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Business News/ Industry / Writers, directors bring small-town India mainstream in Bollywood

Writers, directors bring small-town India mainstream in Bollywood

At least two big films slated to release in 2016 are set in small towns

Neeraj Ghaywan-directed Masaan remains one of the most-loved films this year.Premium
Neeraj Ghaywan-directed Masaan remains one of the most-loved films this year.

New Delhi: After conquering the festival circuit, director Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s social drama Chauranga releases in India early next month. Exploring the issue of class oppression in the northern hinterland, the film produced by actor Sanjay Suri and director Onir joins the long list of dark tales based in small-town India.

This year, movies like Arjun Kapoor’s action drama Tevar (set in Mathura), Yash Raj Films’ middle-class family saga Dum Laga Ke Haisha (set in Haridwar) and Neeraj Ghaywan’s exploration of caste and gender conflicts in Masaan (set in Varanasi) have all toured small-town spaces.

At least two big films slated to release in 2016 are set in small towns. Prakash Jha’s socio-political drama Jai Gangaajal, shot in Bhopal, features Priyanka Chopra in the lead role of a cop and arrives in March. Then there is the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal on the life of a Haryanvi wrestler, Mahavir Singh Phogat, to look forward to for Christmas. The film directed by Nitesh Tiwari is being shot in the villages of Gujjarwal, Narangwal, Kila Raipur, Dango and Leel in Punjab and Haryana.

For a long time, Mumbai remained the epicentre of all action in a Hindi film. From Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975) through Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) to Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) and, more recently, The Lunchbox (2013), films have traversed through an almost never-ending series of dark and delightful tales based in the city. Along the way, filmmakers took recourse to foreign locations, irrespective of the requirement of the plot. Films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Salaam Namaste (2005) and Cocktail (2012) introduced local audiences to the good life overseas.

Habib Faisal, writer-director of films like Ishaqzaade (2012) and Daawat-e-Ishq (2014) points out that over the years, there’s been a significant shift to narratives based in small towns.

“For a long time, filmmakers felt audiences aspire for the exotic and for them that translated into shooting abroad. With films like Munna Bhai MBBS and Rang De Basanti, we started looking inwards at stories of real Indian people," he said. “In 2010, after Tere Bin Laden, Band Baaja Baaraat and especially, Dabangg, there was no looking back."

Industry experts feel that more than anything else, what is driving this trend is the fact that young writers and directors from various parts of the country are entering the film industry with their unique backgrounds and experiences. To be sure, the trinity of Mumbai-bred film family scions Aditya Chopra, Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar has gradually had to compete with the likes of Kabir Khan, born in Hyderabad and educated in Delhi, Imtiaz Ali from Jamshedpur and Anurag Kashyap and Abhinav Kashyap, who grew up in Uttar Pradesh. These filmmakers have, in turn, brought their own texture and narrative to film making.

“I feel the biggest reason behind the current films is the influx over the last decade and a half of storytellers who are interested in sub-cultures of Indians besides those in Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York," said Jaideep Sahni, who has written films like Bunty Aur Babli, Aaja Nachle and Shuddh Desi Romance.

Juhi Chaturvedi, writer of Vicky Donor (2012) and Piku (2015), added that these writers and directors have an advantage in the unique personalities that they bring to their work.

“Content comes from small towns because there is so much happening there. Besides, people in these places actually have the time to introspect and for stories to develop in their heads because of the culturally nuanced, intellectually stimulating and character-driven lives they lead," she said.

Along with diverse voices has come an openness to addressing different issues in films and the fact that filmmakers are willing to make movies about ordinary people. Queen (2014), though not a small-town story, is an example.

“There has been a significant shift away from formulaic and secluded content," said Subhash Kapoor, director of movies like Jolly LLB (2013) and Guddu Rangeela (2015). “The biggest stars are now exploring more real spaces. Take Salman Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, for example."

In a way, the ability for these new, unique stories to be told and watched also comes from where India is as a society. The growing economic stability of the country, the evolution of towns into cities, the spurt in multiplexes, the spread of digital platforms and the self-confidence gained as a result might be responsible for how open and ready Indians are for a lot more stories about themselves.

“For the last two decades or so, places we consider small towns have changed way beyond most people in the metros realize," said Sahni. “As a result of all these influences, smaller towns are now melting pots of views, counter-views, aspirations, oppositions, revolts and compromises, which make them fascinating places for storytellers."

The collections of these films warrant an answer to the question whether audiences are tired of watching the larger-than-life, aspirational fantasies that were always presumed to have worked for them. The 30-crore-budget film—Tanu Weds Manu Returns—made more than 150 crore, according to movie website Bollywood Hungama. With 30 crore and 67 crore, respectively, Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Ajay Devgn-starrer Drishyam also recovered their cost by a huge margin. Masaan remains one of the most-loved films this year.

Kapoor is more cautious about dismissing the big films. “I think the love for fantasies and spectacles will always remain," he said. “But now that people want to watch and are willing to spend on good content irrespective of big or small, I think the trend could go a different route. Especially after a film like Baahubali, the focus could be not simply on aspirational but just larger-than-life excitement."

Also people in either big or small towns do not enjoy a film unconditionally just because it depicts their own lives. Storytelling for today’s audiences that have access to everything from malls to multiplexes to video games and social media is harder now.

As Sahni said, “Reality is a smart tool to have as a storyteller, but you have to be a little careful before assuming that your insights into your audiences’ lives are going be a life-altering or even an evening-altering experience for them. They expect a lot more than that every time they go out to see a film, and are not really very fanatic about the way it comes."

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Lata Jha
Lata writes about the media and entertainment industry for Mint, focusing on everything from traditional film and TV to newer areas like video and audio streaming, including the business and regulatory aspects of both. She loves movies and spends a lot of her free time in theatres, which makes her job both fun and a bit of a challenge given that entertainment news often just talks about the glamorous side of things. Lata, on the other hand, tries to find and report on themes and trends in the entertainment world that most people don't notice, even though a lot of people in her country are really into movies. She’s a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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Published: 25 Dec 2015, 10:14 PM IST
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