Golly! It’s The Time For Davids

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It’s straight A for mid-budget, content-driven films at the box office this year while the star-power formula flails nervously

Small is beautiful, and also lucrative, in the B-town now. After its prolonged fixation with everything larger-than-life on 70mm, the film industry is finally beginning to realise that size doesn’t really matter in the economics of new-age cinema.
This year, movie-makers appear to have cracked the box office code simply by picking up novel scripts, keeping the budgets low, sticking to production deadlines and avoiding unnecessary exp­enditure—all indicating a discernible change from the way Hindi cinema has been made over the years. The failure of many a big-budget project that chose to bank on star power rather than content, all at around the same time, has hastened this metamorphosis.
Doubtless, several movies with modest star casts, shorn of any hype prior to rel­ease, have left the producers laughing all the way to the bank in a year which ­reduced several bigwigs ­behind lavi­shly mounted extravaganzas to tears. Irrfan Khan’s Hindi Medium—a telling commentary on the state of private school education, made on a budget of less than Rs 25 crore­—turned out to be a massive hit, earning almost three times of its budget in the domestic market alone. Nawazuddin Siddiq­ui-starrer Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, a gangster flick made on a shoe-string budget of Rs 5 crore, left trade pundits astonished by raking in about Rs 13 crore. In keeping with this trend, Ayushmann Khurrana’s latest, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which tackled as unusual a theme as erectile dysf­unction, proved to be an aphro­disiac at the cash counters, garnering over Rs 35 crore, double its budget, in merely two weeks since its release earlier this month.
In sharp contrast, the big but bad ones, hoping to cash in on the charm and charisma of popular A-list stars, were left gasping in their commercial run. Highly-rated director Imtiaz Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, in fact, turned out to be Shahrukh “King” Khan’s biggest disaster in the multiplex era.
Movies with modest star casts, shorn of any hype prior to release, have left the producers laughing all the way to the bank.
Tubelight, starring another widely ­acknowledged demigod of the box ­off­ice, Salman Khan, did comparatively better with a collection of about Rs 120 crore, and yet its distributors ended up incurring huge losses ­bec­ause of its highly inflated budget. Disney production Jagga Jasoos, Ranbir Kapoor’s long-in-the-making film, also collapsed under the weight of its steep production costs while Amitabh Bachchan’s Sarkar 3 could not replicate the magic of its hit ­prequels made by the maverick Ram Gopal Varma. A few big-budget movies of other top-notch stars, such as Ajay Devgn’s Baadshaho and Anil Kapoor’s Mubarakan, did good ­business initially but failed to ensure ­decent profits for all the stakeholders, from res­pective production houses to the exhibitors. In the first three qua­rters of the year, it was primarily the success of small-budget projects that brought cheers to an ­industry often pilloried for its disorg­anised style of functioning and utter disregard for fiscal prudence.
Significantly, their success has also cast a shadow on the much-vaunted star system Bollywood has so proudly worn on its sleeves like its proverbial badge of honour for long. As of now, the box office, otherwise considered to be an impregnable fortress of only a few big commercial stars, appears to be under siege with a bunch of ­‘regular’, degla­morised but extremely talented actors churning out hits at a fair clip. Made on small-to-moderate budgets with minimal spending on publicity and promotions, their recent, more-­realistic-than-fantastic ventures have earned enough profits to carve out their own space in the marquee of ­exalted box-office mascots.
Consequently, content appears to be tantalisingly close to replacing star power as the ultimate arbiter of a movie’s fate now. Heralded by a bunch of new film-makers and actors who have no qualms in playing true-­to-life characters, with all their follies and foibles, the adv­ent of content-heavy cinema marks a clear departure from the era dominated by the ‘high-on-testos­terone’ macho ­heroes, who wouldn’t do anything not befitting their screen ­stature and considered any such shade to a role an infra dig.
But does all this really signify a change in the taste of audiences? Many believe that it’s not a new phenomenon, as the audience has always appreciated a content-heavy movie ­regardless of its star cast. “The only difference today is that the industry is better at working out rational budgets for a film,” says ­director Saket Choudhary whose Hindi Medium was one of the biggest hits of the year. “Hasn’t the same audience ­appreciated the big star Aamir Khan’s Taarey Zameen Par and Dangal in the past or Akshay Kumar’s recent films? I think it is this year in particular that a lot many content-driven films have done well together.”
Hindi Medium, says Choudhary, connected with the audiences big time ­because they could relate to its theme. Besides, small and independent movies are also helped by the emergence of new avenues, he adds. “Since digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have come up, the chances of ­recovering the cost of a movie have certainly gone up. The producer is no longer afraid to invest, knowing he would get back his money if he makes a good film within a fixed budget.”
Choudhary says that the success of small movies has not only turned young actors such as Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana into new stars but also prompted a big star like Akshay Kumar to keep banking upon content-­heavy cinema made on a reasonable budget. “Akshay has proved how star power combined with content can be a big motivator for the audiences to flock to theatres,” he says. “This has helped him grow as an actor and star as well.”
Choudhary has a point. In a year when his formidable colleagues like Salman and Shahrukh struggled, Akshay gave back-to-back hits. This year, Jolly LLB 2 and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, both earned more than Rs 125 crore underlining the fact that no star, howsoever big in the commercial world, can ignore content now. Concurs director Ashwiny Iyer-Tiwari, whose Bareilly ki Barfi, a slice-of-life romantic drama set in a small UP town starring Khurrana and Rao in the lead roles, was among the hits this year: “I think the ind­ustry is going the Hollywood way these days. Back home, it’s like returning to the days of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, when everybody knew which kind of movie a particular director offered,” she states. “It is heartening that the character in a script has once again become far more important than the individual portraying it on screen, which implies that the meaning of an actor is coming out in the true sense now.”
Director Amit V. Masurkar­—whose black comedy, Newton, starring Rao in the lead, is slated for release this week— thinks the audience has now become more open-minded than ever before when it comes to accepting diverse themes. “The number of people going to multiplexes is rising by the day,” he says. “Their aspirations and spending power are also increasing and they don’t mind spending extra bucks even on a new Hollywood movie which is being released in India and the US on the same day these days.”
Masurkar says that so-called art movies, howsoever good, did not do well commercially in the past but in the era of multiplexes, they have better prospects because even regular audiences look ­forward to variety in content. He cites another reason for the success of young actors like Rao and Khurrana: “All the reigning superstars are in their 50s now so they are shifting to solid ­content to suit their age,” he says. “That leaves the field open for the younger actors. It is, therefore, a natural ­progression for them to rise.”
Nevertheless, it is too early to say if domination of content over star power at the ticket counters is for real or just a passing fad. Ghalib Asad Bhopali, scriptwriter of Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, avers that this trend will last only if other film-makers avoid making similar movies. “Nobody knows how long it will continue for ­because Bollywood tends to blindly follow any trend that becomes popular. As a result, the audience ultimately gets tired of watching the same stuff over and over again,” he says. “I’m afraid a day will come when the audience will also get fed up with the realistic cinema in vogue these days.”
Ghalib, son of yesteryear lyricist Asad Bhopali, says that Babumoshai turned out to be a hit because people could easily connect with the character of a sharpshooter played by Nawazuddin. “It was not a larger-than-life character but a rea­listic one, someone they might have seen somewhere in their own neighbourhood,” he states. “But such characters cannot be repeated in every other gangster flick.”