While Hollywood aces disaster films, why Indian cinema continues to lack budget and appetite for the genre
While Hollywood's rich repertoire of disaster and apocalypse films continues to mirror unfurling sociopolitical realities, Indian cinema is yet venture into this territory over myriad reasons, according to industry insiders.
Dave: My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitiser after I leave. I mean, she's overreacting, right?
Dr Erin Mears: Not really. And stop touching your face, Dave.
— Contagion (2011)
In the early days of the lockdown, when we took a break from googling 'novel coronavirus ', completed our hand hygiene routines and domestic chores, many of us revisited Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. In this 2011 thriller, a group of medical professionals are desperately working to find a cure for a raging and highly contagious virus.
Over the next few days the internet was flooded with lists of suggested viewing. A new vocabulary was founded around these films: infectious disease movies, pandemic films, plague and virus outbreak movies, medical disasters, apocalyptic, doomsday, end of days, worst case scenario and disease thrillers. Clearly, that’s a lot of descriptors for a sub-genre of action movies.
Hollywood films on these subjects have largely been successful, perhaps because the scariest, most disturbing ones closely mirror reality. The possibility of a race against time to save humanity — to find a vaccine to combat a virus infecting the entire world, or a lockdown in which human beings lose all sense of calm and compassion — is plausible.
Outbreak, World War Z, The Adromeda Strain, 12 Monkeys, Pandemic, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and 93 Days appear on many lists, followed by other disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Deep Impact, Armageddon and Titanic. Volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, floods, pandemics, zombie attacks, alien invasions, dystopia — there’s a substantial catalogue and a certified audience for these spectacles. One opinion is that films that prey on our worst fears connect with the audience because they usually have a positive resolution.
But if you look closer home, you realise how Indian films barely feature on the ‘epidemic entertainment’ list. Go Goa Gone and Virus are top of mind. Widen the ambit to disaster films and Mother India, Do Bigha Zamin, The Burning Train, Kaala Patthar, Tum Mile, Bhopal Express, Dasavatharam, Dam 999 and Kedarnath come up, as films that explored floods, famine, drought, chemical gas leaks and epidemics, among others.
Examine the track record of most of these films and the numbers speak for themselves. In the absence of a blockbuster spectacle film, the appetite for taking on a risky worst-case scenario story lessens. Take an early example, such as Yash Chopra’s Kaala Patthar (1979). The poster of the film set in the mines of North India featured Amitabh Bachchan’s coal-caked face contorted in a scream, setting the tone for a film based on a true story. Kaala Patthar met with a tepid response from an audience that was used to seeing stars romancing around trees, and was unprepared to experience the recreation of a disaster on screen.
Ravi Chopra’s The Burning Train (1980) was set on a sabotaged super-fast train. Starring top actors of the time, big on budget with special effects to showcase fire in a closed train, it was high on drama and action, but low on box office returns. The audience did not warm up to the idea of flames engulfing a moving train. Around the same period, Hollywood had made The Poseidon Adventure (on a ship), The Towering Inferno (a blazing high-rise) and Jaws (shark attack), among others, to much success and acclaim.
But India in the 1970s was a country facing unique problems. The young socialist democracy had migration from rural to urban areas, and a post-independence Indian seeking an individual identity. As filmmaker Shekhar Kapur says, “We forget that the star Amitabh Bachchan was born of a huge population shift, from rural to urban areas, from joint families to the struggle to be alone in slums. That’s why Deewar was such a huge hit and ‘Mere paas ma hai’ is such a huge dialogue. It represented the loneliness of the urban youth.”
In that milieu, filmmakers began peddling escapist cinema, creating a grammar that has endured time and has lived through generations. Decades later, heroes continue to be larger than life and box office numbers, now more than ever, determine the viability of a film. Disaster films require large budgets, not just for the visual effects, but also for developing scripts that are founded on convincing and authentic research.
Vikramaditya Motwane, who directed survival drama Trapped and vigilante drama Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, says, “In the 1970s, writers Salim (Khan) and Javed (Akhtar) were talking about the working class. Using the format of heroes and villains, they spotlighted how the state was failing their people. It was a socialist ideology-based storytelling, which got lost along the way and was superseded by escapist cinema.”
Indian audiences take their cinema far more seriously than others. But Indian filmmakers have rarely shown an appetite for risk. One poor show at the box office and financiers, producers and stars recoil from the idea of revisiting the genre. This has been the case with apocalyptic and disaster films in India. The ones that hit their mark, like Go Goa Gone — a spoof of the zombie genre — and Virus — a Malayalam film about the Nipa virus in Kerala — were content with sticking to a target, genre-loyal audience.
Though zombie movies are technically not disaster films, popular culture shows humans turn into zombies on being infected with the zombie virus. Raj Nidimoru, one half of Raj and DK, the writing-directing duo that made Go Goa Gone, says, “As a film industry we have always leaned towards escapist cinema and don’t want to be burdened by such a calamity that we feel helpless. For Go Goa Gone, we used humour and satire to show a glimpse of an apocalyptic state. But largely, I don’t think Indian audiences are attracted to a gloomy, apocalyptic set up. Entertainment is the predominant agenda.”
Analysing the paucity of disaster films in an industry which boasts world class technical talent, film journalist Rajeev Masand says, “It’s a popular genre in Hollywood because there is an odd thrill in watching a disaster. But these films aren’t made in India largely because of the scale and ambition required to realise them (which make them untenable in terms of costs). Also, Indian cinema tends to focus on real events, rather than prophetic scenarios. To some extent Kedarnath, which was inspired by true events, would qualify as a cataclysmic/disaster movie, as are other films based on dam bursts, tsunamis, etc. But we don’t make the 'disaster prophecy' films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.”
Indian filmmakers agree that budget is a major issue. In order to get a big budget, you need a big star. (Well, good luck with persuading a bankable star to be in a doomsday movie.) So even if filmmakers have the ambition and the idea, they are caught in a Catch-22 situation, where a big star begets a big budget, but a big budget demands assured box office returns.
Sanjay Gupta, director of action dramas like Kaante and Shootout at Wadala, posits that in the absence of national scale calamities and with an economically disparate population, end-of-day themes become hard to explain. “Often when exploring this genre, one needs to go into the sci-fi space, which is a non-existent genre in India. Maybe because of literacy levels, as in how do you explain UFOs, aliens and zombies? Also these films are not cheap to make, the studios are not ready to take such risks, and stars will ask why not make Fast and Furious rather than Contagion. Maybe things will be different in a post- Coronavirus world,” he says.
Motwane adds that besides budgets and box office numbers, laziness has a part to play. “As a producer, how many really interesting stories have I even read that go beyond the standard palette of what can be made? Writers, directors, actors and producers lack ambition to tell stories on a larger scale. If there is ambition here, then aukat (status/ability) is limited by budget."
As a simple comparison, if Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (released in 2009) was made for a budget of $200 million, the budget for the Sushant Singh Rajput, Sara Ali Khan-starrer Kedarnath almost a decade later was reportedly an approximate $9 million (as per boxofficeindia.com).
Masand says, “We’re far away from making disaster/apocalyptic films of the kind that Hollywood does. While we do rely on VFX considerably in our films, they’re expensive and time consuming. Think about it — we haven’t even made a film like Titanic, which requires a seamless marriage of practical effects and CGI in telling a romantic story, a human drama.”
Another hindrance is action sequences and special effects. “We can’t even do a drizzle. You have to use rain, because that’s the only kind of machine available,” says Motwane. “Our explosions and guns are okay and our visual effects have improved, but we are not encouraging filmmakers to think of a spectacular story that will harness these indigenous capabilities for the big screen.”
Kapur’s Paani, one such ambitious project, which has been in the pipeline for some years now, is a cautionary tale about a futuristic world beset with water scarcity and rebellion against the class structure. “Indian cinema does not want to explore uncomfortable topics because our filmmakers are now too far removed from the people, except for a few,” Kapur says. “It’s time for all of us to question our responsibility as artists. It’s time to stop celebrating opening weekend numbers.”
The real reason why Bollywood, in particular, lags behind the American industry maybe something far simpler. After overcoming myriad challenges in their everyday lives, audiences may reject entertainment that taps into their deepest fears. Motwane agrees. “We like to feel emotionally uncomfortable, but I don’t think we like to feel fearful. The feeling of discomfort is part of filmmaking. You have to feel one thing to be able feel something else afterwards. When Rajkummar Rao’s character breaks out of the apartment in Trapped, you can suddenly breathe. That’s what I was going for. But a lot of viewers found it hard to get till the end.”
Nidimoru disagrees. “I don’t endorse it but that seems to be the reason we have not made movies in that genre. It is the ultimate harsh reality — there is no hope and the world is ending. I wouldn’t be deterred if I wanted to make a genre film. Americans love genres that induce fear. They are used to the concept of bunkers, hoarding, preparing for doomsday. It’s culturally part of their psyche.”
In Hollywood, the story is bigger than the star; in Bollywood, it’s the reverse. So, to expand genre-filmmaking, which includes disaster and epidemic films, what’s needed? “Budgets and balls,” says Gupta.
“Trial, error and, refinement, till the point where we have a solid business,” adds Motwane.
“Offer something new and indigenous,” says Nidimoru.
So, until this what-if scenario plays out, the best-case scenario is that we have access to top-grade Hollywood spectacles and shows on streaming services that are brave, convincing and, often, frightening.
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