble when she and director Abhishek Kapoor clashed during the Kedarnath schedule and later John Abraham, her co-producer of Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, took her to court over criminal charges of cheating, breach of trust and so on.
In a nutshell, this was the year of the underdogs like Tanushree Dutta and Vinta Nanda, brave cinematic outings by young directors and most of all audiences who called the shots and forced the industry to introspect and to look beyond what supposedly sells and learn how to tell new stories convincingly and within a sane budget. And so the biggest dream factory did a reality check in 2018.And the only thing certain about 2019 is that the Indian film industry will throw up some surprises, some old recipes and hopefully narratives that reflect not past cinematic bromides but more refreshing slices of life and talents that have earned their right to be in the spotlight. So they may earn the same love and respect that the likes of Sridevi did when it is their time to say goodbye.