So they made a lot of money—at least Rs.100 crore each. That’s one billion worth of notes bearing Mahatma Gandhi’s kindly grin. At an average rate of Rs.100, that’s 10 million Indians—about 1% of the population—beating down the doors of cinemas to watch such perfectly ordinary films, as Rowdy Rathore , Ek Tha Tiger , Housefull 2 and Bol Bachchan . Has the film-going public collectively decided to reward mediocrity? Or is a wind of smarter economics blowing in the industry’s favour? As always, the truth lies in between.
The Rs.100-crore club is a result of lowered audience expectations and higher ticket rates. Multiplexes are spreading throughout the country, either replacing single-screen cinemas or coming up as alternatives to run-down movie halls. Films are being promoted and hyped even more furiously than in previous years. Producers have become savvier about timing their releases, as have film stars about marketing themselves. More is merrier—and it is paying off. It’s left to the snobs and curmudgeons to point out that most of the year’s biggest hits are firmly in the comfort zone. They contain few surprises, whether it’s in the casting or story idea or narrative treatment. More is also safer.
Part of the Rs.100-crore club this year is Ek Tha Tiger, an inoffensive but stunningly bland Salman Khan vehicle with nods to Knight and Day and the Jason Bourne trilogy. There is Rowdy Rathore, from a subset of cinema inspired by the humour and violence found in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Movies like Rowdy Rathore and Son of Sardaar (both remakes of Telugu blockbusters) aim to prevent viewers from using their brains for no more than a few seconds. There is also Housefull 2, which is packed with what legendary entertainer Manmohan Desai called highlights— visual and verbal volleys that are thrown at viewers every few minutes to keep them fixated on the screen. It can be exhilarating or exhausting, depending on your taste.
The safe option of going with remakes and sequels rather than experimenting with new ideas continued this year, with part IIs and IIIs as well as retreads of older hits—the list includes Agneepath, Bol Bachchan, Jism-2 and Raaz 3 . When film-makers weren’t reworking older content, they were succumbing to the tributitus virus and lifting or reproducing moments and characters from older movies. Some acknowledged their debts, such as Sriram Raghavan in Agent Vinod and Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur , but others weren’t so candid. Anurag Basu’s Barfi! , which is on the Rs.100-crore list, was named India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscar Academy Awards, but its reputation was irreparably dented when its long trail of debts to foreign cinema was exposed, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Takeshi Kitano.
It’s not like the original material was always better. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine was among the year’s lows—an exploitative, smug and cynical flick made by a Bollywood insider pretending to be an outsider. Jab Tak Hai Jaan , released after its film-maker Yash Chopra’s demise, earned mostly polite reviews, but there is no escaping the creakiness of the material, the lack of chemistry between the characters and A.R. Rahman’s tepid musical score. Questions also lingered about some of the year’s better movies. Would the Vidya Balan-powered thriller Kahaani have been just as effective if it hadn’t contained fake flashbacks? Probably not. Would Gangs of Wasseypur have worked better if its length had been hacked down from 320 minutes? Probably.
The disappointments yielded some minor pleasures. Let’s hear it for the plus-sized women in editor-turned-film-maker Bela Sehgal’s Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi . The story about a late-breaking romance between two over-the-hill Parsi characters took its cue from commercial Parsi theatre and was stuffed with bad jokes, schoolboy-level visual gags and acting as broad as the beams of some of the women characters.
Another kind of body politics was practised by Pooja Bhatt in Jism-2. Randeep Hooda flashed more skin than his co-star Sunny Leone, the unapologetic porn star whose career choices before the movie are a few guilty clicks away. Male bodies were also on display in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year , in which the director returned to the one place where he seems most comfortable—high school—but with better results than in his debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. For one thing, the students actually looked like students, with debutant actor Varun Dhawan in particular showing leading man promise. Yet, since this was a Johar movie, every frame looked out of either a fashion magazine spread or a live-action Archie comic. Johar flew his Pride flag yet again with the character of the gay school principal, played by Rishi Kapoor, who lusts after the physical education teacher. Kapoor hasn’t had this much fun in years.
Another seasoned actor who had a gala time was Paresh Rawal in the clunkily named OMG: Oh My God . Rawal’s atheist files a case against God after his store is destroyed in a freak earthquake. The satire about excessive religiosity ends with the reaffirmation that there is a “One Above”, but not before Rawal takes some well-needed digs at blind faith and the commercialization of religion.
Movie-watching was a delight rather than drudgery with films like Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor , based on a sparkling script by Juhi Chaturvedi. The comedy is about a prolific sperm donor but it actually makes a case for adoption. Nice. Ayushmann Khurrana’s breezy performance matches turns by seasoned actors like Annu Kapoor’s frantic doctor and Dolly Ahluwalia’s tipple-friendly materfamilias.
Gangs of Wasseypur too lined up unforgettable characters, including Manoj Bajpayee’s unapologetically crooked coal smuggler Sardar Khan, Pankaj Tripathi’s vengeful Sultan Qureshi, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s wily politician Ramadhir Singh, Richa Chadda’s long-suffering wife Nagma, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s stoner don Faisal Khan. Anurag Kashyap’s yarn of coal-pilfering gangsters in Bihar and Jharkhand contains a delightful commentary on cinephilia in small-town India, most perfectly realized in the sequence in which Sardar challenges his rival Ramadhir from a truck advertising the latest movie in town.
Despite all the testosterone on display, the year was actually good for women. Sridevi made a spirited comeback in Gauri Shinde’s assured debut English Vinglish . Vidya Balan’s vigilante, powered Kahaani to box-office gold. Parineeti Chopra’s intelligence and presence rescued the initially edgy Ishaqzaade from its formulaic cop-outs. Rani Mukerji gamely hoofed her way through Aiyyaa ’s excesses. In fact, Sachin Kundalkar’s Aiyyaa, despite the hoots and jeers, was one of the more enjoyable films of the year. Its madcap take on the thin line between fantasy and reality made room for the unabashed expression of female desire. Although Mukerji’s Meenakshi, who is aroused by the body odour of her love object, sniffs around the story far too often, there’s a lot to be said about a film in which the woman, for a change, wears her leaking heart on her sleeve. Also among the better titles were Raghavan’s Agent Vinod, (notwithstanding the bloated and contrived climax) and Sameer Sharma’s Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana , a Punjab-set comedy with yet another scene-stealing performance from Rajesh Sharma.
One of the top films of 2012 also had a woman in the lead. Karan Gour’s assured debut Kshay , a chamber-room drama about a woman’s growing obsession with a statue of the goddess Lakshmi, saw a limited release at PVR Cinemas multiplexes (it’s out now on DVD). Kshay stars Rasika Dugal in a bravura performance as a housewife whose world starts closing in on her. Strikingly shot in black and white for Rs.4 lakh, Kshay is as far removed from the Rs.100-crore club as it gets—and is all the better for it.
The promising releases of next year.
u Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (11 January), Vishal Bhardwaj’s rustic comedy set in a village in Haryana.
u Neeraj Pandey (A Wednesday) makes a heist movie, Special Chabbis, based on the real-life looting of a jewellery store in Mumbai (8 February).
u Kolkata-based enfant terrible Q’s Tasher Desh, a rock-and-roll adaptation of the Rabindranath Tagore play, will also make it to cinemas this year (mid-February).
u Rajkumar Gupta (No One Killed Jessica) tries his hand at comedy in Ghanchakkar, starring Emraan Hashmi and Vidya Balan (21 June).
u Vikramaditya Motwane scales up the promise he showed with his debut Udaan in the period romance Lootera (5 July).
u Anurag Kashyap trawls through Mumbai’s underbelly yet again in Ugly (unscheduled).