RRR, Pushpa, KGF 2: Recent South Blockbusters Have Little to Offer Except Masala
Bollywood is in a slump, but it shouldn’t follow suit as South cinema returns to meaningless masala hits.
The grand success of three south Indian films this year – Pushpa, RRR and KGF2 – and the record-breaking journey of Baahubali earlier, has surprised many in the Hindi film industry. In comparison to Hindi cinema, southern films now appear to have more popular superstars, better budgets and effective marketing strategies. Their slick presentation, along with brilliant cinema graphics, makes their stories attractive.
In fact, many have been suggesting that the Telugu, Tamil and Kannada film industries are ready to displace Bollywood soon in representing Indian cinema on the world stage. There may be some truth in such an assertion – Hindi films are not doing very well at the box office and have failed to match the grandeur and technological advancements that southern cinema has introduced in recent times. However, it’s still too early to suggest that the Hindi film industry shall soon mimic southern cinema. In fact, this year’s top Hindi films have offered more meaningful cinema than southern films.
Is Bollywood Witnessing a Change?
Compared to the recent southern populist cinema, which serves its audience with melodramatic content infused with banal songs, dance and hyper-action, recent Hindi films have embraced bolder subjects and socially relevant themes. True, the Hindi film industry had also long been stuck in its 'masala movie' phase, but it seems that it's finally turning it's attention to meaningful content.
Three recent Hindi movies – Jhund, Gangubai Kathiawadi and The Kashmir Files – suggest that Bollywood’s conventional cinematic culture may be witnessing a change. These films are based on real-life stories, narrate the unnerving struggles of minority social groups and challenge dominant social taboos.
By bringing to the silver screen the heroic tales of the disadvantaged ( Dalits in Jhund) and vulnerable sections ( sex-workers in Gangubai Kathiawadi and Kashmiri Pandits in The Kashmir Files), Bollywood may finally be moving away from cliche stories based on melodrama and violence.
Importantly, the box-office success of these films, especially The Kashmir Files, may inspire filmmakers to produce more work on crucial social realities and sensitive historical events.
It appears that Bollywood is revisiting its ‘Golden Period’ of the 1960s, the period when films about the poor working class (Do Bigha Zamin), migrants (Jagte Raho), patriarchal issues (Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam), and political turmoil (Garam Hava) were celebrated. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Bollywood lost touch with artistic and meaningful subjects and adopted themes that guaranteed commercial and popular success. During these years, Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, and later Govinda, became cinema’s mascots and built a deep connection with the general audience. The Bombay film industry remained disengaged for a long time from stories that offered a critique of India’s myriad social problems.
Recent South Hits Lack Sensitivity
Challenging Brahminical social values and stories about caste issues and untouchability were left to the ‘parallel’ or ‘art house’ cinema. This section of cinema created films that highlighted the struggles of Dalits (Ankur, Sadgati and Damul) and powerless wretched, rape victims (Bandit Queen), but they were confined to a niche audience. Mainstream commercial cinema remained detached from such subjects. But with recent Hindi cinema, things appear to be changing; more films have taken up Dalits issues, such as Newton, Masan, Manjhi, and Article 15.
Increasingly, new-age commercial cinema has also focused on taboo subjects, such as the precarious lives of sex workers (Chameli, Chandni Bar and Begum Jaan), sperm donation, women’s freedom, and LGBTQ issues (Vicky Donor, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Badhaai Do). Some films also created political controversies, such as PK, Haider and Padmaavat; a few featured strong female protagonists (Queen, NH10, Mardaani, Raazi).
Early Hindi cinema largely revolved around the commercial interests and traditional values of upper-caste elites. But recent Hindi films have tried to engage with sensitive social themes and artistic creativity without losing much on the entertainment quotient.
Films like Jhund or Gangubai Kathiawadi thus need more appreciation for highlighting unconventional subjects that are relevant to socially marginalised groups. In Jhund, we see the deplorable lives of young Dalit boys and girls, gutted in petty crimes, drug addiction and poverty. The film showcases the everyday struggles of youngsters haunted by the humiliating gaze of society. Similarly, Gangubai Kathiawadi narrates the torturous and deplorable tale of sex workers and their quest to live a life of dignity and pride. In Badhaai Do, the trauma and burden of homosexuals are depicted sensitively. Such sensitivity has so far not been seen in recent southern blockbusters.
It's Time to Junk the 'Macho Men' Tropes
It seems that Telugu and Kannada cinema is reinventing the powerful legacy of macho-stardom that Hindi cinema was infected with till the late 1990s.
Recent southern films have gone back to well-worn themes of hypernationalism (RRR), illogical violence (KGF 2), mythological male heroes (Baahubali) and patriarchal-macho-ist violence (Pushpa), thus readopting the trope of the gallant male hero.
Telugu and Kannada cinema has only a handful of mainstream, popular films that depict social and class fissures with serious intellectual and creative thought; films produced and directed by Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers, such as Pa Ranjith (Kala and Kabali), Vetrimaran (Asuran) and Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan), are often restricted to Tamil cinema. Most southern films also rarely talk about the struggles of Adivasis.
More than learning from the south’s recent mega-blockbusters, it’s time to rethink the artistic logic of cinema and make films that understand and engage with social problems critically. Thus, films that can entertain as well as educate the audience will be a better model for the future of the Hindi cinema industry.
(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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