Indian audience finally growing up?

Vicky Donor? Toilet, Ek Prem Katha? Shubh Mangal Savdhan? Padman? Khandani Shafakhana? Bala? Monojit Lahiri wonders what has changed

Indian audience finally growing up?

Monojit Lahiri

We live in strange and troubled times bro. Can you imagine – even a few years ago – titles, themes, subjects and contents focussing on material associated with sperm donation, toilet introduction to hinterland, erectile dysfunction, sanitary pads usage and now the latest, a sex clinic run by a woman? Wassup buddy? Why this change in a space forever dedicated to glamour-spiced, feel good, escapist entertainment? From where did this jump into such totally unconventional, off beat, un-glam and non-fragrant narratives, leaning on stinky box-office-unfriendly-content, come? Have our star-struck audiences suddenly gone sane and become issue-conscious, looking beyond the jhatka stuff into meaningful story-telling that attempts to celebrate genuine causes and concerns that plague the aam junta!

Provocative as his observation was, it got me thinking and my mind raced back a few years ago when my young director friend Shoojit Sircar spelt out to me, the nightmare he experienced when he was attempting to put together Vicky Donor. “Wherever I went, amusement, bewilderment, shock and disgust greeted me! Was I really serious about the subject and the content? A film not on blood but sperm donation? More than a producer, I needed a shrink, many hinted! It actually got moving only when star John Abraham came on board as a producer. Once it released and was declared a sleeper hit by the trade and the audience loved it, struggling and aspiring directors confided to me that production houses, while breezily dismissing their concepts, often told them, “Boss, Kuch Vicky Donor ka jaisa bana! Amazing!”

Toilet – hardly the sexiest title or content – surprisingly slapped its (eek!) critics to zoom past the magical Rs 100 crore mark and more recently, Shubh Mangal Savdhan also fared decently despite its (oooh maa, nudge-wink-ahem) theme. While leading man Ayushman Khurana called it a “family film” (oops!), unveiling a subject that is quite common but never openly discussed, heroine Bhoomi was more upfront and in-your-face. “Manliness – commonly and mistakenly believed – is not about getting it up but standing up tall and proud and fearless, to be a caring and sensitive husband/partner. To address her areas of joys and insecurities, needs and wants beyond physicalities in a manner that is meaningful.

The USP of our film was the treatment, a Hrishida–Basu Chatterjee style, blending light-hearted and relatable humour with humanism, avoiding the temptation to be corny, vulgar and comically trivialise a very delicate issue.” Sonakshi, for her turn, confessed that initially she felt awkward (Khandani Shafakhana), but added that “the script and content were so compelling and socially relevant that I just had to do it!”

Great. Point taken. However, fearlessly making an issue-based film is one part of the story. The more important part of the course is viewer acceptance. Right? As the legendary Hollywood filmmaker, Billy Wilder, once reportedly stated, “Talent is great but the audience is greater!” The proven appreciation – as demonstrated by the Box Office + Return On Investment – by mass audience relating to all these films, must say something about altering viewership taste too. Hai na? The answer has to be a resounding yes. The fact is message-driven films, reflecting societal ills, are not new to commercial Hindi cinema. Way back across the 50’s and 60’s, giants like Raj Kapoor (Awara, Boot Polish, Jagte Raho), B.R. Chopra (Ek Hi Rasta, Dhool Ka Phool, Sadhana, Naya Daur), Amiya Chakraborty (Daag, Seema, Patita), Bimal Roy (Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata) and others did unspool powerful, socially meaningful narratives that were both critically and commercially viable and appreciated.

After their exit, however, this genre vanished for one simple reason. Popular cinema largely reflects the mood and flavour of the times. Once the first flush of nationalism, patriotism (post-Partition) and the need to assert one’s identity through serious and meaningful content was done, the need to entertain through feel-good fun, glamour and larger-than-life templates came into play. Also, the influence of Western music – Elvis, Beatles, rock n’ roll, etc. – blitzed in, changing the profile and trajectory of movie content. Shammi Kapoor’s Yahoo also played no mean part in introducing the Rom-com, soon a hugely popular and infectious category adored by the new-age audience of that time. The erstwhile issue-dominated films of yore, suddenly, found itself totally side-tracked and the few that did attempt to woo the distracted audience – glamour-driven and star-struck – lacked the vision and the ability to engage the people, something the masters demonstrated with such confidence, sensitivity, grace and class. Viewers (of the ticket-paying variety) want paisa vasool entertainment.

If along the way, there is a message interestingly factored in, not preachy, didactic or soporific, then that’s a solid value addition for sure. The bottom-line is simple. God knows there are tons of critical issues plaguing our life and times, crying for attention and action: dowry, adult literacy, women and child abuse, law and order, self-employment, disparity of the socio-economic kind between the haves and the have nots, relationship incompatibility...all impediments to the uplift of society and a just and prosperous India celebrating the dignity of the human spirit. Who better than our smart and gifted Bollywood directors, blessed with a super reading of the public pulse, to decode, sugar-coat these issues and offer them to the public in an enjoyable, easy-to-digest manner that entertains while provoking them to ponder over issues showcased.

In the meantime, full marks to all associated with these issue-based efforts and a special big shabash to the audience of these films starting a larger conversation about critical issues, earlier swept under the carpet. Why? Because at the end of the day, it’s neither the director, trade, stars or critics who decide the fate of a film. It’s the audience, the hydra-headed, unpredictable monster that can send you to heaven or hell. Remember the timeless, masala song...Yeh public hai, yeh sub jante hai, yeh public hai!

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