Cinema became intensely democratic in the 2000s. It tried to communicate the incomprehensible. Closer home, writing and marketing won over big budgets and stars.
A scene from Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘3 Idiots’. The remarkable success of the film—it made Rs315 crore worldwide at the box office in 19 days—proved that a combination of witty writing, skilled direction, star value (Aamir Khan, in this case) and a clever marketing strategy (Khan made a cross-country tour in disguise to promote the film) can never fail a producer.
In its purest form, cinema is the most modern, subsuming and democratic of art forms. Its obvious and simultaneous assault on all the senses may seem literally dictatorial, but no two consumers have the same reasons for buying a movie ticket and surrendering to being held hostage in a dark theatre for more than two hours. For some, the reason is what passes off as the purpose of cinema: escapism. For others, it is the subject, and for others still, it is technology.
Behind the camera, a film belongs to many people, although the unifying vision may be of the person sitting on the chair in front of the monitor. In the decade that has passed, this democracy expanded, even leapt. Hierarchical structures and roles were altered by technology and specialization. Movie-making became more about team work.
For both the consumer and the maker, cinema became intensely democratic. Digital technology made the tyranny of the magnificent film camera expendable. People made movies using small, hand-held cameras, and went on to be applauded at Cannes, Venice and Toronto. The laptop became a screen on which to watch Transformers, Juno and Munnabhai MBBS.
Alongside this democratization, stories and subjects became diverse. The week the twin towers fell, some American culture critics declared the death of irony in movies and pop culture. I happened to be in a culture reporting postgraduate programme at the time and followed the debate for a year. As 2002 ended, irony was of course back in scripts. But something had changed in American movies. On the one hand, Hollywood, like the nation itself, was paralysed by paranoia. The threat of aliens, terrorists and bombers became de rigeur in pulp movies. In the independent space, directors explored subjects of identity and racial politics not only in the US, but elsewhere in the world as well. And 2002-03 was the beginning of a visual movement in cinema that attempted to communicate, with the help of technology, what was perhaps incomprehensible in real terms—or which was “surreal”, the word most used to describe the spectacle of the American Airlines flight crashing into the twin towers.
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The Wachowski Brothers, who made The Matrix in 1999, became consummate storytellers of complex philosophical ideas in the past decade with their two follow-ups, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions. Later on, films such as Wall-E directed by Andrew Stanton and Inception directed by Christopher Nolan made the hyper-real more real than the ugly, street real we’ve seen in movies before this decade. And the US was forced to look outward. Could Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire about a wretched Indian slum child’s dramatic reversal of fortunes have won a dozen Oscars and Golden Globes in the pre-9/11 world? Perhaps not.
Underlining many of these films was a perception of doom, which permeated movies all over the world—from Korea to Norway. Even the smaller, indie films—we even began to see them in India—smacked of larger social forces at work, dictating and threatening human life. The sterling Indian example of this wave was Love, Sex Aur Dhokha directed by Dibakar Banerjee—a grainy, powerful, hyper-real experience for the Indian movie-goer.
Still, in India, many of the significant changes were prosaic and logistical. There was a metamorphosis in the way movies are made, which had less to do with technology or style, and more with economics. For the first time, the producer became a corporate machine. Management graduates ran the show at UTV, Big Pictures, Indian Film Co., PVR Pictures and other film corporations. They placed their stakes on stars and big budgets—basically anything that grabbed eyeballs.
The mid-2000s was a time when Kapoors and Kumars, like kids in a candy store, could demand to be satiated by a few crores. Predictably, big budget translated largely into some monumental flops in the history of Hindi cinema—Chandni Chowk to China, Blue and Kites. According to trade analysts, the Mumbai film industry lost close to Rs 1,000 crore between 2006 and 2009.
The old-world producer’s formula—or the lack of one—on the other hand, worked. Mukesh Bhatt’s Vishesh Films invented a genre of saleable, medium-budget films with risqué subjects, packaged with catchy songs and newcomers. He also discovered Emraan Hashmi and Mallika Sherawat. Vidhu Vinod Chopra produced the biggest hits of the decade—the Munnabhai films and 3 Idiots.
Thankfully, through the decade, the only foolproof formula for a film’s success was good writing. It was the decade when the writing duo of Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi redefined the Hindi blockbuster. Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai combined social commentary with a brand of gentle humour that may not embrace all kinds of viewers, but which alienates very few. The box office jingled not to big names, but clever writing and marketing. Who can ever forget Aamir Khan travelling to remote villages in disguise, promoting the lead character he played in 3 Idiots? The strength of other directors such as Anurag Kashyap, who made Black Friday and Dev.D—revolutionary films when they released and became something of a phenomenon—is a combination of a young, edgy sensibility, good writing skill and promotional strategy.
The next few years, everywhere in the world, will be the years of reckoning for the producer. When all kinds of content become acceptable and easily accessible, how do you retain the magic of making movies? And how do you make money out of discovering talent?