Almost all of Bollywood’s hits this year have been modest budget films with feisty female protagonists
On a weekday evening in a leafy South Mumbai lane, a large number of people have gathered in an Irani cafe. The waiters at Cafe Excelsior, surprised at the unusual turnout, struggle to keep pace with the orders, while most of the visitors, forgoing all conversation among themselves, have their chairs turned towards one solitary table. Seated at this table, all in scraggly beards and sipping cups of lemon tea, are the toasts of Bollywood. Shoojit Sircar, who has just delivered a hit with Piku, and Ritesh Batra, the filmmaker who made the acclaimed The Lunchbox, are holding forth on cinema and the challenges of filmmaking.
The ‘audience’—of mostly film writers and aspiring filmmakers— listens with rapt attention, as Sircar describes how the idea of Piku, about a cantankerous Bengali man obsessed with the movement of his bowels and the road journey he takes with his ill-tempered daughter, was painstakingly developed by the filmmaker and the writer over almost a year, how he pushed each actor to a better performance, and the most challenging aspects of it—planning what sort of cameras and technical contraptions are needed for a road movie like Piku. That’s the discussion. The process of making films and telling stories. No talk about money, numbers, or superstars. Piku, made on a relatively small budget of around Rs 38 crore, has reportedly grossed over Rs 100 crore this year, a much-celebrated figure in the industry. The comic film Tanu Weds Manu Returns, another unconventional film released two weeks later, has raked in over Rs 100 crore within a week of its release, say reports, and is still going strong at the time of writing this story.
But this is not a success party. There are no champagne bottles here. Instead, we are at an uncomfortably muggy evening in an Irani cafe sipping lemon tea. As the session comes to an end, Batra asks the visitors not to forget paying their bills. “The last time, no one paid and I had to shell out for everything,” he says in good humour. “I don’t mind, but let’s not make it a habit.”
For long, Bollywood has held itself to a tried-and-tested formula: some ‘item’ songs, a few puerile jokes, a ridiculous fight sequence, interspersed, occasionally, with a story of bravado, and all of it mixed together in a huge cauldron with one of the three big Khans, and if none of them is available, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan or one of the newer, more available stars. Larger halls with single screens have given way to multiplexes and old-world producers have all but been replaced by US-style film studios. There has been the occasional chatter of a script’s merit, and being called an ‘auteur’ is no longer a kiss of box-office death. But the formula for mass-market movies has only become sharper and clearer over time. Every Akshay Kumar film can—and actually does—look like an earlier Akshay Kumar film, but if the formula is followed, as the belief goes, the result will be a Rs 100 crore-grossing film if not more. It is not as though other film industries do not have their formulas. Just that Hindi cinema rarely has room for a smaller, more creative film.
But now, a theory which found favour in the industry about a decade ago, with the emergence of filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, is gaining ground. The ratings of critics and the appreciation of those sitting on cushy seats are not antithetical to each other. A film with an idea, aimed at the right audience and made on a modest budget, will not just be the occasional success, it can become a new formula in itself. Of course, anytime now a Salman or Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster can descend and prove all such clear-minded analysis wrong. But that makes up just three movies a year; the industry still has to churn out movies beyond the Khans and this is where the new formula emerges— that of keeping it simple and small.
In Badlapur, a taut revenge thriller of a man waiting several years to avenge the death of his wife and child, you are unsure if the protagonist is the hero or the villain. In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the traditional concept of the Indian romcom is turned upside down by forcing an RSS Sevak to marry an overweight and smart woman in Haridwar of the 1990s. In Piku, an irascible Bengali man with an unusual interest in the quality of his poop has to travel from Delhi to Kolkata on road. In NH10, a woman, caught between the ego and honour of her husband and the honour of some ruffians in Haryana, has to survive a night by herself.
In comparison, big films have mostly been failures this year. Proven names like Akshay Kumar (Gabbar Is Back) and Ranbir Kapoor (Roy) have been let downs, and the calamitous debacle of Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet has had the entire industry agog. Made on a budget of over Rs 100 crore, as rumours go, this was the film the audience and the industry, reeling as it was with flops, was waiting for. It brought together two divergent forces, Kashyap’s gritty noir aesthetics and the mainstream muscle and pull of Ranbir Kapoor, all of this juiced up by Fox Star Studios’ marketing war chest. “They were going all out,” an industry insider says. “They even flew journalists and the stars and put them up in luxurious hotels for the film’s promotions. Who even does that when there is so much at stake?”
In its first two days, the film collected only about Rs 10 crore, with reports emerging of show cancellations because no one turned up. Some film industry associations like The Film and Television Producers Guild of India are reportedly holding meetings with producers to ensure that wasteful expenditure on filmmaking are done away with. Kashyap, it is said, has holed himself up somewhere in Paris. And Ranbir Kapoor, some suspect, is facing his biggest professional setback. It can be argued that one of the reasons Bombay Velvet and to an extent Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! earlier this year failed is that both Kashyap and Banerjee abandoned their philosophy of making movies on the cheap to do what they had so far railed against: the big budget blockbuster. Neither film, as it turned out, retained the charm of their previous endeavours made at a fraction of the cost.
After Navdeep Singh broke onto the scene in 2007 with Manorama Six Feet Under, an exceptional retelling of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in a Rajasthani village, a film that earned rave reviews but made little money, the doors of several Bollywood oligarchs and stars opened to him. But each wanted him to direct or improve a film already planned, a romcom or family entertainer. Singh’s ideas were considered too non-commercial. Two of his films, a zombie film and another set in the Middle East, reached various stages of production but the producers backed out and funds dried up.
Singh hung on, though. He refused to return to advertising, his earlier profession, despite the protestations of his wife and accountant, afraid that would be saying farewell to filmmaking, and persevered with scripts and raising money for movies that wouldn’t be made. “One year followed the next,” he says, “and it was soon seven years since I had last made a film.” During his time in the wilderness, as projects got abandoned and money tightened, he along with scriptwriter Sudip Sharma decided to try something else. They thought of making a quickie, a thriller that wouldn’t require any sets and would be relatively cheap. Since he had understood the workings of the industry by now, Singh decided to revolve the film around a female protagonist. “A female star you see is more accessible,” he explains.
The idea was to get a well-known actress to star in it, and then get producers excited about the low budget and female star involved. But yet again, a hurdle presented itself. Anushka Sharma, who was first approached, declined because of other commitments, and an attempt to sign on Freida Pinto never materialised. Later, however, Sharma was approached again, but this time she not only decided to act in it but also agreed to produce it.
If one examines the smaller films that have done well over the past few years, one notices how, in a unique subversion of the classic blockbuster model that relies on the male star, almost all of them have focused on a female protagonist. Be it Vidya Balan in Kahaani and The Dirty Picture or Kangana Ranaut in the two Tanu Weds Manu films and Queen or Deepika Padukone in Piku or Anushka Sharma in NH10. “Talented actresses like Deepika Padukone, while they do the big blockbusters, also crave films where they can showcase their talent,” Sircar explains.
It is a trend born out of the hunger of female artistes to exhibit their talent, and the need of the industry to produce films at a time when most A-list actors only do around a film a year. Singh says, “You look at any small film in the last few years; except maybe a film like Badlapur, every one of them is heroine-centric. That’s the shape the new concept-driven films are taking.”
According to Sircar, an audience in India for films with original content has always existed. It was just that studio heads and producers were unable to see it. “But as more films become successful and more directors prove their mettle with these subjects, more such films will become the norm,” he says. Sircar claims producers began to warm up to his ideas after his 2012 film Vicky Donor, a comedy about a semen donor, which had no stars, became successful. “No producer wanted to touch Vicky Donor when I tried to find a backer,” he says, “but once that worked, doors began to open.”
Somewhere around the time Sharat Katariya was making his transition from an assistant director to scriptwriter, he chanced upon a calendar of unusual sports in the world, one of which had a wife-carrying competition. He then began to develop what he thought would be an interesting idea—a wife-carrying competition where the female protagonist would be heavier than the man.
Katariya is a complete outsider to the industry. A graduate of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, he began work in the industry by assisting the director-actor Rajat Kapoor. In his free time, he would borrow films from Kapoor’s DVD collection of world movies to better understand the process of writing and making films. He wrote and directed a film, 10 ml Love, which Kapoor acted in, but it failed.
When Katariya showed around his script of what would eventually become Dum Laga Ke Haisha to various studios and producers, the refrain was common. They loved it, but they thought it wouldn’t work. “It didn’t have the formula,” Katariya explains. It was 2007 then and most comedies were multi-starrers where people with disabilities and quirks would be made fun of. “One producer told me that a film about a loser who gets married to a fat girl would be sure to fail, while someone else suggested that I convert the script into a TV soap. How could I argue?”
So Katariya set aside the project and went back to writing scripts, one of which is for the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan starrer Fan. When Katariya met Maneesh Sharma, this film’s director, he dusted off his script for the latter’s opinion. The director loved it and took it to Yash Raj Films (YRF). “After reading the script, Aditya Chopra [of YRF] told me this is the most complete script he had ever read. And that they would of course produce it,” says Katariya.
Whenever the young filmmaker would meet Chopra in the YRF office elevator, he would ask the producer if he thought the film would work commercially. “But he would say that as a director I needed to keep my mind off these matters. ‘We are there for this. We will take care of it,’ he would say.” The times, as Katariya realised, had changed.
Making a different film, however, is fraught with hurdles and it is often difficult for the director to keep his creative vision free of interference. Sriram Raghavan, for instance, a filmmaker with a keen interest in the crime genre, one who started off his career by directing some episodes of the TV show CID, has made a couple of gritty crime films, Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar, both of which were hailed by critics but did not rake in big bucks. So, for his next film, he did a pot-boiler about an Indian spy with song-and-dance routines. The film Agent Vinod was neither a commercial nor a critical rage. The filmmaker returned this year with a revenge thriller, Badlapur, a film closer to his aesthetics, and one of 2015’s few hits.
“It isn’t easy,” Sircar says at Excelsior Cafe, “We are constantly fighting with studio heads to not interfere with our work. And on the other hand, we’re trying to make the film accessible and enjoyable. It can often be a tricky balance.” A film like NH10 for instance, because of its subject matter and frequent use of profanities, is unlikely to get a TV release in India. “I want to argue and tell people that real life is so much worse and I as a filmmaker am eventually just trying to depict the truth,” Singh says. Before the release of the film, many members of the Censor Board wanted it banned. So Singh had to request a review. After a second viewing, the Board had the film mute several swear words and tone down its violence. The depiction of the word ‘randi’ (whore) scrawled on a wall in one scene was allowed, but in the next such scene, the shot had to be shortened. When Singh asked board members their reason for this decision, he was told this was because in the first instance, the word gets erased by a character.
Asked if the ending of NH10, where the female lead avenges her husband’s death, wasn’t a cop-out, Singh replies, “If it were a European film, after she finds her husband dead, I could have easily shown her getting into a car and reversing it, leaving the ending completely ambiguous. She could be going after the guys or somewhere else. This would mean I would take another eight years to make my next film,” he says. “But I could have also made it real filmi. I could have had both hero and heroine survive the night and kill the villains. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that now.”