Does Bollywood signify Indian cinema as a whole? If yes, then what happens to the rich language fare we get to watch across umpteen film festivals across the country? In a recent conference in Kolkata, actor-director Parambrato Chatterjee who works both in Bollywood and in Bengali cinema questioned the implied equation of Indian cinema with Bollywood. India being the largest democracy and also the biggest producer of films in the world, does not, repeat not, confine itself to Bollywood. Besides, Hindi is not a popular language in cinema through the four southern states where language cinema rules the roost.

Just as one cannot accept Bollywood cinema as the be-all and end-all of Indian cinema, one also cannot state that language cinema rules uppermost in terms of popularity, audience appeal and quality. One needs to take a more holistic approach while trying to explore which direction has Indian cinema taken over the year 2019.

If one were to surf the NET for the ten biggest hits in cinema, one would unfailingly come across a Bollywood list of hits which certainly does not represent Indian cinema. Besides, do “hits” in terms of the commercial returns a film has got, also signify that these ten films are upmost in terms of quality, content, form, style and approach as well? There cannot be a definitive answer to these questions because their aren’t any.

Every “Biggest Hits of the Year” list gives identical lists of films because the valuation is totally determined by the box office returns of the given film and all of them are Bollywood films as if the rest of India does not exist. The logic behind this quantitative analysis is never mind the content or the way it is presented but if the audience has watched a film the most and brought money to its makers, it is a hit. So, in common parlance, the best film is the film that turned out to bring in the blue bucks or green bucks or both to its makers.

This year, the film that topped the list is Kabir Singh which underlined Shahid Kapoor’s biggest career success. I watched the film with a sense of shock that deepened as the film progressed as I discovered the extremely derogatory way in which women are treated in the film and the terribly anti-social behaviour and speech patterns of the “hero.” As Sukanya Verma writes in her review of the film “All the groovy rock music, lilting ballads and sympathetic background score cannot camouflage Kabir's douche ways. At the peak of his misogyny, he'll point sharp objects and threaten a fling to undress, chase his house help with the intention of thwacking her for breaking his crockery, force a 'healthy' girl to be his lady's best friend cum roomie, strong-arm his way into a relationship with the girl to catch his fancy and slap her in the film's most unsettling confrontation scene.” But this is the Hindi remake of a Southern hit so what “Indian” cinema are we talking about? Arjun Reddy in Telugu starring Deverakonda was a super blockbuster and the screen image of Shahid Kapoor could not hold and candle to this guy’s image.

(Still from Kabir Singh)

Bollywood cinema is currently vacillating between the two extreme polarities of “wholesome” entertainment and films that brazenly project negative values and decaying morals and celebrate them as celluloid symbols of the heroic and heroism. And as many Bollywood films choose to ride piggy back on the box office success of films from the South

The question that arises in the midst of the anti-social films that make a mockery of values our parents taught us on honesty, ethics and industry is – is this moral decay reflective of the moral decay in the world we live in today? Or, does the real world derive both inspiration and justification for violating the principles of good over evil which remains the same across time, place, culture, history and language” Murder is always evil never mind what motivates you to take the life of another human being. Stealing, smuggling, inflicting violence and torture and earning one’s livelihood through devious, illegal and illicit means have always been considered immoral while living a good, simple and honest life has always been perpetuated as the ideal way of living.

This is a marked departure from films where actions detrimental to people and society were termed ‘negative’, ‘bad’ and ‘villainous’ with a climax that either saw the miraculous transformation of the villain to a positive character or punished the negative character through death or imprisonment. “The Angry Young Man” affixed to Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s projected and identified his anti-social, amoral criminal acts with retributive justice, motivated by revenge. In this phase, many Bollywood films portrayed the hero/heroine or the hero’s mother as one who learnt to believe that avenging a past wrong is his/her moral responsibility towards the one who has been wronged – father, mother, brother, sister, son, etc. But in most of these films, the hero had to pay either with his life or with a long-term imprisonment. The law, the collective conscience of the audience and the social ideology of Bollywood cinema at the time did not allow him to go free from Deewar to Agnipath.

The other nine films are in order of ranking are – Uri – The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Kesari, Gully Boy, Total Dhamaal, Gully Boy, De De Pyar De, Luka Chhupi, Manikarnika. Never mind the box office rankings, none of them I guess, will have a long shelf life or even make it to the archives. But no one really cares specially not the producers who have got back several times the money they put in and he archives, so long as they are concerned, can go to hell.

(Still from Gully Boy)

Yet, one must admit that the entire array of ten big hits which some media outlets have twisted a bit by listing War before Kabir Khan and Housefull 4 in place of something else, the end result remains more or less the same. The versatility in the fare provided makes space of analysis and exploration. The very definition of the term “entertainment” so far as Indian cinema goes, is undergoing a metamorphosis. Yet, content-wise, despite technical excellence, good acting, lavish mounting and excellent production values, they appear partly hollow.

One blog lists a few films that are so off-beat that we may not have even the names of these films while the rest had brief runs. The films are – Bambairiya starring Radhika Apte and how the sudden loss of her phone changes her life, The Fakir of Venice which narrates the story of a con-man and a fakir, Bhramanand Singh’s Jhalki which interweaves a folk tale with a narrative on girl trafficking and child labour, Photograph, a sweet and unusual love story with no agenda at all and has a definite yet unmelodramatic closure with a low key treatment by the director, and Gone Kesh which strips the leading lady of all glamour by showing her as a girl slowly and steadily losing all her hair and has the very talented but underutilised Shweta Tripathi in the lead. But not one of them had even a decent run in the theatres and were pulled out within the week.

(Still from Gone Kesh)

Taking a holistic approach towards Indian cinema, one may mention some really good Marathi language films such as Mai Ghat – Crime No.103.2005, Dithee, a beautiful film directed by Sumitra Bhave, Bhai- Vyakti Ki Valli and Panghrun by Mahesh Manjrekar, and Paani directed by Adinath Kothare and produced by Priyanka Chopra among a few others. They can easily fit into the groove of mainstream films but they get eliminated from the box office purely because they feature in film festivals and are automatically eliminated from distributors, exhibitors and therefore, the audience.a

Prakash Deka’s Fireflies from Assam is a very good film but though Kannada films are being made every day, quality-wise, they suffer and commercially too, they do not make a splash. Malayalam films such as Death By Water by Venu Nair, Fever directed by Santosh Mandur, Run Kalyani by J. Geetha, Black by Deepak Kumar, The Tree Under the Sun by Dr. Bijukumar and Silencer by Priyanandan T.R. are only tiny pebbles in a sea of very good films. They deal with very unorthodox plots and the approach is also very original and unique. The Tami film Horse Friend directed by Earthing Kausaly is also exceptional in story and theme. The Village House in a dialect from the UP-Bihar belt is also exceptionally good though the story is nothing new for us. In Hindi, we had some really unusual feature films such as Mooso, and Devi Aur Hero about a relationship between a sex slave and a drug addict-psychiatrist. More than 100 Bengali films are released every year but few fit into the groove of both commercial success and aesthetic quality. Among them are Gumnaami by Srijit Mukherjee, Jyeshtho Putro by Kaushik Ganguly, Ghare Baire Aaj by Aparna Sen, Urojahaj by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sandip Ray’s Professor Shonku O El Dorado and a few others awaiting release by the end of this year.

It is technique that may play the villain in the coming years. The streaming sites are proving to be a hot alternative to large screen and even television films being telecast on the small screen. Though this began with NETFLIX and AMAZON PRIME, they are multiplying every passing day Every film production house is jumping onto the streaming bandwagon making films exclusively for the streaming sites alongside feature films. It creates employment avenues with two major drawbacks – (a) this may be a temporary phase and (b) it will attract untrained and semi-trained technicians and actors and even directors. To quote actor-director and ad-maker Dhritiman Chaterjee, “The upside to digital platforms and watching a creative on a phone is liberation, democratisation, emancipation. The downside is the worry of the critical eye getting dimmed. We either grew up with the large screen or created for the large screen. We got to know things like image resolution, depth of field, the authenticity of colours. When you are creating something for the tiny little screen, these markers are no longer very important. So the way of perceiving and seeing is getting dimmed or is changing.”

(Cover Photo: Still from Mai Ghat – Crime No.103.2005)