What is a commercial film? Typically a big budget mainstream film featuring A-list stars, aimed at entertaining the masses. That’s one definition. And there’s nothing wrong with that brand of cinema, some of the most entertaining, engaging and fun films made in a given year in any film industry, are the big commercial entertainers. However our Hindi film industry for some reason has taken this definition to a different level and made a conscious decision to give our audiences silly and essentially formulaic films, as their definition of entertainment. These are your mammoth films offering a whole buffet of emotions, to provide comedy, drama and an action flick all in one. This is all in the place of any form of clear story or consistent narrative, or even a plot that isn’t laced with holes.
With the aim of chasing commercial success, and box-office breakthroughs, our massy entertainers are basically business proposals rather than any sort of watchable movie. Take a leading hero and heroine, throw in some big catchy songs and maybe an item number, and the rest will figure itself out. But, where is the film? The examples are never ending, ranging from Welcome Back to the more recent, Dilwale. Commercial filmmakers believe that audiences don’t want to have to use their brains too much and so they go out of their way to make simple, cartoonish films and call it ‘escapism’. However, we need our filmmakers to learn that a compelling plot and massive box office figures are not mutually exclusive. Rajkumar Hirani’s films have proven this, more recently Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan did the same.
In the last few years the audience has started to actively reject what is considered ‘leave your brains at home’ cinema. This was seen with the big uproar against Sajid Khan’s Humshakals and then again with Sajid Khan’s Himmatwala. Ignoring the obvious trend here, before these films, certain audiences used to reject these types of movie and with good reason, but they still went on to making a smash at the box office, because they appealed to the masses. However these particular movies marked a fundamental shift in the mindset of the majority of audiences who started to reject such low-quality content. Other filmmakers like Prabhu Deva has always shown their inclination towards this brand of cinema with the 2014 Action Jackson, arguably the worst film of the year, which was again, rejected by the audience. The question here is, just how long can these filmmakers get away with making these brain numbing attempts at movies, and still continue to make big bucks at the box office? The failure of films like Humshakals and Action Jackson was the long overdue answer to that very question.
These filmmakers need to understand a fundamental fact if they are to stay relevant, they don’t need to go out of their way to ‘dumb down’ a movie to make big bucks and be a commercial success. A good story is important if not essential today to engage the audience, and it’s surprising that this has to be specifically stated, rather than just understood. This doesn’t necessarily mean aiming to make complex or deeply layered plot; films aimed at commercial success are unlikely to be thought provoking or barrier-breaking cinema in any film industry in the world. Audiences go for these kinds of films to enjoy themselves with a ‘popcorn flick’, however the minimum expectation here is to give the audience’s intelligence some respect and not assume them to be fools.
More than the assumption that anything they write, however ridiculous, will work and be accepted by the audience, it’s more the very conscious and deliberate attempt to dumb down a script that is insulting if nothing else. As individuals these very filmmakers are very progressive in the kinds of films they like to watch as an audience. There is unfortunately just a huge disconnect between the films they themselves enjoy and those they make.
India is a nation which hungry for new and engaging content which is the very reason a Piku or Queen will get lapped up. It’s unfortunately ironic that these filmmakers who make their movies for the audiences do not fully understand the audience. It is imperative that such filmmakers understand this fast, as if they don’t take the word of this writer or most critics, it will soon be their own box office numbers that they crave so gravely, that teach them this very lesson. Last year’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns was one of the very few that went one to cross 100 crores, and regardless of the critical response to the film, it was undoubtedly a complete film and not a silly proposal.
Directors like Sajid Khan, Prabhu Deva, Farah Kahn and Rohit Shetty are the main poster children of this kind of cinema. The sad fact is they have shown affinities towards more thought out stories in the past, Prabhu Deva’s Rowdy Rathore and R Rajkumar were at least half-baked attempts at engaging stories. Similarly, Sajid Khan’s earlier movies such as Houseful and Heyy Baby still had their moments and worked as comedies in their own way. It is somewhere sad that the movies they make are getting worse over time and their scripts, character and the audience are all given less importance. Rohit Shetty has always confronted naysayers and stood by his opinion that he makes his films for the audience and no one else. But even he must be forced to stop and retrospect, with the relative failure of Dilwale to have the have the success he anticipated.
What these filmmakers don’t realise is their movies are momentary. For all their claims of being significant commercial successes and bankable directors, what they don’t realise is that their films have no longevity. Their movies are not remembered. They make a dent at the box office at that one point in time and are then largely forgotten. They aim to entertain their audiences for that two and a half our period and send them home, without maybe realising that after that movie leaves those cinema screens and after those satellite rights are sold, years later they aren’t referred to or remembered as beloved cinema. In this writer’s opinion the measure of a film should be the love of an audience and the impact it has, which is not necessarily be measured by critical acclaim or box office success but by just the appreciation and of an audience.
Nobody remembers the box office numbers or critics rating of a Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a Dil Chahta Hai or a Queen, but the fact that they are cherished and unforgettable is undeniable. It may surprise most people to know that some of their most loved films were actually failures at the box office, of these there are numerous examples.
What these commercial directors don’t realise is that they have a large advantage over a lot of acclaimed filmmakers, apart from the arguable ability to gather large audiences at their movies. Their advantage is the expectation of their film is minimal, people do not expect strong scripts or good movies from them. Which is an advantage in that if they were to deliver a story that was solid and enjoyable it would have a much larger impact on viewers and film critics, by the very notion of surprising people. That is the very reason Bajrangi Bhaijaan was all the more raved about, because it came from an actor we least expected it from, which made for a far more enriching an enjoyable experience.
We need to change our definition of what a commercial entertainer is in our films and more importantly this school of filmmakers need to change what their definition of entertainment is. At a time when there is a much larger focus on content-driven cinema in Bollywood and not just by the critically appreciated films but with the all-rounder entertainers as well, movie makers need to adapt and fast if they want to be successful in the long term.
This is not to say you move away from potboiler cinema, it is an essential part of Bollywood and variety is key in any successful movie industry. It is about redefining what a ‘masala’ film is, and what you are offering audience with a certain movie. The focus should shift away from providing audiences with ‘a little of everything’ and more on what the story should be.
There is a popular line from our much loved 3 Idiots which says
‘Baccha kabil bano kabil.. Kamyabi to sali jhak maar ke peeche ayegi’
This roughly translates to ‘Work towards competence, not success, and you will see success come running after you.’
Adapting this slightly, I’d like to tell our filmmakers to chase quality stories not box office success and you will see box office success will come running after you.