Anniversary Special #20YearChallenge: How Hindi Cinema Changed
A new millennium brings mixed feelings, a vague nostalgia, as we say goodbye to the 20th century, which was packed with cataclysmic changes – and the new century is pregnant with potential. Cinema bears this burden of teeming expectations. We expect breakthroughs because technology seems to get outdated the moment it is created. We anticipate exciting new narratives; even inveterate cynics are not immune. Bollywood has exceeded our inchoate expectations, shocking us gradually into delighted surprise. I was weaned on parallel cinema and had tended to measure self-proclaimed “different” films against the passionate commitment to new narratives and meaningful themes by the best of that age. Parallel has passed into history. The here and now is equally exciting, creating new auteurs, revamping old genres with contemporary mores and attitudes. Bollywood seems to have met the millennium with an adrenaline rush of creative energy, an impatience to recast old formulae into contemporary forms with zeal and zest. It is alive to the globalised zeitgeist.
The past two decades have minted actor/stars for the new millennium. Even as talk of nepotism goes on, we have had Irrfan Khan, Rajkummar Rao, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ayushmann Khurrana breaking invisible barriers. Even as star kids got their inevitable debuts, we had rank outsiders Kangana Ranaut and Vidya Balan carve out and guard their particular niches. Character actors are no longer sidelined, they are acclaimed for their authentic performances that are as important as the protagonist’s. The earlier established stars, the Khan triumvirate and Akshay Kumar et al, have had to reinvent themselves and find fresh stories, told differently, to stay relevant. Along with the tried and tested formulaic films (they are no longer surefire box office hits), many new landmarks were set, coming surprisingly thick and fast. Locations changed from metros to small towns. Even when the film was set in Delhi, it was far away from Lutyens’ sprawling bungalows and south Delhi mansions. Films went to lower middleclass mohallas, dreary government quarters, by-lanes of Old Delhi, anonymous yet redolent with history… each film captured the ethos of the particular place, inflecting dialogue with its patois and made the look, sound and the overall feel authentic without getting bogged down with earnest naturalism. See the films that came by so swiftly, one after another, to showcase a different side of Delhi: Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Rang de Basanti, Delhi 6, Do Dooni Chaar, Vicky Donor, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Badhai Ho! The dialogue writers of these films are brilliant, freeing Hindi from its familiar rhetoric and Bambaiyya/ Bhojpuri/Punjabi/ Haryanvi flourishes for novelty. We meet real people talking in their real language. This has become the new norm.
These years have been the age of the Indie film, with so many memorable films by talented newcomers. Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan broke fresh, dangerous ground for a patriarchal society. It is one of the very few Indian films that delved into an adolescent’s angst and rebellion against authority, in this case the emotionally distant father who wants a clone for a son. Unlike parallel film-makers, many Indie directors have not avoided music and dance like poison, but adapted it to suit their sensibility. The foremost Indie film-maker who has gone on to become the patron saint of younger Indies is Anurag Kashyap, who made music integral to the narrative. Can you imagine Dev D without its soundtrack? And speaking of Dev D, Kashyap is the disruptor in chief (it is another matter that post-Wasseypur, an untidy but seminal epic, he is exploring smaller, intimate stories). He subverted the cherished classic Devdas, which has been made thrice in Hindi (it has Telugu and Tamil versions too) by giving sexual agency to the two women, Paro and Chanda. This reinforced his bold transplanting the story from a Bengali bhadralok milieu to rustic Punjab, and the surreal drug-hazed environs of downbeat Delhi.
Later, Tigmanshu Dhulia, after the triumph of Pan Singh Tomar, subverted Guru Dutt’s untouchable masterpiece Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam with almost manic glee. Sahib Bibi Aur Gangster is a wicked, double-edged, tthoroughly enjoyable tribute where the cut and thrust of UP politics (government contracts, middlemen, ambushes and murders, ministers for sale, an ex-Raja buying power in lieu of lost glory, an alcoholic, sexually adventurous Rani) noisily replaces the decadent fin de seicle grandeur of zamindari Bengal. Both the subversive films are audacious in their ambition and breathtaking in accomplishment. This was unthinkable even 25 years ago.
Another notable fact is that the heroines of rom coms have come into their own. Premarital sex doesn’t spell doom and unwanted pregnancy. No rainy night, a bonfire and roop tera mastana seducing the lovers into sex. In Band Baaja Baaraat, the partners of the wedding planning business proceed from the exhausted/celebratory hug of their first big success to an unplanned romp in bed. Bittu, the hanger-on of the team, cravenly develops commitment phobia and Shruti, the go-getter who started the business, moves on beyond disappointment. Of course, there is the mandatory happy ending after pangs of separation, but the film doesn’t make such a big deal of sex. It is an unspoken acknowledgment of the dating apps and Tinder-swipe times that the young (and not so young) live in. The most radical change is the banner which produced this film, and the subsequent Shudh Desi Romance. Yes, Yashraj films (of the Yash Chopra school of romance – music, heartache, flying chiffon pallus on Swiss meadows) is now the stable from which young directors are encouraged to make hatke romances, within safe commercial parameters.
Imtiaz Ali is the other writer-director who defined romance for the millennial generation, where it was okay for the hero to be hesitant, vulnerable and unsure of himself or his feelings. From Socha Na Tha to Love Aaj Kal and Jab We Met, Ali rewrote the arc of romance, where the heroine is often the driver of the love story. All the heroines were wholesome, with large families hovering over them. And in Geet, he minted a loveable, brand new girl next door: the inveterate chatterbox, who leaps before she looks and is in a way responsible for the hero finding his path to selfhood. Ali wrote the more complex Cocktail, where the titular heroine doesn’t get the man because she is too unconventional in dress, demeanour and morals (she has had a few relationships that were sexual, it is implied), both for the live-in casual lover and his domineering mother looking for a bahu with traditional values. Cocktail is both a celebration of the hedonistic, modern woman, living unfettered in London, yet yearning for love and her unacceptability as marriage worthy. So there is ambiguity about what a modern woman is and should be. In small town Jaipur, Parineeti Chopra’s Gayatri, in Shudh Desi Romance, flouts conventions by having boyfriends who had lived with her briefly and yet, in the end, gets the confused hero vacillating between an ex-fiancee and new girlfriend. Some things change and yet don’t really change in Bollywood. The rom com is not only a date movie, but family entertainment too. Within these given parameters, the rom com has explored the complexities of the modern educated woman.
Bhumi Pednekar broke every stereotype in Dum Lagake Haisha. She is an overweight – no euphemisms like pleasingly plump will do – graduate married to a young man who dreams of a Juhi Chawla-esque bride. He is not even a matriculate, and she wants to be a teacher. After her husband’s sexual rejection and public humiliation, she slaps him and wants a divorce. How the incompatibles reconcile is persuasive, except for the so-literal climax, which was totally avoidable. Pednekar is again paired with Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, where the problem is erectile dysfunction. Bollywood has thumbed its nose at all taboos. Before erectile dysfunction, we had a sperm donor for a hero and a constipated old man driving his daughter to exasperation. Both Vicky Donor and Piku were box office hits, and critically praised.
With the rom com, we also saw the anti-rom com. Queen, Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel established Kangana Ranaut as a nonconformist par excellence. Rani, of Queen, became the nation’s sweetheart. The audience also embraced the woman as hero. Kahaani revolved round a very pregnant Vidya Balan’s quest to find a missing husband. Earlier, Balan re-wrote the definition of entertainment with The Dirty Picture. Though the film’s narrative style was unremarkable in itself, it showcased the driving ambition of a small town girl to use her sexuality to climb the film ladder of the Tamil industry as its top sex symbol. Balan’s subsequent films did not repeat the early success – as also Ranaut’s – but she re-established her wholesome appeal with the unconventional Tumhari Sulu.
It is surprising but rather creditable that men made these films, when there are so many women working as writer-directors now. Zoya Akhtar and Farah Khan make mainstream entertainers with aplomb. Now Gully Boy’s gritty, inventive grammar takes Akhtar into a league of her own. Gauri Shinde, Meghna Gulzar, Ashwini Tiwary Iyer, Alankrita Shrivastava and Leena Yadav explore womencentric themes, again from an unconventional perspective. Konkona Sensharma and Nandita Das are more cerebral, and their particular sensibility and uncompromising attitude stamped A Death In The Gunj, Firaaq and Manto.
The film that wears its feminist manifesto with conviction is Pink. It is India’s own The Accused. No means No, declared Amitabh Bachchan’s rather contrary defence lawyer when three flatmates are charged with solicitation and assault. Tapsee Pannu, who played the accused, turns a defence lawyer in Mulk, where she exposes the bias against lawabiding patriotic Muslims once a family member is killed as a terrorist. It’s a courageous, much-needed reiteration of India’s secular, inclusive society, which is under threat from the hyper-nationalistic Hindutva brigade.
There was a slew of bio pics on sportspersons – from Mary Kom to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dhoni: The Untold Story and of course Dangal. Aamir Khan has been the most calculatedly adventurous star/producer. Just look at the distance from Lagaan – which brilliantly married our two obsessions, cricket and cinema – to Dangal. From the peasant determined to beat the English at their own game to the equally determined wrestler who turns his two daughters into champion wrestlers, it’s an inspired journey. He also produced the inspirational success story Secret Superstar, where he was not above some clever self-deprecation. It is a puzzling comment on our collective taste. When Shah Rukh Khan bravely exposes his star persona to scrutiny in Fan and dwarfs himself in the muddled Zero, he doesn’t get the critical validation the effort demands. Taking SRK purely as an actor seems to have ceased after Swades, Chak De India and My Name is Khan. As for the other critic-proof Khan, he too had to shed a few mannerisms (along with his shirt, of course) when he donned rustic rascality for Dabangg.
These years were also the era of a newly-anointed Hrishikesh Mukherjee for our times. But Raju Hirani’s brilliant run, starting with the Munnabhai franchise, has come to a stop with Sanju: a more blatant whitewash of a truant star we can’t find. He might have reaped a bonanza at the box-office, but his credibility is under question. And what about Farhan Akhtar? The director who wrote the youth anthem for the millennial generation, with the evergreen Dil Chahta Hai, has been subsumed by the actor/ producer. The verve of Dil Chahta Hai set the rhythm for the coming decade. Others have played variations on it but the original has gone missing.