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'Laxmii', 'Ludo', 'Chhallang': A dim Diwali for Hindi cinema

Audiences at home are a lot less forgiving. A streaming network subscription gives a viewer a library, and a better film is always a couple of clicks away

Akshay Kumar in 'Laxmii'
Akshay Kumar in 'Laxmii'

There are certain things film critics—at least the more benevolent ones—end up repeating quite often about Hindi films. In order to excuse an inane and thoughtless movie, they label it best enjoyed when the viewer “leaves their brains at home”. That ridiculous phrase came incessantly to mind this weekend when I braved Raghava Lawrence’s Laxmii on Disney+ Hotstar. The Akshay Kumar film is an affront to the senses, and watching something this imbecilic at home—by myself—felt particularly ghastly. Where can our brains hide when the movies come straight home?

Laxmii is the kind of film where Kumar is possessed by a transgender ghost and therefore claps a lot. The film lies from the get-go, with Kiara Advani, playing Kumar’s wife, telling her family that her husband “does a lot of comedy”. Kumar, who usually glides through buffoonish films with flair, is woefully out of form, and Laxmii has not only been savaged by critics, but has left Kumar’s online fan clubs sheepishly licking their wounds and promising great things from his next feature instead.

Still, parts of Laxmii may have worked on a big screen. In a darkened theatre, with Kumar looming larger than life, with the catchy Burj Khalifa song briefly bringing down the house and—during the misogynistic jokes and weak gags—with audiences tickled (and emboldened) by the laughter of other members of the audience, pretending to have a good time because they have paid for it already. Possibly extra, with theatres hiking up their rates for Diwali.

I believe audiences watching films at home are a lot more demanding, a lot less forgiving. A subscription to a streaming network gives a viewer a library, and a better film is always a couple of clicks away. On a streaming platform, Kumar isn’t competing only with the other releases of the week, but with Salman Khan, Brad Pitt, a rerun of Friends, and that strange movie with the intriguing thumbnail you added to your watchlist months ago.

Then there’s the experience. Indian networks are tentative about putting big new content behind a pay-per-view wall, which means that even for a big- budget release like Laxmii, the viewer has not paid specifically for the movie. This immediately makes it less of an event. In contrast to a viewer buying a ticket for a blockbuster, this feels more like an open-mic night where performers desperately vie for our attention.

Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang (Amazon Prime Video) also arrived straight-to-streaming for Diwali. It is a template sports movie with a right-wing hero (Rajkummar Rao) who harasses a husband and wife in a public place in the name of “traditional family values”. He falls in love with the daughter of the couple he has troubled, and while she scorns him at first, we soon see him sharing her tiffin-box. The writing is lazy and forgettable, and while the actors get their Haryanvi accents right, authenticity is not enough—it is, in fact, the default when it comes to content that succeeds on streaming networks.

The year’s third “Diwali release” is Anurag Basu’s eccentric Ludo (Netflix), about crossed paths and quirky characters, featuring Pankaj Tripathi, Abhishek Bachchan, Sanya Malhotra, and Pearle Maaney. True to the title, the shenanigans are colour-coded, and there is one lovely line: A lover describes a woman as “two sixes and a five”, a most elusive and desired dice combination. The whimsy is refreshing but—with Basu not only writing and directing but doing the production design, cinematography, and even acting on screen—this becomes a maddeningly indulgent affair. The man literally plays a god.

Halfway through, I was curious. The narratives of lovers and gangsters (and lovers of gangsters) crisscrossed messily but unpredictably, and when the film signalled its interval—the screen split into four primary-coloured quarters showing the four stories—I wanted to see how it would shake out. Then, after a girl in a red dress went berserk, it became clear that the film, unlike a ludo counter, didn’t know where it was headed, ending up in pointless shootouts. It also turned out to be a tedious two-and-a-half-hours long, and had I been writing about that film at length, my review would be titled “Bored Games”.

To quote another Indian critic cliché, Ludo may be said to suffer from “the curse of the second half”. However, at home, without a prolonged cola-popcorn break, there is no halving. This, in my opinion, presents a massive opportunity. Indian screenwriters should stop considering the theatrical intermission as all-important, and write films without worrying about having to build to a dramatic cliffhanger in the middle, and then building a new beginning-middle-end arc. We can finally stop writing around intermission points. We live in a world where people watch Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman (Netflix) like a five-episode miniseries. Audiences make their own breaks.

For Ludo, a streaming release may have worked better than the big screen. It is a weird little film trying too many things—and indeed some critics and audiences have embraced the atypicality—but, in a theatre, its niftier quirks may have been lost in the chaos, and its length would certainly have felt more torturous. Then again, for a theatrical release, Basu might have been compelled to trim the film down to 2 hours, which would only have made it better.

An OTT platform is called over-the-top because the internet allows it to come directly to the consumer, free of broadcasters, cables and satellite dishes. Nobody in the world has quite figured out how to release—and monetise—blockbusters direct to streaming yet. Superhero movies have taken the year off. Netflix and Apple TV+ have passed on rights for the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, because they can’t justify a $600 million (around 4,460 crore) price tag.

Why should a network pay staggering amounts to a movie star when they can, for much less, make a whole new season of Mirzapur? The playing field has changed. If theatres don’t get back to normal numbers soon, stars will be forced to earn their shine all over again. To win audiences over afresh, to prove their starry worth, to try and make the smaller screens feel like an event. The struggle should be fascinating. Call the platforms what you will, but our films and stars are truly over the top.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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