There is a newish Hindi film in our midst, and it badly needs a name.

This film doesn’t have the characteristic “masala” flavour that is typical of the average Hindi film production. Its plots and themes move beyond romance to family dynamics, coming-of-age stories and accounts of achievement and struggle. It has a feel-good ending but also realism in the performances and the settings. The songs, if any, are relegated to the background. This film are not an arthouse exploration that is concerned with the language of cinema itself, but a drama of the kinds that get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. And many of these films are performing very well at the box office.

The examples include Queen, NH10, Piku, Margarita With A Straw, Dum Lage Ke Haisha, Masaan, Talvar, Highway, Aligarh, Kapoor & Sons, Neerja and Nil Battey Sannata. There are enough titles to assign them their own category, a descriptor that is as easily resonant as Bollywood is in the West.

What should it be? Midstream cinema (which is our chosen phrase)? Offbeat commercial? Mainstream minnows? Thinking entertainers?

The trailer of ‘Piku’.

People in the Hindi movie trade usually refer to such projects “small” or “content-driven” films. These interchangeable terms are typically used for movies that lack A-list stars, conventional plots and high budgets. The slipperiness of this categorisation is evident from the fact that several midstream films have been funded and distributed by top-ranking studios. Kapoor & Sons, for instance, has been co-produced by Dharma Productions and Fox Star Studios and stars Fawad Khan, Sidharth Malhotra and Alia Bhatt. Its estimated budget was Rs 45 crores and it made over Rs 70 crores at the box office. Neerja, also from Fox Star Studios, stars Sonam Kapoor, was made on Rs 21 crores, and earned over Rs 65 crores. Queen, co-produced by Phantom Films and Viacom18 Motion Pictures, cost Rs 21 crores and raked in over Rs 60 crores.

The recently released Nil Battey Sannata is by first-time director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari and stars the relatively unknown Swara Bhaskar, but it was acquired and distributed by the leading studio Eros Entertainment. “Pure commercial cinema that reflects life” was the phrase used by an Eros employee, on the condition of anonymity.
The trailer of ‘Nil Battey Sannata’.

Another trade term is based on the audiences that are targetted by such films. “We call these gentry films – the clientele is the same as for Hollywood,” said a distribution head at a leading studio who is not authorised to talk to the media. “The maximum business for these films is in the cities. They are being consumed by the urban and aspirational middle class, and they are typically programmed heavily at the PVR and Inox multiplexes.”

This sizeable chunk of moviegoers comprises the children and grandchildren of the patrons of the middle cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya and Shyam Benegal in the 1980s. The narratives of middle cinema were set mostly in the cities and in the same economic bracket from which its viewers hailed. This was the class of filmgoers that would watch new releases in the balcony section of single screen cinemas, and accordingly, director Rohan Sippy’s term for the new filmmaking strain is “balcony cinema”.

“Earlier, you had commercial versus art, and there is no such binary to explain the mainstream now,” Sippy said. “One useful way to look at films like Neerja and Kapoor & Sons is to consider the fact that such films play well among the multiplex audiences that have replaced the single screen balcony viewers. It’s a logical progression.”

The midstream film is also a logical progression from what used to be called the Hindi indie, or at its simplest, the Anurag Kashyap movie. Films that Kashyap directed and produced, such as Dev.D, Gangs of Wasseypur, Udaan and Shaitaan were routinely described as “edgy”. Their themes covered urban crime, angst-bitten youth, and rebellion without a cause. Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, which will be released on June 24, is one example of this tradition.

The trailer of ‘Raman Raghav 2.0’.

The edgy enterprise gained legitimacy when the production company UTV Films (which has since been taken over by the Hollywood studio Disney) ran a division called UTV Spotboy. Set up in 2009, and inaugurating its short-lived slate with Kashyap’s Dev.D, UTV Spotboy produced such well-regarded films as Welcome to Sajjanpur, No One Killed Jessica and Paan Singh Tomar before folding up.

Since then, several films that carry the distinctive stamp of their directors have emerged. The midstream category can get as baggy as “Bollywood” itself, and filmmakers such as Zoya Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan and Vishal Bhardwaj, who cast stars in unconventional narratives, don’t easily fit into the existing slots.

What might be more useful is to look at the spirit of these projects. “I call this is the underdog film – the kind from which you don’t expect anything,” said Rucha Pathak, chief creative officer at Fox Star Studios. “Earlier too we were making these kinds of films, but what is happening now is that some of the bigger projects are failing, while these so-called smaller films have been doing better than before.”

The midstream category can have sections depending on the budgets, said Ajit Andhare, Chief Operating Officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures – leading to further nomenclature. “I call films like Margarita with a Straw and Angry Indian Goddesses studio indies since they are entirely content-driven and are not pegged to any popular faces,” Andhare said. “Then there is another segment in which I would put a film like Manjhi the Mountain Man – a small-mid film, which has a reasonable budget upwards of Rs 10 crores, and has some commercial prospects.” Manjhi, directed by Ketan Mehta and distributed by Viacom18, had Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead role.

It is the small-mid films that have been shaking up box office, Andhare said, pointing to works like Mary Kom (starring Priyanka Chopra), Piku (Deepika Padukone), Queen (Kangana Ranaut) and Neerja (Sonam Kapoor). “These films have marketable parts – they can be broadly classified as pure content that has stars attached, which makes them move towards the mainstream.” Midstream cinema has also immensely boosted the prospects of actresses and helped them headline projects that might otherwise have been driven by actors some years ago.

What is this thing called Bollywood?

Midstream films are landing in cinemas in the middle of one of the most significant churnings in Bollywood since the early 1990s. The definition of a mainstream Hindi movie has been changed, perhaps irrevocably, in the last few years. Audiences are still flocking to watch Salman Khan bare his chest and Rohit Shetty blow up cars, but there is also a demand for storytelling styles that eschew typical Bollywood showboating. One recent example is Raja Menon’s Airlift (2016), a hugely successful political thriller that is based on the real-life operation to evacuate one lakh Indians in 1990 from war-torn Kuwait. Airlift stars A-list actor Akshay Kumar, but it tamps down the melodrama that is a staple feature of such ventures and tells its story as realistically as possible.

The trailer of ‘Airlift’.

This newfound expansiveness among audiences has been building up for several years. Tastes among urban viewers have evolved with sustained exposure to Hollywood, world cinema and American and British television. Indian television has taken over the role of supplying overwrought melodrama. Multiplexes dominate exhibition patterns in metropolises and second-rung cities, and their smaller auditoriums make it possible to programme films that might have died in single-screen cinemas with their enormous capacities.

“New storytelling subjects are becoming available to filmmakers since they don’t have to depend on star pull but can make do with word of mouth publicity,” Andhare said. This is not to suggest that a wholly mainstream film like Baaghi or an old-fashioned tearjerker like Bajrangi Bhaijaan won’t work anymore. They will, but so will the minnows who are swimming alongside the big fish.

The creation of a new term will certainly help in expanding box office reach, said Ranjan Singh, producer at Phantom Films, whose upcoming titles are Raman Raghav 2.0 and Udta Punjab. “I heard the term ‘new-age mainstream’ the other day,” Singh said. “Such films have not been working because there has been no nomenclature. They are not commercial, they are not art, and you can’t go by the old hit and flop terminology.”

Midstream films might appear to be offbeat, but their publicity campaigns run on the same lines as regular A-listers. Trailer launches, covers and spreads in magazines and newspapers, city tours, tie-ins with popular television shows, and wall-to-wall coverage on television and digital platforms are all part of the strategy to make such potentially risky material acceptable.

The regularity with which such movies are being churned out makes it imperative to ensure that potential audiences are not alienated by their eventual message. “Indie films are like garage sales – you put up something to sell without realising what the demand is,” Ranjan Singh said. “If I make a product and then talk about it in a language that is not familiar, how will people come?” Raman Ragahv 2.0 will be sold on the indie cred of director Anurag Kashyap, but there are other tricks up the producer’s sleeve – emoticons for the main characters of the serial killer and the police officer who hunts him, for instance. “The trailer and the poster should be close to the film, but the promotions need not necessarily be linked to the film, but should push the idea of entertainment,” Singh said.

Is the effort to create a new terminology worth the trouble, given that Bollywood is no stranger to flashes in the pan and trend cycles? “This kind of film is here to stay,” asserted Rucha Pathak. “This has been building up for some time, but now, the audience has spoken. Earlier, we were the ones pushing such films, but now, it’s the distributors and exhibitors who are asking for them. The line between mainstream and different content has really blurred.”

Even Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, a 2014 romance featuring the saleable stars Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt and a chartbusting score, had lashings of realism, Pathak pointed out. Perhaps the biggest shift in the mainstream can be seen in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He has toned down his operatic style in his last two releases, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ramleela (2014) and Bajirao Mastani (2015). While Bhansali remains obsessed with big-budget spectacles, gorgeous stars, and soaring musical scores, the stuff in between these typical Bollywood elements is rendered on a more human scale than before.

Bhansali is still making the typical Bollywood film, though, and he is easy enough to classify. It’s the other guys who are recasting the rules that govern the life cycle of a typical Hindi movie. Their creations can no longer be designated as “content-driven” or “small”. When the indie starts to get popular, it’s time to reach for the dictionary.