Just as B-town’s ratings have been going up, there comes an unflattering barrage of sub-mediocre films that are hailed with hosannas at the box office. Whatever happened to discerning audiences?
Proclamations that Bollywood cinema is improving vastly, both in style and content, have been frequent. Small-budget films, which dare to defy the conventional norms, do succeed sporadically, earning a fair amount of profits for their investors besides garnering critical hosannas. Indeed, directors who stray off the beaten track are growing in number. Independent efforts that narrate topical themes are being screened to appreciative audiences at international film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin and Venice.
Anurag Kashyap (Dev D), Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla) and Vikram Motwane (Udaan) can be depended upon to break the rules of formulaic filmmaking which has relied overwhelmingly on irrelevant songs and dances, implausible plots, toilet humour and hyper-melodrama. And there are directors of the calibre of Habib Faisal (Ishaqzaade), Shimit Amit (Chak De India!), Ashutosh Gowariker (Swades), Zoya Akhtar (Luck by Chance) and Farhan Akhtar (Dil Chahta Hai), whose best works have raised the bar of Mumbai-produced films notches above the commonplace.
So far, so wonderful. Yet, the optimism in the air is periodically clouded by the enormous nationwide success of films which swing the clock back to square zero. In other words, like it or not, it is the purely slapdash and senseless Bollytown products that continue to dominate the market. When bad films, in terms of their aesthetics and moral values become huge moneyspinners, the hope for a radical change of scene takes a beating. The latest cases in point: Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2 and Prabhu Deva’s Rowdy Rathore. Both the self-styled entertainers were detested by the mandarins but adored by the masses. The Indian palate remains staunchly partial to what are generally described as ‘masala time-pass’ movies.
Clearly, the whopping success of the two movies assert that there’s nothing quite as appetising for the moviegoer as execrable humour and no-bloodshed-barred-action extravaganzas. Dancing star-cum-director Prabhu Deva’s Rowdy Rathore — surprisingly produced by the normally sedate Sanjay Leela Bhansali — blends action as well as the comedy genres into one mega-brain-basher toplining Akshay Kumar. Enacting the double role of Shiva, a petty thief caught in absurdly ridiculous situations, and Vikram, an upright cop who wields his fists of fury, the 44-year-old actor is now back in the A-list club.
In both the roles, his performance may be strong on daredevil stunts but hopelessly week on emotional nuances. But well, success erases an actor’s deficiencies. In a way, Akshay Kumar is like yesteryear’s Jeetendra, ill-at-ease in the acting department but incredibly fortunate vis-a-vis the number of hits belted out while working in Hindi films that were produced by the bushel during the 1970s and ‘80s in Hyderabad and Chennai studios.
The southern flavour — eye-boggling editing cuts, gargantuan close-ups and crowd-titillating dialogue spoken directly to the camera — was inevitable since Rowdy Rathore is a remake of the Telugu bonanza Vikramarkudu. Incidentally, the Telugu version cannot claim any brownie points for originality since it has shades of vintage blockbusters like Subhash Ghai’s Kallicharan and the Amitabh Bachchan version of Don.
Stories are recycled in such a bizarre manner that creators of the original can hardly resort to copyright laws. It is generally feared that the court cases on plagiarism take much too long to receive a judgement; hence legal expenses are likely to be much more than the compensation decreed.
Similarly, Housefull 2 heists shards and pieces from Hollywood comedies to confect two hours and more of stale slapstick, corny gags and a bevy of heroines in skimpy outfits. Akshay Kumar, John Abraham and Riteish Deshmukh go way over the top in the course of their frantic antics. Once again, then, the cognoscenti avoid the age-old formula fare but the crowds love it.
Here’s an insoluble dilemma for sure. Even as a marginal section of Bollywood cinema — on the eve of the centenary year of its birth — ascends to another level, overall it’s still the cliché-stacked movies that reign supreme. And perhaps will do so for many more decades to come.
Still if torment is inevitable, that’s no reason to lie back and enjoy it. Enraged comments on social networking sites and in a fair share of newspaper and TV reviews have been saying that there’s much more to cinema than the masala doled out in Rowdy Rathore and Housefull 2. At the very least, such dissent does keep the flag of alternative cinema flying.
(The writer has been reviewing Bollywood for decades, has scripted three films and directed