For previous installments in this series, please visit the index.
John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan, and Priyanka Chopra in Dostana (2008)
KNOW YOUR DECADES: 2000-2010
Before I time travel back into the who’s who of the first decade of the 21st century, I thought I would give a little overview of how Bollywood - Hindi cinema - has changed over the last 10 years or so and then in the next installment will give you a list of 10 films that I think will give you the fullest flavor of the decade.
From 2000 to 2010, the Bollywood film industry has witness an incredible sea change. Shiny new multiplex theaters rose up, big Hollywood money opened its deep pockets, and globally minded audiences familiar with the style of Hollywood films began demanding changes to the old formats. A wide variety of genres exploded but nobody could figure out a new formula to make hits. Big budget films flopped left and right while smaller budget films ran away with the box office. New heroes and heroines debuted and quietly retired while the Three Khans continue to rule the box office into their third decade of dominance. Make no mistake, even as production values improved and songs were shortened and then reduced in number, Bollywood films remain very hero-driven, even if that hero is only the producer (e.g. Aamir Khan for Peepli Live and Delhi Belly.)
The early part of the 2000s was packed full of what I call the NRI romance, a pastel-tinged hangover from the 1990s.* These films feature Indian characters in exotic locations like Australia or Singapore and use the exotic location to titalize while affirming traditional Indian values in strong contrast to the foreign and exotic land. Most of the dramatic tension is drawn from who loves whom and whose parents are forbidding what. Society outside of the family or the families involved doesn’t exist in any meaningful way.
Some of these NRI romances are quite comedic in tone while others are more melodramatic but the end result of them all is a big Indian (usually Hindu and vaguely Punjabi) wedding. The drecks of the NRI romance genre depend on a “race to the marriage altar” narrative, usually involving lots of running around, mistaken identities, comedy uncles, and glossy haired heroines in fashionable outfits. When done well, however, the NRI romance can provide a cathartic emotional release and lend a bit of glamor to everyday existence. And films like Dostana, a comedic Miami-set romp about two straight men who pretend to be gay in order to rent a room with a pretty young woman, even bring up sticky social questions. So, despite the typical marriage ending, the NRI romance can be quite varied in tone and content matter, even if they are all inherently conservative.
A second major genre of film that has done quite well in the 2000s is the B-movie, usually horror or a thriller. Cheap costs and the potential for high returns are an irresistible combination and these films pack a lot of boobs, blood, and babes into their running times. While the level of thrills provided is usually less than a Hollywood slasher flick, some of these B-movies can be quite entertaining... and even stick in a covert social message or two. Like the old time Hollywood hucksters like William Castle, Bollywood B-movie makers engage in all sorts of attention getting stunts - like the dummy corpses that decorated billboards (and generated public outcry) for the horror film Agyaat.
One of the more interesting angles of the B-movie is that because the budgets are so low, filmmakers are willing to take more chances on new talent. The films are hyped on their racy scenes or how many chills are delivered, instead of which hero or heroine is starring. And a hit B-movie can catapult a previously struggling actor or actress or director into bigger and better things. More than a few of the top actresses got their start in these racy B-movies. For example, before she was doing Shakespeare in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Bipasaha Basu was starring in B-movies films like Jism (“Body”), in which she played a sexy femme fatale who preyed on weak-minded men.
While the worst of this B-movie genre are lazy boobs-and-blood delivery systems, the best can be genuinely engaging and a little bit shocking in their brashness - especially for those who think Bollywood produces nothing but glossy-haired couples skipping around the Swiss Alps. And the sex angle definitely plays a major role. After all, the B-movie’s best known leading man, Emraan Hashmi, is also known as “the serial kisser” for his filmi predilection for smooching all of his leading ladies.
But like any other art form that skirts the fringes of acceptable societal norms, the B-movie also has a less thrilling and more mainstream cousin. These films - let’s call them mainstream thrillers - generally take a handful of second tier heroes and throw them into a tense situation. The best of these films play up the suspense and action, such as Khakee (2004), which followed a group of police officers who had been tasked to transport a terrorist nabbed in a small town back into Mumbai. And the worst indulge in a jingoistic patriotism against Pakistan.
Other types of films that tried their luck at the box office - with varying degrees of success - were zany comedies, family-friendly middle-class films, epic tales of history, and hard-hitting gangster films. All of the categories previously mentioned in this piece are somewhat at odds with earlier parts of this series in which I described the genre-smashing masala film and how it worked. And, it’s true, masala was in decline through most of the decade.
The masala film has traditionally been aimed at a broad audience, the kind of film that an entire family can go to. One of the biggest factors in driving that style of all-encompassing filmmaking out of favor is the rise of the multiplex. Traditionally, movie theaters showing Hindi language films had been single screen theaters. And if only one film played at a time, it had better please everybody. Multiplex screen cinemas, on the other hand, could play multiple films, and audiences could tailor their viewing choices to their interests - whether it be romance, thriller, comedy, or artsy, there will be a film available.
The other factor in the new multiplex cinemas was cash. Ticket prices for single screens remained low but the new multiplex cinemas were often quite pricey. The theaters are often located in shopping malls or fashionable districts, and the clientele they draw are usually middle or upper class and more familiar with the sorts of international, Hollywood-style films found at movie theaters in places like Canada and the United States. The multiplex audience,** which these days is usually assumed to include NRI audiences actually in places like Canada and the United States, is big money and producers, quite understandably, began to tailor films to fit their tastes.
The transition from single screen to multiplex has not been without growing pains. Not only have many of the single screen audiences turned away from Bollywood for regional cinema but there has been constant bickering between multiplex owners and film producers over how that multiplex money should be divided up. Tensions on that point were brought to a head in the spring of 2009 when producers went on strike and refused to release any new films into the multiplexes until their grievances were addressed. The strike lasted for two solid months but effects were felt for months afterwards as smaller films jostled for release dates.
Another important trend to note is the entrance of Hollywood money into the Bollywood arena. This has affected Bollywood filmmaking in a number of really different ways. For example, traditionally, Bollywood has had a lax attitude towards taking inspiration from other media sources but with Hollywood studios now more aware of Bollywood films, there has been a rise in lawsuits filed against Bollywood producers for the sin of copyright infringement. Producers are now careful to either buy the remake rights or use “inspiration” from non-Hollywood sources. Another effect has been a devastating rise in production costs. Corporate Hollywood money has pushed up both the cost of actors’ salaries and have changed the amount and cost of pre-release publicity. Consequently, many mid-level earning films that might have been counted as semi-hits 10 years ago are now being declared flops because they are unable to earn back their high production costs.***
The demands on actors and actresses appearances also underwent a change during the decade. While leading men were always expected to be handsome, the definition became increasingly narrow. Actors gradually became gym-sculpted, hairless, and suspiciously refreshed looking. The rugged masculinity of the older Hero was swept to the sidelines and a new metrosexual Hero dominated the box office, flashing his six-pack abs all the way. For actress, the trend was more drastic. As the bikini body became mandatory, the healthy dancers figures of years past became passé. Both of these trends have loosened up somewhat but hairless for men and slim for women seem here to stay.
And now, as the end of the 2000-2010 decade fades into the past, two basic filmi trends reveal themselves - a move away from the traditional masala format and a return to it. The former embraces the concept of genre, as we know it in Western cinema. Films that fall under the “non-masala” or “neo-Bollywood” films range from gritty crime dramas to fluffy romantic-comedies to coming of age stories to war films. Some have songs and some don’t; most use established heroes and heroines. Some of this new breed did their studies abroad (Zoya Akhtar, director of neo-Bollywood film Luck By Chance, went to NYU Film School) and some are homegrown (Anurag Kashyap, director of neo-Bollywood film Dev.D did not go to film school.) What ties them all together is a turning away from the traditional Bollywood filmmaking techniques and towards a feel that more closely resembles "international" (i.e. non-Indian) cinema in things like story composition, use of music in the narrative, character roles, and the adoption of a ‘realistic’ cinematography that more closely resembles the international film consensus.****
While these more “international” techniques have always been a part of art house cinema from India, it’s been only really in the 2000s that they have seriously crossed over into mainstream Bollywood in a big way. But let me be clear that this embrace of “international” techniques is not an “evolution”of Bollywood filmmaking to some Platonic and (Hollywood-sanctioned) ideal, but I want to point it out as a trend that really took hold in the 2000s.
On the other side of the chart are the neo-masala films, many of which are remakes of films that were box office hits in the South. These films aim to provide bang for buck - for the film to be an event, not just a afternoon out of the house. Neo-masala can be played straight or with a wink but either way it sticks pretty closely to traditional Bollywood story telling formats - hero, heroine, villain, item.***** We never would have guessed it back in 2000 when the box office was ruled by the sweater-clad hero roaming the Swiss Alps in an NRI romance.
And that is where we are today, with a bifurcated industry still very much focused on India and the Indian diaspora. Many of the growing pains seem to be shaking themselves out and producers are finally beginning to grasp the new tastes of this audience. And whatever the 2010s may bring, it will have been born from the unlikely hits and painful failures of the 2000s.
Only one thing shows no signs of changing - the Three Khans rule the box office.
* The sort of thing one would get after a night spent drinking fruity drinks with umbrellas in them.
** You’ll find now, especially in film reviews, that “multiplex” and “singlescreen” have become media code for “the educated classes” and “the lower class.”
*** But then again, ten years ago the money being wagered on these films was more likely to be coming directly from the producer’s pocket instead of the deep pockets of a studio like Disney or Fox. So, who is the real loser here?
**** And, in a second act twist I never would have anticipated, the NRI romance has recently been combined with those new “international” techniques to create a new genre of romantic-comedy that very closely tracks with Hollywood romantic comedies, except with more parents and better hair.
***** Oddly enough, the comedic subplot is almost completely dead in the water. Comedian roles are still going strong, though.