When audience and critics rarely agreed: Was 2019 the year of most divisive Bollywood movies?
With 15 films entering the ₹100 crore club, 2019 proved to be a great year for Bollywood. From comedies to tragedies to action to social dramas, audiences showered their love and ticket money on films from multiple genres. However, also this year, the rift between critical opinion and audience’s choice seemed to have widened more than ever before.
Almost all the biggest earners of the year got less than favourable reviews from critics but that had no effect on films collections. It is time we asked and assessed why.
The second biggest earner of the year was also its most divisive. Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s remake of his own Telugu hit Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh divided the viewers in its treatment of violence in relationships and misogyny. Multiple reviewers gave the film scathing reviews. Raja Sen wrote for Hindustan Times, “Kabir Singh applauds its
pathetic protagonist, and ends up an obnoxious celebration of toxic masculinity.” Firstpost’s Anna Vetticad called it “one of the most horrific, harrowing, horrendous odes to misogyny and patriarchy ever created by Indian cinema in any language - humourised and romanticised for our viewing pleasure.”
Unscathed by the reviews, the film was a monumental hit with the audience. It became the biggest hit of Shahid Kapoor’s career, raking in ₹278 crore at the box office. Fans arrived online in multitudes to fight those criticising the film and its message. They found support in Vanga himself, who refused to rescind his ideas. They cheered for Shahid, anointing him their most favourite movie star for years to come. Of course, the large box office haul was a confidence boost too.
The year’s first hit, Vicky Kaushal-starrer Uri: The Surgical Strike received a similar reception, although at a much smaller scale. While reviewers did appreciate the action and Vicky’s performance, it was still criticised for its ‘old fashioned herogiri’, and undertones of ‘jingoism’. Film critic Anupama Chopra said, ’’The film is based on facts which are in the public domain. I don’t know how much of what we see actually happened, but a lot of it seems suspiciously simplistic.”
Even with these reviews and criticisms of being similar in treatment to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, audience lapped up Uri. Chants of ‘How’s the Josh’ resounded all year -- from Republic Day to Independence Day, from Karan Johar’s private plane ride to the Parliament. The film earned ₹245 crore at the box office, becoming the third most successful Hindi film of the year and notched up National Awards too.
Then there were the usual suspects such as Housefull 4, Total Dhamaal and De De Pyaar De. All these films earned more than ₹100 crore at the box office despite clearly scorching reviews. India Today’s review called “Housefull 4 ‘worse than Delhi air right now’” while NDTV review read, “The film hurtles along like a runaway trundler. Only the very-easy-to-amuse moviegoers will find it funny enough to engage with its crazy, crass convolutions.” But even with all this and an IMDb rating of 3.3/10, Housefull 4 still managed a haul of ₹194 crore.
However, the actors seem confident about their choices. Talking about the franchise and its ability to overcome bad reviews to set the cash registers ringing every time, Akshay Kumar recently said, “See I respect critics, people need to be critiqued, it is like a barometer which tells you what the temperature is. It is important to have critics in your life and I respect that. Comedy is a kind of a thing which everyone won’t like, my comedy sense is very different than my wife’s. She may not like this, she may like some other kind of work that I do. That is why things will vary from all out what one critic has to say than what another has to say and especially in comedy it is always going to be.”
Talking to Hindustan Times about why the critics’ opinion doesn’t always click with audience, film exhibitor Akshay Rathi says, “There has always been and there will continue to be a significant gap between the opinion of critics and the opinions of the public. To be honest, I think movie critiquing in India mostly roots from uninformed, uneducated opinionating. It’s actually a very technical, academic job. It’s not just about any Tom, Dick and Harry, watching and sharing their opinion of it. Because opinion on films can be very subjective. Most of them are just blurting out opinion without any academic intelligence. So I don’t take them seriously. At the end of the day, the opinion of critics is just that, an opinion.”
Anupama Chopra, however, believes critics are not “box office barometers”. She tells Hindustan Times, “Kenneth Turan, the film critic at LA Times didn’t like Titanic. When he was criticised for this, he said film critics are not box office barometers. I would offer the same line - it’s not our job to gauge audience responses or what is popular. It’s our job to give an informed and honest response to a film. Sometimes critics and audiences will agree and other times they won’t but we are the only thing that stands between the audience and the publicity machine.”
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