Mainstream Bollywood is on the cusp of change with the rise of a parallel cinematic universe that uses the means and resources of the industry while making films that are akin to the social chronicles and cautionary tales that emerge from a more independent space By Saibal Chatterjee
A parallel universe has taken a concrete shape in mainstream Bollywood. It is defined by the work of directors and actors who work within the mass-oriented Hindi cinema but, in their films, address issues and themes of contemporary relevance in a manner that generates serious conversation and attracts ample media and audience attention.
Exactly one such Bollywood release is scheduled for February 28. Thappad, directed by Anubhav Sinha (Mulk, Article 15) and starring Taapsee Pannu, deals with a woman’s right to fight off domestic violence in a conservative society.
Sinha and Pannu, who played an important role in the former’s Mulk, a film revolving around the impact of Islamophobia on unquestioning minds, have both carved a niche for themselves by delivering stories that confront prickly subjects in a manner that facilitates engagement with wider audiences.
The duo represents a segment of Bollywood that uses the means and resources of the industry but makes films that are akin to the social chronicles and cautionary tales that emerge from a more independent space. Their upcoming collaboration, Thappad, is about a woman who walks out on her marriage when her husband slaps her. Sinha is a Mumbai film director who devoted more than a decade and a half to making romantic dramas (Tum Bin and its sequel), thrillers (Dus, Thathastu and Cash) and a superhero film starring Shahrukh Khan (Ra. One). In 2018, he reinvented himself with Mulk, about a Muslim family in an Uttar Pradesh town struggling to clear its name when one of its younger members is drawn into a terror plot.
In 2019, Sinha made the hard-hitting Article 15, which told the story of a young police officer who is posted in a town where caste discrimination is rampant. Three girls go missing and the protagonist is sucked into a world where the weak and oppressed are also completely defenceless as a result of deeply ingrained social prejudices of those that wield political and administrative power.
The role of the cop in Article 15 is played by Ayushmann Khurrana, who
has achieved stardom on the back of a series of roles that border on the revolutionary in the context of popular Hindi cinema. The actor made his film debut in 2012 with Vicky Donor, directed by Shoojit Sircar. Khurrana played a sperm donor, a character unheard of in Hindi cinema.
After a few misfires, the actor began a phase that has seen him, among other things, play the husband of an overweight woman in Dum LagaKe- Haisha, a man with erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a youngster grappling with a bald pate, and a blind pianist who ‘witnesses’ a murder in Andhadhun.
In Shubh Mangal ZyaadaSaavdhan, the follow-up to Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Khurrana dons the garb a small-town middle-class boy who causes a stir by coming out as gay and bringing his partner home. So, there we are: a whole new world is opening up in the pan-Indian Hindi cinema on account of actors and directors who are willing to take risks.
Shoojit Sircar, who directed Khurrana in Vicky Donor, also gave Taapsee- Pannu a role that changed the course of her career. The film was the intense legal drama Pink, featuring Amitabh Bachchan as an ageing, cynical lawyer who comes out of retirement to represent three young women subjected to sexual violence after a rock concert. It was produced by Sircar.
A Bollywood director who has made a career out of dark thrillers, Sriram Raghavan has never lowered his guard in the matter of keeping his output free from dog-eared devices. He helmed one of 2018’s most acclaimed Bollywood thrillers, Andhadhun, which arrived virtually unheralded and went on to acquire a cult following.
A decade ago, Raghavan delivered Johnny Gaddar, a stylized crime thriller that remains a benchmark for the genre. In 2015, he made the subversive thriller Badlapur, about a man who lies in wait for years for a criminal who killed his wife and child in a random act of violence.
Also working in mainstream Bollywood but with a distinct slant towards the real and tangible is AshwinyIyer Tiwari. She has directed three Hindi films to date – Nil BatteySannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Panga. Each one of them has struck a chord without having to resort to potboiler conventions.
Bareilly Ki Barfi, a romantic drama set in a specific small-town milieu, saw Ayushmann Khurrana lock horns with an actor who has a niche all his own – Rajkummar Rao. Rao, a regular Hansal Mehta collaborator, has built up an impressive body of work since debuting ten years ago with Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex AurDhokha.
With Mehta, Rao has delivered two of his finest performances – in Shahid, which fetched him a National Award, and Aligarh, a film in which he held is own against a superlative Manoj Bajpayee.
Together, these directors and actors have created a space where Bollywood explores themes and ideas that are far removed from easy certitudes that the industry usually peddles. They have lent Mumbai cinema an edge it never had before by erasing the line between commercial success and artistic courage.
The ageing Bollywood superstars are nearing their sell-by dates. Their fan followings are intact, but are struggling to convince audiences that they are still young enough to play action heroes and romantic leads. With the goalposts having moved significantly, the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan are exploring fresh creative pastures.
Aamir Khan is the lead of Laal Singh Chaddha, an official remake of Forrest Gump (1994) directed by Advait Chandan. Shah Rukh Khan, on his part, hasn’t signed a film since 2018’s Zero. And Salman Khan, despite the below- par showing of several of his recent releases (notably Tubelight, Race 3 and Bharat) is sticking to his guns.
He seems to be continuing down the Dabangg path – the third installment of the franchise hit the screens in 2019 – with Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, directed by Prabhudeva. Dabangg 3 was incidentally also helmed by Prabhudeva.
It is reported that Shahrukh has given the go-ahead to a script penned by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (writers of Amar Kaushik’s Stree and makers of Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone). So, has SRK seen the writing on the wall?
But even as winds of change sweep over the Mumbai industry, Akshay Kumar (Good Newzz), Ajay Devgn (Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior) and Hrithik Roshan (War) have delivered massive hits this past year. Bollywood is, therefore, being driven by contradictory impulses.
On one hand, films like Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga earn critical accolades that do not necessarily translate into box office returns. On the other is the next Tiger Shroff vehicle, Baaghi 3, a high-octane actioner that will probably rake in big bucks.