Bala, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Stree, Tanu Weds Manu: Tracing the rise and success of Bollywood films from the Hindi heartland
In the last decade, the landscape of our reel stories has shifted from London to Lucknow, and Miami to Mathura.
“Chhote-chhote shehron se,
Khaali-bore dupaharon se,
Hum to jhola utha ke chale”
In 2005, Gulzar wrote these lines for Shaad Ali’s Bunty aur Babli, residents of Fursatganj and Pankinagar, sleepy, small towns in Uttar Pradesh. He captured the restless soul of small town India that was dreaming big and itching to make its mark. This wild ride through the narrow, winding lanes and the Ganga ghats of the North Indian heartland was considered an anomaly among the films that were being made at the time.
Mainstream films were either set in gritty super cities like Mumbai or Delhi, or in a nameless, fictional village replete with top-notch production design, or in glamorous New York or London. It was almost a prerequisite for the big budget A-list starrer to have at least one romantic song set amidst the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland or the cobbled streets of Paris. In the last decade, the landscape of our reel stories has shifted from London to Lucknow, and Miami to Mathura.
Sharat Katariya’s debut film Dum Lagake Haisha was steeped in the old-world charm of Haridwar. Leena Yadav’s Parched captured the vivid colours of Rajasthan while Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar was set and shot in the meandering lanes of Vadodara (formerly Baroda). Lucknow’s picturesque locations and majestic monuments have made the UP capital a hot favourite among filmmakers. Films like Dedh Ishqiya, Tanu Weds Manu, Jolly LLB, Lucknow Central, and, most recently Bala and Pati Patni Aur Woh were shot and set in the city. Just this year itself, actor Ayushmann Khurrana has shot three films – Article 15, Bala and next year’s release Gulabo Sitabo – almost consecutively in Lucknow. The city has even become a stand-in for fictional hinterland settings in films like Ishaqzaade, Bullet Raja and Dabangg. And, Lucknow’s popularity is also rubbing off on smaller towns and villages nearby like Faizabad, Malihabad and Hardoi.
When director Anubhav Sinha was writing Mulk, the film that signaled a shift in his filmography, he had first set the drama in Lucknow. “Sudhir Mishra was one of my friends who read the script and recommended that I set the film in Benaras. He said I could get the milieu better because I grew up there,” Sinha shares. The director, who grew up on the banks of the Ganga in Benares and then Allahabad, before moving to Aligarh has been gravitating towards films that originate in the world he comes from. “Some of my earlier films (Tum Bin, Dus, Ra. One) might have done well but they didn’t really resonate with the audience because I didn’t have a personal connect with them. The films that I am now making come from places that have had a lot of personal stories and memories attached for me,” he continues.
This shift of landscape is also an indication of the changing demography of directors and writers in Bollywood. Similar to Sinha, directors like Ashwini Iyer-Tiwari (Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi), Aanand L Rai (Tanu Weds Manu, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Raanjhana), Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), Amar Kaushik (Stree, Bala) also have their roots in small-towns and their films give us a glimpse of the Hindi heartland. “I come from this world so I know it well. Though, I really think you can’t call them ‘small’ towns any more. They are as advanced as Mumbai or Delhi but there is an inherent sense of humour and innocence that people in the metros seem to have lost,” says Kaushik.
“Authenticity” has become a buzzword with writers and directors attempting to stay true to their characters and the location their films are set in.
When Sinha rejigged the script for Mulk shifting the backdrop from Lucknow to Benares, he added a moment that he decribes as being ‘quintessentially Benaras. “You see a Muslim character is returning home after offering prayers at the mosque. He walks past a Shiv temple where an arti is in progress,” he describes. Most directors now prefer to shoot in the warren of narrow streets; writers pepper the story with references and characters that are true to the setting; actors make the effort to learn dialects. These attempts might not always work but there is a hunger for bringing real and reel closer.
Some of the biggest blockbusters of the past decade were small town-based films like Sultan, Dangal and Tanu Weds Manu Returns. It’s no wonder that producers are keen to bankroll more and more stories set in the hinterland, even if the story doesn’t demand it. As Bollywood’s march into the interiors continues, the clichés of the genre are becoming hard to ignore. Think community-arranged marriages, laadli but rebellious daughters, an under-confident hero, adoring and progressive but nosy parents, extended families with quirky chacha-mama-phupha who provide the comedic punch lines. Add to this a social issue and you would have checked all the boxes.
“The problem with cinema in India is that everything becomes reductive. When a trend happens, people aren’t wondering if a setting is right for their stories. They start with wanting to set their story in a small town and then started thinking of the story instead of the other way around,” says Lipstick Under My Burkha director Alankrita Srivastav. There is an upside to this, she believes. “These stories have a lot more characters and a lot of good actors are getting those parts.
Just last week, Yash Raj Films announced the sequel Bunty aur Babli 2, with debutant Sharvari and Gully Boy actor Siddhant Chaturvedi in the titular roles with Rani Mukerji and Saif Ali Khan playing the older con-artists. Seeing the popularity of these films, there’s no doubt that there will be other sequels, there will be other franchises like Tanu Weds Manu and there will be newer stories. Whether the next decade will be more of the same or something completely new remains to be seen, but the decade we’re closing out will always remain Bollywood’s Golden Era of the Hindi heartland.
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