With hits like Stree, Badhaai Ho, Pari and Parmanu, 2018 belonged to the non-filmy filmmaker
Films like Stree, Badhaai Ho and Pari prove that stories have begun to take precedence over the star
(It's been an eventful, almost rebellious 2018. Over the next 2 weeks, as the year comes to a close, Firstpost will be looking at the major films, talent, trends, web series and talking points that dominated entertainment, cinema and pop culture in 2018.)
2018 is the year that belonged to the new idea, and the Indie film in Bollywood. In the past decade, innovative ideas and content-oriented films found success in steadily growing numbers. This year, though, the typical star vehicle with commercial elements faced stiff competition in sheer volumes from the relatively smaller films that did good business and got positive audience responses. Films like Bazaar, dealing with the pitfalls of stock market trading and Karwaan, an easygoing road film, garnered numbers riding on audience’s word of mouth. Debutant filammakers Gauravv K Chawla and Akarsh Khurana helmed these films. Andhadhun became a runaway hit over weeks of a positive word of mouth, without an overload of publicity. Even Sanju, the biggest money-spinner of the year, rode on strong performances from Ranbir Kapoor, Paresh Rawal and Vicky Kaushal to make a flawed, one-sided story believable. The crown jewel was Tumbbad - a brilliant, concept film that raised the bar for horror in Hindi cinema.
With their films working at the box office and their stories finding acceptance, this year has also given rise to a fine, resurgent crop of filmmakers. Interestingly, ringing the death knell for the nepotism debate, almost all the new or relatively fresh filmmakers that have made a huge impact come from a non-filmy, regular, middle class background. They’ve laboured to learn the ropes of filmmaking and stuck to their conviction of telling a cinematic story that they believe in. And it has worked like a charm.
Amit Sharma is the man of the moment, with Badhaai Ho. An advertising whiz, Sharma’s first film Tevar (2015) wasn’t a success. “After Tevar, many told me that I should immediately make a second film. I wondered why. I don’t need to rush into making a second film to pay my installments. Films were offered to me with actors on board to direct, but I held out. I was determined to make my second film something that I really wanted to make,” he explains.
Badhaai Ho is about an older couple, with grown sons, getting pregnant accidentally. “As my background is in advertising, I jump for bigger ideas. This is a big idea, which has insight (into human behavior). It’s a good thing if your parents are still in love. Often, we can’t imagine our mother as anything other than a mom, but she is also a woman,” he says. The film features a protagonist, played by Neena Gupta, who is unapologetic about her sexuality and subtly mocks social judgments around a woman’s choices and mature romance.
Akshat Ghildial, who wrote his first screenplay with Badhaai Ho, originally had this idea for an ad. Sharma decided to scale it up and make it into a feature. Along with Ghildial, Shantanu Srivastav and Jyoti Kapoor, worked on the story for two years. “Coincidentally, Priti Shahani (Junglee Pictures) was working on the same concept of an older couple getting pregnant. We met and immediately connected. We decided to co-produce the film.”
Sharma’s biggest reward, apart from the massive box office numbers, is people’s reactions. “Middle-aged couples were holding hands in the theatre while watching the film, people have said. A girl recently told me that Badhaai Ho is pretty much her story, as her brother is 18 years younger than her,” he says.
As for his pick for films of the year, Raazi remains on top. He is also keen to watch Stree by Amar Kaushik.
Prosit Roy, the director who made his debut with the horror drama Pari, considers Badhaai Ho his pick for the year. Roy’s inspiration lies in classics from Bengali folklore by Satyajit Ray (stories like Mriganka Babur Ghotona, Khagam) and Rabindranath Tagore (Monihara) among others. Like Japanese and Korean cinema, their stories about a cursed, haunted young girl flourished into an atmospheric horror film. “My maternal family hails from Bangladesh. When they moved to Kolkata during the Partition, they spread a rumour of their big makaan (bungalow) being haunted. That’s how I first got familiar with the concept of the Djinn and Ifrit. Spreading a ghost story was a way of protecting their property, and then these stories became a part of folklore. We researched and developed our story from folklore and in this creative realm.”
Finding producers for Pari was difficult for Roy. “It’s very hard for a first-time director to get his producer to share his vision, as there is no reference for atmospheric horror in Hindi film. Most producers wanted us to add jump scares. We didn’t want to do that. A producer even told me that he doesn’t want the film to be made in Kolkata and wants to move it to Uttar Pradesh as we would get tax rebate there!” Karnesh Sharma of Clean Slate Films read the script while working on Phillauri, on which Roy was assisting. Both Anushka and him bought into his vision and decided to come on board. “To us, Pari is a dark tunnel. We gave people a torch and told them to explore, to find out what is at the end of this tunnel. It’s also a love story.”
Roy’s film opened to mixed reviews but explored the space of Indian folk horror, a rich collective of stories. Its presentation of ghosts and the supernatural beyond the familiar tantric or chudail (witch), makes Pari stand alone in the horror film space.
Another horror film that literally got audiences to jump up, take notice and return to theatres was Maddock Films’ Stree.
Featuring Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi and Aparshakti Khurana, Stree deals with a nebulous space between superstition, the supernatural and youthful romantic liaisons. Director Amar Kaushik recalls, "Naming our film Stree in itself meant a big responsibility. It needed us to do something that does justice to the title, and we had to be careful." Having assisted leading filmmakers for some time, Kaushik got his break as director with Stree from Raj and DK, whom he assisted while making Go,Goa,Gone. "Raj and DK wrote this film and narrated its premise. I found it very exciting. As it was my first film, I wanted to go all out in terms of treatment. The biggest challenge was balancing out elements of both horror and comedy. Going overboard with either wouldn’t work. While writing the screenplay, we thought this through and used bits of silence while approaching the film."
Having grown up across remote parts of India and also having lived in Arunachal Pradesh, Kaushik found Chanderi resonant with the haunted character that the film needed. “The concept of Stree comes from a real incident in Southern India. I have travelled across small towns of North and Central India as a kid, and Chanderi struck me as eerie. Having explored other locations and not finding them suitable, I decided to re-visit this town and found it exactly as I had remembered. I wanted to base the film in Central India as superstitions around witches, monkeys exist everywhere,” he says. Kaushik’s ambiguous end to the film is deliberate. “An ending that leaves some of the story open-ended actually gets audiences back into theatres for a repeat viewing. For me, a story like this never really ends. A scene concludes, and I prefer to end the story on this (mysterious) note” he states.
While Kaushik and Roy drew from Indian folklore and superstition for their stories, Abhishek Sharma used patriotism, a catchy sentiment currently, to make Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran. Sharma’s film stands out in a clutter because of his realistic, no-nonsense treatment of a history- defining nuclear test in postmodern India. “I am from a defence background”, Sharma says, “so it was very important to me that we present the Indian Army in a correct manner. While making the film, we had a retired Army colonel on nboard, someone who was involved in the test, to ensure that everyone looked and behaved like an Army person. We trained about 150 young boys from the region in Rajasthan where we had filmed like jawans to get the body language right. Extensive research was key to getting this film right,” he recalls.
Sharma gushes about his experience of working with a committed star and producer, which he found in John Abraham. “John has produced a wide range of films. He understands that every film requires a different kind of treatment. Never once did he insist or ask for commercial elements, like a song, to be inserted in the film. We will be working on more films together that he produces in the future,” he states. The story of this film began with 10 pages and underwent five drafts. “What I enjoyed the most while making Parmanu is teamwork. Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh worked with me to develop the script by drawing up on the accurate research of what actually took place. We read every article that was published around the tests, spoke to various armed forces personnel and scientists who were qualified to explain the nitty-gritties without threatening national security. The production design aimed at being realistic so some of the equipment used in the film is real,” says Sharma.
As established movie stars begin to back films with their presence and their money, the tide for mainstream Hindi cinema has turned. Stories have begun to take precedence, as has the focus on delivering production standards that match up to international quality. Another achievement of these new mainstream films is building and developing characters rather than a jaded hero and heroine. Is there potential here to find international audiences through OTT platforms? Perhaps. For now, the positives of such filmmakers finding success make Hindi cinema more relevant.
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