Bollywood 2017: Bold Stories & Strong Characters the Big Winners
For a country obsessed with Bollywood, 2017 has been a year of big revelations (again):
- Superstars are fallible
- Talent will eventually make room for itself
- Content is king
While the audiences responded warmly to powerful stories and earnest performances, a few big superstars failed to get the ticket counters ringing. It was the year where big budget movies came crumbling down while the audience connected wholeheartedly with hinterland stories. Films on socially relevant issues piqued the cine-goer’s interest and the regular unabashedly masala films went unnoticed.
Revelations galore for a calendar year, we’d say! But the hits and duds of the year 2017 also merit a deeper engagement with emerging trends in the Hindi cinema landscape. Is it an evolution of sorts for Hindi cinema? Or just the first step towards the larger changes that await us in the coming years?
Strong Content, Powerful Storytelling Is the Way to Audiences’ Hearts
2017 proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that content is king and it is the story, above everything else, that keeps a film afloat. From Lipstick Under My Burkha to Newton, issue-based cinema triumphed over mediocre outings such as Raabta and Half-Girlfriend. Save a few exceptions, 2017 was the year where cohesive story-telling took precedence over mindless cinema.
In Newton, Amit Masurkar takes us to the tangled jungles of Chhattisgarh and lays bare the farce that our electoral process is. Haraamkhor brings to light a disconcerted relationship between a student and a teacher with utmost sensitivity.
Shubh Mangal Savdhan is a delightfully refreshing film about erectile dysfunction. Not crass, not insensitive but quite enjoyable. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha unabashedly exposes India’s sanitation crisis. Crisp dialogue, winning performances, small-town setting and great direction make Bareilly ki Barfi the romcom of the year. Kadvi Hawa is a heartbreakingly intense narrative on climate change and the perils it brings. Hindi Medium exposed our shameless obsession with the English language with unnerving honesty.
There were other films that stood out for critical acclaim in 2017. Set in the narrow bylanes of Banaras, Mukti Bhawan embraces death nonchalantly. The choice of the subject is where the filmmaker scores. Despite knowing the inevitability of death, how many of us are comfortable coming to terms with it? A masterpiece in effective storytelling, Rukh asks life’s most complex questions with a hard-hitting simplicity. It is a story of loss and grief, acceptance and moving on. A heaviness pervades throughout which draws you in, speaking even in its silences.
Trapped propels into the spotlight the scarily claustrophobic experience of physical and psychological entrapment. The helplessness of the situation grows slowly on the protagonist and the audience, who shrink under its enormity but nonetheless strive for survival. The director’s mastery over the craft lies in making the audience and protagonist unite in this fight for freedom.
The takeaway: Content-driven cinema is the way ahead.
Room for Innovative Storytelling Formats
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. An Insignificant Man. Sachin: A Billion Dreams. Jagga Jasoos.
What unites these four very different storytelling formats is an ambition to transgress the established. Except for the first, which was the highest grosser of 2017 despite not being a Hindi film, none of the three were big commercial successes but they nevertheless left an indelible mark on audiences and critics alike.
While Sachin: A Billion Dreams was a walk down the memory lane, a biographical sports drama done right, Jagga Jasoos was like a whiff of fresh air – a beautiful musical unlike any we have seen before.
Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla created a riveting docu-drama in An Insignificant Man. The film made a mark in an array of political duds such as Indu Sarkar and Partition: 1947. Strong editing, a coherent narrative and an unflinching objectivity make for a fascinating account of the step-by-step building of the Aam Aadmi Party.
The takeaway: Think out of the box and do not shy away from experimenting.
Big Stars Are Not Always Bankable
Rolling out ambitious projects embellished with stars is not enough unless the story is empowered in the true sense. From Jab Harry Met Sejal, which had SRK, to Tubelight which was riding on Bhai’s enviable stardom, there are examples galore of movies which tanked despite boasting big names.
Even Amitabh Bachchan could not salvage Sarkar 3. Bhoomi invited scorn from audiences and critics alike despite being Sanjay Dutt’s comeback of sorts. Vidya Balan could not do much to rescue Begum Jaan and tireless promotions proved futile to save the snoozefest that Raabta was.
The single biggest takeaway: Carve out strong characters and empower the story.
Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment, Not Anymore?
Despite the focus on nuanced characters and well-sculpted scripts, Judwaa 2, Tiger Zinda Hai, Golmaal Again, Badrinath ki Dulhania emerged as the highest grossers of 2017 and understandably so. Flying cars, cheesy romance, mindless action sequences, no-brainers, and screwball comedies are here to stay, at least for a while. The space for such movies is shrinking for sure, but they aren’t nearing extermination anytime soon.
The takeaway: Directors have to think through even an out-and-out masala film. Think Tiger Zinda Hai. It has to be formulaic. It’s like treading the fine line between Golmaal series and Dilwale. While Rohit Shetty gets the former right almost always, he erred bigtime with the latter. The audience cannot be taken for granted any longer.
Feminism Is the Word of the Year for a Reason
It was gratifying to see so many female voices break through in 2017.
In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Alankrita Shrivastava provocatively lifts the veil on female desire, sexual and otherwise. The convincing and heartfelt performances make Lipstick a force to reckon with. As a 55-year-old widow painstakingly negotiating with her fantasies, Ratna Pathak Shah has the audiences’ genuine empathy. Konkana as the abused wife and feisty salesgirl (both at once) makes for an uncomfortably relatable character, her earnestness coming forth in every frame.
Just when we were completely mesmerised with her enviable craft as an actor, Konkana charmed us again with her directorial venture A Death in the Gunj. In choosing a thriller, she makes an unconventional first choice to make her foray into the realm of storytelling but pulls it off with unmatched elan. In Shutu (Vikrant Massey), she creates an unforgettable character and using him as the motif of things said and unsaid, weaves a stimulating story.
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari shines in her sophomore venture Bareilly ki Barfi. Seema Pahwa deserves special mention for her sprightly performances in Bareilly ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Savdhan. Parvathy’s unmistakable earnestness as the 30-something widow in Qarib Qarib Singlle keeps us chuckled and chortled, making her one of the finds of Bollywood in 2017. Zaira Wasim is a delight to watch in Secret Superstar. So is Meher Vij as her unassuming mother. Together, they make a formidable pair.
Bhoomi’s nuanced performances in Shubh Mangal Savdhan and Toilet show how she has matured as an actor. Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu plays to the gallery the role of a spunky housewife who thinks she can do anything – mai kar sakti hai being her answer to everything. Her relentless energy and lack of inhibitions make her one of the most endearing women characters of 2017. That the movie complements her perfectly to make a strong feminist statement is a cherry on the cake.
Swara Bhasker, in what was one of the best performances of the year, effortlessly gets under the skin of the character in Anaarkali of Aarah. She hurls abuses, dances to raunchy songs but at no point makes light of her right to consent. Her fierce rebuttal to strong forces of misogyny in the event of her honour getting violated commands our respect and admiration.
The takeaway: 2017 bears testimony that feminism is more than just a word.
The Hinterland Connect
2017 was also the year when focus shifted from dreamy locations abroad to the hinterland. Small towns came to life on cinema with pitch-perfect portrayals by directors such as Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Bareilly Ki Barfi), RS Prasanna (Shubh Mangal Savdhan) and Shree Narayan Singh (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha). It was heartening to see filmmakers move beyond the hustle and bustle of metro cities and contextualise their stories in tier-2 and tier-3 towns such as Varanasi, Lucknow and Bareilly.
The audience responded warmly to, let’s say a Bareilly ki Barfi, perhaps, because the setting (among other things) made it easier for them to connect to the story.
The takeaway: Keep it as real as possible. The location is no less than the characters. If done right, the setting turns into an unforgettable character in itself.
Blurring of the Parallel and Commercial Cinema
When a Mukti Bhawan sweeps the audiences’ collective consciousness and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha breaks into the 100-crore club, you know the lines between art and mainstream cinema have been blurred.
Credit it to the digital influx responsible for exposing audiences to a range of content or clever marketing gimmicks which take content far and wide, the mood of the audience is witnessing a tectonic shift. Adding to this, the new crop of actors – fearless and constantly pushing the envelope with their unconventional choices – make it mandatory to empower the story more than anything else. When this happens, the lines between commercial and parallel cinema get automatically blurred.
If filmmakers keep serving old wine in new packaging taking audiences for granted, they are bound to come crashing down.
The takeaway: The audience is evolving. Quality content is the need of the hour.
Standout Characters, Winning Performances Stole the Show in 2017
As the superstars lost some of their sheen, rising stars saved the year for Bollywood. Among those, Rajkummar Rao shone the brightest. With winning performances in Newton (India’s official entry to the Oscars), Bareilly ki Barfi and Trapped, he cemented his position as one of the best talents in Hindi cinema currently. His stubborn idealism in Newton frustrating, his boorish charm in Bareilly infectious and his pain in Trapped contagious. But Vikrant Massey as the fractured Shutu in A Death in the Gunj comes a close second. He is poignant even in his incongruences.
The very talented Pankaj Tripathi too had a phenomenal year and gave us five memorable performances – Anaarkali Of Aarah, Bareilly ki Barfi, Gurgaon, Newton and Fukrey Returns. His harrowing portrayal of the all-powerful Kehri Singh in Gurgaon deserves special mention.
Ayushmann Khurrana brought heartfelt earnestness to the portrayal of Mudit, a young urban man suffering from erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Savdhan. Sanjay Mishra had us in awe for playing strong, varied and inimitable characters in Kadvi Hawa, Anaarkali of Aarah and Newton.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui was disquietingly convincing as the lecherous teacher exploiting his under-age student in Haraamkhor. He was a delight in Raees as SRK’s arch nemesis and brought the same conviction as a brutal hitman in Babumoshai Bandookbaaz.
The takeaway: The superstars can no longer coast along on their stardom and fan following.