The pandemic is a fitness test for the movie business, says Anupama Chopra
Can Bollywood reinvent itself, learn from those who have survived and thrived in this time, and emerge better, stronger?
“Systemic lacunae developing over time, precipitated by the pandemic.” This was the response given to me by a leading producer when I asked why Hindi cinema is languishing. The question occurred to me as I put together a mid-year list of the best Indian films of the first half of 2021. The list was dominated by Malayalam cinema (The Great Indian Kitchen, Joji, Kala, Nayattu, Drishyam 2: The Resumption).
There was also a Marathi film (The Disciple), two Tamil movies (Karnan and Mandela) and a Telugu one (Jathi Ratnalu). Only one Hindi film made the cut, a 43-minute short called Geeli Pucchi, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, which was part of the anthology Ajeeb Daastaans. Bollywood’s biggest film of the year, Salman Khan’s Radhe, encapsulated everything that seems to be wrong with the industry right now — it was bloated, mediocre, myopic, and yet another attempt to substitute storytelling with star power.
June 14 marked the first anniversary of Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death. The past year has been (as Queen Elizabeth II memorably described 1992) annus horribilis for the industry. The pandemic and enormous economic losses were compounded by an existential crisis that rocked the foundations and revealed the fractiousness, inequity and various fault lines of our system.
In all my years of reporting on Bollywood, I’ve never seen the industry take such a public bashing. I’m hopeful that the crisis and consequent introspection will result in long-standing changes, but even a cursory survey and casual conversations reveal that the present situation has been in the making for years now.
The producer summarised it like this: “In Bollywood, the insistence on good stories is trumped by the insistence on commercial cinema. There are very few actors who are willing to reinvent themselves. This is not the case in the south. There, established directors encourage and mentor younger talent. How many protégés can you name here? In the south, directors tell stories of lived experiences. Here, directors with authentic voices get corrupted very quickly. Moreover, in the south, the star acknowledges failure with the producer. Here the star walks away from failure with his hefty paycheque and says: ‘Not my problem’. In the south, the producers’ councils ensure fair play. Here, the economics are lopsided and star power only goes up.”
This period, my source says, “will test the fitness of the industry” and its ability to “continue to function as it did before”. Which is just as well. It’s time to demolish the old structure and build anew. Perhaps we can take inspiration from another anniversary this past week: June 15 marked 20 years since the release of Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. The film — three hours and forty-five minutes long — continues to dazzle with its brilliant screenplay, terrific performances, AR Rahman’s superb soundtrack, and the sheer ambition of the team that made it, led by director Ashutosh Gowariker and leading man and co-producer Aamir Khan. Lagaan represents the best of Hindi cinema. It shows us the artistry that Bollywood is capable of.
The through line of Lagaan is “Sach aur saahas hai jiske mann mein, ant mein jeet usi ki rahe (Those with truth and courage in their hearts, victory is eventually theirs)”. Perhaps it’s time for the Hindi film industry to find its sach and saahas. And reinvent itself.