Changing Hindi cinema: Is small the new big? 

Today’s movies – stars or no stars – need to have substance, content and a central core that connects with the aam junta. The days of frivolous recycling of clichés, cushioned by superstars, is over

Monojit Lahiri

It was a casual comment by a film-buff buddy that triggered this piece. “Boss, the age of miracles clearly is not over. Imagine a Vicky Donor, Raazi, October, Bareilly ki Barfi, Andhadhun and certainly Badhaai Ho’s plight as a viable movie proposition a decade ago- the filmmakers wouldn’t last 30 seconds in any Production House/Producer’s office, right? And how about actors like Nawaz, Ayushman, Vicky Kaushal, Raj Kumar Rao, Radhika Apte, Bhumi Pednekar and gang? 20 seconds!”

His statement got me thinking, further reinforced by the Wasseypur, Masaan, Newton, Stree fame character actor Pankaj Tripathi’s comment about how his dates for the next year are all booked! Hey, what’s going on? Whatever happened to the killer Khans, Hrithik, Akshay, Ajay, Ranbir and Ranveer’s sexy, glam packages monopolising popular imagination? Where have Bollywood’s staple diet of magical locales, sexy item numbers and star-fuelled dramas gone? Wasn’t the other cinema commonly perceived as nothing more than a [pseudo] intellectual distraction for the serious type of movie-goers, allergic to mainstream fare and nothing more? Has that revered, unspoken code of Omerta that existed incestuously amongst the Bollywood biggies, suddenly been broken by a movement committed to hack a path through the thick embroidered layers of collective memory, recollections entrusted by narratives repeatedly unspooling fantasies so that the template ensures the ring of comfortable, reassuring truth?

Even the God of Romance, SRK, needs to spread his magical arms a little wider to reclaim his box-office status. Is that why honey, they’ve shrunk our hero to Zero is his new pitch!

Time for a reality check

The fact that 2018’s most awaited blockbuster, the mega-budgeted ₹350-crore Thugs of Hindustan, had to be peeled off the ceiling with investors – allegedly – demanding that their huge losses be compensated, must indicate that old is not gold and superstars alone do not make super-hits. The ship has sailed. Even the God of Romance, SRK, needs to spread his magical arms a little wider to reclaim his box-office status. Is that why honey, they’ve shrunk our hero to Zero is his new pitch! To perceptive viewers, a new template has been co-opted – non-starry, non-formulaic, modestly budgeted with small towns as backdrop – and they have rocked with the audiences.

Why? How? How did this daring transition come about? Isn’t Bollywood entertainment about glamorous, star-blitzed, dazzling, escapist fantasies with romance, music, dance, melodrama, sex and glamour scorching centre-stage? It is – but remember, what goes up must come down and nothing lasts forever. Also, remember that the audience is an unpredictable and ruthless hydra-headed monster with no love or respect for back-stories or history.

Tastes, perspectives, narratives change and yesterday’s wow could be today’s eeeks! Research, reading public pulse and placing one’s ear to the ground are impressive academic exercises but translating it to audience-friendly experiences could be an unimaginably daunting task, especially for the tunnel-viewed types, used to milk the formulae with success, for ages. Clearly, they’ve refused to read the writing on the wall which indicates a new blueprint.

Today’s movies – stars or no stars – need to have substance, content and a central core that connects with the aam junta. The days of frivolous recycling of clichés, cushioned by super stars, is over. Some of the films named are interesting examples of attempts to consciously dump the earlier ghisa-pita models and replace them with new, grounded, human interest stories, with fresh treatment played by gifted actors – not botoxed performers! – in rivetingly convincing fashion. However, the single, greatest reason for the success of these films must lie on the doorsteps of the community for whom they are made – The Public! For too long have facetious, snooty and dumb film-makers suffering from delusions of grandeur, the moment their films bombed, grandly stated that their masterpiece “was before its time” and “the audience is not cinema-literate to understand the brilliance behind it.” Naturally, the audience died, laughing! What the new film-makers have done is to go with their instincts and fearlessly showcase subjects, stories, ideas that strike a chord. Their material, while focusing on realism and engagement consciously steers clear of both arthouse cinema and the mindless masala.

Simple, non-cerebral, easy-to-digest, rooted in an ambience that entertains and is relatable, their USP undeniably lies in audience-contact. The success of these films have proved, that the audiences – given absorbing, interesting and entertaining stuff – even sans the glam, gloss and glitz of the blockbuster extravaganzas – are happy to reward these narratives with thundering footfalls.

All this, however, does not mean that the glamorous, big-budget thumpers are dead, under threat or quaking in their boots. Rajnikant’s Rs-500-crore-plus 2.0 monster blockbuster totally proves that. Stars will always dazzle bright in the heart of their crazed fans and will forever attract fierce loyalty, come what may. It only means that just their presence is not enough. Content has to complement their participation, on screen. They can no longer carry a film – as they once did – by their charisma alone.

Today’s audience live a digitalised life, with social platforms, Web films – Amazon, Netflix, Hotstar – media exposure, preference and choices. A sense of quality has seeped in and sab chalta hai doesn’t chalo any more. Also, the new breed of directors, young men and women, intelligently blend realism, engagement and entertainment with market forces, with story-telling leading the way. This, they do with passion, purpose and perspective championing the slogan – Small is the new big! More wind beneath their wings.

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