Language no bar: Anupama Chopra on non-Hindi blockbusters
Surprise! The truly innovative cinema like Virus or Village Rockstars, Super Deluxe, Sairat, Kumbalangi Nights or the Baahubali franchise, is emerging from outside Mumbai.
Most of my adult life has been shaped by a profound passion for Hindi cinema. I’ve been writing about Bollywood – the industry and the movies – for almost 30 years now. In the early ’90s, I got a Masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University, worked at Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York but chose to return to Mumbai because the only beat I ever wanted was Hindi film.
Over the years, I’ve done thousands of features, interviews and reviews in print, on TV and on digital platforms. I’ve written several books on Bollywood and even married into the mob. I give you this backstory only to establish that the critique that follows comes from a place of grand love.
I recently had the opportunity to host a screening of the Malayalam film Virus. Virus is a superbly crafted medical thriller. After the screening, I did a Q&A session with the film’s team, which included the director Aashiq Abu, writers Muhsin Parari, Suhas and Sharfu, and actors Rima Kallingal (also a co-producer) and Parvathy Thiruvothu. It was 11 pm but a sizeable number of viewers stayed back to hear the team talk about how they made the film.
One of them asked, in a plaintive voice: “Today, Malayalam and Tamil cinema are far ahead of Bollywood. What do you read? What do you watch?” There was loud cheering and applause at the question. Aashiq deflected with grace, saying there was good and bad cinema everywhere.
But that question has stayed with me.
In the last 12 months, we’ve seen a slew of strong Hindi films — Gully Boy, Article 15, Andhadhun, Stree, Mulk and Badhaai Ho are just a few. Exciting new directorial voices like Aditya Dhar, Amit Sharma and Amar Kaushik have emerged. It’s heartening that Bollywood writers are being empowered — from being showcased on posters to becoming creative producers to getting better paychecks. And it’s good to hear that at least a few stars, the most powerful players in the system, are actively looking to break free of stereotypes.
And yet, the truly innovative cinema like Virus or Village Rockstars, Super Deluxe, Sairat, Kumbalangi Nights or the Baahubali franchise, is emerging from outside Mumbai. It’s telling that currently, the chart of the top Indian box-office grossers includes only one Hindi film — Dangal, which comes in at number 4. The first and second positions are occupied by the Baahubali franchise, the third by 2.0 and the fifth by Avengers: Endgame. A film trade magazine editor who asked not be named said this was ‘unthinkable 20 years ago’. He added: “It’s all gone wrong in the last 10 to 15 years.”
What has gone wrong? Bollywood seems to be thriving. According to the Producers Guild of India, the net Hindi box-office revenues have shown an increase of almost 20% from 2017 to 2018. A total of 13 Hindi films crossed the ₹100-crore mark in 2018, up from 8 films in 2017. But I see symptoms of a deeper malaise that is reflected in the top 5 chart. My diagnosis, as a lover and chronicler of Hindi cinema and based on anecdotal evidence, is acute myopia.
Take ticket prices — Rana Daggubati told me that the Telugu film industry actively nurtures the theatre-going audience by keeping ticket prices affordable. The Hindi film industry doesn’t have fixed pricing. We are largely focused on the opening day box office, which makes the system dependent on stars and spectacle.
There is too much money chasing too little talent. Which has led to industrial-sized hubris, which is further fuelled by paid press — incredibly, Bollywood folk first buy press for themselves and then proceed to believe it. I’ve noticed that artists from outside Mumbai speak of themselves as storytellers. Artists in Mumbai refer to themselves as brands. Social media and paparazzi have fanned the delusion further. One-film-old actors, with millions of followers, are bona fide celebrities. There is little correlation between rigour and reward.
During the recent World Cup final, veteran sports journalist Rohit Brijnath wrote a column on the New Zealand team in The Straits Times. He said that people were cheering for New Zealand “because their competitiveness is not stained by conceit and their skill not sullied by vanity”. Rohit also quoted New Zealand Herald sports reporter Andrew Alderson, who said of the team’s captain, Kane Williamson: “I’ve never met a New Zealand sportsman, or for that matter any sportsperson, who has such an ego to ability ratio. Low ego and high ability.”
That’s an ideal worth striving for — especially now, as the Hindi film industry struggles to retain its dominance.