Go Indian with a script idea, look to Hollywood for event film flair

Fans are fed up with lazy remakes as well as movies that recycle cliches under the guise of serving a message

Now that we’ve gloated enough about how brahmastra could emerge as Bollywood’s magic weapon in the fight against flops and boycotts, it’s time for the Hindi film industry to see the big picture. What the resounding opening of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s film indicates is how new-age Bollywood fans want their entertainment served. Stars and filmmakers must seize this clue at the box office.

Fans are fed up with lazy, fast-paced remakes of South Indian or foreign hits already available on OTT, or films that mindlessly recycle clichés under the guise of serving a message. Brahmastra shows that cutting-edge artists blending original story with contemporary appeal can be created from traditionally Indian stories. There is a treasure trove of ideas in mythology and folklore to tap into, which Bollywood has almost never explored. Admittedly, writer-director Ayan Mukerji’s fantasy adventure could have done without a cohesive script and much smarter twists. Furthermore, any talk of the film’s lack of imagination in storytelling was scuttled with celebratory daydreaming over its massive opening weekend, pegged at around Rs 225 crore worldwide. But then, aggressive hype and marketing, aided by a star-studded cast, brilliant packaging and the right release strategy have traditionally been the parameters of success in Bollywood, where style continues to precede substance. There is a difference, however, between most of the other larger-than-life Bollywood biggies who have scored despite flaws and Brahmastra. Thematically, Ranbir-Alia’s film, while predictable and spread over nearly three hours, is quite unlike anything Bollywood normally attempts. Beyond the cosmetic brilliance and narrative warts of his film, Ayan Mukerji showed how new Bollywood films must be made if they are to capture the imagination of audiences.

Aside from its handsome main cast and list of star-studded cameos, the film’s USP actually lies in how it balances contrasting formulas. The drama is written around Indian mythology and culture and yet the action is styled in Marvel Adventures. Seen in 3D format, brahmastra, technically at least, is nearly on par with the best anywhere. In a multiplex scenario where films from all over India and the world are regularly dubbed into Hindi for local audiences, good technical specifications are something Bollywood can no longer afford to ignore.

Above all, there is the question of reinventing the masala film itself. For several years, entire sectors of the industry, the media as well as social media have been claiming that the commercial formulas of Bollywood no longer have a place in our mainstream cinema, that avant-garde films require realistic treatment which in no way can accommodate larger-than-life storytelling tools. It is therefore interesting to know how brahmastra as good as Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 – Bollywood’s two biggest commercial hits this year so far – both have a revamped formula. In brahmastrain particular, Mukerji takes all the vintage formulas a Bollywood movie is supposed to cover – songs, boy-girl romance, stunts and melodrama – and bundles it together with captivating visual effects into a technologically accomplished package aimed at delighting viewers of today, at a reported budget of over Rs 400 crore.

In recent years, Bollywood has mistakenly believed that the days of the masala movie were over, and the result has been a slew of Hollywood-style films that have found no connection with audiences. The opening of the bumper brahmastra insists that the truth might be just the opposite. The vintage masala movie isn’t going anywhere – only it needs to be reinvented in the way the Kevin Feige-led Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to reinvent the superhero movie from time to time, or the James Bond franchise owners have thrived over the decades by rearranging 007 bases every few years. Bollywood’s commercial cinema model demanded an overhaul for a long time, not because it had become obsolete, but because it had to adapt to changing tastes. New-age artists like brahmastra and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have shown that this can be done by presenting larger than life fun in a believable medium.

Incidentally, most of the big movies this year except brahmastra and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have failed to strike that balance between reinventing and retaining what essentially defines mainstream Bollywood. Laal Singh Chaddha, Raksha Bandhan, Samrat Prithviraj, Bachchhan Paandey, Heropanti 2 Where Jugjugg Jeeyo were all sumptuously mounted and aggressively marketed dishes. But these films all adhered to the specifics of the image of the main star in question or served a generic formula that worked in the past.

The star of Ranbir-Alia brahmastra – featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Nagarjuna in specially scripted roles – was also a rare Bollywood release this year to live up to the tag of an event film. If one were to notice an emerging trend, the post-Covid scenario is one where the big screen transforms exclusively into a domain for event films – mega-hyped releases offering all-around entertainment, designed to be savored exclusively in theaters. movies. The pan-India success of South Indian blockbusters such as KGF 2, RRR and Pushpa: The Rise – Part 01 also highlights this fact. With cinema becoming an expensive affair, paying audiences only choose to venture into theaters if a movie demands big-screen viewing, and that could be one reason why almost every other small movie has struggled to find audience in theaters lately. The trend could also be linked to the rise of streaming platforms, as most low and mid-budget films, regardless of their theatrical release, manage to find a ready audience once launched in the OTT realm.

There is of course a downside to great events. If things go wrong and a big-budget movie breaks down, the losses could be irretrievable. This has happened with big turnips such as 83 and Laal Singh Chaddha, in addition to almost everything Akshay Kumar has released in the last 12 months or so. At a time when boycott demands and the growing popularity of the southern brigade across India are already threatening Bollywood, the industry could ill afford such losses. Bollywood needs more movies that reinvent its unique formula, and fast.

(All figures according to film trade estimates)

Vinayak Chakravorty is a Delhi-NCR based film critic, columnist and journalist.

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