A reliable barometer of middle-class anxiety about moral turpitude, Madhur Bhandarkar is back with what he describes as a “fun, light-hearted film”. Babli Bouncer stars Tamannaah Bhatia as a security guard at a club in Delhi. Serio-comic situations ensue as Bhatia’s character enters the male-dominated profession.
“I’m known for hard-hitting subjects, but I am a happy-go-lucky guy in real life,” Bhandarkar told Scroll.in. “I really enjoyed the making of this film, which also has a good message about the empowerment of women.”
Babli Bouncer will be streamed on Disney+ Hotstar on September 23. It is Bhandarkar’s first release in five years since Indu Sarkar, set during the Emergency.
Since Bhandarkar made his debut with Trishakti in 1999, he has been steadily rolling out films with self-explanatory titles (Page 3, about the media’s focus on celebrities; Corporate, about the shenanigans at a business enterprise; Heroine, about an actress who unravels). The 54-year-old filmmaker attributed the gap between Indu Sarkar and Babli Bouncer to his decision to take a lengthy break to refill his creative juices.
“After Indu Sarkar, I travelled a lot,” he said. It was a working vacation of sorts – he was also writing two films, one a high-octane action drama and another revolving around women.
When the humour-laden script for Babli Bouncer came his way, he decided to set the other scripts aside. “I like the world of the bouncers, plus it was a different experience for me to make a film set in the North,” he said. “It’s a family-oriented comedy.”
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the Hindi film industry into protracted lockdowns in 2020, Babli Bouncer took a backseat. Meanwhile, Bhandarkar made another film, titled India Lockdown, a mosaic of the experiences of people from various social strata to the health crisis.
India Lockdown, which will be released over the next few months, includes the stories of migrant workers forced to trudge back home after cities shut down, sex workers pushed further to the margins, and a man trying to reach his pregnant daughter.
By the end of 2021, as the Hindi film industry resumed production, Babli Bouncer was back on the table. “Tamannah loved the film, she had been wanting to play a strong character,” Bhandarkar said. The cast includes Saurabh Shukla, Abhishek Bajaj, Sahil Vaid and Saanand Verma.
Like India Lockdown, Babli Bouncer was shot on a modest budget and completed in a tight schedule.
“I shoot every quickly and very fast,” Bhandarkar said. “If you look at my films, even the ones that don’t work at the box office break even. Of course, sometimes you do need opulence and bigness. But usually, I am economical. I know my craft well, I know exactly what I need on the sets. Once I get an idea, I want to make the film very fast.”
Despite his wealth and acclaim, Bhandarkar describes himself as “basically a simple, normal, middle-class guy”. His earliest training came by hanging around at film shoots as a bystander, watching movie stars at work. He would go on to direct some of them, such as Amitabh Bachchan, who appeared in Bhandarkar’s Aan: Men at Work (2004).
“I have cinema in my blood,” said Bhandarkar, who grew up in Khar in Mumbai. “I was not studious at all. I wouldn’t have money in my pocket but I would always make sure I was well dressed. The only thing I was interested in was making films. People say about me that I am an encyclopaedia of cinema.”
As a young man, he would haunt the Gaiety-Galaxy twin cinemas in Bandra, which neighbours Khar. “I would watch a 12pm show, then the 3pm show, then the 6pm and then the 9pm repeat show of a film if I liked it,” he said.
A job at a video cassette library popular with film personalities gave him access to the actors he idolised. His first industry assignment was assisting Ram Gopal Varma. Bhandarkar had a walk-on role in Varma’s Rangeela (1995), playing the assistant to the pompous director Steven Kapoor.
Bhandarkar’s years as an outsider and then an insider have given him what he calls a “ring-side view” to the business of cinema. Claims that Bollywood has been brought to its knees by a series of misfires and flops ignore the resilience of the Hindi film industry, Bhandarkar observed.
“I remember the time in the 1980s when video cassettes became so popular that it was said that theatres would not survive, but they did,” he said. “Then when the television shows Ramayana and Mahabharat became popular on television, again it was said that nobody would go to the theatres, but they did eventually. I have seen these narratives time and again.”
“Audiences have become choosier, they are watching all kinds of films from across the country and the world – dubbed films, subtitled films,” Bhandarkar said. “They feel that if they miss a film in the theatres, it will anyway be available on a streamer soon. But this is a temporary phase. There is nothing to beat the magic of the cinematic experience. Streaming and theatrical distribution will learn to co-exist – after all, streaming platforms bailed out so many producers during the lockdowns.”
The year’s big hits include Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, suggesting that there is an appetite for a certain kind of political film. Although Bhandarkar ventured into this territory with Indu Sarkar, he wants to focus on what he’s best known for – films with catchy titles and buzzy themes.
“I made Indu Sarkar on a tight budget, and the film recovered its money,” he said. “But at this moment, I want to concentrate on human stories.”