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The Decade of Living Dangerously

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The Decade of Living Dangerously

Sunday, 29 December 2019 | Gautam Chintamani

The Decade of Living Dangerously

Although there is a year left in the second decade of the 21st century, the past nine years more or less define what people would think when recalling films from this period, writes Gautam Chintamani

While it is true that greatness in movies continues to surprise the viewer even if accompanied by a degree of predictability, much of cinema’s brilliance in the last decade could have been missed had the eye persisted with the obvious. Though there is still a year to go in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the past nine years have more or less defined what people would think when recalling films from this period.

The sheer volume of change witnessed since 2010 by the medium when it comes to exhibition and distribution formats as well as the audience right from the unlimited choice, the consumption pattern and much more was last seen decades ago. These epoch-making changes that include the arrival of OTT and streaming services delivered nothing less than a body-blow to the way we looked at cinema. It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to point out that the transition witnessed in the ten-years from 2010-19 is similar to the era when the talkie replaced the silent film or the video onslaught of the late 1970s and the 1980s. These developments transformed not only the content but also left a long-lasting impact on the narrative within mainstream cinema.

The second decade of the new millennium also witnessed something similar. Although mirroring the times before, a much eclectic lot defined the standout films, a few amongst them that would probably redefine the term ‘great’, but what truly separated it from the previous times was the way the content was consumed that made it nearly impossible for the trade or the critics to guess what “films” would mean to the viewer at the next turn.

The last few years could well be defined as one where much of the mainstream attempted to adapt the tenets of independent cinema and focused more on things such as the setting, a more naturalistic style of dialogue and nuances more than ever before. This kind of cinema is also known as ‘mumblecore’ in the west, where the narrative primarily revolves around stories emerging from personal experiences of filmmakers, and usually, the protagonists are in their 20s or 30s.

In the initial years, this decade was dominated by the typical Bollywood commercial cinema where films featuring the likes of the three Khans — Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir — Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Hrithik Roshan ruled not only the box office but also the projects that got greenlit. Films such as Dabangg (2010), Golmaal-3 (2010), Housefull (2010), Bodyguard (2011), Ra.One (2011), Don -2 (2011), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Agneepath (2012), Dhoom 3 (2013), Krrish 3 (2013), Chennai Express (2013), PK (2014), Kick (2014), Happy New Year (2014), Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), and Dilwale (2015), to name a few barely offered anything substantially fresh or different from what had previously been seen.

It’s not like the top male stars did not attempt something out of the ordinary. Intriguingly, the biggest box office hit at the beginning of this decade, My Name is Khan (2010) featured two of the leading commercial stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, and was directed by Karan Johar, probably the last of the ‘commercial’ filmmakers in the most real sense of the word, and was as much of a departure from the conventional format as possible while still remaining within the realm of popular Hindi film.

The film followed the life of Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), a middle-class Muslim from Mumbai who has Asperger’s syndrome, and moves to San Francisco to live with his brother, Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) after the death of his mother. In the United States, Rizwan marries Mandira (Kajol), a single mother, but following the death of their son Sameer as a result of anti-Muslim hate crime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he takes off a cross-country mission to meet the US President George W. Bush to tell him that even though his name is “Khan”, he is not a terrorist. Shah Rukh Khan’s attempt to infuse some geopolitical realism into mainstream Bollywood in My Name is Khan remained confined to his previous efforts such as Swades (2004) or Chak De! India (2007) but the film’s success was not meant to be a game-changer as it was still a mainstream film with a slight difference that was meant to stand out but not inspire more such films.

For what it’s worth, his contemporaries like Aamir and Salman, as well as Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar also experimented within the parameters of popular cinema. In 2011, Kumar featured in Patiala House where he played a second-generation Indian in the United Kingdom who gives up on his dream to play for the English cricket team after his father (Rishi Kapoor) was not given a chance due to racism. In a marked departure from the kind of roles he was famously associated with, Patiala House offered a much-restrained Kumar.

Similarly, Devgn, too, had done his bit of experimentation after playing a desi Othello in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaption in Omkara (2006), played a small-town businessman pushed to do the unimaginable to protect his family in the Hindi remake of the Malayalam remake Drishyam (2015).

But the biggest successes that A-list stars enjoyed in the name of trying something unfamiliar, and by extension somewhat offbeat while checking all the boxes of a standard Bollywood entertainer was witnessed by Salman and Aamir Khan with Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Sultan (2015) and Dangal (2016). Unfortunately, the curse of the A-list male star in Hindi cinema continued where barring a handful of such excursions, the Khans, Kumar, Devgn, and to a large extent, Roshan, too, persisted with the tried and tested.

In a loosely formed 1975 autobiography, the seminal artist Andy Warhol expressed that while “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” A sense of this could also be seen in the way the “new” Bollywood emerged from within the confines of the way things stood. If on the one hand, the likes of Shah Rukh Khan tried to do the same thing somewhat differently in My Name is Khan, the new storytellers attempted to do different things in way that not only the traditional audience of popular Hindi cinema but also the punditocracy would find it easy to accept.

In 2010, Vikramaditya Motwane’s assured debut in Udaan, Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhoka, and Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baaja Baaraat set the foundation of things to come in the years ahead. Udaan looked at the small-town in a new light in Bollywood, Love Sex Aur Dhokha inculcated the tenet of found footage genre in the typical Bollywood psyche, and Band Baaja Baaraat pitched the smaller subset of localities in larger cities. Even though such films were made within the purview of the operating system, they also acknowledged the changing mood of the viewer.

The access to world cinema, and more importantly, American and global television shows, initially via pirated DVDs followed by online piracy and later the arrival of Internet streaming services, had made the standard viewer more aware, and as a result, far more demanding. They made their intention clear as the decade progressed, and one can clearly see how the typical fare was rejected as the years progressed. The viewer first began to invest in new stars such as Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh as well as new genres of storytelling that didn’t depend on any A-list male superstar. In 2011, the top-10 grossing Hindi films featured two films each of Salman Khan (Bodyguard, Ready) and Shah Rukh Khan (Ra.One, Don-2), one each of Hrithik Roshan (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) and Ajay Devgn (Singham) but the bigger headline-grabbing news lay elsewhere.

With The Dirty Picture and No One Killed Jessica, Vidya Balan had two films that broke the Rs 100-crore barrier, and most of the top acting honours went to Ranbir Singh for Rockstar. In the same year, Anand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu, followed by Anurag Kashyap’s gangster saga Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and then Abhishek Verman’s 2 States (2014) shifted the spotlight on the kind of themes, genres, and narrative that would occupy a better part of popular Hindi  filmmaking.

In a marked departure, the old guard was slowly challenged by the next wave both in front as well as behind the camera unlike the way it used to previously happen. This challenge was not limited to filling in some shoes, something that the trade pundits are on the lookout for as this helps the cycle to continue, but the young male and female stars tried to bridge the gap between the conventional and the outliers. While on the one hand, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor and Varun Dhawan slowly started to dominate the box-office more frequently than the ‘seniors’ and in 2017 with Irrfan’s Hindi Medium making over Rs 300 crore, the transformation was more or less in place. Despite having clearly modelled their careers on stars of the generation that preceded them, what made these three young male stars somewhat different was their willingness to facilitate a meeting point of the best of art-house and the customary single-screen outlook.

In many ways, Ranveer’s casting in Motwane’s Lootera (2013), a loose reworking of O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, and later Ranbir Kapoor’s presence in Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious but doomed Bombay Velvet (2015) was nothing less than inspired.  Here were two of the most prominent young Bollywood stars that were drawn from the same blueprint since the era of Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand-Raj Kapoor and they were not compromising on their stardom to work with filmmakers that, in the manner of speaking did not hail from their world. These were set-ups that worked for the business-driven mentality of old Hindi cinema with enough of the new Bollywood blood that did feel the need to resort to the standard practice of packing films.

This was the same time when unparalleled cinematic experiences such as Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2013), Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2014) and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) were enjoying global acceptance. One could be mistaken into believing that the likes of Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh were transporting some of the same passion that possessed these indie-spirited filmmakers to puck Bollywood films. However, the failure of Lootera and Bombay Velvet at the box office pushed things to a corner.

Post-Bombay Velvet, Ranbir Kapoor found himself in the same spot where the mainstream rejection of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), a film where the ‘hero’ tried to transcend the boundaries of archetypal Hindi film leading man syndrome had put him. Kapoor decided to shift to safer projects — read Imtiaz Ali’s Tamashaa (2015), Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018) — and Ranveer Singh also took up what the trade labeled sure-shot hits — Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Gunday (2014), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), Bajirao Mastani (2015), Befikre (2016), and Padmaavat (2018).

The surprising success of Hindi Medium initiated the era of the ‘small hero’ and did more than ever before to breakaway from what Bombay cinema meant when it pitched the leading man. The last few years saw a flurry of films featuring leading men that didn’t necessarily fall in the ‘superstar’ bracket, yet, struck gold in more ways than one. Movies like M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Sonu Ki Titu Ki Sweety (2018), Stree (2018), Andhadhun (2018) and Badhaai Ho (2018), Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and Chhichhore (2019) were not only bereft of the presence of the so-called A-List male star but also gave a new meaning to the term ‘blockbuster.’ The acceptance of the smaller film without the customary frills was a portent of a long-overdue change in the way projects were conceived and executed in the world of Bombay cinema.

Nestled somewhere in-between the visible and not so apparent changes lay one of the foremost metamorphosis that took place in this decade that could well be the one singular most significant transformation. The change in the way the solo heroine film was viewed underwent a major overhaul, and for the first time, the so-called women-centric genre ceased to exist as per Bollywood’s parameters. Following the success of The Dirty Picture, Vidya Balan had come to be seen as a brand good enough to sell a film but projects such as Kahaani (2012) or Mary Kom (2014) and Queen (2014) with Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut in the lead respectively were rare and in-between.

The trade did not see these films in the same light as mid-level productions or ‘smaller’ films and consequently did not see it as a worthy business proposition to invest more regularly. This changed a little with Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and Piku (2015), which were amongst the year’s top box office earners. Although both Kangana Ranaut and Deepika Padukone were the mainstays of Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Piku, the former was billed as an ensemble cast and the latter also featured Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan (read males) to ‘shoulder’ it. The pundits might have been quick to take away the credit from leading ladies for being a major contributor to the commercial success of the film, but it was a matter of time before this mentality was done away.

The steady increase in the number of such films pushed the sub-genre forth, and by 2017, it became as regular as any other genre. A single year, 2017, saw films like Phillauri, Anaarkali of Aarah, Naam Shabana, Begum Jaan, Mom, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Indu Sarkar, Simran, Haseena, and Tumhari Sulu viewed in a different manner by the trade as well as the audiences. Barring the odd exception, almost the entire lot was treated as a standard business proposition, and as a result, the publicity or the number of screens they played on was different than the typical way the industry approached these films in the past.

The ‘women-centric’ genre did away with the myth of not being able to rake in the big bucks, and in 2018, two films that had women as the solo lead breached the year’s top hits with Raazi bringing in over Rs 200 crores on an approximate budget of Rs 40 crore, and Hichki collecting more than Rs 200 crores on an estimated modest budget of Rs 20 crores.

In a time when the audience was not only spoilt for choice but was also willing to shell out money to access content, traditional films across the world had to offer something exceptional to retain the viewer. The arrival of Netflix and Amazon Prime and scores of similar platforms where censorship was not the issue and the discerning audience could even dictate the nature of content has given cinema the jolt it needed to change. The jury is still out on whether films have managed that or not, but if there is someone who is finally being heard, it’s the average ticket-paying viewer.

The writer is a film historian and author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna; Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak: The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema and Rajneeti: A Biography of Rajnath Singh

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