How the Mighty Fall!
Bollywood has scripted its own Riches-to-Rags story
“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the whole world”
Ever wondered what life would be like if we didn’t discuss the latest fling for a Kiara Advani? Or if we didn’t know what Disha Patani is doing right now, this moment? And what about long conversations with friends about a movie you caught up on last night with the scenes and dialogues still running through your mind?
The evergreen stories we come across and cinema’s impact on our lives are inescapable. The romance of cinema, the charm of its actors, the beauty of its songs, the capability of its cinematography, and the beat of its music: Bollywood had absorbed and encompassed every quality of classic cinema and has recreated it to help us traverse through the realities of life, with the hope that there is still goodness in the world.
But does the ruling Hindi Film Industry still live up to its expectations? Is it still as competitive as it used to be at its peak? Do they still strive hard to keep us entertained and enamoured, or are they merely resting on past laurels to drag through yet another generation? In this feature, we take you through the Golden Journey of Bollywood from its beginning days of Shri Dadasaheb Phalke’s ‘Rajah Harishchandra’ in 1913 to the recent remixes of a Tanishk Bagchi, all wrapped into one single hope that the glorious journey hasn’t come to an end, yet.
From the early 1900s to the 21st Century…
From Shantaram’s Dharti Ke Lal to Sohrab Modi’s Pukar and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India — Bollywood had captured the world’s attention. Gemini Studios’ Chandralekha was perhaps one of the greatest films ever in its Tamil and Hindi forms.
And then came Satyajit Ray … who could set cash registers ringing at the box office with every release. Movies like Pather Panchali (1954), Nayak (1966), Aguntak (1991), etc. — Ray’s work traced the essential outline of the middle class in modern India. But only one of his works was in Hindi — Shatranj ke Khiladi.
The ’50s brought colour to an otherwise Black and White yet beautiful cinematic landscape. Sohrab Modi Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) was India’s first colour feature film. Even though it had flopped at the box office, the film heralded a new age of Indian cinema via the capable hands of Bollywood.
And a new age, too, as two stalwarts named Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt took on the reigns of the mighty industry.
Raj Kapoor began his career with Bombay Talkies. An actor who acted and directed his own films, Raj Kapoor moved on from a Mera Naam Joker and an Awara to catalyze many other Bollywood careers via a Bobby and a Ram Teri Ganga Maili.
Guru Dutt, of course, excelled with a Pyaasa and a Kaagaz ke Phool — bringing romance in tragedy for the ardent fans of the Hindi Filmgoer. Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955), a light entertainment genre with song-and-dance extravaganza, and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) showed a mother’s suffering and sacrifice were movies that brandished unimaginable prowess of the Bollywood filmmaker.
Mughal-e-Azam (1960), with its luxurious sets, epic dance and music sequences, and serenading Urdu dialogue, showed the Indian audience the opulence that Hindi film cinema could bring to the silver screen.
Sholay (1975) ushered in the era of the Angry Young Man! For the next decade or so, excessive violence became the norm in mainstream Hindi cinema as Amitabh Bachchan had just taken over the Hindi film audience’s newfound imagination.
Zanjeer (1973), Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977), Deewar, Don — Hindi Film Cinema had the perfect anatomical design for the quintessential Indian Male — Romantic, angry, comedic yet sensitive just like their Vijay!
Oh, the era of Bappi Lahiri and Mithun was one of discos and dance. Snazzy storylines accompanied the new personification of the Hindi Film Hero — He could now dance as well.
The ’90s brought the charm of ensemble and coyness of sweet romance. This was the time when family dramas and innovative storylines collided with fresh blooded talent and huge budgets. Bollywood had finally pulled off all stops! Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Apke Hain Kon, Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge, Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and J.P. Dutta’s Border proved that the second generation of Bollywood had talent and guts to make their stories grander than life.
Directors like Ram Gopal Varma and David Dhawan had the industry backing them for punchy storylines and hyper family dramas. While a Rangeela broke all records and some censorship scissors, a №1 lineup from David Dhawan ensured that the public had seeti-maar entertainment to look forward to every few months.
The closing years of the 20th century brought a superstar like Hrithik Roshan and the established stars with a common last name — Khan — to the absolute ruling roost of Bollywood’s box office roster.
And then came the 21st century.
As the Khans started to age and Rohit Shetty and Sajid Nadiadwala’s slapstick comedy genres bore more than entertain, Bollywood began to see the world moving faster than it could pivot.
The early decades of the 21st century witnessed several dramatic developments in Indian cinema. Perhaps, the most significant impetus to the film industry was the rapid proliferation of ‘multiplexes and digital cinema theatres, enticing the ‘classes’ back to film viewing in theatres.
The mainstream Bollywood films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Chak De India, and Om Shanti Om were hits on the home ground and bigger hits in overseas markets. The NRI diaspora was suddenly the new feeding ground for the Badshahs of Bollywood.
Internet connectivity and the spread of digital literacy were welcomed with open arms by Bollywood. That enabled larger masses and diverse audiences to watch their creations in their respective geographies without the restraints of borders or language. But that wasn’t a one-way street. An international-cinema-conscious movie-goer had now aggressively started exploring foreign cinema with keener interest and more inclination to spend his ticket money.
And thus began the unidirectional slide downwards…
The connection between Bollywood and the underworld was not unheard of. After all, glamour and blitz attention from all quarters — some we like, some we don’t. But Bollywood seemed to be getting along just fine with the Bhai. The 1993 Bombay Blasts that brought out Bollywood’s links with the underworld as Sanjay Dutt went to jail for alleged involvement was where the mask came off the Hindi Film Industry’s pretty face.
The unworthy mentions of D-company became all too frequent, making Indian audiences realize that their stars aren’t the cleanest at the fame game.
Music Mogul Gulshan Kumar’s daylight murder was a shocker for even those who knew Bollywood’s dirty secrets by now. T-series had captured 65% of the Bollywood music industry share. Like music maker Nadeem Saifi, his success threatened many who wanted him either compliant or removed.
The audience still forgave as they continued to be entertained… until they weren’t anymore. Salman Khan’s rehashes of his Tiger and Shah Rukh Khan’s failed attempts to stay lead hero despite abysmal fitness levels had frustrated ticket-buying audiences. Remixes of old classics and repetitions of the same old ghisa-pita themes sounded like the death of Bollywood’s creativity as we knew it.
The Pandemic was the last straw…
Whatever was left of Bollywood’s shine was scraped off by the pandemic. Top actors and filmmakers took shelter in their homes as the rest of the country found newer ways to get entertained. By 2020, the number of cinema screens came down to 10,500 due to the closure of single-screen theatres. More significantly, the competition from the ‘video streaming services offered by over 40 OTT and on-demand subscription-based platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Zee5, and Disney+ Hotstar.
Bollywood now had a new enemy- the small-time actor who never even acknowledged through its tinted BMW windows outside film studios was directly placing his bucketful of talent on national display via the ‘web series.’
“Bollywood is making only movies for multiplexes; most of the budget goes to the actors instead of getting invested in movie making.” — Sanjay Ghai
This one they hadn’t seen coming, nonetheless tried to ride the charging bull. Saif Ali Khan, Ajay Devgn, Kajol, Sushmita Sen, and Abhishek Bachchan tried their talent and luck on the new-found silver screen of their ardent fans — the Smartphone! OTT had started capturing unprecedented attention enough to sound out those half-completed films until the pandemic struck.
ll things die but the love for your child doesn’t … and so doesn’t the nepotism for filmi kids. The son of Amitabh Bachchan, the daughter of Mahesh Bhatt, the grandkid of Raj Kapoor, the cousin of Kajol, the girlfriend of Tiger Shroff — Bollywood was all about making and taking favors and no longer about finding the right casting fit for the once-in-a-lifetime role.
This unfair adherence to giving ‘chances’ to one’s own and leftovers to the genuinely talented outsiders brought Bollywood failure after failure at the Box office. Until Sushant Singh Rajput died.
Bollywood’s eerie silence as overenthusiastic media dragged every name fathomable to the culprit’s corner was deafening, to say the least. And when they finally broke the silence as their very core started getting called in for questioning, they realized it was a bit too late.
They had snubbed their audiences for far too long, and now these people were out for blood — demanding inquiries and public hangings of the perpetrators. In an SSR, they saw decades of unfairness meted out to themselves in their own personal world. A witch-hunt against an Alia, a Sonakshi, or an Ananya gave them voyeuristic pleasure beyond what Bollywood could perhaps have served in their wildest of dreams.
The panga with the Central Government was not something they could have afforded at this hour. But their arrogance and multiple decades of incredible success blinded them, and they began openly opposing the Modi Government’s policies. As a result, they lost favor with the one entity that had definitely become more popular than them during these two years of the pandemic.
The extensive promotions by the Government machinery for a Kashmir Files as a Bachchan Paandey and a Gangubai Kathiawadi fell by the wayside. They did not go unnoticed by the trained eye. The proposed setup towards the ambitious Noida Film City is perhaps also a method to deflect attention from the Hindi Film Industry’s home — Mumbai.
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But The camel’s back was broken by the South Power Stars…
Consistent super hits, strong storylines, good music, and powerful acting displays began to end South Indian Films to the Hindi movie-going audiences. Films like Baahubali, Pushpa, KGF, RRR, and Jagame Thandiram started being appreciated by audiences who didn’t even understand the native language but loved the action sequences and the daring cinematography, and larger than life persona of their common-looking hero.
Move over Bollywood’s unflinching conformism to six-pack abs and hunked-up heroes. Here, the average-looking, heavily bearded, confident body commoner was doing unimaginable things on screen — making the theatre audiences believe in themselves as they lived the three hours of fantasy again with these unsophisticated superstars.
Cinema is today’s art, just as drama was in earlier ages. Synthesis of each element- the oral, the visual, the philosophical; it is our opportunity to translate the world with all its lines and shadows into a new art form that has succeeded and will supersede all the other arts, for it is the supreme medium in which we can express today and tomorrow.
The poster boy of Indian cinema at one point — Bollywood today has become a ‘cash trap industry’. The commercialization of every aspect in every frame of Hindi Cinema does not allow improvement in a movie’s worth. Bollywood needs to return its A-game and concentrate on returns beyond turnover and box office collections. Films like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur,’ Queen, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, and Masaan give us hope that this industry can revive itself if they shed its age-old arrogance and come back to doing what they did best — entertain the Indian public. And unfortunately, if they still don’t, we have a message on the wall for our fellow movie-lovers….
“Smile Baby. You’re alive. You’ve got options”