Brahmastra lessons for Bollywood: Go Indian with script idea, look to Hollywood for event movie flair

Fans are tired of lazy remakes as well as films that recycle clichés under the pretext of serving a message

Vinayak Chakravorty September 14, 2022 13:00:31 IST
Brahmastra lessons for Bollywood: Go Indian with script idea, look to Hollywood for event movie flair

A scene from Brahmāstra

Now that we’ve exulted enough over how Brahmastra might emerge as Bollywood’s magic weapon in the struggle against flops and boycotts, it is time for the Hindi film industry to get the bigger picture. What the big-bang opening of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s film indicates is this is the way new-age Bollywood buffs want their entertainment served. Stars and filmmakers need to grasp that box office hint.

Fans are tired of lazy, quick fix remakes of South Indian or foreign hits already available on OTT, or films that mindlessly recycle clichés under the pretext of serving a message. Brahmastra shows cutting-edge entertainers mixing original storyline with contemporary appeal can be created out of stories that are traditionally Indian. There is a treasure trove of ideas in mythology and folklore to tap into, which Bollywood has hardly ever looked at. True, writer-director Ayan Mukerji’s fantasy adventure could have done with a cohesive script and a lot more clever twists. Also, any talk of the film’s lack of imagination in storytelling has been scuttled by the celebratory reverie over its whopping opening weekend haul, pegged at around Rs 225 crore worldwide. But then, aggressive hype and marketing, aided by a big star cast, glossy packaging and the right release strategy have traditionally been the parameters of success in Bollywood, where style continues to precede substance. There is a difference, though, between most other larger-than-life Bollywood biggies that have scored despite flaws and Brahmastra. Thematically, Ranbir-Alia’s film, although predictable and thinly spread over its near-three hour runtime, is quite unlike anything Bollywood normally attempts. Beyond his film’s cosmetic dazzle and narrative warts, Ayan Mukerji has shown how new Bollywood films must be made if they must capture audience imagination.

Setting aside its good-looking lead cast and star-studded cameo roster, the film’s USP actually lies in the way it balances contrasting formulae. The drama is written around mythology and Indian culture and yet the action is styled in the lines of Marvel adventures. Viewed in 3D format, Brahmastra, technically at least, is almost at par with the best anywhere. In a multiplex scenario where films from all over India and the world are regularly being dubbed in Hindi for the local audience, the right tech-specs are an aspect Bollywood cannot afford to gloss over anymore.

Importantly, there is the issue of reinventing the masala movie itself. For the past several years, sections of the industry, the media as well as social media have been clamouring over how commercial Bollywood formulae no longer have a place in our mainstream cinema, that cutting-edge films demand realistic treatment which can in no way accommodate larger-than-life storytelling tools. It is interesting, therefore, how Brahmastra as well as Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 — Bollywood’s two biggest commercial hits this year so far — have both rehauled formula. In Brahmastra, especially, Mukerji retains every vintage formula a Bollywood film is expected to cater — songs, boy-girl romance, stunts and melodrama — and packs it all with visually captivating VFX in a technologically consummate package aimed to regale today’s viewers, at a reported budget of over Rs 400 crore.

Bollywood in recent years was mistaken in believing that the days of the masala film are over, and the outcome was a slew of Hollywood-style flicks that found no connect with the audience. The bumper opening of Brahmastra stresses on that fact that the truth could be just the opposite. The vintage masala flick is going nowhere — only, it needs reimagination in the way the Kevin Feige-led Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) keep reinventing the superhero film from time to time, or owners of the James Bond franchise thrived over the decades by reorganising 007 basics every few years. The commercial cinema template of Bollywood demanded a rehaul for long, not because it had become dated but because in needed to accommodate changing tastes. New-age entertainers as Brahmastra and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have shown it can be done by presenting larger-than-life fun in a believable milieu.

Incidentally, most big films this year barring Brahmastra and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have failed to strike that balance between reinvention and retention of what essentially defines the Bollywood mainstream. Laal Singh Chaddha, Raksha Bandhan, Samrat Prithviraj, Bachchhan Paandey, Heropanti 2 or Jugjugg Jeeyo were all lavishly mounted, aggressively marketed fare. But these films were all adhering to either the image specifics of the lead star in question or serving generic formula that worked in the past.

The Ranbir-Alia starrer Brahmastra — flaunting Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Nagarjuna in specially written roles — has also been a rare Bollywood release this year that lives up to the tag of an event movie. If one were to notice an emerging trend, the post-Covid scenario is one where the big screen is exclusively turning into a domain for event movies — mega-hyped releases catering all-out entertainment, made to be savoured exclusively in theatres. The pan-India success of South Indian blockbusters such as KGF 2, RRR and Pushpa: The Rise — Part 01 also underline this fact. With cinema becoming an expensive affair, the ticket-paying audience chooses to venture to the halls only if a film demands big-screen viewing, and it could be a reason why almost every other small film has struggled to find audiences in the theatres lately. The trend could also have to do with the rise of streaming platforms, since most small to moderately-budgeted films, irrespective of their theatrical run, manage to find ready audience once launched in the OTT domain.

There is a flip side to event biggies, of course. If things go wrong and a big-budget film were to come down crashing, losses could be irredeemable. It has happened with big turnips such as 83 and Laal Singh Chaddha, besides almost all of what Akshay Kumar released over the past 12 months or so. At a time when boycott demands and the rising pan-India popularity of the southern brigade already threaten Bollywood, the industry could ill-afford such losses. Bollywood needs more films that set out to reinvent its unique formula, and fast.

(All figures according to film trade estimates)

Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.

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