Looking back, 2019: In a year of transition, Bollywood found new heroes and resurrected some old ones

Box Office collections are no longer the only definition of a film’s success or failure. Content is the key.

ByNiraja Rao
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Looking back, 2019: In a year of transition, Bollywood found new heroes and resurrected some old ones
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“Time is the longest distance between two places,” Tennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie

The end of the year 2019 will also close the first decade of the new millennium. This last decade has been a disruptive and disorienting period. Our certainties were rudely chipped at by technology and our consumption of goods and culture was defined by a generation not so much older than the decade itself. 

The Millennials (1980-94) and the Gen Z (1995-2015) together have created a pattern of consumption that is more immediate, more personal, and more accessible. There is little that’s sacrosanct and much that is redefined. Language, film, food, and fashion are all “influenceable”. 

With this generational shift, old Bollywood has somehow survived and even thrived on the formulaic song and dance routine. Yet, it has also been updated and pushed into telling new stories in new ways. Technology and access to content have blown away the careful curation of film and TV; now anyone who can afford a smartphone is not only a consumer but also a creator of their own fantasy. 

The Big Boys of Bollywood – Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, now all in their 50s – tore open the Rs 100-crore club a decade ago to become superstars. Today, Box Office numbers are no longer the only definition of success or failure. It is said that a film’s content now defines its success or failure.

As Uday Bhatia says in his Mint Lounge column, “The ‘100 crore club’ no longer had the weight it did in the 2000s: Baahubali’s Hindi version became the first film to breach the Rs 500-crore mark, and Thugs Of Hindostan could make Rs 300 crore and be considered a huge failure.” 

The current leading superstar of Bollywood, Salman, has 13 films in the Rs 100-crore club. Five of these have crossed the Rs 200-crore mark, with three of them earning over Rs 300 crore each. From Dabangg in 2010 to Dabangg 3 in 2019, all his films have grossed over Rs 100 crore at the domestic Box Office

Rising star Ayushmann Khurrana too has done 13 films in this time, and delivered nine hits. Of his three releases in 2019, Dream Girl and Bala crossed the ₹100-crore mark whereas Article 15 raked in Rs 65 crore. “It’s not hard to see why Ayushmannn Khurrana has come to be known as the ‘Budget Superstar’,” notes AJ Vinayak of Hindu Businessline, pointing out that he has turned “films with modest budgets of Rs 10-36 crore into hits”. Just a few days ago, Ayushmann received the National Award for Best Actor for his 2018 film Andhadhun. His fourth film to receive a National Award. 

Ayushmann’s achievement is all the more incredible because of the nature of the films he has starred in. Starting with the comedy Vicky Donor in 2012, Ayushmann essayed the middle class “everyman” with aplomb in film after film, ending 2019 on a high with Bala, another quirky comedy about a prematurely balding young man’s self-perception and quest for love and redemption. 

Ayushmann’s knack of picking on everyday issues and problems, and portraying them in an interesting, engaging and comic way makes him a unique performer, creating a new sub-genre in Hindi cinema – “aam admi ki khaas kahani” told with a light and sure touch. HT Café  even called it the “Ayushmann genre”. His unprecedented and consistent success brings freshness to Bollywood and is something to look forward to in the years to come.

In an interview to the Telegraph, Ayushmann said, “I decided to strictly go by content and not get overawed by big names or big directors or big producers…it’s the script that became the sole focus for me…I will definitely aim to do cinema of [social change like Article 15] after every two-three films because as an actor, I believe I have an important social responsibility.” 

It is interesting that both Salman and Ayushmann play cops in their films released this year and thereby hangs the tale of Bollywood in transition in 2019.

Salman as Chulbul Pandey in Dabangg 3 enters a time machine to the Bollywood films of the 80s and 90s. In this supposed prequel to the Dabangg series, Chulbul single-handedly beats up the villain, a psychopath with a historical personal vendetta against him, in a bloody and gory climax. The violence is repetitive and predictable, the story and plot more so. Chulbul redefines himself from “Robinhood Pandey” to “Karu Pandey”, a man who takes “action” and declares himself  a “Policewala Goonda”, a police goon. 

In a recent interview to HT Café, Salman said, “I feel when fans go to theatres, they should want to be you. And they should come out happier. I don’t think heroism can ever die.” The problem is when heroism is conflated with vigilantism and justice is made personal whimsy.

Perhaps, the timing of the film’s release and the nature and brutality of the police’s response to protests against the citizenship law in Chulbul’s Uttar Pradesh today make this moniker more chilling, and much too close to the real thing for comfort. The police taking the law in their hands to serve retributive justice is no longer a trope of Bollywood, but a statement of fact in India. It is therefore tough to take kindly to Salman’s goonda act as Karu Pandey. 

On the other hand, in Article 15, Ayushmann’s ACP Ayan Ranjan is a young sophisticate who is suddenly taken out of his element to the backwaters of Laalgaon, where the local elite and the powerful caste mafia serve him a masterclass in the dynamics of real India. He is faced with caste and gender violence, and while trying to bring justice to the victim, he faces the burden of an uncaring system aligned to the centres of local power. 

The contrast between Ayan Ranjan and Chulbul Pandey couldn’t be starker.

In the classic Bollywood fare of the 80s and 90s, the hero was a macho man, larger than life, providing protection to the old, women and children around him as well as dispensing immediate justice through violence that was personal and effective. It was a time for cinema to mirror society’s need for a hero who could fight the powerful “system” as a vigilante. Today, that formula has turned on its head. Reality seems to be taking cinematic cues these days. Vigilante justice has now become an excuse to dispense with the law altogether as individuals deem fit to dole out punishment in lynch mobs and troll armies. 

The new Bollywood is not scared of questioning the system or showing the vulnerability of an urban man, albeit one with power, to take on a powerful and intimidating rural elite. The hero’s ego and sense of wellbeing are nestled in a system that is exploitative, but when he is faced with the truth he must act with conviction and destroy that same system and his own power in the process.  

The second interesting theme of Bollywood in 2019 has been nationalism. The year started with Uri, starring Vicky Kaushal, who won a National Award for his performance. The film is inspired by the air strikes carried out by the Indian military in Pakistan’s Balakot early this year. Dialogues from the film were used liberally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers, both to affirm their level of confidence – josh – and their declared intent to forcibly enter and destroy the enemy in their own home. 

The “nationalism” sentiment worked itself through the year into many an election campaign, and segued into the year-end protests by students and citizens against the citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens. As the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, dispensed his opinion on the leadership, or lack thereof, of the protests, the citizens responded by coming out in larger numbers across more cities. Perhaps Bollywood will enable a resync between the national leadership and its institutions and citizens.

The most interesting Bollywood actor in 2019 has been Akshay Kumar. He has worn his nationalism and politics on his sleeve, though not on his passport. After his interview with Modi went viral, Akshay was pilloried for his Canadian passport and his inability to vote in the 2019 parliamentary election. A chastened Akshay then declared he would apply for an Indian passport, and toned down his nationalist rhetoric saying he was an actor and did not want to get into politics. 

Akshay has had a stupendous year at the Box Office in 2019. All four of his films that released this year – Kesari, Mission Mangal, Housefull 4, Good Newwz – grossed over Rs 100 crore, and he’s ready to challenge Salman for the title of Box Office King. Akshay will likely be the first Bollywood actor whose movies have together collected over Rs 1,000 in a single calendar year.

Akshay’s ability to consistently spot early trends and churn out financially successful films year after year is remarkable to say the least. With four films a year and a variety of content in each, he has hedged his bets and become a reliable star at the Box Office. It seems being in the news and courting those in power can also do wonders for the business of films.

Two  actors made spectacular comebacks this year. Hritik Roshan had two releases and Shahid Kapoor one. Both were impactful performers.

Hritik came at nationalism from two angles this year. In Super 30, a biopic, he plays Anand Kumar, a young man denied access to higher education due to his life circumstances, who takes up coaching other destitute children to enter IITs. Hritik brought real empathy and went “brown face” to show poverty but the film’s success and critical reception brought him back into the Bollywood game. 

In War, Hritik plays a super spy who is not only defending the country but watching over the agency itself, protecting it by exposing and dealing with rogue agents. With War, Hritik cemented his commercial success again and seems to be open to playing a mature character with shades of grey.

Shahid made the jump from the chocolate boy hero of Vivah to the horror of Kabir Singh. In this remake of the 2017 Telugu film Arjun Reddy, made by Sandeep Vanga, Shahid’s titular character is a doctor with epic anger management issues and self-destructive behaviour. He is also a patronising and misogynistic lover who believes in possession and violence as expressions of love. Shockingly, the film became a huge hit with a lifetime business of Rs 379.02 crore worldwide. Kabir Singh rose to 10th on the list of Hindi movies with the highest domestic net collection and revived Shahid’s career. 

The response to Kabir Singh, as well as to the original Arjun Reddy, makes it clear that Bollywood – in fact, all mainstream films in India – perhaps need a little more introspection in 2020 when it comes to portraying gender parity and toxic patriarchy. 

Two young actors shone in 2019 – Tiger Shroff and Kartik Aryan. 

Tiger had two releases, Student of the Year 2 and War. While SOTY 2 was underwhelming and did a lifetime business of Rs 97.81 crore worldwide, War has given both Tiger and Hritik a career boost with stupendous box office collections. Tiger has become an action and dancing star of Bollywood without parallel and, interestingly, has played characters respectful of his co-stars and characters. Goodness can be successful too.

Kartik made his debut with Pyar Ka Punchnama in 2011, and starred in the hit film Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety in 2018. This year, he fronted Luka Chuppi and Pati Patni Aur Woh, a remake of the original 1978 film. Both are quirky romantic comedies with a modern take on love and  familial relationships. They have done well, collecting close to Rs 100 crore. Pati Patni Aur Woh is still running in theatres successfully.

A standout film of 2019, and India’s official entry to the 92nd Oscars, was Gully Boy. Shining a light on Mumbai’s Dharavi and its rap culture, Zoya Akhtar cast Ranveer Singh as a rapper, loosely modelled on the real MC Naezy and Divine. The film introduced a whole new genre of rap music and subaltern life to a mainstream audience. The call to success and hope from desperation so evocative in the song Apna Time Ayega resonated widely and has become an anthem of sorts across the country.

The slate for Bollywood films releasing in 2020 shows a rich variety of themes and stories. Akshay has four releases lined up – Laxmmi Bomb, Prithviraj, Souryavanshi, Bachchan Pandey. Salman has Radhe, Shahid is in Jersey, and Aamir will finish the year with Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Forrest Gump. The younger actors are also a busy lot. Tiger Shroff will star in Baghi 3, Kartik has Love Ajkal 2, Ayushmann has Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan and Gulabo Sitabo,  Hritik has Krishh 4. Shahrukh also has a busy 2020, with some franchise films like Dhoom 4 and Don 3 on the anvil. He’s also a part of Operation Khukri with Ashutosh Gowrikar and an unnamed film with Karan Johar. Ranbir Kapoor is making his superhero debut with Bhramastra.

All these films together will create a different and exciting year in Bollywood. 

It is good that we are telling so many new stories. Let’s hope that our top male actors and stars move away from the tired repetitive stereotypes and formulaic heroism, even pedantic hyper nationalism of Old Bollywood. It would do them good to embrace a greater variety of characters and situations outside their comfort zones. Perhaps, our film directors and audiences also need to widen their perspectives in search of fresh stories and new narratives.  

“The older I get, the more I look at movies as a moving miracle. Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them special effects,” Steven Spielberg once said. “But they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.” 

Let our stories be bold and true to who we are as a country and civilisation. Or let them be superheroes in an alternate universe. If time were the longest distance between two places – the past and the future – let us put it to good use. 

“To make a film is easy; to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu said.

May we see more such miracles in Bollywood every year in the coming decade.

This is the first part of a two-part review of Bollywood in 2019.

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