No fireworks, no fizz in Bollywood this Diwali, says Anupama Chopra
The festival face-off used to be a spectator sport. Now it’s a contest of bland vs bland, with sloppy storytelling all around.
In 2010, after watching Sex and the City 2, I posted on Twitter that a bad film works exactly like a Dementor (from the Harry Potter world). It sucks the joy and happiness out of you. This line came back to me as I watched Bollywood’s big Diwali releases, Ram Setu and Thank God.
Diwali has traditionally been a high point in the Hindi releases calendar, with major clashes energising the ecosystem. Think of Mission Kashmir versus Mohabbatein in 2000 or Saawariya versus Om Shanti Om in 2007 or Ae Dil Hai Mushkil versus Shivaay in 2016.
Bollywood’s Diwali face-off used to be a spectator sport, with distributors and audiences buzzing over which film opened better and which finally triumphed. The noise added sparkle to the festivities. Not this year. Ram Setu and Thank God generated little pre-release buzz and few advance bookings. Ram Setu posted a solid opening-day number of about ₹15 crore (Akshay Kumar’s biggest this year), and even managed to hold up decently through the week. But the numbers could not camouflage the mediocrity of the film.
Director Abhishek Sharma takes a solid idea that blends fact, fiction, history, myth, religion and adventure, and flattens it out with poor writing and weak visual effects. Akshay plays a charmless version of the swashbuckling Indiana Jones. The two female leads, Nushrratt Bharuccha and Jacqueline Fernandez, are reduced to bit parts.
Still, in this competition of bland versus bland, Ram Setu is the better option. Thank God, directed by Indra Kumar, is a mirthless comedy in which a selfish, conniving real-estate agent learns to be a better man after a near-fatal car crash. The accident lands him in a limbo between living and dying, where he is forced by the deity Chitragupta (played by Ajay Devgn) to examine his way of life. What could have been a breezy entertainer becomes an endurance test, with leading man Sidharth Malhotra looking as bored as we feel. The sole saving grace is Nora Fatehi.
These films are symptoms of a deeper malaise in Hindi cinema. Despite the body blows delivered by the pandemic, star power continues to trump rigour in writing and attention to detail. Sloppy screenplays continue to fell film after film.
Digital, satellite and audio sales are “saving everyone’s asses”, a producer (who asked not to be named) told me recently. He said that of the 140-odd Hindi films released so far this year, several will recover their costs only because of these deals. He termed the situation grim because, “without robust theatrical runs, you can’t sustain this business”.
Harminder Sandhu, who heads the website Box Office India, attributed the dire straits to several long-gestating trends. Through the multiplex era, Hindi cinema became increasingly oriented toward urban audiences. Box-office revenues kept growing because ticket prices were being raised, not because footfall was increasing. Now, post-pandemic, viewing habits in metros have changed. “The audience you are catering to isn’t coming to the theatres as much. And you don’t have films for the audience that is coming,” as Sandhu puts it.
As everyone flails around for solutions, the producer offers an obvious one: Work harder.