In the failure of ‘Shamshera’, a warning and a lesson for Bollywood
Shamshera, star of Ranbir Kapoor is the latest in a long list of recent Hindi films – including Samrat Prithviraj, Bachchhan Pandey, Dhaakad and Jayeshbhai Jordaar – that have fared poorly at the box office. This trend has rightly raised several questions in the minds of viewers and directors alike. What’s wrong ? The growing public disenchantment with mainstream and commercial Hindi cinema is a phenomenon worth investigating.
While Hindi films have not fared very well, their Southern counterparts have managed to capture the popular imagination. This is a great moment in the history of contemporary Indian cinema and we have never witnessed such success for films from the South which cross linguistic borders. Rajinikanth was perhaps the only exception, although his films were also only released in certain pockets of non-South Indian states.
The box office collections of films such as Pushpa: The Rise, KGF: Chapter 2 and RRR at the heart of Hindi cinema are remarkable. Recently, while traveling through rural West Bengal, I noticed Pushpa products in the village shops – shirts and T-shirts with the face of actor Allu Arjun. A little later, I came across a group of young people proudly displaying their Baahubali fare at the village crossroads. This too at a place where the only language spoken and heard is a dialect of Bangla. This was unimaginable even ten years ago and underlines the significant penetration that these films have been able to achieve. Digital technology and its dissemination have undeniably contributed to this influence. But it also challenges our preconceptions about fame and the fan base of Hindi cinema.
Have these fans now moved to new pastures? Are they tired of watching their favorite stars stream the same movies over and over? Is this some sort of warning that there are other wholesome entertainment possibilities beyond Hindi cinema that are now easily accessible and available?
These South Indian movies are big screen extravaganzas. Audiences go to these films expecting a show. When Baahubali: The Beginning came out, some even compared it to James Cameron’s Avatar. The content of these films deserves a separate discussion and much has been written and said about how regressive it can be. There’s even talk of Ayan Mukherji’s upcoming Brahmastra, which will be released this year after being repeatedly delayed, mimicking the look of those great Southern films. Will it pay similar dividends? We have to wait and watch but a pattern has certainly been created.
This, however, points to a bigger problem: the lack of originality or creative thinking. Is the mainstream Hindi industry so content crunched that it has to rely on a Southern formula? Some of the other big box office hits of Hindi cinema like the highly problematic Kabir Singh are also remakes of Southern films. Telugu superstar Vijay Deverakonda, the lead role of Arjun Reddy on whom Kabir Singh was based, is now cast by Karan Johar in the upcoming Hindi film Liger, possibly also to earn money from the huge fanbase of the star in the South.
On another note, during the pandemic, viewers discovered contemporary Malayalam cinema through OTT platforms. These films are today the cornerstone of several cinematographic discourses. They managed to strike a wonderful balance between commerce and content, something that mainstream Hindi cinema has largely failed in. Movies like Malik, Bheeshma Parvam, Dear Friend, Kurup, Salute, Minnal Murali are not untraditional. Successful Malayalam stars like Tovino Thomas and Fahadh Faasil not only have interesting filmographies to showcase but have also backed equally exciting film projects as producers. Instead of following trends, they create trends themselves. The freshness of these films in terms of the stories they choose to tell and the characters they introduce makes them distinct. Access to this cinema via OTT platforms has also revealed to viewers that good cinema does not necessarily require massive budgets and can be achieved with limited means. Why should they settle for less when there are better films available from the comfort of their own home? After all, watching good cinema is the best exposure for a viewer.
Kerala’s film industry is tiny compared to Hindi, Tamil or Telugu film ecosystems. Contemporary Hindi cinema has no similar trajectory to show. Even its actors-turned-producers return to conventional subjects, thus regurgitating proven formulas.
South Indian cinema is not a homogeneous category. The combination of big, spectacular films and content-driven cinema, however, is a model that many would aspire to but few manage to achieve. Does the wave of recent rejections in Hindi cinema indicate that audiences need better content? It’s still too early to tell, but will films imitating those of the South offer respite? Anurag Kashyap recently said that Hindi films performed poorly because they were made by people who did not speak Hindi themselves and therefore were not rooted in their culture. But that’s only part of the problem. Hindi cinema needs better vision, ideas, scripts and a will for reform by looking beyond pyaar, ishq, mohabbat and nafrat.
The writer teaches Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune