The recent success of movies like RRR and KGF at the box office points to a trend that has become rather obvious for some time now. The language barrier has been broken. Earlier, it was only Bollywood which enjoyed wide distribution and popularity across the country. Not only did it enjoy popularity but it came to define Indian cinema as a whole.
The audience today, on the other hand, is opening up to new languages, experiences and earlier unfamiliar actors. The reason for this is that the focus has shifted away from familiar faces and cultural lingo to content.
It is not the case that it has shifted towards "good" content in particular, but merely a different kind of content. It would be unfair to put the entire history of Bollywood into a box. Enthusiasts of Indian cinema are aware of the fact that Bollywood's content has been characterized by an impressive diversity of trends.
Though a certain formulaic nature started emerging very early, the initial years were characterized by a remarkable spirit of experimentation. This is evident through the work produced by the "first lady" of Bollywood i.e. Devika Rani. Whether through poignant movies critiquing untouchability like "Acchut Kanya (1937)" or through experimental movies like "Izzat" dealing with culture of honor, Rani's persona was defined by her willingness to take unconventional role. Bombay Talkies, the studio started by Rani and her husband Himansu Rai, essentially solidified Bollywood by launching actors like Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Raj Kapoor and Mumtaz.
In the 70s, Bollywood’s content acquired a stubborn formulaic nature. Its actors were associated with a certain persona which reflected in almost all of the movies that they were making. Amitabh Bachchan was the "angry young man", the working class hero, fighting against the system and industrialists in movies like "Zanjeer", "Namak Haram", and "Shakti", "Deewar" etc. Similarly, Dilip Kumar was the tragic hero through movies like "Devdas", "Mughal-E-Azam" and "Madhumati".
This trend continued well into the 90s when the three Khans emerged. A cursory look at the actors popular during their 90s will be enough to enlighten about the formulaic nature. For instance, the movies of Govinda followed very obvious clichés. The actor was inseparable from the character he was playing. Thus, Shah Rukh Khan was "Raj".
The liberalization opened up new markets. Bollywood now had to cater to an audience that was increasingly coming under the influence of the United States and a large proportion of people who were going through an identity crisis.
Thus, we see the emergence of epic movies like Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, Swades, Mohabbatein, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge etc. In early 2000s, the difference between parallel cinema and mainstream cinema started to blur as experimental movies exploring new themes started performing incredibly well in the box office. In my opinion, this led to one of the best eras in Bollywood with movies like Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, My Name Is Khan etc.
Since 2010s, however, this trend has been slowly shifting. In 2010, Rajinikanth’s "Enthiran" became one of the highest grossing Indian movies of all time. SS Rajamouli’s "Baahubali" acquired massive success and seeped into the popular consciousness in a way that perhaps no other "South" movie has.
What makes these movies different from the ones made by Bollywood is the fact that they are big-budget spectacles. With the emergence of streaming services like Netflix, people are getting extremely selective about the kind of movies they want to watch in the theatres. While it is true that actors like Nawazuddin Siddique gained massive popularity primarily through their performance in low-budget movies, it is also the case that they rarely manage to get to the theatres. Thus, we see a socially conscious movie like Jhund perform moderately, while spectacles like Gangubhai Kathiawadi and RRR acquire massive success. Though there are notable exceptions like "The Kashmir Files", the broader trend holds.
Is Bollywood in decline? Yes. In order to regain stability, it has to produce more "spectacles". This would mean a return to the era of superstars and of formulaic tried and tested narratives. Independent filmmakers, whether they make movies in Hindi or regional languages, will have a hard time getting to the theatres at all in this scenario. Bollywood has indeed recognized this trend as the slew of upcoming movies like Brahmastra, Shamsera, Prithviraj and Pathaan all promise to provide the theatrical experience that seems to be prerequisite for success now. We are witnessing an interesting but uncertain time.
The good news is that the language barrier has been broken, making way for good regional movies from regions other than the North (or for that matter, the South) to feature in the theatres. The bad news is that big budget movies have returned, leaving the future of independent cinema pessimistically uncertain. However, if the audience shifts towards independent cinema, as they recently did in the case of "The Kashmir Files", then the future of experimentation is secure. It is the audience now who calls the shot. The studio merely listens.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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