It has always been this way. People make Hindi films, most of which fail. Then some wounded men of a type flee the industry with their money purses. This gives the appearance of an industry in a crisis. Then a different sort of people finance a slightly reformed sort of cinema, most of which fail. More moneybags flee, and the talk of crisis returns.
But now something is happening that industry observers say is indeed a crisis. And that might be good for all of us who love stories more than dumb faces.
A symptom of the crisis is the recent announcement of the Walt Disney Company, which had acquired and released the disastrous “Mohenjo Daro”, that it is quitting Hindi cinema and focusing on its more profitable Hollywood releases. Over the past few years, giant studio corporations run by suits have ploughed money into Hindi cinema and lost crores.
A greater circumspection in the acquisition, hence funding, of Hindi films, would raise some good questions, like, why should stars be paid exorbitant amounts?
A typical Hindi film presumes that you love the star more than the story. As a result the star, who is usually the least talented person in the project, is the highest paid. More than half the entire budget of a big Hindi film goes away in paying the stars.
Stars do bring people into theatres, but are they as central to your life as they once were? In the new age of excessive entertainment, deep self-absorption, fragmentation of fun, and the ease of becoming a minor celebrity yourself on the social media by the virtue of a comment or the birth of your infant or the death of a parent, are celebrities as rare and precious as they once were?
From the noise around Rajinikanth’s “Kabali”, you may have imagined that every Tamilian would rush to watch the film. But the modest success of the film points to something else. Far greater than the supposed charms of Rajnikanth was the quiet comment of a more powerful person — the fan’s friend, who had watched the film and whispered that it was rubbish. It is possible that the recent giant flops of Hindi cinema may not have been bad bets just five years ago. The stars might have pulled you in, but now something has changed. So, do they still deserve more than half the budget?
The honest answer, if it comes, would have a profound influence on the future of Hindi cinema on a par with the major events in the past two decades that transformed it: The end of the venture capitalism of underworld financing and the fleeing of criminal black money from cinema. The arrival of the Ram Gopal Varma school of filmmaking which has now evolved into the Anurag Kashyap school. The rise of multiplexes embedded in malls, which resulted in the surge of ticket prices that ensured a Hindi film needed to only depend on the urban class. With that realisation mainstream Hindi cinema ceased to be pan-Indian, and all classes of Indians did not watch films in the same theatre anymore. And it gave a clear artistic focus to Hindi films. The mother and the virgin vanished. But the star survived through it all, even thrived.
If the star is diminished, a very different type of films would emerge.
Today, powerful stars make too many crucial decisions. They, sometimes, decide who the director would be, and tamper with the story. As Sunny Deol once told me during an interview, “I cannot die in the end. The Deols don’t die.” The star is an ecosystem that favours a midget species of artistes who thrive on servility, and they collect their own.
The star will never be eliminated. The star is a creation of human nature, and the nature of cinema itself. But it appears that the time has come for the industry to accept that one way to survive is to invest heavily in cinema that is not inconvenienced by superstars.
Many years ago, Australian actress Cate Blanchett told me in an interview that she was amazed at how Indian cinema has withstood the colonisation of Hollywood. Many nations have lost their cinema. Pakistan’s cinema, for instance, has been ruined by the influence of Hindi cinema. I felt the full force of the colonising power of Bollywood in Pakistan about 13 years ago when I stood outside the gate of Ever New Studio in Lahore. I did not have an appointment but I demanded to meet Pakistan’s most famous actor then, Shaan. In the 28 Punjabi films that were made the previous year, he had starred in all of them. My demand at the gates of the studio was as ridiculous as that of a foreigner outside a Goregaon studio demanding to meet Shah Rukh Khan without an appointment. But then the gates opened, and I had a long chat with Shaan, who asked for the phone number of Ram Gopal Varma.
Hindi cinema, too, can fall to a more dominant force. Already, it is not uncommon for a major Hollywood film that is dubbed in Hindi to gross more than any Hindi film in a given year. Also, Hollywood is quietly stripping Hindi cinema of action, sci-fi and children’s films. But, there is something Hollywood cannot do as well as Bollywood — a great adorable Hindi film.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal