Censorship emerged as the Hindi film industry’s biggest nightmare; the star system underwent a shake-up; the presence of women on the screen increased. And are we finally moving to the national film, as opposed to the movie made in a single language?
Censorship, censorship, censorship
Sections of Bollywood lamented that business wasn’t as good as expected, with eagerly anticipated movies underperforming and tested talent under-delivering. The more worrying aspect in 2017 was, however, the escalation of censorship, especially against films deemed offensive to the majoritarian religious sentiment.
In 2017, the government, through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification, acted decisively towards showing filmmakers their place. The distressing treatment of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama Padmavati, the crackdown on productions at the supposedly safe space of a film festival and the refusal to allow filmmakers to weigh in on prevalent policies (the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation) indicated the government’s intent to enforce obedience and consent.
The moral crusade against filmmakers is not new, but the government’s refusal to act on threats of violence points to a new kind of nation-building demanded from filmmakers. Dissent of even the mildest variety is greeted with punitive measures; agreement with the way the country is being run is equated with national duty. Hits and flops are par for the course¸ but the new direction in which filmmakers are being herded isn’t.
The Hindu divided family
Aanand L Rai’s films and productions have brought a new kind of Hindu divided family to the fore – it is upper-caste, north Indian, and made up of kooks and benevolent tyrants. It needs to be challenged, and it often is. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan was pitched as a comedy about erectile dysfunction, but it was actually a satire about families that meddle in the lives of their wards.
Sons took on fathers in other films in the year. Love drove Varun Dhawan’s hero in Badrinath Ki Dulhania to question his father’s gender prejudices. Even though Badri behaved like a right royal jerk at times, even abducting his girlfriend at one point, his biggest enemy wasn’t the woman but the patriarch.
In Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Akshay Kumar’s character battled his orthodox father over attitudes towards sanitation and hygiene. In Jolly LLB 2, Kumar belonged to a relaxed domestic set-up in which his wife needed her pre-sleep tipple. Bareilly Ki Barfi had its share of lovable eccentrics, who looked on tenderly as their progeny tied themselves in romantic knots. In Gurgaon, a family stood in for everything that is wrong with the global city.
Female perspectives were provided by Lipstick Under My Burkha, in which family and marriage were oppressions or distractions for the four female protagonists. The negotiation between married couples animated the adventures of Tumhari Sulu’s heroine. A woman on top in many respects, Vidya Balan’s Sulu battled disbelieving siblings and parents and finally her husband to realise her dreams.
Secret Superstar explores domestic violence through a mother-daughter relationship, exposing many dark secrets before opting for a feel-good ending. The movie was a rare attempt, along with Lipstick Under My Burkha, to depict Muslim families. The Hindu-Muslim screen romance has been vitiated by “love jihad” propaganda. The Hindu family, meanwhile, is emerging as an interesting space for disagreement, redemption, and, often, comedy.
The all-India movie, produced anywhere
The gargantuan success of SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2 – the Conclusion has the potential of being a watershed moment for filmmakers. Among the lessons learnt from the sequel to the 2015 hit production is that a blockbuster needn’t be incubated in Mumbai any more. New ways of approaching storytelling, and new faces to tell these stories, can be found across India’s many cinemas.
The Baahubali movies represent the logical conclusion of decades of cross-border traffic between the country’s many language industries. Remakes across Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Bengali have been common over the years, and talent has travelled to distant shores most productively between the South and Mumbai. Films dubbed in Hindi from other languages have introduced Bollywood followers to new crops of filmmakers and actors over the years (Mani Ratnam is a leading example).
Among the early films that sought to unite disparate markets by using actors and crew that were recognisable across the country was Shankar’s Enthiran (2010), which was dubbed in Hindi as Robot. The movie’s success paved the way for the Baahubali films. In turn, Hindi films are increasingly tapping southern markets through dubbing (Dangal, for instance). The presence of southern stars Padmapriya and Parvathy in the Hindi films Chef and Qarib Qarib Singlle respectively as well as the casting of Malayalam actor Dulquer Salmaan in Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming Manmarziyan are welcome signs of boldness.
The Hindi movie star club is a closed group and severely limited in its possibilities. The nationally mounted film, with a subject that can work anywhere in the country, is an opportunity to sample fresh faces and new perspectives on storytelling.
Nepotism still rocks but...
It took an outsider – Kangana Ranaut – to expose Bollywood’s worst-kept secret: that it looks out for its own. The soft landing provided to the sons and daughters of movie stars and reputed filmmakers kept industry watchers busy throughout 2017. Karan Johar’s ill-considered remark that “Nepotism rocks!” was an example of the Bollywood power elite’s inability to understand the complexity of the problem.
The issue here isn’t of pedigree – or “eugenics”, as Saif Ali Khan incorrectly argued – but of the film industry’s tendency to give preference to famous surnames in the vain hope that the stardom of the older generation will rub off on the new lot. At the heart of the debate is the opportunity blindly handed out to nepotism rockers despite a proven lack of talent. In 2017, the subject was greeted with predictable defensiveness, and there were no immediate signs of contrition, but at least the elephant in the room finally became visible.
Women on the verge
Films headlined by or giving prominence to women – Maatr, Mom, Anarkali of Arrah, Naam Shabana, Begum Jaan, Hindi Medium, Noor, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Simran, Qarib Qarib Singlle, Secret Superstar, Tumhari Sulu – were plentiful in a year in which the ripples set off by the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s serial predatory behaviour in Hollywood did not reach Indian shores.
Bollywood’s resident Weinsteins can breathe easy for the moment. Meanwhile, the pushback by female directors and actresses against a system that neglects their efforts, underpays them and dumps them as they get older continued. Aging male stars continued to romance women far younger than them (Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar) and filmmakers continued to treat them as interchangeable props (Jolly LLB 2, Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Jagga Jasoos, A Gentleman, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Judwaa 2, Mubarakaan). And yet, 2017 was a better year than most for the women without whom movies cannot be made. The gender war rages on, which can only be a good thing.
A questionnaire for the stars and supernovas
Is Shah Rukh Khan’s lustre dimming? Does Salman Khan have anything left to offer? Is Varun Dhawan one of the new kings of Bollywood? Did the movies seem dimmer in 2017 without a Ranveer Singh release?
Can Hrithik Roshan survive in a film that doesn’t have his producer father Rakesh Roshan’s paws all over it? Does the camera-friendly Sidharth Malhotra deserve his big breaks? How long will Ranbir Kapoor continue to be the lighthouse that keeps wandering ships on course? Has the camera stopped loving Saif Ali Khan, or is he not getting the right kind of roles? Is Ajay Devgn better suited to multi-cast films?
Should Deepika Padukone be worried about Katrina Kaif’s renewed energy and Jacqueline Fernandez’s popularity as go-to glamour girl? Will Kangana Ranaut be able to channel her off-screen chutzpah into movies that work for her and us? Is Alia Bhatt the future? Where does Parineeti Chopra go from Meri Pyaari Bindu (flop) and Golmaal Again (blockbuster led by an ensemble cast)? Have we lost Priyanka Chopra to Hollywood forvever, and are we complaining?
Is Aamir Khan the only one among the older stars who understands that audiences want fresh blood alongside familiar talent?
In the bedroom
Bollywood has settled the issue of The Kiss for good. Liplocks and snogs are now par for the course despite the censor board’s best efforts.
Conversations around sex popped up in interesting ways in 2017. In Haraamkhor, a teacher and his adolescent student dared to have an affair. Vishal Bhardwaj orchestrated a roll in the mud in Rangoon, while Milan Luthria ensured that his actors got all hot and heavy in Baadshaho. The coyness towards pre-marital sex in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Half Girlfriend, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Jagga Jasoos and Qarib Qarib Singlle was missing from Ok Jaanu, Raabta, A Gentleman, and Shubh Mangal Savdhaan.
In Raabta, lead actor Sushant Singh Rajput even jokingly accused co-star Kriti Sanon of being a “vaasna ka pujari” (sex maniac) who is lusting for his “badan” (body).
Lipstick Under My Burkha gave every one of its four female leads the opportunity to explore their sexual desires (anal sex included). One of the film’s most tender images was Ratna Pathak Shah’s face’s widow character blissfully swimming in a pool while fantasising about her hunky instructor.
A Death in The Gunj had a fleeting suggestion of oral sex. In Simran, Kangana Ranaut turned down a prospective one-night stand because of the lack of protection. Vidya Balan’s housewife reminded her husband of his disappearance from the bedroom in Tumhari Sulu.
Sex is still often couched in comedy, but the embarrassment that filmmakers foist on their viewers is mercifully being eroded. Along with the gradually disappearing lip-synced song, this is one trend that can only make the movies a more tolerable experience.
The web to the rescue
The internet has emerged as a safe zone from the risk-free and boilerplate material that filmmakers are now expected to churn out. Some of the edginess missing from the big screen is increasingly found in shorts, direct-to-the-internet films, web series, and uncensored versions of movies available on streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.
The web space is also freeing filmmakers from market censorship. The insistence on movie stars, the reliance on family-friendly pabulum and the conformity required from storytelling (song-and-dance sequences, for instance) mean that sometimes, the internet is a far more imaginative space than the movie hall.
Here can be found acting talent that is unfairly denied meaty roles in mainstream cinema. Here are the frank conversations about sexuality, politics and social concerns and smaller and more relatable story ideas. When moviegoing becomes dull and television sinks further into mediocrity, something riskier is now only a tap away.