Bollywood comes of age as meaningful becomes mainstream

December 31st, 2008 - 4:02 am ICT by IANS  

Taare Zameen ParFrom contemporary issues of terrorism and the dangerous perpetuation of stereotypes to intimate portrayals of a dyslexic child or a middle class family’s eternal quest for a home, Indian films are exploring them all. Long known for song and dance extravaganzas, India’s Hindi film industry, known as Bollywood, is successfully blurring the lines between mainstream and meaningful cinema.And the $10.5-billion industry is raking it in too.

Unlike the past, when art house cinema stood in a league of its own, it is now all commercial cinema. It makes money sense and appeals to the aesthetics as well.

It is still hundred percent entertainment but with a difference. Instead of just big studios rolling out box office hits with tried and tested formulas, debutant directors, those with no backing and even veterans are delving into all kinds of themes - with empathy and even humour.

The phenomenon that made a small-budget film like “Khosla Ka Ghosla” (Khosla’s Nest) - a humorous insight into the life of a middle class man and his struggle to find a home - a super success last year was not a flash in the pan but is here to stay.

The string of latest Bollywood hits is indicative of that phenomenon. There’s been “A Wednesday”, a terse exchange between a cerebral terrorist and a police commissioner getting ready for retirement, “Aamir”, about a foreign Muslim youth drawn into the vortex of terrorism and “Taare Zameen Par” (Stars Descend On Earth), about a misunderstood dyslexic child.

These were the films that kept cinegoers glued to their seats and brought in the moolah. Not glossy multi-starrers like “Jodhaa Akbar”, a historical romance between Mughal emperor Akbar and his Rajput queen, the sci-fi “Love Story 2050″ and the Mary Poppins adaptation “Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic”. All had the requisite gloss of special effects, big stars and fancy locales.

According to the industry’s half-yearly report card, only six of the 50 films released were declared hits. Small budget movies made with little-known actors had a definite edge over the publicised biggies.

“Jannat”, which dealt with match-fixing in cricket, for instance, is a case in point. The film’s all-India collection in the second week was about $4 million and it was made on a budget that was exactly half.

In fact, films like “Aamir” and “A Wednesday” were made at a fraction of even that budget.

Catering to the changing tastes of the audience, these movies and others such as “Mithya” (Illusion), “Mumbai Meri Jaan” (Mumbai my life, set in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack) and “Tahaan” (about a young Kashmiri boy) that banked on a good script, good performances and fresh treatment found favour at the box office.

“They give a refreshing break from the monotony of typical masala movies. With no big name, you have a story, excellent performances and not-too-dragged scripts - one enjoys watching them,” said designer Leena Singh.

“Audiences are more receptive and open to new things. You have the audience waiting for your film,” said Neeraj Pandey, director “A Wednesday”.

The vanishing line between commercial and offbeat movies is attributed to the changing tastes of moviegoers, corporate entries and multiplex culture.

The situation was very different a couple of decades ago.

For the pioneers of parallel cinema — Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Mrinal Sen who found critical acclaim and many awards but not much of an audience - it was an uphill task to find a producer and a distributor for their films.

Now companies like UTV, Reliance ADAG, Pritish Nandy Communications and Percept Picture Company are willing to put their money on quality cinema with the assurance that if the film is good it will find an audience.

“Due to the entry of new production houses and corporate houses, there is an opportunity for new stories to be told which was not prevalent earlier. New filmmakers are coming up and making their presence felt. This has led to the introduction of a new kind of cinema,” said Vinay Pathak, who made his mark in the sitcom “Bheja Fry” (Fry my brains).

“I think multiplexes have largely influenced the growth of cinema. With more opportunities to exhibit movies, there has been a constant demand for more cinemas and therefore various types of cinema are accepted today,” he added.

Vikas Behl, COO of UTV Spotboy that produced and distributed “Aamir”, “A Wednesday” and “Welcome to Sajjanpur”, said: “Thanks to multiplexes, we are able to release many films in a week. There is a good bifurcation of viewers.”

He added that box-office profits were not determined by the budget of a film: “The profitability doesn’t depend on budget - it’s the script that decides everything. Viewers shouldn’t feel cheated. They should get their money’s worth. Having said that, I would say that small-budget films are less risky.”

The half-yearly report card revealed that Rs.3 billion ($70 million) has gone into making films, but half of the amount sank beyond recovery.

The well scripted, well acted and well thought out films that Indians have been seeing may stop the slide. Truly, the coming of age of Indian cinema.

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