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A Successful Twist in Bollywood’s Plot

March 2006
A Successful Twist in Bollywood’s Plot

Jackie Shroff, or Jaggu dada as he is known in Bollywood, was recently asked by a reporter how he felt about being relegated to prop roles now. He didn't take a second to reply: "The hardcore song and dance doesn't run anyway, so I'm not losing out on anything." Jackie couldn't have been more right. Look at the biggest hits of 2005: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's poignant celebration of survival against all odds, Black, Madhur Bhandarkar's scathing expose of high society in Mumbai, Page 3 and Nagesh Kukunoor's simple tale about the cricketing dreams of a deaf and mute village boy, Iqbal. One common thread runs through all three. They all dared to break away from the run-of-the-mill. Despite it, or should we say because of it, these films hit the jackpot. They were able to achieve that enviable and elusive feat: critical acclaim coupled with commercial success.

Things in Bollywood, sorry Big B, though you hate the term, and for lack of a better word, are a-changing all right. Bollywood today is not just about the mainstream big-budget entertainers with larger than life characters. In fact, the audience has begun to tire of the screen stereotypes and wants to watch something hat ke, as they would say in filmi parlance. The family drama is not exactly dead yet ? the last ones to click at the box office were the Amitabh Bachchan-Akshay Kumar starrer Waqt in 2005 and the Amitabh-Hema Malini starrer Baghban in 2003. But there is now a definite parallel trend towards an experimental kind of cinema, smaller, offbeat films that are peopled with real, not fantastic, characters and thus strike an instant chord with the cine-goer. Many of these films are in Hinglish, an eclectic mix of Hindi and English. But tell Kukunoor that he kick-started ‘Hinglish' cinema with his Hyderabad Blues in 1998 and he's quick to point out: "Hyderabad Blues was a trilingual film with dialogues in Hindi, English and Telugu!" Point taken, Mr. Kukunoor!

He goes on to add: "It's a fabulous time to be a filmmaker. Today mainstream cinema and independent films can co-exist as Bollywood has created space within its fold for various genres. Audiences are being offered greater choice in terms of genres. Earlier, a non-formula filmmaker was clubbed into the art-house bracket and relegated to the film festival circuit. But today there is a move towards shorter, songless, starless ‘mainstream' films." Indeed, newer, more experimental films that rely on story than songs could be the ones that catch on faster with American audiences too as they follow the western way of film-making, according to Gitesh Pandya, producer of American Desi.

According to Imtiaz Ali, the director of the surprise hit Socha Na Tha: "You can say that a new era is dawning in Bollywood and old myths about what makes a movie click are being shattered at the box office." What are these myths? Well, the first is that Hindi films need whopping budgets and that for the Hindi movie buff, exotic locations are a must. The success of Iqbal, which was made on a shoestring budget of Rs20 million, explodes this myth in a jiffy. Secondly, it was thought till now that big stars are a prerequisite to a film's success. Well, how does one explain the super success of Page 3 whose heroine Konkana Sen is a non-star? In fact, the average viewer was not even aware of the existence of Aparna Sen's daughter. Myth number 3: Movies without hit songs bomb at the box office. Sarkar, Ram Gopal Varma's tribute to Francis Ford Coppola's classic, The Godfather, emerged a winner at the box office despite there being no songs in it.

Today, nothing is taboo. Globalization has brought about a change in mindsets and attitudes, giving filmmakers an opportunity to delve into uncharted territory. As trade analyst Taran Adarsh says, "There is no such thing as a formula today. The only formula that works is a well-made film."

So when Salaam Namaste talks about live-in relationships and Preity Zinta happily prances about with a bloated tummy as an unwed mother-to-be, no eyebrows are raised. Bunty and Babli go about conning people and everyone in the audience loves them for it. There is no clear demarcation between black and white now. Films have started showing shades of grey and no one is complaining. The evolved Bollywood fan would not frown at the heroine having an extra-marital affair. Indeed the new Bollywood buff now even accepts romantic, often physical relationships between young women and older men. In Vishal Bharadwaj's Maqbool, Tabu was shown as the companion of the underworld don Pankaj Kapur. In the late Anant Balani's Joggers Park, Perizaad Zorabian comes as a breath of fresh air in the life of retired judge Victor Bannerjee. Then there was Mallika Sherawat in Govind Menon's Kis Kis Ki Kismet sharing a sizzling camaraderie with the much older Dharmendra, even though she was romantically paired with a newcomer. And in Black, the relationship between Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, the teacher and the pupil, defies the given definition of gender equations in our cinema. Farhan Akhtar's debut film Dil Chahta Hai, a slick story about the friendship between three college graduates, challenged several stereotypes. One of the protagonists is in love with an older woman - unheard of in Bollywood.

Why, now even films showing alternate sexuality have an audience, albeit limited. My Brother Nikhil is India's first mainstream flick to feature a gay character in the eponymous role. Mahesh Dattani's Mango Souffle made a brave attempt to de-marginalise homosexuality in Indian cinema. Most recently, in Bhandarkar's Page 3 for the first time a gay character is looked at without prejudice and with sensitivity. Says Bhandarkar: "All the characters you see in Page 3 are based on people I know. In our films, gay characters are used as props and gimmicks. In my film, Rehaan plays an identifiable character." Of course, any talk of alternate sexuality would be incomplete without mention of Deepa Mehta's Fire, which dealt with the till-now taboo subject of lesbianism starring the veteran Shabana Azmi and the younger, talented and attractive Nandita Das.

Everybody in the business today is eager to experiment. Imagine a full-of-oomph Bipasha Basu, clad demurely in a salwar kameez, or a sultry Sameera Reddy wrapped up in a sari as she plays a middle class Bengali housewife to the hilt. On second thought, you don't have to imagine really because these glam dolls have in reality woken up to the excitement of going de-glam. So Bips sheds glamour, instead of clothes, in Prakash Jha's Apaharan and Sameera does the offbeat act in Buddhadev Dasgupta'a Kaalpurush. These two are part of a new breed of actresses who are game for a new look in keeping with more real screen personas. Not content with just flaunting their well-toned bodies, they are keen to dabble in any kind of cinema that helps them break their image. So what do we now call the industry they are an intrinsic part of - surely, the New Bollywood!

The Bengali SEN-sation Sushmita who played the sexy chemistry teacher in Main Hoon Na is going rural with a vengeance in Kalpana Lajmi's Chingari - cotton sari, Avadhi dialect et al. "People will find it difficult to recognize Sushmita in my film. She's totally transformed. And she enjoyed playing the rustic prostitute in Chingari as much as the sophisticated teacher in Main Hoon Na," says Lajmi. Priyanka Chopra, who frolicked in bikinis in her debut film Andaaz and then sizzled as a hotshot executive in Aitraaz, can't wait to drape herself in the traditional nine-yard Bengali sari for a new adaptation of Bimal Mitra's Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. Wasn't it Kareena Kapoor who had a great time shooting for Dev? "I just had to rinse my face and I was ready to face the camera," she recalled. The icing on the cake: Bebo was nominated for several awards for the hard-hitting Govind Nihalani movie. The glamorous Shilpa Shetty surprised everyone by playing an AIDS patient in Phir Milenge and naturally wore no make-up. Having tasted blood, she now wants to do more such "meaningful roles." Aishwarya Rai, declared the new face of Bollywood by Time magazine, has also consciously worked towards proving that there's more to her than just a beautiful face by acting in Rituparno Ghosh's Bangla film Chokher Bali and his Hindi film Raincoat. She even put on extra calories to look convincing as a plump, Bihari housewife in the latter.

But it is surely the gorgeous Lisa Ray whose screen metamorphosis has come as an absolute shocker. The actress who plays a widow in Deepa Mehta's controversial Water, has gone for a total makeover. As Sameera says: Why wait for a certain age before seeking an image crossover? One needn't necessarily be 30 plus to try ‘art' cinema. I think Bollywood is waking up to the fact that stereotypes won't sell anymore."

Likewise, the heroes too are treading on new ground. Saif Ali Khan came into his own with Hum Tum. The chhote nawab tried his hand at a period film Parineeta and won accolades. "Urban romantic comedy is my home turf and I am extremely comfortable doing it. Which is why I wanted to try my hand at a different genre and grow as an actor." Incidentally, Parineeta's popularity shatters the myth that the contemporary youth have no patience with old themes. Khan is now garnering praise for Being Cyrus directed by debutant Homi Adajania, and is delighted that the movie was screened at the South Asian International Indian Film Festival. "It's a very cool movie and lots of fun. It's the first movie of its kind to come out of Mumbai. I am very proud of it," he says.

Another actor who is trying his hand at something different and doing it well - is Akshay Kumar. Akki has shown his flair for comedy in films like Hera Pheri, Garam Masala and Deewane Huye Paagal. Yes, action man Akshay is the newly-anointed king of comedy. And why not? According to producer-director Boney Kapoor: "Humor is now clicking in a big way with the audience across the country. Earlier, comedies had a limited audience and did well only in certain pockets." Well, he should know. His multi-starrer offering, No Entry, a comic take on marital promiscuousness, has bailed him out of a financial mess. Says Adarsh: Munnabhai MBBS, Hulchul and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi are all comedies as well as family entertainers which have blasted the myth that comedy movies don't work beyond Mumbai. Today humor is certainly giving tough competition to action films." Hero No. 1 Govinda too feels that comedy is back with a bang in Bollywood. "Unlike the 70s and 80s, humor is not restricted to character artists. Producers, directors and actors are today banking on laughter to worm their way into the hearts of audience and this phase is here to stay."

Yes, Bollywood has certainly come a long way from the days when the audience savored big-budget family sagas replete with song and dance churned out by moguls such as Manmohan Desai, Yash Chopra and the Barjatyas. There are several reasons for the changing scenario. First, the entry of corporate finance has dramatically transformed the economics of moviemaking in Bollywood. Film financing is now better organized since there is a huge inflow of corporate money. The money comes with certain conditions such as completing films on time and avoiding budget overruns. Most directors these days make sure to stick to the budget and schedule. It's not just the new breed of filmmakers, but some experienced ones who have adopted a professional approach. "Even now big films are being made, but the mindset is changing. There is less wastage as directors are more organized, and there is an awareness that saving money is critical," says Amit Khanna, president of Film and TV Producers' Guild. Business houses like Birlas, Tatas and Sahara and liquor baron Vijay Mallya have jumped onto the moviemaking bandwagon as the sector evolves away from its largely domestic role into a truly global industry. "Five years ago, I couldn't find one producer," says Vishal Bharadwaj who is in the news because of his much appreciated Blue Umbrella. "And now, I have to choose among 10 who are willing to finance anything I want to make. I am blessed to be working in these changing times."

"I am in the entertainment business, fashion, music and now movies. It is the perfect brand extension. The Hindi film industry has evolved over the last three to four years. From an industry which was in the clutches of the underworld, it is increasingly getting corporate," says Mallya. Even though the Tatas and Abhay Oswal incurred losses with Aitbaar and Pinjar, respectively, it hardly makes a difference to Mallya. Bollywood is evolving and things can only get better, he maintains. Suneil Shetty's company Popcorn hopes to bring in Purnendu Chatterjee's Chatterjee Group, an affiliate of the New York-based Soros Fund Management, for a multibillion entertainment project that would include leisure, fitness, sports and film exhibition businesses. Kumarmangalam Birla's movie production company Applause Entertainment has signed with Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox to co-produce and distribute Indian-language films globally. Applause has also contracted with the U.S.-based Miracle Entertainment to co-produce movies.

According to research by Nishith Desai Associates, entitled Transforming Bollywood - A Legal Perspective, though the Indian film industry cannot be compared to Hollywood in terms of revenues, it is gradually turning into a truly global industry. The Indian government is playing a significant role in facilitating policy measures such as the granting of industry status to the film world, access to bank finance and reforming taxation laws, thereby contributing to the growth of the sector.

Marketing of films today is also of prime importance. "Almost 30 years after I made my first feature film it has dawned on me that marketing is not just a buzz word. It now has to be seen as a creative extension of filmmaking," says Shyam Benegal, one of the pioneers of ‘parallel' or ‘art' cinema of the 1970s who made such path-breaking films as Ankur and Nishant. This new Bollywood is also marked by the recent influx of moviemakers from journalistic and advertising backgrounds such as Rakeysh Mehra (Aks and Rang De Basanti) and Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta), who have imparted their unique sensibilities to the creative business of movie-making. Parineeta was a huge hit in the United Kingdom where it figured in the top 10 in the first week of its release.

The new Bollywood generation of producers/directors such as Karan Johar, Rakesh Roshan, Ashutosh Gowariker, Mani Rathnam, Farhan Akhtar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Nikhil Advani and Shah Rukh Khan are contributing immensely to the changing Bollywood scenario with their well-made movies through their own corporations.

The multiplex boom in India has provided a boost to the new Bollywood and small filmmakers in particular. With smaller capacity theaters and higher-priced tickets, even a few housefuls mean good box office returns, says trade expert Komal Nahata. Five years ago, Kukunoor's Iqbal might have found it extremely difficult to see the light of day as such movies were straightaway bracketed as offbeat films by distributors and theater owners. The logic being that they held no mass appeal. But that was then. A proliferation of multiplexes in urban India, since the first one opened in New Delhi in June 1997, has allowed a variety of movies to get released and made them commercially viable. Says Kukunoor, "The success of Iqbal has assured me that films with my sensibility, story and treatment can reach wider audiences, due in no small measure to the mushrooming multiplexes."

The maverick Ram Gopal Varma, who made the powerful gangster drama Satya and is probably the most prolific filmmaker today, is ecstatic. "A film is a conversation. The multiplex gives me flexibility and enables me to have a conversation with my intended target audience without worrying about small towns and villages." Bharadwaj puts it succinctly: "In films, you have to follow your heart. Multiplexes have made it easier for me to do that."

Even Hanuman, India's first animation film, has become a huge hit. The Rs25-million film, produced by Sahara Entertainment and directed by VG Samant, was released through 150 prints and grossed over Rs10 million in Delhi multiplexes alone and did good business in theaters too. This could be a hopeful sign for Indian animators as try to grab a piece of the international animation film pie, which has an annual 30 percent growth rate.

Earlier, Indian films - whether in Hindi or any other Indian language - used to be perceived as something alien at international festivals. This is also changing, says Shravan Shroff of Shringar Films. Shroff is of the belief that with filmmakers, distributors and producers waking up to the untapped potential and sending their films to festivals across the globe, a receptive atmosphere has developed. "Indian movies have generated interest worldwide, including at film festival circuits, in recent years. We need to capitalize on this," says filmmaker Aditya Bhattacharya.

Sample this: Films shown at the SAIFF (South Asian International Film Festival) held at New York in December included such diverse fare as the sex comedy Kya Kool Hai Hum; Sancharram (The Journey), Liga Pullapully's controversial depiction of lesbian love in an idyllic Kerala village; Kal, Ruchi Narain's revelatory look at Indian youth; Sudhir Mishra's highly acclaimed Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi; and Aparna Sen's 15, Park Avenue. A sure sign that Bollywood's appeal transcends all boundaries now. The global appeal of Bollywood can also be gauged from the number of foreigners appearing in Hindi flicks of late: Rachel Shelley, Antonio Bernath, Ilene Hamman, Tata Young, Ilene Hamman and Brande Rodricks to name a few. Not to forget the Pakistani actresses Meera, Sonya Jehan and Sana. Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge used a Bollywood song. One of the most popular musicals in London's West End Bombay Dreams, was inspired by Bollywood musicals.

In a sense, Bollywood was always global. Raj Kapoor's blue eyes and his pairing with Nargis were a hit with Russian audiences in the 1950s. His Awaara and Shri 420 sold overseas, but did not actually invade the West. Then Ismail Merchant teamed up with James Ivory to make some memorable English films with Indian themes and found a niche among Western audiences. Things changed dramatically in the late 1990s when Subhash Ghai's Taal became the first Indian movie to enter the Top 20 in the U.S. box office and the United Kingdom's Top Ten. The film, starring Aishwarya Rai earned $1.08 million within the first 10 days of its release in the United States. (Ironically, Taal bombed at the box office in India).

Indian films were no longer "foreign" to Western audiences. The Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, grossed over $7 million in three months in the United Kingdom, while Kuch Kuch Hota Hai collected $6 million in a little over two months. According to Gitesh: "In 2005, the top-grossing Bollywood film in North America was Salaam Namaste with $ 1.4 million in ticket sales. That film combined the commercial appeal of Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta with great music and comedy to become a surprise hit. In North America, the top-grossing Bollywood films of recent years have been Veer-Zaara in 2004 and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in 2001. Both grossed about $3 million each." They were big hits across the Atlantic too. All this has been attributed to the large expatriate Indian and South Asian communities there and their emotional bonding with their motherland.

Gitesh adds that Bollywood movies are slowly gaining fans among American audiences, but there is still an enormous amount of untapped potential. The DVD industry has significantly changed the business as people now prefer to watch certain medium and small-budget films at home. "However, if American- style marketing efforts are put into the release of big Bollywood films, the business could grow by tapping into second-generation South Asians and American moviegoers. The only sure-fire blockbusters nowadays are Shah Rukh movies which are still looked at as events." So the Badshah of Bollywood reigns supreme overseas too!

Then there are the recent cross-over movies such as Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham and Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, which grossed $32.5 million and $14 million at the U.S. box office respectively. Chadha followed up her Beckham success with the Aishwarya Rai-Martin Henderson starrer, Bride And Prejudice. After focusing on the Indian software sector, U.S. investors have now been inspired by such movies. "Americans in general appear to be more interested now in the culture of the world's largest democracy, from music to food to film - a trend the investors hope to cash on," according to the San Jose Mercury News. The newspaper noted that between 80 and 90 percent of the films made in India fail financially. But investment in Bollywood is still safer for investors who have made their money in the high-risk tech world. The market for Bollywood films is today strong and growing, with Indian producers now also looking at exporting films to new markets such as New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mauritius, Tanzania, Kenya, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Aishwarya Rai has just finished shooting for The Last Legion with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley. Sushmita Sen along with her beau Randeep Hooda will be seen with Naomi Campbell in Karma Confessions and Holi to be directed by Robert De Niro's daughter Drena. Black has recently been selected by Time magazine's influential critic Richard Corliss as one of the year's 10 best films of 2005. Shah Rukh Khan's Paheli is India's official entry to the Oscars in the Foreign Film category and Mahesh Dattani's Morning Raga is in the running for nomination in the Best Film category. Indeed the world is saying salaam namaste to Indian stars and films. And Bollywood is the flag bearer of this new, resurgent India.

The Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on a recent trip to Moscow remarked, "The new generation of Russians may have forgotten Raj Kapoor and Awaara, but there are many more Raj Kapoors and Awaaras back home in India today. You just have to look beyond the West." To that, we can only say: Yes, Prime Minister!

By Gitanjali Chak and Rajnish Sharma

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