Bollywood is changing
Sometime in the mid-1970s when Shashi Kapoor announced four films — 36 Chowringhee Lane (Aparna Sen), Junoon (Shyam Benegal), Vijeyta (Govind Nihalani) and Utsav (Girish Karnad) — to be made under his banner ‘Filmwala’, all that the media wanted to know was whether these films were going to be art house films or mainstream movies. “There is nothing like an art or a commercial film. It is either a good film or a bad film,” said an exasperated Kapoor.
Today, with the success of Rajneeti, My Name is Khan, Paa, Kaminey and Ishqiya — and despite the failure of Mani Ratnam’s Raavan — it seems Kapoor’s message has finally reached the audience and the credit for this goes to our present filmmakers. But the wheel, in my opinion, turned with Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) — a new-age film about three friends in pursuit of their dreams. Producer Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan just out of college combined force to launch ‘Excel Films’ and present a real world of make-believe characters. Dil Chahta Hai was as much about the new-age parents as the youngsters in the film and, therefore, loved by all generations.
Looking back, it was an extraordinary year with a number of new directors ushering a new sensibility. Madhur Bhandarkar, who started as an assistant with Ram Gopal Varma, after many years of struggle, found his niche in Chandani Bar — a heart-breaking story of a bar girl doomed to despair. Ashutosh Gowariker, learning from his previous mistake (Baazi), toiled over a near perfect period script rejected by everybody and finally accepted by Aamir Khan Productions. Aamir believed in the spirit of Lagaan and systematically worked towards a universal appeal. Ashutosh combined cricket, colonialism and drought to tell the story of a courageous farmer. The duo painstakingly worked on the preproduction, held auditions and workshops in India and the UK. The cast and crew were booked for six months and lived like a family on location in Bhuj.
Veteran filmmaker Yash Johar’s son Karan Johar made his debut with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai with two-and-half superstars (Rani Mukherjee was still on the rise). For his second film, he had to take a step higher and sign six superstars. Living to his showman image, his film portrayed sprawling mansions, helicopters, designer clothes and extravagant naach-gaana. Johar was a great storyteller and a master at pushing all the right buttons to make his audience laugh and cry alternatively.
The year also introduced us to two diaspora films made by two women filmmakers — Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham — and both were box-office runaways that spoke volumes about the changing taste of the audience. But there was another reason as well. Hindi films were looking and sounding better because people behind the scenes were changing.
Affluent, educated youngsters with a global perspective were entering the medium and defining new guidelines of professionalism. Unlike the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when producers first announced projects and then went hunting for scripts, the current bunch of filmmakers vigorously brainstormed ideas and diligently worked on scripts. They stayed away from announcements and disapproved of visitors on the sets.
There was greater discipline and higher ambitions at stake. Everybody aspired for quality cinema endorsed by the box-office and it reflected in their varied choice of subjects. Ram Gopal Varma wasn’t satisfied with the laurels he received for Satya and strived to better his craft in Company, a story of two underworld kings Dawood and Chhota Rajan. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was seductively colourful, went a step further in Devdas, portraying the magnificent and melancholic world of Sarat Babu’s hero.
Interestingly, while the big budget films were aspiring to become realistic, the smaller budget films refrained from becoming pedantic. Aparna Sen, through a bus journey of Rahul Bose and Konkana Sen Sharma, told an engaging story of two strangers trapped in vulnerable circumstances (Mr & Mrs Iyer). Similarly, Shaad Ali, who assisted Mani Ratnam in the Tamil version, remade the story as Saathiyaan in Hindi. What set the film apart was the treatment of the film. Ali’s contemporary love story redefined the careers of his lead pair — Rani Mukherjee and Vivek Oberoi. Not all filmmakers were as alert to adapt to changing trends. Mahesh Manjarekar’s Astitva and Jagmohan Mundhra’s Bawandar, though rich in content, fell into the ’80s parallel films and appealed to a niche audience. Rajkumar Santoshi tried to combine the artistic with commercial in Pukaar and failed miserably. Anil Kapoor was heart-broken when the film bombed, but there was some consolation when he won the National Award for his performance.
In the early ’90s, Amitabh Bachchan launched ABCL but the country was not yet geared up for ‘corporatisation’ and it was only a decade later when foreign production houses came to India and renowned banners like Yash Raj and Mukta went corporate that the business of entertainment really altered. Now banners were more professional and actors had turned into brands. Everybody had to be super-prolific to get the business running.
The easiest way out was to launch multiple small-budget films. Pritish Nandy Communications released Chameli, which got Kareena Kapoor all the Critic Awards and visibility for the banner, and Jhankaar Beats inspired by RD Burman, a unique idea but again catering to a limited audience. Subhash Ghai did Joggers Park and Ram Gopal Varma Ek Haseena Thi — both unsuccessful but opened roads for many experiments.
Ravi Chopra took a chance when he launched Baghban, a recycled story about the dignity of the old. In the original, the old couple is poor and helpless and ill-treated by their children, while in Baghban Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini look prosperous and glamorous. In fact, what worked for the film was the star quotient. Director Prakash Jha, whose Mrityudand exposed the feudal lords of Madhya Pradesh, went this time closer into politics with Gangajal. Baghban tapped our conscience and Gangajal touched a raw nerve.
Gone were the times when filmmakers submitted the fate of their film to destiny. Years ago Raj Kapoor had said that every film had a kundali and the maker couldn’t fight that. The new crop of filmmakers didn’t agree with that. They were in the profession not only for passion, but also business. They left nothing to chance and desired success at any cost. They were willing to toil and even compromise. In the olden days distributors asked for a cabaret in their films. Today, raunchy item numbers are in demand and if Gulzar pens a ‘Bidi jalay le…’ or a ‘Kajrare…’ — performed by Bipasha Basu and Aishwarya Rai — the songs automatically become dignified and chartbusters. If Rakesh Roshan strived to make Koi Mil Gaya as believable as possible, Vishal Bharadwaj, within a limited budget, portrayed Maqbool with all the commercial trappings. And the wonderful thing about multiplexes is that all kinds of cinema are accepted.
It wasn’t so two decades ago. In the ’80s, people had stopped going to the cinema halls and preferred watching films on the video. The ’90s witnessed a terrible phase when rubbish films were being churned out in the name of entertainment. Cinema changed in 2000 because the audience changed. The new audience was willing to accept thrillers (Dhoom, Murder), action (Yuva, Khakee), patriotism (Swades) or drama (Phir Milenge) as long as these films were engaging — and most of them were.
It is more challenging to make films in India than anywhere else because we live in multiple centuries simultaneously and that is why we need an Apharan, Bunty aur Babli, Bluff Master, Parineeta and Salaam Namaste to balance a Black Friday, 15 Park Avenue, Iqbal and Page 3. Considering these circumstances, I sometimes feel we make better films than Hollywood with lesser budgets and facilities.
Come 2006 and our competitive spirits soared even higher. The formula films became better packaged and the smaller films focused on quicker recovery. The audience smelled their intentions from the posters and juggled choices between a Dor and a Don, Golmaal and Corporate, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and Khosla Ka Ghosla, Lage Raho Munnabhai and Omkara, and Rang De Basanti and Om Shanti Om. The lines between the artistic and the commercial were diminishing, so was the distinction between the traditional and the radical. If Don was gripping, Dor was moving. If Munnabhai was delightful and thought-provoking, Om Shanti Om was reflective and entertaining.
The new audience was as involved in the technique of a film as in the post-mortems. Technology had made it simple for everybody. They were as familiar with Aditya Chopra’s reticent nature as they were with Sajid Khan or Sajid Nadiawala’s jokes. They knew when Shah Rukh suffered a back injury and when Aamir built muscles and why Abhishek put on weight for Guru. They applaud Neil Nitin Mukesh for choosing an unconventional Johnny Gaddar to make his debut and appreciate Tabu for romancing an older co-star in R Balki’s Cheeni Kum.
The stars appreciated audience participation and made sure they did not let them down. Unlike actors in the ’70s who never got out of their hairstyle (check out all Amitabh films) and never visited a health club (Sanjeev Kumar and Rishi Kapoor), today’s stars are single-mindedly focused on their careers. They do fewer films but go out of their way to internalise their roles and look different in every film. If Aamir developed biceps for Ghajini, Hrithik Roshan took lessons in Urdu for his role of emperor Akbar. While Aishwarya was coached in sword-fighting for her role as Jodha, Amitabh and Rani learnt sign language for Black. Likewise, Shabana Azmi trained in Carnatic music for Morning Raaga and Akshay Kumar let go of his vanity to wear a turban in Singh is King.
Now actors were less hierarchy conscious. The project mattered more than the length of the role. Amitabh saw wisdom in playing the royal guard in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya and Rishi Kapoor saw the fun of playing the older version of Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal. Shabana Azmi enjoyed being paired with young Konkona and old Waheeda Rehman in 15 Park Avenue and, of course, Anil Kapoor won a lottery saying ‘yes’ to Slumdog Millionaire.
The image of a star was no more sacrosanct, nor was his price. Everybody experimented with everything. Gone were the days of once bitten twice shy examples; now, everybody was granted a second chance. Akshaye Khanna, after a series of flops, did Race and Shahid Kapoor, after a couple of wrong films, did Jab We Met and Kaminey. Salman Khan had no problems wooing the interiors in Wanted and romancing a young babe in Veer. John Abraham flirted with negative in New York and Vidya Balan dared to play Amitabh’s mother in Paa. Ranbir Kapoor played a loser in Rocket Singh and then a winner in Rajneeti. Abhishek married Aishwarya in Guru and was her abductor in Raavan.
This is the best time for Hindi cinema where Preity Zinta appears for IPL and offers no explanation for her broken relationship with Ness Wadia. Where Rani Mukherjee takes a sabbatical and it does not mean the end of her career. Today, legends like Amitabh and Asha Bhosle are not unattainable because we watch them on our television and can read what they are thinking. We watch Shah Rukh holding his daughter’s hand at a function and discover he is as normal as us. Their accessibility on the Internet and otherwise have lowered our inhibitions. We are more confident as an audience today in projecting what we like or dislike about a film.
There is another reason why cinema is so versatile today. Remember how Salim-Javed arrived in the ’60s and hijacked the box office all the way to the ’80s with intense angry characters (Deewar, Trishul) that left you panting for more. Today, once again, a host of new talent — actors, writers, directors, lyricists and music composers — has arrived on the scene. Some herald from villages (Kailash Kher), some from small towns (Sushant Singh) and some from the big cities (Katrina Kaif) and all of them bring a new flavour and a beat which represents a larger India. The old guards say that art and literature change when the country changes.
Many years ago Shekhar Kapoor had said in an interview that when a new Superman was made, the hero behind the mask would not be a Hollywood star but a Hrithik Roshan or a Shah Rukh Khan. I think the time has come for that.
– The writer is a noted film critic and author of several books on Bollywood