What Bollywood Thinks of You

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…and why that should make you gnash your teeth

Bajirao Singham is an upright cop gifted with earthen values and a natural tendency to whoop ass. The hardcore antisocial elements of Singham have got nothing on him, but we learn that love and its admission reduce him to a stuttering wreck. This film is a celebration of his virtues, which, though rare here, were virtually a contractual requirement in every such movie three decades ago.

Like his predecessors, Singham is not ambivalent about dealing with crime—watch the pussycat ‘claw’ move in the film’s opening item song—and matters are usually resolved with: a) a belting right out of Ralegan Siddhi, and b) a bullet. Singham, which poses the wholly reasonable question of how to deal with a corrupt administration, finds an answer filed under Rang De Basanti. But here’s the thing: although the story is the stuff between fights, like plaque between teeth, Singham holds up well in comparison with Bodyguard, which has somehow become this year’s monster hit.

While the story arc of both movies have nothing in common, they could have been designed by committee. For the superstars who wrap these films around themselves, duty, love, humility and justice come above all else. Both open with songs that glorify their legend, and both songs contain a trademark move: Singham gets to claw, and Salman Khan’s character gets to flex his biceps. Both heroines come under attack. Both heroes destroy these attackers with moves that require a blue screen. Both heroines fall instantly in love.

The escapism in both movies can be overpowering: Hindustan Times reported that the Director-General of Police in Goa held a special screening of Singham ‘for the state police force whose image has taken a beating over a period of time owing to allegations of sexual abuse, drug trade and dereliction of duty’. Aditya Arya, the DGP, said that Singham is “something to feel satisfied about. I am basking in glory although I have not produced the film”.

Singham helped Arya forget real life. Real life helped me forget Bodyguard, even though I watched it only two days ago. I had to refer to my notes to recall what happened in the movie. ‘Irritating ring tone that links to song later in blatant ringback tone marketing play’; ‘Kareena Kapoor doing soap commercial pout’; ‘fat sidekick—naked man boobs’; ‘awful computer graphics’; and an ending that represents perfectly what mainstream Bollywood thinks of its audience.

On current evidence, Bollywood knows you well. Taken in its regurgitative entirety, it has always known you well, but it has lately slapped together a more intricate profile of you, like a stalker who just upped his game.

You, who like Koena Mitra and Shamita Shetty, and dislike Aamir Khan’s humility and Salman Khan’s shirt, are what the Bollywood conveyor belt calls an ‘audience’. This simplification once led them to club you with some guy from somewhere else, which basically made them refine their elevator pitch: “It has action, drama, suspense, romance, comedy…have I missed anything?”; they had you and all seven degrees of separation covered.

On the evidence of the last two months (Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and the dazzlingly awful Bodyguard), you, the audience, continue to bear movies where good acting is a bonus, a surprise. You still haven’t gotten over item numbers. And you don’t register gaping plot holes.

They also know that you respond to Pavlovian cues. According to Kamal Jain, chief financial officer of Eros International, a film studio, this is how it works: a marketing man stands by a unit filming a Salman Khan title song, and he tells Khan what to wear, how to move, and when to flex his biceps—because reportedly, allegedly, a Khan muscle flexed at the right time adds “ten crore to the bottomline”. What, then, do they do with this? Do they rely on word of mouth? No. They put it in promos and market the heck out of it. Because they know that some of you (they know who you are and where you live… serious) go crazy when Khan’s ‘dance’ moves include—and highlight—him and his extras scratching their dhinka chika, which, by the by, also thrills Asin tremendously.

Unbelievably, we are all gathered here today because demands for higher standards are now being met. This is Boney Kapoor’s contention, the man who produced Khan’s ‘comeback’ film of sorts, a 2009 movie called Wanted. It was slick, immensely marketable, and subsequently confirmed the Ghajini hypothesis that larger-than-life heroes weren’t just an expense, they were a business model unto themselves. (Wanted earned Rs 91 crore in theatres worldwide, according to Box Office India.) “We had lost audiences to the home video market,” says Kapoor of the 90s. But given nice seats, air conditioning and caramel popcorn, they came right back. “The movie-watching experience is a lot more hygienic now,” he says. Although this is old news, Kapoor is of the old school, and his perspective comes from decades of trading in the old ways (which haven’t really gone away, they’ve just picked up new tricks). At one point during the interview, when I ask him about copycat directors, a subject he had touched upon a few minutes earlier, he steps in with “Hang on, I’m one of those copycat directors,” and a chuckle.

“Between then and now,” Kapoor adds, “what’s changed is that filmmakers are giving audiences more. The audience has always been open to new ideas. We have had fixed ideas of what audiences like and don’t like.” Which makes the whole argument pretty circular. Audiences are open to new things. Therefore filmmakers strive to find out what these things are. Once this is figured out, the audience gets an old thing in a new package.

According to Kapoor, several things have changed about the audience. For one, we laugh more, reject tackiness, and appreciate computer-aided special effects done well.

Jain of Eros says that you don’t like watching “serious films”. Exhibit A, he says, is Madhur Bhandarkar’s cinema. Fashion and Page 3 clicked because they were about a world no one had access to. Jail and Traffic Signal did not because, well, you presumably see the inside of a jail regularly. There is no mention of Corporate, because Indian families play power games and plot all day long.

So I ask Jain how Love, Sex Aur Dhoka worked out so well. “LSD,” he says in all seriousness, “is not a serious film. It’s like sex being shown. I would not call LSD a serious film.”

Jain makes a point that is larger, more important, and also very old: you folk go in for fantasy, for anything that doesn’t happen in real life. “If it’s related to lust and sex, people want to see it.” What else do people want? Jain’s company is producing Ra.One, and he throws in a quick pitch. “It’s got good songs, good dance, good emotions, action scenes, masala—the things that people want to see. So it should be successful,” he concludes, “Let’s see.”

Bonus: you also like White background dancers who once populated Khan’s and Akshay Kumar’s songs. Directors can bring you these extras because they come to India for work, and they come cheap. Also, in Jain’s opinion, having local dancers on the screen “is not as visually good” as having foreigners—who are “okay with opening clothes more”.

That’s sex, then.

What are women in cinema for anyway? What is their higher purpose? “They add to the excitement quotient.” You people, Bollywood is quite clear, “go to a cinema hall to see a hero”. As Jain spells it out, “You have to have a male star. He has to carry the film.”

So Hindi cinema today, or at least the part of it aiming to bust blocks, relies on extensive research if not outright faith in the certainties of heroes and item songs and good beating evil. “I think this comes from a lack of storytelling instinct,” says Abbas Tyrewala, taking a drag. We’re in a tasteful office that belongs to Madhu Mantena, a producer (and one of Ram Gopal Varma’s earliest collaborators). It’s got lots of books on film, some fiction. Tyrewala often hangs out here; Mantena’s a friend.

Smoking like it’s the 60s, Tyrewala explains that because filmmakers had spent the 70s trying to figure out how to depict Amitabh Bachchan in new ways, once he was done, they didn’t know what to do. “You had forgotten how to tell a story by that time [the 80s]. You tried putting in item numbers…” You had multi-starrers. Which you liked. Somehow a hit song would see it through. All because of you. “There would be gag items. And then the 80s’ hell started… Once you don’t have a storytelling culture, and you depend on extraneous things to tell you what the audience likes, then the whole problem becomes, who is going to tell you what those things are? Either you trust your own instincts, but, wait, you abandoned your own instincts a long time ago. Or…”—he snaps his fingers—“you can compartmentalise and sell it like a product. It’s no longer a movie. Once cinema becomes a product, market research becomes as legitimate an exercise as it is for a retail product or an FMCG [fast moving consumer good].”

Incidentally, Eros’ Jain claims that Aamir Khan does research “for everything”, checking out what audiences think of his work in progress every step of the way.

Tyrewala sets a high standard for what is and what is not marketable. “Take Peepli Live,” he says, “It has a one-line marketable idea: a farmer says he’ll commit suicide, and he attracts media attention. Now, in this you can see satire, black humour. This is a high-concept film, so it doesn’t require a big star.” He thinks for a moment and says there has been a spate of movies powered by sex and horror… “Or take LSD. It’s an interesting form—with cameras contextualising three stories that merge. Take Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap. The one-line concept is ‘let’s resurrect the Bachchan of old, what if he just played Bachchan again?’”

You, the filmmaker, know what these posters will say, what your promos will say. “The movie becomes almost secondary.” Interestingly, Tyrewala likens film to advertising in that movies increasingly need to have some sort of ‘single-minded proposition’, the thing that snuggles into your head and stays there.

And here, both schools of thought diverge. One that believes it knows what the audience likes, and the other that doesn’t, but senses it can’t possibly be this. “When have we not taken our audiences for granted?” Tyrewala asks.

Which brings us to this: Bollywood knows you, and it might say it cares for you, but are you just a little less important than you used to be? This is something we must consider, because it explains, more than anything else, why we get the sort of movies we do. As with almost everything else, there is an economic explanation. Once upon a time, if you didn’t like a movie, it failed. Now what you think doesn’t quite matter. If you don’t visit the theatre, you’ll hear the movie’s songs on the radio playing in a loop, you’ll hear them all the time when you ring people, you’ll find yourself under an avalanche of merchandise—it’s all money in the bag before the projectors start whirring—and then, if that’s not enough, you’ll get the movie on TV too.

Mahesh Bhatt’s production house usually has its costs covered before its films open. Karan Johar hedged the mother of all film bets by selling worldwide rights of My Name Is Khan to Fox for a sum reportedly between Rs 95 crore and Rs 100 crore.

“The economics first changed around the time Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman became big,” Tyrewala says. “What happened was that until the romantic movies [staged a comeback], music had died. Suddenly, music became big. With cable coming in, it was like music videos playing at home. So even without liking the movie, you could like the music, get a taste of it. But all you could do was go out and buy a tape of it. [So filmmakers focused on revenues through music and satellite TV.] Then they started paying the big stars. Every new development started undermining the storytelling instinct further and further. It got to a point where the economics of everything would be taken care of without the box office. Cable, overseas [exhibition] were big. Music was selling.”

The box office became the bonus. And the box office is you, the audience. The cash overflow. That’s what Bollywood thinks of you.

But then again. You might decide, like I did, that you will only watch a certain kind of Bollywood movie. You may conclude that new stories from the interiors of this country and its people are worth your while. You might like Anurag Kashyap and his cohorts, or favour Ram Gopal Varma’s descendants, and the way they describe love, crime and life. But this is what happened when I watched Singham. Once the opening song’s clawing and pawing was done, it settled in rather nicely. Sure, there were holes where the plot should have been, and love was all but a formality, and there were many half-hearted lines (“Jawab toh isne diya hai mere ‘I love you’ ka” and something to the effect “You’ve seen a lion in movies and on TV so far, you’ve not seen one in a jungle”), and there was a scene when the Goan police force snuck into the bad guy’s home after snapping the necks of guards at the perimeter. But if you put all this aside, what remains is a pretty generic story, nicely packaged. Beatings are delivered in innovative ways (a lamp post, in one instance), a message is sent out that corruption will no longer be tolerated, and there is general agreement that beatings and threats issued by good guys will root out evil. (Now find 20,000 Bajirao Singhams and watch the multiplier effect. Just watch.) A day after Singham, it felt less like a movie, more a message. That’s why neither the story nor acting felt inadequate anymore. That’s why nothing mattered.

Bodyguard, on the other hand, requires some explanation. It has no story to speak of, terrible comedy, no overarching social message, and it still busted open the box office like few movies have in Bollywood history. How come? Here’s a guess. The message is Salman Khan. Salman the kind heart. Salman the braveheart. Salman the protector. Bollywood knows this, and so the message is an all-encompassing one.

Some of you will look past it. But the rest of you will be moved enough to go online, find a Salman article, and write, ‘u r great salman’. Bollywood knows you. You lurk in cyberspace, on Rediff message boards.

You don’t stand a chance.