We are not yet resigned to no expectations at all; most of us are not ready to give up on Bollywood, claiming it churns out more of the same year after year. This underlying faith in Bollywood’s ability to deliver something different has not been belied when a brand new millennium dawned. Bollywood has done itself rather proud over the last two decades because entertainment the world over is under pressure to deliver new content and form, all at bewildering pace. To give our premier film industry credit, it has welcomed new auteurs and narratives with surprising openness.
It is the infusion of energy from Indie film-makers that has brought freshness to old genres and prepared us for non-formulaic stories that engage our attention in a globalised world, where you can see made-for-streaming series on your cell phone. This band of indies has been lying in ambush, waiting for the right moment to shake up staid old Bollywood, recycling young love and revenge sagas. Anurag Kashyap, the leader of this pack, was lurking around, writing for TV before collaborating with Ram Gopal Verma on the path-breaking Satya in 1998. Accolades mostly went to the maverick Verma, but Kashyap bided his time with the unreleased Paanch, and Black Friday that finally emerged unscathed after the initial censorship ban. With Dev.D, Kashyap, the arch-subversive, rose up as the central figure of a new indie cinema. He not only directed his own violence-drenched, raspingly-original flawed epics Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 and 2, but became the patron saint of a gaggle of young and not-so-young talent. Kashyap turned co-producer of a host of films by new directors, from Vikramaditya Motwane ( Udaan, Lootera, Trapped) to Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan) and others like Vikas Bahl (Queen) and more. Phantom Films has facilitated the production, and more importantly, distribution of films and emerged a key player in the new Bollywood.
It is tempting to see this Indie cinema – helmed by notable directors like Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Motwane, Anand L. Rai, Amit Masurkar, (Newton), Amit Sharma (Badhaai Ho), Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, Udta Punjab) and of course, Vishal Bharadwaj, our own Bard, who adapted Shakespeare so brilliantly — as the second coming of parallel cinema of the 70s and 80s. But there is an essential and vast difference between the two. Parallel cinema made its social and political concerns central to the narrative, and not wedged into the subtext of a story told in a neo-realistic mode. It also strictly decided to eschew traditional narrative tropes of song, dance and rhetorical dialogue. Exceptions were Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala where folk music was integrated into the narrative. Indie cinema is more personal, speaking of the film-maker’s sensibility and preoccupations. Larger concerns can be read into the narrative, but the focus is on the protagonists. It adapts and makes the old narrative tropes its own, often in a unique way. The most brilliant example is Dev.D, where an outstandingly original and often whimsical music track tells a complementary story to the director’s subversion of a literary and cinematic classic.
Subversion is the daring game played with panache by Tigmanshu Dhulia in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster. He approaches the Untouchable Guru Dutt-Abrar Alvi classic with sharp humour and unsubtle satire, replacing the languid, reflective mood of the original with frenetic pace. It works brilliantly in the first film but stops paying dividends with the sequels. The point to be noted is that both Kashyap and Dhulia are not afraid to subvert iconic classics. These subversions were successful at the box office too, and that tells its own tale of its difference from parallel cinema. Not only did the coming of multiplexes offer decent screen time in the big metros — unlike the earlier offbeat films’ dependence on NFDC not only for finance but also its lethargic, almost non-existent distribution system — but also the film-makers who are co-producers with a host of other production houses are market savvy. Not that they did Salman Khan’s critic proof blockbuster kind of business, but most of them were not commercial write-offs. Plus, the fact that Masaan, Udaan and Gangs of Wasseypur were showcased at Cannes – In the Un Certain Regard and International Critics’ Week, if not the main competition – were additional perks for marketing these films. Not to forget that The Lunchbox was the next big crossover film after Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
The entry of indies brought in fresh writing talent and actors who could translate these unusual stories into compelling narratives. Who could have ever foreseen that a sperm donor could be the hero of a romcom with a difference? The winning combination of talented writer Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar gave us Vicky Donor, spicing up the cultural wars between the families of a Punjabi boy and Bengali girl, then followed it up with Piku, the exasperating yet affectionate battles between a constipated, opinionated father and a daughter who also has a mind of her own. Then came the exquisitely lyrical October(in spite of the plagiarism charge that did not stick).
Vicky Donor not only introduced an unapologetic sperm donor as hero but also, in Ayushmann Khurrana, Bollywood discovered an unconventional actor who is not afraid to show his vulnerabilities. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan where Khurrana played a young man with erectile dysfunction, was a remake of a Tamil film where the director Prasanna adapted it to the Delhi milieu with nuanced perfection. The actor again played a young man who was once proud of his Shah Rukh Khan-esque mane as a high school heart throb later facing the dread of baldness in Bala. This film might owe the idea to a Kannada film, but it is far better in narrative, skill, humour and extended relevance beyond baldness. The latest Khurrana film, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, is about two men who love each other, and come out to one of their families. Set in the hinterland of Yogistan, the lovers plead for understanding and acceptance of homosexuality through humour. It’s very different in tone and tenor from Hansal Mehta’s searingly honest portrayal of a reclusive and reticent professor’s homosexuality hounded by a vindictive university establishment and society at large in Aligarh, limned by Manoj Bajpayee’s understated mastery.
Another actor who won accolades with his astonishing range is Rajkummar Rao — be it a politically nuanced drama (Newton), or the brief, tumultuous life of a Muslim lawyer fighting the stigma of terrorism against him and ghettoised Muslims in Shahid based on a real-life character, the courteous sari salesman asked to masquerade as an obnoxiously rude writer(Bareilly Ki Barfi), or the small-town tailor of the comic-horror rib-tickler Stree, he proves equal to any role. He joins the superlative Irrfan Khan and enormously talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui for ambitious directors to bring alive their non-formulaic scripts on the screen. Instead of the usual star actors, this group created an exclusive pool of actor stars.
Writers are now given due credit for the success of many films, from Dum Laga Ke Haisha to Badhaai Ho. Hindi now reveals itself in its many local dialects, idioms and enunciation to give authenticity to the small town settings in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Local habitation and its inflections of speech are now taken for granted, unlike the old boring Bambaiyya, Daccani and standardised Hindi. Regional flavours are in full flow. Dialogue writing as a specialised skill is now being recognised and rewarded as an immersive tool to experience a film in its totality. The emergence of actresses who have gone beyond the stereotype mirrors the emergence of the millennial woman in society – as achievers, working women seeking their own identity and autonomy in a basically patriarchal, social and cultural structure. Woman, the hero, was celebrated in Kahaani, NH10, and the quiet courage of a young woman spy in Raazi. Sheroes all. Bravery and courage of conviction limn the young girls on the cusp of adulthood: Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw and Zaira Wasim in Secret Superstar. Queen’s Rani became the nation’s sweetheart even though the film celebrated the rejection of marriage as the defining moment in a sheltered young woman’s life. Both Viday Balan and Kangana Ranaut have become actors of substance with stories revolving around them. Tapsee Pannu, post Pink, Manmarziyan and Badla, has won recognition for her assertive portrayals. Anaarkali of Aarah took the power of saying no to the Hindi heartland and its protagonist is a nautanki dancer. Bhumi Pednekar is the nonconformist who played an overweight young bride as well as the feisty granny who went on to become a legendary shooter. Even the stock romcom gives agency to the heroine and there are no shocked eyebrows raised at pre-marital sex (Salaam Namaste, Band Baaja Baarat, Ki and Ka, Pink) and live-in relationships: Shuddh Desi Romance and Luka Chuppi are both set in small towns, away from the assumed permissive ways of big bad metros. The Bollywood heroine has come a long way, be it the regular rom-com or feminist films like Parched and Lipstick Under My Burkha. Even though the item number is a fixture that will never go away in Bollywood’s scheme of entertainment, there is a free and nonjudgmental attitude to a woman’s right to her sexuality as part of her being. There is an open celebration of sisterhood, though there hasn’t been a female counterpart to Dil Chahta Hai, the liberating anthem to male bonding a few years into this millennium.
And it is time to applaud the emphatic arrival of women directors who have left an emphatic mark. There have never been so many accomplished women making films that express their personal preoccupations. From the arthouse sensibility of Nandita Das so eloquently expressed with political and artistic conviction in Firaaq and Manto to Zoya Akhtar’s incredible grasp of her craft and use of mainstream format culminating with Gully Boy starting from Luck By Chance, the surefooted insider’s take on Bollywood. And then the judicious mix of the personal and mainstream that Meghna Gulzar uses so impressively; Ashwini Tiwari Iyer taking a leap forward with the heart-warming Panga. Gauri Shinde ‘s impressive debut English Vinglish promises much as does Konkona Sen Sharma’s assured grasp of group and family dynamics in Death in the Gunj. Alankrita Shrivastava and Leena Yadav’s faltering first films can be forgotten in the wake of their nuanced feminism that took them places… it is an impressive count, along with the number of women screenplay writers, top notch editors, and production managers.
Biopics of sports personalities is a new trend. A triumphant Bhaag Milkha Bhaag along with the dark and stark Paan Singh Tomar set the standard. Dangal reached for gold and won it handsomely, giving us an assured writer-director in Nitesh Tiwari, who could make a successful ensemble film Chhichhore without a big star like Aamir Khan. Mary Kom was uneven. Films on Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza and P.V. Sindhu, Mithali Raj – the new stars in the sports firmament – are in the pipeline. The maths wizard Shakuntala Devi is another inspiration for a biopic. ‘83 will bring alive the unheralded triumph of Kapil’s Devils sometime soon. A film on the legendary Dhyanchand is under production. It seems that India is finally waking up to its sports legacy. The last three months have seen a revolution in polarised India (as never before) with spontaneous protests across the country, with Shaheen Bagh as the epicentre. Younger and more politically articulate section of the hitherto apolitical Bollywood has spoken up in support of the protestors. Will this find expression in films? Will Anubhav Sinha, who posed uncomfortable questions of ‘us versus them’ in communally divided India with the seminal Mulk, follow up with a Shaheen Bagh heroine? That would be a gutsy and much needed reflection of our tumultuous zeitgeist.