Compelling storytelling takes upper hand in Bollywood
Akshay Kumar in Jolly LLB 2
The evolution of Bollywood in recent years has been awe-inspiring; cutting out clichés, the industry's talents are focusing on the power of captivating narration, writes Deepa Gauri
The New Year has begun on a healthy note for Bollywood. The stupendous success of Aamir Khan's Dangal has steered the traditional industry narrative of 'star image' to 'story-telling' as the dashing Khan pushed his own boundaries to deliver a top-notch performance as an actor not caught by star-trappings or the need to play to the gallery.
That is an inspiring shift that has in fact been more than a norm for the industry in 2016, as superstars dared to step out of their comfort zones and reinvent themselves. Shah Rukh Khan attempted that with Fan, doing a delicate balancing act of playing what had established him as an actor - the wounded villainy as in Baazigar and the suave charm of the star himself. While the results might have been mixed, with a narrative running out of control, he decided to stay clear of the clichéd territory he had set for himself with films such as Dilwale by doing the delightful Dear Zindagi.
For Salman Khan, the reinvention had begun well in 2015 with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and he milked the 'good man' identity to maximum box office revenues in Sultan, where he balanced out playing to the gallery with clear artistic sensibility.
While the Khans were busy making crores, Akshay Kumar was giving them stiff competition on the side with three films - each different from the other - and at least two of them demanding the actor to stay clear of his star-image. Airlift and Rustom had the actor in strong control, so much that he could perhaps be excused for doing the all-out entertainer Housefull 3 that only wanted his star pull and comic timing.
The willingness of actors to push their boundaries was embraced further by Amitabh Bachchan with three films - Te3n, Wazir and Pink. While you could point out parallels in the first two, Pink was an absolute revelation as the actor played a maverick lawyer, fighting his own devils, and taking on a societal ill. And as Bachchan's baritone 'No' hung over theatres in the climax, the message against molestation of women was delivered with unequivocal gravitas.
But then, Bollywood also proved that the ability of the actors to push their boundaries is directly proportional to the willingness of directors to do so. Karan Johar, who commands industry premium, delivered a typical, old-as-the-hills story with pseudo-modern pretensions with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
Notwithstanding the stellar line-up of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Fawad Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in a cameo, the film was run-of-the-mill, but became one of the top grossers of the year. Similar bland exercises abounded with the biggest catastrophe being Aditya Chopra's Befikre starring Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor.
These films just went on to prove that big production houses were playing safe with formula and living in their ivory towers, with promising newcomers such as Nitya Mehra, who directed Baar Baar Dekho, co-produced by bigger names including Johar, stifling viewers with mediocrity. Director Shakun Batra rose above with Kapoor & Sons, which is now hot in the award circles.
Big names such as Ashutosh Gowariker, who directed Hrithik Roshan's Mohenjo Daro, disappointed with peripheral storytelling as did R Balki who set out the misadventure of Ki & Ka. Adding to audience woes was the sequel of Farhan Akhtar's Rock On 2. Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani 2 with Vidya Balan had a terrific tempo wasted by the time the film ended.
But filmmakers who are lesser-seen in publicity write-ups as well as the grittier ones are taking Bollywood to the next level. Case in point are films such as Saala Khadoos by Sudha Kongara Prasad, starring R Madhavan and Ritika Singh; Neerja by Ram Madhvani with Sonam Kapoor and Shabana Azmi, Aligarh by Hanslal Mehta starring Manoj Bajpayee, Dhanak by Nagesh Kukunoor, and Parched by Leena Yadav, among others.
There were a number of films based on real life stories and biographies in addition to Dangal and Rustom. Omung Kumar's Sarbjit, starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, had a compelling performance by Randeep Hooda, who also proved his versatility with films such as Laal Rang and Sultan.
While MS Dhoni by Neeraj Pandey was one of the finest made films in Bollywood in 2016, Tony D'Souza was lost with his biopic of Azhar, a terrible mess that struggled to find an identity. Ram Gopal Varma tried to find his feet again with Veerappan, which fell flat.
Inspiring story-telling was underlined in Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, one of the well-made films of 2016 that also highlighted the tremendous talent in the young Alia Bhatt, who went on to surprise viewers with Dear Zindagi too. Anurag Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0 highlighted the acting prowess of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Kashyap's own directorial command, and was one of the brooding films that shocked and desensitised the audience.
Last year also saw a number of women filmmakers asserting their talents with notable names including Anu Menon, who brought Waiting that starred Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin. It was also the year that women protagonists got a fair share of the centrestage with films including Sarbjit, Neerja, Udta Punjab, Dear Zindagi, and the all-out action thriller Akira by AR Murugadoss, starring Sonakshi Sinha.
While there were controversies galore, including the hullabaloo over Pakistani artists featuring in films, Bollywood eventually proved that the 'show will go on.' After all, crores of rupees are at stake, including those of some Hollywood's big banner studios making a beeline to India to make money while the sun shines on cinema.
Bollywood, thus, takes on 2017 with positivity as a number of stellar productions are lined up including the January release of Shah Rukh Khan's Raees and Hrithik Roshan's Kaabil, Vishal Bhardwaj directed Rangoon, Kabir Khan's Tubelight with Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, reportedly on a cameo, Akshay Kumar's Jolly LLB 2, director Anurag Basu's Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Jagga Jasoos, and a number of popular titles such as Dabangg, Hera Pheri and Golmaal, in their nth editions.
The mixed-bag underlines, however, that the industry has matured with space for all - and acceptance for well-made films, irrespective of whether it has the stars. And if they have stars, such as in Dangal, well, you can watch the industry grow with box office collections breaking all records.
Sushant Singh Rajput and Disha Patani in MS Dhoni
Shraddha Kapoor in Rock On 2
Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam in Kaabil
Lisa Haydon, Jacqueline Fernandez and Nargis Fakhri in Housefull 3
Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan in Dear Zindagi