The year in review

Bollywood in 2015: More censorship, still Salman, and the rise of Ranveer Singh

The Age of Pahlaj, Salman Khan still rules, Deepika Padukone shines on, Ranveer Singh has blossomed, and ‘Baahubali’.

2015 had more goodies than rejects, but we fortunately found enough to complain about.

The Age of Pahlaj Censorship reared its head soon after potboiler producer Pahlaj Nihalani took charge of the Central Board of Film Certification in January. As if to atone for lining his bank account with movies featuring double entendre in the 1980s and the ’90s, Nihalani declared a war on profanity. The CBFC’s censoriousness, which predates Nihalani and will outlast him, ensured that kissing scenes were trimmed. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s by-the-book interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling in a case about animal cruelty has meant that the Animal Welfare Board of India is even stricter than before on the use of non-humans, forcing filmmakers to abandon realism and take refuge in computer-generated creatures.

Further proof of a puritanical mentality that sees film watching as an activity in need of regulation can be found in the mandatory anti-smoking health advisory and the national anthem that forces moviegoers to their feet in Maharashtra.

Meanwhile, filmmakers are making their own contributions to an already compromised experience by cluttering the first few minutes of their releases with logos and thank-yous for marketing tie-ups and shoving item songs into the credits. We are still waiting for the truly enlightened producer who realises that the cinematic experience begins from the moment the lights dim all the way till the credits roll.

The CBFC’s resolve will be tested like never before with Milap Zaveri’s upcoming Mastizaade, whose trailer alone has more references to female cleavage and male neediness than can be found in the imaginary movie that is playing inside a 13-year-old boy’s head. Will Mastizaade be the cause célèbre for Nihalani’s CBFC as was Delhi Belly in 2011? There are at least two more reasons for scandal in 2016 – the self-declared porn-com Kya Kool Hai Hum 3 and Great Grand Masti.

Who, what, and for how much? There was much to celebrate in the year: intelligently written, directed and produced passion projects that were released in cinemas rather than rotting away on a hard drive somewhere and crowdpleasers that did not condescend to audiences.

There were also the necessary evils of an industry that spins on commerce: two dreadful movies featuring the self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and pretentious duds such as Hamaari Adhuri Kahaani, Brothers and Shandaar. The indie crowd did well while punching in its weight class, but heavyweights Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee had a bruising experience when they charged towards into the mainstream with Bombay Velvet and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! respectively – both were ambitious but ultimately dull productions by directors keen to shrug off the indie tag and failing.

The year’s popular films, such as Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur, Anand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, were measured as much for their artistic achievements as for their ability to earn money. The rules of the dreaded Rs 100-crore club are not just holding strong, but also thriving enough for producers to aim for an even bigger landfall. Gaming the box office to make as much as Rs 300 crores over the theatrical run is now an art form, and with the right amount of a soul-crushing publicity blitzkrieg, it is possible to make even dross work.

The Rs 300-crore rush “Is the movie any good?” has forever been replaced by the question “How much money will the movie make?” The greed-is-good philosophy has its advantages: greater production discipline and better scheduling, focused distribution and an uptick in production values. However, the compulsion to reach the Rs 300-crore mark has increased the pressure on A-listers and reduced the screens available to smaller films, other Indian language titles and Hollywood releases.

Of course, first-week earnings are only an indicator of success rather than popularity. Industry insiders know the truth about how movies actually make money. Keep the production budgets within sane limits. Complete the film on time. Choose the right window for a release. Above all, make a good movie.

Hollywood charms the locals A good year for Hollywood studios in India, especially Universal, which scored with Jurassic World and Furious 7. Other tentpole titles such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Star Wars: The Force Awakens also reached Indian wallets. Hollywood’s share of the pie is expanding. So what if the films are as memorable as multiplex popcorn?

The only truly great sequel to open in India was Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not hard to see what attracts Indians to American movies: we might miss the subtext and the cultural references, but we can marvel at collapsing buildings and perfect storms just as our counterparts in Indiana.

Meanwhile, one filmmaker fused Hollywood-style visual effects with Indian-style affect.

Jai Mahishmati! SS Rajamouli’s hugely enjoyable Baahubali, simultaneously made in Telugu and Tamil and dubbed in Hindi, fused the best of Bollywood and Hollywood. Rajamouli is a familiar enough name for followers of Southern cinema. His Telugu blockbusters have been remade into other Southern languages. His fantasy thriller Eega (2012) was dubbed in Hindi as Makkhi and fetches up regularly on television as a reminder that it is possible to make a local version of Ant Man at 1/500th the budget.

Baahubali is an Amar Chitra Katha-style adventure of warring cousins imagined for a 70mm-sized screen. Rajamouli’s ability to translate his ambitions onto the screen means that he has raised the bar for period productions. The second part is rumoured to be heading for a December release.

Time for a national cinema? The average multiplex rat knows more about Dwayne Johnson than Dhanush, but that could change if more distributors release non-Hindi films with subtitles. Movies such as Killa and Katyar Kaljat Ghusli (both Marathi) and Kaakaa Muttai (Tamil) increased their reach in immeasurable but potentially game-changing ways by adding subtitles. Most films dubbed into Hindi are for local audiences and are usually lost in translation. But there is no stopping the release of intelligently subtitled films that can speak to viewers beyond their language pools. We have not developed a healthy market for foreign cinema because of censorship, but what is preventing us from sampling the best of the rest of India?

Salman tops, Shah Rukh dithers, Deepika shines The A-listers fared well in a year that saw Irrfan cement his alt-star status in four films (including Jazbaa and Talvar) and Nawazuddin Siddiqui steal the show in Badlapur and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Those who believed that Salman Khan would be sentenced in the 2002 hit-and-run case got a reminder this year that the Indian judicial system works in mysterious ways. He has still to conquer the Supreme Court, but until then, Khan has earned a free pass to build on an already solid career based on an ineffable star quality that is the fortune of few. Khan strengthened his adarsh purush image this year with two gargantuan hits, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. He is firmly ensconced in the coveted sui generis category, in stark contrast to other contenders for stardom status.

However, Shah Rukh Khan’s attempts to do a Salman Khan for the second year running backfired. Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale is this year’s Happy New Year, a mass entertainer that is spilling over what with Manmohan Desai called “highlights” – stock elements that do not add up to a coherent narrative but are things of joy unto themselves. Dilwale didn’t even meet the basic standard of the highlight-driven movie. It signalled yet again that Khan’s lover boy image either needs to be buried or re-imagined in age-friendly ways.

Khan has two potentially interesting releases in 2016 to make it up to his fans: the crime drama Raees, and the meta-movie Fan, in which he plays a superstar and his fan. Meanwhile, the actor’s best moments in a cruel year included his appearance on the television show Comedy Nights with Kapil during one of Dilwale’s never-ending promotions. Khan was at his wittiest and most spontaneous and charming best. The episode has more punch than the entire movie, and perhaps the next thing Khan needs to be in is a mockumentary.

As Deepika Padukone continues her remarkable conquest of critical and commercial love, she looks infallible. She is picking her films smartly, cashing in on her middle-class sophisticate appeal for such films as Piku while keeping her flame burning in young hearts through such romances as Tamasha. The year should have ended with Padukone grabbing all three medals for Piku, Tamasha and Bajirao Mastani, but there was a contender, and a veteran at that.

Priyanka Chopra is not only one of the determined stars around; she is also full of surprises. This year, apart from grabbing a plum role in the American television series Quantico, Chopra reconnected with her acting side in Dil Dhadakne Do and Bajirao Mastani. Both films played to her strengths and put her in direct line with the actresses of the 1970s, who always exuded oomph but also performed when required to. Paduoke has a more natural acting style, but Chopra does the old-fashioned movie star number more naturally.

Kangana Ranaut appeared to have catapulted into the A-listers’ league with the mega-success of Tanu Weds Manu Returns, but it bears repeating that audiences love her comic timing. In Queen (2014) as well as the Tanu Weds Manu sequel, Ranaut has displayed a goofy side and a light touch that are missing in her contemporaries. Can she be as convincing as a warrior in a period movie or a dysfunctional daughter? Ranaut’s slippery command over diction, her unpredictable ways, and her gamine image work against her, but she has some way to go.

Coming up for air Other prominent names picked up pay cheques and took reality checks. Is it time to Imran Khan to retire? The brutal question popped up a few minutes into Nikhil Advani’s rom-com Katti Batti, and will continue to be asked unless Khan can miraculously expand his limited repertoire.

Akshay Kumar is wisely sticking with what he knows best – action with occasional lashings of comedy – in Baby and Singh is Bliing. Baby’s success signals that there is a sizable market for Argo-style fictional adaptations of real-life incidents about Indian valour. Kumar hopes to make that sub-genre his own, and will be back with Airlift in 2016, based on the evacuation of over one lakh Indians from war-torn Iraq and Kuwait in 1990.

Ranbir Kapoor started out the year in misery with Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet in May, but he redeemed himself with Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha in November. Here is a star who is trying too hard to be one, and he seems better suited for passion projects that aim for artistic integrity rather than movies that are trying to scale the Rs 300-crore peak.

A star is born There were those who loved Ranveer Singh in his debut Band Baaja Baraat (2010) and there were those who thought that he was another Shah Rukh Khan wannabe with energy to spare.

Singh has done his share of formula embracing (Gunday, for instance), but in the hands of a skilled director, he can transform himself into a dedicated and disciplined performer. Singh’s bravura turn in Bajirao Mastani proves that he is no flash in the pan. We might be eating our words this time next year, but at this moment, the odds seem ever in Ranveer Singh’s favour.

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