Was 2018 yet another year, or a year of reckoning? The results were mixed, as they have been over the past few years in an industry that is adopting fresh approaches towards filmmaking even while holding on to tried-and-tested methods. The mighty Khans visibly wobbled while younger actors (Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal) steadied themselves. Modest themes rooted in realism charmed viewers, while remakes of southern hits proved reliable bottomline feeders worked (Baaghi 2, Simmba).

Lessons learnt from previous years, of tighter budgeting and greater attention paid to screenplays, seemed to have worked for some of the better films, even though of the bolder and more accomplished mainstream releases were in other languages (Naal in Marathi, Ee Ma Yau and Sudani from Nigeria in Malayalam, Vada Chennai and 96 in Tamil). The Baahubali franchise, which was hugely successful in Hindi too, has created a hunger for films that build immersive worlds (as did the December release KGF), and only Sanjay Leela Bhansali, with his larger-than-life Padmaavat, proved worthy of the task.

Streaming platforms divided the attention of viewers, providing a serious alternative, along with television, to films. The Me Too movement finally washed ashore, creating a blip in Mumbai show business before flickering out, even as questions over the role of women in front of and behind the camera continued to be asked. And nepotism held sway in 2018, ensuring a soft landing for Sridevi’s daughter, Janhvi Kapoor, in the Karan Johar production Dhadak and ushering in the non-existent talents of Salman Khan’s brother-in-law, Aayush Sharma, in Loveyatri.

If nepotism had a favourite child this year, it was Sara Ali Khan. The daughter of Amrita Singh and Saif Ali Khan made a sparkling debut in Kedarnath in December and backed it up with the Ranveer Singh-starrer Simmba later in the month. She appears to be unschooled and spontaneous rather than a member of Bollywood’s personal employment exchange – a perception that promises good tidings for the latest star kid in the house.

The Khanate in peril

Is the Khanate under threat? Three of 2018’s biggest releases featuring Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh underperformed. The poor showing of Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan broke Aamir Khan’s winning streak and indicated that he was mortal after all. Aamir’s much-vaunted skill of picking the most entertaining scripts was nowhere in sight in Thugs of Hindostan, a sloppily written and directed film with a cast that seemed even less interested in its rebels-versus-the-British theme than viewers.

The heist thriller Race 3, led by Salman Khan, decisively proved the showbiz maxim that the trailer never lies. A multi-starrer packed with Salman Khan’s extended friend circle, Race 3 pivoted on a story that was more lazily written than a leave application.

Salman Khan in Race 3. Courtesy Tips.
Salman Khan in Race 3. Courtesy Tips.

The most interesting of the three Khan projects was the biggest disappointment for the trade and its leading man. Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero, an ambitious attempt at whimsy about a dwarf, a cerebral palsy-affected scientist and a troubled movie star, didn’t work hard enough to be convincing. Its poor showing has produced hand-wringing essays on the precariousness of Shah Rukh’s future. The generation that cheered on the Bollywood outsider’s march towards conquest and saw a reflection of itself in him has grown up. Younger viewers don’t seem to be in the same kind of thrall to Shah Rukh anymore, and his poor choice of scripts in recent years hasn’t helped him. The A-lister, one of the mascots of Bollywood’s global outreach and responsible for raising the profile of films back home, ended 2018 at a crossroads, with no clear direction in sight.

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Zero (2018).

The fate of the Khans has a great deal to do with their vintage. Aamir and Shah Rukh are both 53, while Salman is a year younger. Their careers date back to the late 1980s and the early ’90s, and they have admirably survived the shifts in storytelling styles. Their obituaries have been written and rewritten, but fatigue and over-familiarity finally seem to be catching up at least with Salman and Shah Rukh. Both have distinctive screen personas that cannot be separated any more from the characters they are recruited to portray. In a new world in which the threshold for sameness and predictability has been lowered and viewers seem to want their favourites to leap through old hoops in unseen ways, the veterans have been found wanting.

One survival technique for Bollywood stars is to turn producers and participate in their own myth-making, but this approach has its limitations. The control exerted by Bollywood stars over their material sometimes pays dividends – Aamir Khan’s rumoured intense involvement in his films has kept him in good stead since Ghajini in 2008 – but it also means that when they fall, the earth trembles, and the editorialising begins.

Pundits versus critics versus directors on Twitter

The anguish over the Khanate has something to do with the only true measure of success in Bollywood: box-office success. (Had Thugs of Hindostan or Zero worked, it would have been business as usual.) The level of punditry over box-office earnings reached peak levels in 2018, with no signs of subsiding. Critics emerged as reliable villains when films didn’t work as well as anticipated, rather than being regarded as canaries in the coal-mine. Directors and trade analysts took to social media to hector critics and defend a film’s hidden virtues. Leave punditry to the pundits, was the advice, and although sound, this recommendation ignored the truth about who fanned the flames in the first place.

Aamir Khan in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.
Aamir Khan in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

It was the Hindi film industry that popularised the punting. The initiation of the so-called Rs 100-crore club, which has since acquired a couple of zeros, was Bollywood’s way of underling its importance and influence. A movie’s commercial impact is increasingly inseparable from its aesthetic value – and this blurring of lines was initiated by the film trade and mimicked by journalists, publicists, and the average moviegoer.

The movements of movie stars still dictate the release calendar. Talk about production budgets and screen count are a part of the publicity material. The market is gamed by cornering lucrative release windows (such as long weekends and festive holidays), which elbow out more modest productions or movies that need breathing space. This is one genie that can neither be squeezed back into the bottle nor commanded to perform differently.

Box office talk that matters

That said, the obsession with the Rs 100-crore benchmark worked heavily in favour of two films in 2018. Smart cinema meshed smoothly with box office smarts in Amar Kaushik’s horror comedy Stree. The screenplay, by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, was clever and tight. The cast, which included Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi, were in perfect sync; the production values and camerawork suited the material; the direction brought all the elements together to deliver the year’s most unpredictable sleeper hit.

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Stree (2018).

Among the productions that notched up far too many crores to fit into the average imagination (Padmaavat, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, Sanju), it was Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi that mattered the most. Here was a film directed by a woman, written by two, and steered by one of Bollywood’s youngest female talents. Alia Bhatt played Sehmat, a Kashmiri woman who becomes an Indian spy in Pakistan and gathers crucial information ahead of the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Despite a muddled and improbable plot, the soft-core nationalism and Bhatt’s doughty performance ensured a box-office haul that put Raazi on the list of one of 2018’s top earners.

The industry believes that women cannot “ensure an initial” – they do not have the ability to reel in audiences in the all-important opening week – but the warm response to Raazi and, to a lesser degree, the Rani Mukerji-led Hichki, suggested otherwise.

Beyond the BO: The top films

“What was the film like,” a question that has made way for “How much will the film make,” applied to only a handful of releases this year. Among the few movies from 2018 that will be on repeat mode down the calendar is Sriram Raghavan’s wicked Pune-set thriller Andhadhun. The story of a blind pianist’s entanglement with murder and an organ donation racket was a dizzyingly narrated doozy packed with memorable performances, including by Tabu, Ayushmann Khurrana, Zakir Hussain and Chhaya Kadam. Andhadhun proved that a crowd-pleasing entertainer could retain its individuality and bear the idiosyncratic stamp of its filmmakers.

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Andhadhun (2018).

Rima Das’s second film Village Rockstars was released just in time for its selection as India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. A gentle and unhurried rural drama about a young girl’s hopes and dreams, Village Rockstars won’t ever feature in a trade pundit’s balance sheet, but that hardly matters. Such films are now consigned to streaming platforms, since they are deemed too weak for the regular Friday slugfest, and Netflix has become the go-to place for riskier material. Yet, the limited release of Village Rockstars holds out the hope that such films will be seen in the cinemas, where they belong.

Also among the memorable releases was Rahi Anil Barve’s much-delayed Tumbbad. It was 2018’s most good-looking film, beating Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sumptuously designed historical Padmaavat. The period horror drama, produced by and starring Sohum Shah, explored the moral abyss into which a family descends in search of gold and power. Brilliantly shot by Pankaj Kumar, and beautifully designed by Nitin Zihani Choudhary and Rakesh Yadav, Tumbbad created an immersive that world could be consumed only on the big screen – and was, as proven by its healthy box-office run.

Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk wasn’t as subtle or effective as it could have been, but it deserves plaudits for its gumption and timeliness. Easily the year’s most political film, Mulk explored Islamophobia and victim shaming in a year marked by communal speeches and statements, murderous attacks on Muslims, and sallies against the freedom of expression. Mulk wasn’t perfect, but that it was released at all is a minor miracle.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.
Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

The formulaic love triangle got a welcome redraft in Manmarziyaan, one of Anurag Kashyap’s most rounded and focused films in a long time. Kashyap had a busy year in good and bad ways. He directed two films (Mukkabaaz and Manmarziyaan) and a web series (Sacred Games, along with Vikramaditya Motwane) but also got dragged into the Me Too movement for his culpability in ignoring an alleged sexual assault complaint against his former producing partner, Vikas Bahl. By the end of 2018, Kashyap was back to where he began – a freelancer for hire, bereft of a comfort of a production company.

F for Formula

The year also proved fruitful for three types of films that seem to work very well these days. The uncritical biopic, that it-actually-happened fiction, reached its apogee with Rajkumar Hirani’s blockbuster Sanju, about actor Sanjay Dutt. A favourite among stars looking for meaty roles and filmmakers who want to tackle modern Indian history, the biopic is often commissioned with the imprimatur of the subject or the next of kin. These rise-fall-rise sagas celebrate actual Indian achievements but stop short of exploring complexity or nuance. They are often combined with nation-building feeling for added effect, as were the Akshay Kumar-fronted films Pad Man and Gold, and they play on audience aspirations for success stories. Ergo: they are here to stay.

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Sanju (2018).

The other kind of film that isn’t fading out is the ‘they eff you up mum and dad’ movie. The dysfunctional Indian family comedy is now a genre unto itself. Veere Di Wedding introduced us to a quartet of highly creased lovelies. Badhaai Ho had numerous nutters in the kitchen, as did 102 Not Out.

Perhaps the most effective movie in 2018 about parents who short-circuit their progeny was Sharat Katariya’s Sui Dhaaga. The Varun Dhawan-Anushka Sharma starrer was billed as a self-empowerment saga, but worked more effectively as a drama about a small-town entrepreneur trying to rise above his family’s insistent negativity. Dhawan’s Mauji battles a horrible boss and big-scale competition, but his biggest obstacle is his pessimistic father, played by Raghubir Yadav.

Also a screen fixture is the flag-thumping movie, whose consumption is deemed a national duty on par with paying taxes and voting. Gold, Parmanu, Paltan and Thugs of Hindostan did their bit to emotionally blackmail susceptible viewers, but they paled before Ahmed Khan’s Baaghi 2. Although the story of an Army commando’s quest to help his former girlfriend trace her missing daughter, the Tiger Shroff-starrer opened with a tone-deaf tribute to the use of a human shield in Kashmir in 2017. The strapping of a Kashmiri man to the bonnet of an Army jeep by Major Leetul Gogoi was recreated for Baaghi 2 as a high point in machismo. Gogoi was indicted just a year later and moved out of his unit for breaking Army rules by attempting to pick up a local woman – a karmic turn of events that definitely needs a spot in the proposed Baaghi 3 movie.

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Sui Dhaaga (2018).