Even Bollywood’s fiercest critics will admit that some of its filmmakers are trying their darnedest to reflect changing times and tastes. Yes, we’ve still got those tent-pole, one-size-fits-all entertainers, but we are also more willing now to tackle different subjects and genres – everything from sports biopics (our current obsession) to thrillers; from an attempt at a Hollywood-style musical (Disney’s Jagga Jaasoos) to legit horror (Phantom Films’ upcoming Ghoul).
Moreover, recent films like Queen, Udta Punjab, Neerja, Kapoor & Sons, and Dangal have successfully made our commercial films look a lot more progressive in several ways.
However, the industry continues to suffer from a crisis of quality. There’s plenty our commercial films — even the ones mentioned above — could do better. After all, why shouldn’t they? I find that refrain “What else do you expect from a Bollywood movie?” strangely cynical and defeatist.
Sure, some of Bollywood’s more institutional problems – the dominance of the star system, for example – are unlikely to go away in a hurry. But other recurring (and problematic) patterns are quite fixable.
So here are a few pointers to help Bollywood in 2017 and beyond:
1. Stop conflating “masala” movies with “anything goes”.
Masala films, by definition, are a mix of several genres – romance, action, adventure, comedy, and melodrama. What they don’t need to be is lazy, unimaginative, and commonly regressive.
While there is definitely room to be imaginative or escapist, a masala film is not an excuse to indulge in puerile, sexist humour (Mastizaade, Great Grand Masti, Housefull 3); nor is it an excuse to make movies so blinded by star-worship that they fail to address basic inadequacies (Shivaay, Raees, Kaabil).
As Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi blockbuster Sairat recently demonstrated, it’s possible to make a traditional Indian masala film without compromising on the basics, which brings me to…
2. Work harder on plot, characterisation and internal logic.
Many “content-driven films” often have interesting premises and good intentions, but suffer from sloppy writing. Sometimes, it’s the half-baked characters that fail to make the desired impact despite good performances, as was the case with Randeep Hooda in Sarbjit. Other times, the plot falls apart logically on closer examination, as in Wazir and Fan.
And then there are films that do a number of things right but make fatal oversights or silly mistakes, such as Pink, which pretty much forgot to complete one of its primary antagonists’ (played by Vijay Varma) character arcs.
Is it unreasonable to expect a medium that’s basically about storytelling to be… good at it?
3. It’s 2017. Treat female characters like actual people or go home.
The simpering wife. The ornamental damsel in distress. The saucy party vixen. The vivacious girl-next-door. Or Imtiaz Ali’s favourite: the hyper-inspiring, exists-in-a-vacuum, manic-pixie dream girl who seems to exist to save Ranbir Kapoor from himself. Women characters have been stereotyped and shortchanged in Bollywood for too long. Yes, films like Nil Battey Sannata and Parched try to bring equilibrium, but the likes of Mastizaade and Great Grand Masti negate some of that impact.
Popular films like Dangal and Pink, while appearing feminist and making commendably braver choices, still rely on male “heroes” to save the day.
No, every film doesn’t need only female protagonists, but Bollywood does need to start treating women as more than vestibules of emotion or a set of physical attributes.
(Note: the same applies to our treatment of gay characters, who find dignified portrayals only in odd, “left-field” films like Aligarh or Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921.)
4. Stop. Plagiarising. Already. My. God.
Bollywood continues, in this day and age, to plagiarise both plot ideas and music from glaringly mainstream sources. Sure, it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be (remember the ‘90s, when Anu Malik copied Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” on two occasions — “Dil Maaka Dina” from Dhaal and “Dil Le Le Lena” from Auzaar, both in 1997?).
Recently, for example, we have the song “Niamat Salaamat” from Zubaan, which sounds blatantly inspired by Justin Bieber’s “Take You” and Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself To Dance”. (At least R.D. Burman had the grace to only copy tunes few in India had heard at the time.) Or the superhero film A Flying Jatt, which ripped off the signature Quicksilver “time slowing down” sequences from the two most recent X-Men movies.
If the most prolific film industry in the world can’t consistently come up with original ideas, are we basically admitting that we’re creatively bankrupt?
5. There’s a fine line between cultural pride and xenophobia – stop crossing it.
We tend not to notice it, but despite an abundance of films set abroad, our depiction of foreigners is usually flippant at best and straight-up racist at worst. Queen is perhaps one of the few exceptions in an industry which otherwise equates foreigners’ lack of Indian values to a lack of character (case in point: Shivaay, partially set in Bulgaria and depicting nearly every Bulgarian character in negative light).
Sex comedies like Mastizaade, Housefull 3, and Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3 consistently portray Western women as shallow and promiscuous.
Is this a result of ignorance or a deliberate way to cater to an audience increasingly influenced by this growing wave of hyper-nationalism? Do we need to show other cultures as inferior to feel a sense of cultural pride?
6. Let’s portray ourselves more accurately.
Although hinterland cinema – from Gangs Of Wasseypur to Udta Punjab – is growing increasingly popular, there are still too many movies set in Mumbai and Delhi, and they often tell stories of upper-caste, middle-class or upper-middle-class Hindu characters, with half-hearted and tokenistic depictions of other communities.
As the late film critic Roger Ebert famously pointed out, movies are more than just entertainment — they’re like machines that generate empathy by showing you other lives, realities, and places. And Bollywood, by dint of its growing soft power, has a significant role to play in the creation of our cultural image. Not only do our films tell others something about us, but they can also teach us more about ourselves.
Are we okay being represented the way we currently are?