The Big Fall
Hindi commercial cinema is making more money than ever before, but the films have also become utterly disposable commodities. You watch them and you forget them instantly. That is the tragic truth.
Exciting blockbusters generate money and memories. The surplus cash after mandatory deductions trickles into the bank accounts of producers. The experience of watching these films creates memories that stick and stay, leading to discussions on their dialogues, music, performances, direction. And more.
Today, any such suggestion will almost sound as outdated as a news item on the Quit India movement, which has been mistakenly reprinted with the dateline changed. For, blockbusters glitter inside the theatres a few times a year, mostly because of overall technological evolution, exotic locales and the overwhelming power of media-magnified stardom. Their impact on the first-time viewer might be comparable to their predecessors, but not the ability to give us memories like the latter did.
Statistics deceive, which is why films from the past figure nowhere in the list of biggest hits. Hard-sold to the viewers after omitting crucial factors like inflation are mind-blowing numbers registered by PK (2014), which grossed more than Rs 700 crore to become the biggest earner in the history of Indian films. Dhoom:3 (2013) crossed the Rs 500-crore mark. Chennai Express (2013), with Rs 400 crore plus, follows.
So phenomenal are these numbers that, with or without inflation, it is obvious that very large numbers of people watch these films. In India and abroad—the increasing NRI audience has contributed significantly to the box office figures since the mid-1990s. With the exchange rate favouring the Indian producer, the earnings come across as fantastic.
Bigger profits inspire confidence in producers, who chase more with more, which is evident in the rising budgets of Hindi films in recent years. Promotional strategists benefit from this increase and understandably so, they being the ones who make the audiences flock to the theatres in the first weekend.
Think Aamir’s PK, whose story of promotion began with the photograph of a partially nude star with big ears on a poster. This gave rise to suspense around the kind of character Aamir might have played. A rumour of the star portraying an alien went viral. The major cast and crew appearing in press conferences dodged any direct question about this puzzling “it” in the film. The mystery intensified.
After the first show, the entire film-watching world knew that Aamir had, indeed, played an alien. How he came across in the central role was the crowd-puller during the initial days. Everybody gravitated to the theatres.
But in spite of minting Rs 700 crore-plus, did the film leave us awestruck? It did not, with Aamir’s alien, while played to perfection, hardly comparable to Sanjay Dutt’s Munnabhai in the two–film series (made by the same director, Rajkumar Hirani), the benchmark for message-driven light-hearted Hindi commercial cinema with an unusual protagonist tugging at our heartstrings.
If PK failed to turn into a distinct memory, Shah Rukh Khan’s heist film Happy New Year, Salman Khan’s Kick and Hrithik Roshan’s action drama Bang Bang! released last year were genuinely bad films. Manipulated into watching them through the clever usage of various forms of media, we, the hardcore viewers of Hindi commercial cinema, have also junked them and moved on.
Criticism must be prepared to face opposition. One argument explaining the extant reality, that current blockbusters are quickly forgotten, is that the mind has limited storage capacity. Our minds have to process much more information and deal with much more on a daily basis than even a decade ago. Our attention spans have shrunk, as have our memories. The thrill of the disposable here-and-now is much stronger than the remembrance of things past.
Television’s munificence showers options like soap operas, armchair discussions, constant news flow, entertainment-based programmes, and every other kind of choice we might aspire for, nonstop. The internet is an infinite ocean of information and ideas-based diversity. So, new films need to fight infinitely tougher battles for occupying our mindspace than they ever did.
A well-disguised defence, this conceals the untruth, but only for a while. The reason: if that is the case, why do we remember Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Chak! De India (2007) far better than Happy New Year (a reminder, this was a 2014 release)? Why are Sarfarosh (1999), Lagaan (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006) and 3 Idiots (2009), and not Dhoom:3 or PK, considered to be the best films of Aamir Khan, who, at least, takes risks, whether or not he succeeds?
Apart from Tere Naam (2003) and Dabangg (2010), is there any Salman Khan film from the 15 years that we remember really well?
Hrithik Roshan and a much-younger Ranbir Kapoor are talented. What has let them down is their inconsistency, leading to blockbusters like Krrish 3 (Hrithik, 2013) and Yeh Jawaani Hain Deewani (Ranbir, 2013). The former was a patchy sequel of a tiring franchise, and the latter, just another run-of-the-mill romance that briefly lit up because of the pairing of Ranbir and Deepika Padukone.
Why, then, is the past so different? Forty years after its release, Sholay continues to be the dividing line separating the two phases of “before” and “after” in Hindi commercial cinema. Should we ask any teenager who his or her favourite villain is, the answer will be Gabbar Singh. Does anyone remember the villain in Ghajini (2008), even though the film is named after him? No prizes for guessing why Akshay Kumar’s latest film is called Gabbar is Back.
Perhaps the Mumbai film industry realizes this, and that is why we have seen a rash of remakes in the last few years. The film makers want to cash in on storylines that have proven to have rocked audiences, or films that have achieved some sort of cult status. And of course they want to cash in on memories and associations. As a result, we have had remakes of, to cite some examples, Agneepath, Don, Himmatwala, Victoria 203, Zanjeer.
A few of these remakes have even made money. But does anyone remember anything about the new Agneepath? That title will, till Kingdom Come, have one non-replicable signature: Amitabh Bachchan telling the world that his name is Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, in a raspy voice thoroughly unlike his usual baritone.
Don, the ultimate B-movie—with an absurd plot, breathless pace, and one song (perhaps two) that ripped up the charts—was released in 1978. It was written by Salim-Javed, the screenwriter duo who has created more memories than any other Hindi film writer. Javed’s son Farhan Akhtar, who directed the remake of Don, was four years old when the original film was released.
A well-informed man, Farhan, nevertheless, chose this film ahead of many other options at his disposal.
And then, having delivered a commercial success with the new Don (though most critics felt that the original was a better entertainer), he could afford to be optimistic about the second, knowing that he could take the story forward and deliver a high-on-style, money-spinning, see-it, forget-it piggybacker.
However, blaming the filmmakers alone is unfair. An important fact of modern times is the considerable decline in the number of first-rate contributors to the needs of a film. The industry has a few huge stars, among them, those who influence the inclusion of their favourite singers, music directors, dialogue writers, and other participants in any project.
Films made with reasonable budgets can afford to change stars, but not big-budget ones, in which the presence of a very major star is a must. The star who agrees to play the lead in a film, which must make Rs 100 crore to break even, must be thanked for his “kindness” and repaid with the bonus of tremendous power. The salaried director, on the other hand, can be thrown out and replaced by one of the many others waiting in the queue.
Interference of stars during shooting and editing is hardly unknown. Farhan was a co-producer of the Don franchise, but not every director enjoys the same privilege. Those who don’t, simply discuss the project with the producer and the star, and in case of major creative disagreements, lose the battle without a fight. The producer finds somebody else.
The industry has taken an important step forward in the last few years by making more women-centric films. Actors like Kangana Ranaut, Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra are trying to acclimatise to the new reality, but their solo starrers made with modest budgets are reaching out to niche audiences with the rare exception of Tanu Weds Manu
Returns released this year.
Investing Rs 100 crore on a Deepika Padukone film, which will need an unconventional story with the man playing second fiddle, will be seen as an unnecessary risk. Unless that mindset changes, we will keep on returning to Mother India (1957) as the last frontier of woman-centric Hindi commercial film.
The problem of talents, who can helm projects in the big-budget territory, is a concern for sure. We have seen what happened when Sanjay Leela Bhansali tried to do his lavishly mounted version of Devdas with Shah Rukh in the title role and the coming together of Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan. Commercially successful but critically panned, it revived memories of Bimal Roy’s 1955 film, a faithful interpretation of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel that also formed the basis of Bhansali’s gaudy version.
The film industry operates on two basic principles. The maker either works on a challenging and unusual subject, or he indulges in over-the-top ideation, the staple in unapologetically hardcore Hindi commercial cinema. Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Amitabh Bachchan indulged in the extravagant freely.
Desai was a master of the craft of making outrageous films, while Mehra used Bachchan’s image to the hilt without eliminating the demands of commercial considerations. David Dhawan and Govinda delivered so many hits that the latter, with level-headed strategizing, could have become the number one star of Hindi cinema.
In modern times, the two leading directors playing a similar game are Rohit Shetty, who hasn’t experienced a single failure, and Farah Khan. What stops them from being a Manmohan Desai is the absence of spontaneity. They indulge in larger-than-life scenarios which are meticuously planned. Effortlessness is a gift they lack, leading to films which make money but fade fast.
The history of music in Hindi cinema is awe-inspiring. After the evident decline in the 1980s, it took an A.R. Rahman to infuse new energy into Hindi film music, and he has had some worthy followers. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are a gifted team, but then, times are such that formulas need to be manufactured and a Mika Singh used in a film to manufacture a hit track with a bizarre, temporarily market-friendly tune. Who remembers them? Disc jockeys, who play them for a couple of years, along with R.D. Burman remixes from the 1970s!
The basis of a film is the script, the dialogues. But, does the Hindi film industry have a single writer of commercial films, whose lines have the punch of a Salim-Javed, who could whip up unforgettable drama in the most mundane of scenes? No song can be complete without lyrics. But, how many can even dream of producing the magic of Shailendra, the legendary lyricist in many of the early Raj Kapoor films, or Sahir Ludhianvi, who wrote the immortal words for Guru Dutt’s films?
Without first-rate songs, Dev Anand’s career may not have been studded with so many hit films, which are seen for the sake of music—also—even today. Dilip Kumar worked with several fine directors like K. Asif and Bimal Roy, who highlighted his talent with their vision. Rajesh Khanna was fortunate to have come across Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Shakti Samanta, and the voice of Kishore Kumar. Bachchan needed Salim-Javed, at least.
The story of leading ladies is no different. Nargis Dutt needed Mehboob Khan (Mother India) and Raj Kapoor (several films) to create the best memories of her work. Madhuri Dixit’s rise to superstardom began with Tezaab (1988), which pioneered the concept of an item number (the epic Ek Do Teen) performed by a heroine. A hit-manufacturing machine at her peak, she suffered because she acted in too many films that capitalised merely on her beauty, screen presence and dancing ability. But, she turned many of them into long-lasting memories because she was there, a quality no modern-day female star shares.
Small-budget films are qualitatively superior because of the real fighters who are involved. Producers, who trust unusual ideas, can’t spend much. Directors with the larger goal of making interesting films have to make do with non-stars. A few A-list stars, mostly women, take a fee cut to act in such projects. Released after subdued marketing campaigns, their limited reach confines them to limited viewership.
Cinema is business and, earning more than one spends, a natural necessity. That the industry is struggling to make two or three quality blockbusters, either with offbeat ideas or by using the typical formula-based approach, is the truth we must live with.
The number of abs and haute couture shows and shooting in less-explored locations can be part of the film. Once they become the film itself with entertaining moments of the kind being attempted by many other stars, what you get is a Bang Bang!, whose noise at the box office is followed by its expulsion from the mind like a used-up cracker as soon as you come out of the theatre.
This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya.
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