Bollywood is under siege from all sides. Covid weaned audiences away to the far more exciting OTT cornucopia, where a day is not enough to consume a fraction of what’s on the smorgasbord of entertainment. Bollywood wisely refrained from investing in blockbusters. The hatke, imaginative small films converted bored, taken-for-granted viewers to the delights of the lean and muscular films stripped of masala fat. This is where Hindi cinema’s future lies.
The more potent threat came from the South — particularly Telugu and Kannada blockbusters that call themselves pan-Indian films. They supplied an overload of masala that was missing from the small, meaningful Hindi films that were not strictly Bollywood. These record-breaking southern megahits were larger-than-life spectacles with non-stop action springing at us at every corner like a ninja; action choreographed with precision and an excessive dose of machismo. These films are drenched in testosterone. Luxuriant locks and bushy beards are statements of exaggerated masculinity. Metrosexuals like Shahrukh and Aamir Khan are passé for the hinterland. Violence prone places like the Hindi heartland want violent heroes with the swag and strut of unpolished desi machismo. There is a liberating freedom from sophistication thrust by the metrosexual fad.
The trend of toxic masculinity that was not a B grade potboiler was set by Arjun Reddy (remade in Hindi without diluting the testosterone). The latest record-breaking blockbusters have taken the formula to a new level. Technical finesse of editing and excellent cinematography enhances the mammoth scale. Not to forget item numbers that drizzle sizzling sex over a sumptuous feast of raunchy rusticity, Pushpa: The Rise being the main culprit. The three biggies, KGF 1 &2, Pushpa: The Rise and RRR share these common attributes while telling heroic stories against particularised locales with authentic dialects. Dubbing from one southern language to another flows fluidly like rasam across state borders, absorbing flavours along the way. Dosa remains the same crisp culinary delight, whether called dose or dosai. The surprise is how easily Telugu and Kannada find the proper Hindi dialect for the correct fit. With Raveena Tandon and Sanjay Dutt lending their presence to KGF, the makers flaunted their productions as pan-Indian.
But pan-Indian? No way, say Hindi loyalists. Bollywood has claimed the pan-Indian description with insufferable arrogance as its birthright for a long time. It has now bared its ferocious territorial fangs, and snarled like a cornered beast. Aggression as the best defence seemed to be the mantra. The Indian film industry is no longer that happy extended family living amicably, ceding primacy to Bollywood as the mainstream torchbearer. The ‘pan-Indian’ epithet of southern stars and producers provoked Bollywood’s ire. Responding to Kannada star Kichcha Sudeepa’s statement that Hindi is not our national language, Ajay Devgn condescendingly tweeted, “if Hindi is not our national language, then why do you release your native language films by dubbing them in Hindi? Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.” It was Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu’s turn a few days later. “I may sound arrogant. I did get a lot of offers in Hindi. But I think they can’t afford me,” he said, “I don’t want to waste my time. The stardom and love I have here in Telugu cinema, I never thought of going to another industry.”
There were some placatory voices as well from Hindi cinema. Sonu Nigam said that nowhere in the Constitution does it say that Hindi is our national language, and it is stupid pitting one language against the other in the country. Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui weighed in with their accurate, impartial observations, pointing out that even B grade dubbed Telugu films were popular in the Hindi belt. These films doled out melodrama, plenty of bone-crunching stunts with no pretence to an iota of subtlety and raunchy romance crackling with double entendre, the staples that sensible mainstream that Hindi cinema has shed in recent times.
Nationalism has now been injected into this intra-industry battle. How inevitable that Hindi should be considered synonymous with nationalism but its very basis by definition. Linguistic nationalism — I will not demean it by calling it sub-national — is alive and well as it should be in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Language is not just the marker of a group, with its own literature, culture and history. It is political, a visible assertion of identity.
Even as a person who has grown up watching Hindi films along with Telugu in Hyderabad and writing mainly on Hindi cinema, I am provoked enough to protest at the arrogance of self-appointed Hindi zealots. I watched regional films of the kind that came to film festivals or were recommended by critical consensus. This does not mean I consider KGF 1 & 2, Pushpa, or RRR superior entertainment. Except for technical polish and Dabangg action multiplied by 10 (as Karthik Keramalu, a young freelancer who writes on southern cinema, said in a conversation), these two megahits are old stories of underdogs rising to power. They are larger-than-life amoral heroes. By no means can you call either of them new Nayakans.
KGF has a slightly different narrative style, not sticking to a linear story, always keeping the possibility of a sequel in sight. Rocky of KGF turns from a dreaded hitman, a killing machine on two feet whose whole body is honed to deal death blows, to an epic saviour whose coming was foretold and is being narrated again to avid adolescent boys. Rocky finds redemption of sorts but only after soaking himself and the screen by beating his adversaries to a pulp, or butchering them. The editing is sharp, and yet the story drags on interminably. You don’t feel invested in the hero, like the original anti-hero — Amitabh Bachchan of Deewar, Shakti, Zanjeer. The writing is formulaic, even with the framing story of a veteran journalist narrating the Rocky saga. This lets the director briefly go the non-linear way, adding to the confusion of a huge cast of villains and questionable allies. The plot has more turns than a corkscrew.
The biggest plus is the sharply localised locale, yet it seems mythical at times. I don’t know if director Prashanth Neel watches film classics and current Hollywood action movies. KGF’s El Dorado — the mysterious name ironically invoked by veteran journalist Anand for the forbidden, hidden lair — captures the drama of darkness versus fire and shadowed faces full of fear. Devilish guards hound the shackled slave labour. The eerie sequences seem like echoes of Fritz Lang’s architectural design looming over scurrying workers. The film I am talking about is Metropolis. This could be a conscious construct (I am crediting the director with a cineaste’s education), but this gets bastardised. David Thompson’s damning phrase, ‘the mythic fusion of real and cardboard India,’ reduces KGF’s vaulting ambition of creating a doomsday visual style into laboured kitsch. And there is an overdose of this. Even fanatic devotees of frenetic action will find the action over the top at times, both in KGF and Pushpa. The latter, a jungle caper directed by Sukumar, gorges on mass-satisfying fare. There is a slight cartoonish element in the fights and the hero’s penchant for laconic phrases delivered with a rhetorical flourish. A contradiction, but Pushpa thrives on them without apology or respect for logic.
Both these superhits are guilty of condoning and glorifying the heroes who harass their love interest in the guise of wooing. Rocky kidnaps Reema after first getting familiar with her in the most insulting way. This is so 1980s fare. Pushpa tries the cutesy comic route. Pushpa pays Srivalli’s friend so that she will smile at him. From a thousand, he pays Rs 5,000 for a kiss. It is supposed to be innocent fun because Srivalli starts bawling before she can pucker up her lips. When she is supposed to sleep with a lustful leech to save her father, she goes to Pushpa and asks him to sleep with her. She wants to lose her virginity only to her husband, and she considers this pestilent stalker her husband. And then she goes gyrating her hips to Saami na Saami. As for Samantha’s item number, Ooo Antava, the suggestive copulation has her astride his thigh as they dance to the thrumming beat. A tough act for a choreographer without inviting an obscenity charge. It is surprising how much suggestiveness choreographers manage to insert into those moves.
It is sad to see that in an industry where Vijaya Nirmala was dubbed the female Amitabh in the score of films she starred in and directed, actresses are reduced to little more than appetising side dishes in a banquet of mayhem, rhetorical declamations, crude humour, and the garnish of suggestive sex. These songs have gone viral. You find David Warner performing the sideways hook step. An Ad for Spotify has a teenager lost in Ooo Antava rhythms while his obviously Hindi-speaking mother wants his opinion on a sari. Once advertising steps in, you can be sure the film is assured of mass appeal, language no barrier.
Even amidst this raucous cacophony — visual and aural — Rajamouli can be trusted to be different. I confess I found Bahubali underwhelming, but that is because I am not a fan of the genre, unless it is Lord of the Rings.
RRR’s script is insanely inventive. Take two freedom fighters who operated in different terrains of Telugu country — we had no Andhra Pradesh in the 1920s. Alluri Sitarama Raju and the tribal warrior Komaram Bheem fought valiantly against the British, but they had never met in real life. The film spins a bromance that sticks to the proven path of initial dislike, misunderstandings aplenty and then whoa, they are bosom brothers. It is like someone got either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh to embrace Khudiram Bose, and become allies against the hated white man. Rajamouli uses the calendar art picture of Ramayan’s Ram, caught mid leap, carrying his bow and arrows, to invest his Rama Raju with divinity. His Bheem is muscular, not a brawny, towering figure of Mahabharat – more emotion than rationality. So, you cast the halo of epic heroes on this duo of supermen who take on the Brits at the height of colonial power. And their best gig is the Natu Natu song that some imaginative YouTuber used as the background song to which Laurel and Hardy dance with unexpected grace, if not the vigour of the Telugu superstars. I don’t remember which foreign reviewer called RRR ‘bromantic action nirvana’. Does it out-Sholay Sholay? Not really. Sholay will remain on the 100 best Indian films, but I can’t foresee RRR making the list. This film is high on camp with moments of charm, which is all
So, with this increasing popularity of southern cinema, is Bollywood wilting? Someone sent me a Pakistani video where the two anchors are gloating over Bollywood’s death while clips of these new superhits play like videos within a video. I disagree with this assessment. Hindi cinema, in my opinion, is alive with new energy, new stories told with sense and some courage too. The new breed of writers are exploring the nuances of speech and idiom of different Hindi speaking regions. The films also stand out for the changing face of the woman across genres. In rom coms, she has more agency, right from Band Baaja Baaraat down to the silly Lukka Chuppi. Live-in relationships are not taboo. Excuse the plug for my forthcoming book, The Millennial Woman in Bollywood-A New Brand, where I have written about this nascent phenomenon.
Complementary to the women with agency are leading men played by Rajkummar Rao and Ayushman Khurana, who do not hide their vulnerabilities. They can be closet gays or afflicted with erectile dysfunction/premature baldness, or cope with perceived gender-fluid identity for comic effect with more depth than the old gag of a man in drag. From Badhai Ho to Badhai Do, many badhais to Hindi cinema for having found its varied regional identities. No more bland homogeneity old-Bollywood style. This new cinema will not only survive but also thrive.