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Bollywood in 2016: A year of ferment

It was a tempestuous year for the Hindi film industry, marked by bans, closures, foreign invasions and the odd Cinderella story

Vidya Balan in a still from ‘Kahaani 2’.
Vidya Balan in a still from ‘Kahaani 2’.

Like every year, the Hindi film industry took a couple of steps back and a couple of steps forward in 2016. It seems likely that some of the year’s upheavals—studios shutting down production, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) being taken to court, a Hollywood film out-earning nearly everyone—will have far-reaching consequences. Here are four trends that marked the cinematic year.

Studios that couldn’t, the little independent film that could

UTV Motion Pictures has been ubiquitous on the Hindi film scene for 12 years, producing and co-producing films such as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Dev.D, PK and Haider. Formed in 2004, it merged with Disney India in 2012. In August, however, Disney announced that it was withdrawing from film production in India. This wasn’t entirely out of the blue—the studio had suffered big losses on Fitoor and Mohenjo Daro this year—but when it was announced that Siddharth Roy Kapur, who had been with UTV since 2005, was stepping down as managing director, rumours started flying.

Firms like Balaji Telefilms were rumoured to be shutting down (the banner has put a freeze on film production until the release of Half Girlfriend in May). Op-eds for an ailing industry appeared across publications, offering advice, dire predictions and cold comfort.

At the other end of the spectrum, a Marathi film-maker named Nagraj Manjule, director of the well-received Fandry, made a little indie called Sairat. The budget was a modest Rs4 crore, but the reaction to the film’s trailers and music suggested that it might go on to do a little business. No one, least of all Manjule, could have expected Sairat to go on to earn over Rs100 crore worldwide, a first for a Marathi film.

India, repackaged

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book presented Disney India with a great opportunity: Not only was the story set here, but viewers had an emotional connection to it—not the Disney feature of 1967, but the dubbed anime series telecast on Doordarshan in the 1990s. So they decided—wisely, it turned out—to throw some money at the project: publicizing the film, hiring a stellar voice cast (Nana Patekar, Irrfan Khan, Om Puri, Priyanka Chopra) and re-recording the Gulzar-penned, Vishal Bhardwaj-composed Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai number from the TV series. In a clear sign of intent, it was released here, in English and dubbed in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, a week before it opened in the US.

The Jungle Book went on to net earnings of Rs188 crore (gross Rs261 crore), a record for any Hollywood release in India. Though estimates vary, there is roughly a 50/50 split in earnings between the dubbed and English versions. At one point, it was the highest-earning film of the year in the country, before it was overtaken by Sultan. The Conjuring 2 (Rs61.78 crore) and Captain America: Civil War (Rs59.5 crore) also made the top 20 earners’ list this year.

Bollywood will have to get used to big-budget Hollywood movies invading year-end box-office lists. Last year, two franchise films—Jurassic World and Furious 7—netted over Rs100 crore. Already, we have seen local studios talking the language of franchises and a slate of Indian superhero films are planned.

Dealing with feelings

This was the year the male stars of Bollywood decided to get in touch with their feelings. Thus, you had the unusual sight of Salman Khan looking in disgust at his bloated reflection in the mirror and breaking down in Sultan. Aamir Khan, to no one’s surprise, cried in Dangal. A scene in Airlift had Akshay Kumar absolutely bawling his eyes out. Ranbir Kapoor wept, or seemed on the verge of it, through much of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Shah Rukh Khan was swoon-inducingly sensitive (or so I’m told) in Dear Zindagi, and even Ranveer Singh paused in the midst of his macho posturing in Befikre to admit that he was being an idiot because of his own insecurities.

In contrast, there were several films that centred on female leads bringing their emotions under control and getting the job done: Sonam Kapoor, initially panicked but finding courage in Neerja; Swara Bhaskar, battling her daughter’s disgust in Nil Battey Sannata; the central trio in Pink, forced to relive a nightmare in court and not seem hysterical while doing so. Alia Bhatt clamped down on her emotions in Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) and Dear Zindagi; Anushka Sharma did the same in Sultan. Vidya Balan overcame panic in Kahaani 2, Radhika Apte her deep-seated psychological fears in Phobia.

Protecting from within and without

When Pahlaj Nihalani took over the position of chairman of the CBFC in January 2015, it didn’t seem likely that he would be calling the shots for too long. Yet, two years on, that’s where matters stand. There were several contentious instances of censorship in 2016; Udta Punjab, especially, became a cause célèbre after the CBFC reportedly demanded 89 cuts. The makers moved the Mumbai high court and the film was passed with one cut.

As a result of the criticism the CBFC received last year, a committee headed by director Shyam Benegal was appointed at the start of 2016. It submitted its report in April, recommending, among other things, a hands-off approach and clearer categorization of films. Despite some hopeful reports about the “revamping" of the board, nothing has come of it yet. And one shouldn’t forget that in 2013, the Mukul Mudgal committee had submitted a report that made similar recommendations, which were entirely ignored.

A bull-headed determination to protect some ideal of India in its cinema surfaced in another, more politically volatile form. After the attacks on Indian soldiers in Pathankot and Uri, the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association announced a ban on Pakistani artists working in Hindi films. This was followed by the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India asking its members not to screen films with Pakistani artists in their theatres. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena threatened violence. Sadly, it worked: A shaken Karan Johar appeared in a video saying that he wouldn’t work with Pakistani talent again (the film’s producers also donated Rs5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund—a demand that MNS made of all films with artists from across the border). And recently, Shah Rukh Khan met MNS president Raj Thackeray—some reports maintained it was to discuss the impending release of his film Raees, though this was denied.

What we’d like to see in 2017

■Better action films

There are fewer Hindi action films in theatres than there used to be, and for good reason: They can’t compete with the superior fight choreography of foreign films. Sultan broke box-office records, but its bouts were repetitive. Baaghi stole from Gareth Evans’ The Raid, Shivaay from Liam Neeson thrillers, though these were preferable to John Abraham vehicles and the cut-rate effects of A Flying Jatt. But Dangal was a late stunner—a lesson in coherent, believable, home-grown fight choreography.

■Fewer male saviours

2016 was a fruitful year for films in which women were—or took—the lead. To build on these gains, Bollywood directors should try and resist placing a male star in the role of saviour—Amitabh Bachchan in Pink, Aamir Khan in Dangal—especially when the crux of the film is women’s rights.

■Smarter endings

There’s something about final acts that rattles even the best Indian directors. The endings this year ranged from unconvincing (Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh) to derivative (A Flying Jatt) to blatantly manipulative (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). There’s hardly a film that releases here that doesn’t have second-half problems, but there’s no reason why the more talented screenwriters and directors can’t iron these out.

■More non-fiction

Year after year, an entire subsection of Indian cinema remains unrepresented on the big screen. Only one homegrown documentary, Chandrasekhar Reddy’s Fireflies In The Abyss, released in theatres in 2016. With Netflix acquiring several non-fiction Indian titles, it’s time for adventurous distributors and exhibitors to figure out a way to bring more Indian documentaries to the big screen in 2017.

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