New Delhi: Of the 12 Hindi films that crossed the ₹ 100 crore mark in 2018, at least four featured actors who were not considered A-listers thus far. The impressive box office collections of Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety ( ₹ 100.80 crore), Baaghi 2 ( ₹ 160.74 crore), Stree ( ₹ 124.56 crore) and Badhaai Ho ( ₹ 134.44 crore), all of which were hugely profitable, coupled with the underwhelming earnings of big-ticket festival offerings such as Race 3 ( ₹ 166.15 crore), Thugs of Hindostan ( ₹ 138.34 crore) and most recently Zero (that has opened to a little over ₹ 50 crore), show that content is the undisputed king this year.
“I think 2018 will be remembered as the year when content-driven films achieved commercial milestones," said Stree co-writer Raj Nidimoru. “A good film is one that is loved by people, but it can be put down by some, who say it didn’t make any money. I think that was a point made very strongly in 2018 (that good films made money). And we will always remember this as a time when things changed."
In this case though, necessity has been the mother of invention, Nidimoru said. Big studio movie productions are, more often than not, about major stars and when you don’t have a face that can drive crowds, you have to focus on getting the content right. What has worked with films such as Stree and Badhaai Ho is that they were made mostly by independent producers who chose to first create fun, engaging and unique stories and then cast them, instead of conceptualizing a film centred around a star and incorporating unnecessary tropes.
While themes such as middle-class homes and patriotism may be common, writers say there was honesty and integrity in the scripts that stood out this year, besides telling warm, familiar stories in an unusual way.
Stree, for example, was based on an urban legend famous in South India, while for Badhaai Ho, co-writer Akshat Ghildial dived into his own home and family to come up with a broader take on how India views sex and relationships.
Badhaai Ho director Amit Sharma said a new generation of writers is coming up and exploring all genres. The trend of following a particular format is outdated today. Young Bollywood writers and directors are cautious not to get trapped into specific genres such as small-town, patriotic stories and horror comedies because the playing field is so large. With foreign streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, audiences have access to content from all over the world, and no compulsion to watch what may seem to be a typical Hindi film.
“Earlier, we used the same formula for a decade or two; now, we have formulas that redefine themselves every two months," said Kanika Dhillon, writer of Manmarziyaan and Kedarnath. “Just when you think you’ve got the audience and know how they will respond, they surprise you. So, it’s a great relationship of unpredictability that keeps everyone on their toes."
Because audiences want to see something different, everybody wants to take a chance, there are producers willing to back unconventional scripts and put in money, and directors who want to explore different kinds of stories, Dhillon emphasized. The distribution and exhibition network has also become more open to showcasing such material.
“Let’s just say it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Because audiences are appreciating it, producers are more comfortable making it. And because producers are taking those chances, audiences are getting the opportunity to approve and watch. So I think it’s a two-way street," said Raazi director Meghna Gulzar. She added that non-stereotypical writing had happened in Hindi cinema over the years, cases in point being early multiplex films such as Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, but this year saw it happen consistently.
“If there is anything this year has proven, it’s that nobody is shutting down our theatre business," Gulzar said. “I think streaming services will keep filmmakers on their toes purely for that fear of being run over. The energy is different when you’re going to a dark hall and watching something with 200 other people, so I don’t think Indians are going to give up that theatre-going experience ever."
Ghildial pointed out that India as a country would always be enamoured of stars and they would continue to bring in huge openings, but the advantage with a lot of these new-age films was their low budgets that made recoveries easier. Both Stree and Badhaai Ho, for instance, were made for less than ₹ 30 crore each.
“Why should it be one or the other (either content or star power)" asked Gulzar, citing the viable addition of a youth icon such as Alia Bhatt to the strong writing of Raazi. “I see a beautiful blend between the two. That would be my wish for the coming year."