What Bollywood's January releases indicate for the rest of the year

What Bollywoods January releases indicate for the rest of the year

Everything you need to know about 2019's movie lineup


Khalid Mohamed

Published: Thu 7 Feb 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 11 Feb 2019, 9:19 AM

January pretty much sets the bar for the shape of movies to come for the rest of the year. From the look of bunch released so far, 2019 promises to hinge on biopics or plots culled from true events, calculated to arouse nationalist fervour.

General elections are scheduled to be held across India between April and May. And, lately, at least half-a-dozen films have sought to, in their different ways, advance an overt political agenda. Of them, Uri: The Surgical Strike, featuring Vicky Kaushal as Major Vihan Singh, struck gold at the box office. Technically competent and ably-acted, here was an above-the-cut war saga that attracted crowds from its opening day and remained rock steady at the cash counters for over a fortnight.

However, The Accidental Prime Minister - critical of economist Dr Manmohan Singh during his tenure as Indian PM - was largely thumbed down, proving to be ineffectual in its agenda against the United Progressive Alliance.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi aimed to depict the freedom struggle against the British Raj, albeit with some heavy-handed allusions to contemporary reality. The fact that a major part of the opus was reshot by Kangana Ranaut, who even took credit as co-director, not only raised the budget sky-high but also resulted in a disjointed narrative. According to trade soothsayers, the vanity exercise by Ms Ranaut isn't likely to recover its investment.
The original director, Krish, pressurised by the intervention of the heroine, backtracked from the project. Ditto Sonu Sood, who had shot extensively for pivotal sections of the period film. The sword-and-gore Manikarnika opened poorly on its premiere day, but picked up over the weekend. The response from the critics and the audience has been mixed. Kangana Ranaut's acting was described as "powerful" by some reviewers but the direction and editing, which she supervised, were considered way beyond shabby.

The first edition of the biopic on the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray (the end credits announce "To be continued"), enacted by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and directed by Abhijit Panse, couldn't make tidal waves at the box-office. The ticket sales were on the positive side mainly in the late leader's home state Maharashtra.
As for the Emraan Hashmi showcase Why Cheat India, directed by Soumik Sen, it opted for broad strokes in critiquing the long-corrupt education system. The film underperformed financially but, given its controlled budget, recovered its investment, thanks to the sales of its rights to television and streaming channels.

There were a couple of oddballs in January. Take director Sikander Bharti's Rangeela Raja with Govinda hopping through a dual role, one of them lampooning the fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya. And to think the double entendre-loaded head-banger was produced by Pahlaj Nihalani, the former chief of the Censor Board!

Plus, there was director Sourabh Shrivastava's tackily-titled Fraud Saiyaan, with Arshad Warsi portraying a serial bridegroom on the lines of the Charlie Chaplin classic Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Untidily produced and scripted, both oddities evoked zero interest.

The writing's up on the wall then. Biopics made on an extravagant scale, highlighting the spirit of nationalism, are the flavour of the season. Several life stories of freedom fighters and sports champions, who emerged victorious against all odds, are currently in the works.

Against such a cash-heavy scenario, you might as well ask, whatever happened to indie cinema? All's not lost yet. Indeed, the best film I could catch this year so far - on Netflix as it happened - avoided cliches completely. Focusing on the travails of a police woman and her superintendent officer, also a woman, at a Delhi police station, it was screened at the Venice Film Festival last year, and had received a standing ovation.

Titled Soni, and directed by first-timer Ivan Ayr, here was a gritty take on two women who refuse to be subjugated in their private as well as professional lives.

In the moodily-photographed lengthy takes, mostly during the late night hours on authentic locations in the capital, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan as the eponymous sub-inspector Soni knocks out a lacerating performance. Grim and unwaveringly conscientious, Geetika's acting chops struck me as extraordinary. As Kalpana, the superior officer, Saloni Batra perhaps had a tougher part to handle, as she tries to play it by the law book but discovers she's fighting a losing battle. Hopefully, both Geetika and Saloni will be noticed by the Bollywood biggies and cast in deserving roles.

Indeed, the January releases indicate that the ticket-buying public has become more selective than ever about its entertainment fix. Footfalls at the multiplexes are on a decline. Films can be accessed on smartphone screens and, after a month or so, pop up on TV and the aggressively-competitive streaming channels.

Though nationalism is a catchword right now, its lifespan, however, is strictly in the realm of conjecture.
The positive fallout is that the film viewer is now spoilt for choice. If a ticket to Manikarnika is beyond one's wallet, Bollywood vintage classics and original global products - take the Sandra Bullock horror flick Bird Box, the multiple Oscar-nominated Roma or the psychological thriller series You - are just a jab away on your remote control.

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