We, the Hindi film audiences, are not known for putting up a fight. Bollywood stars have known and exploited this for decades. We’re in a position of power: we can reject their films, prick their egos, force them to introspect. And yet, Friday after Friday, we’ve remained oblivious to our basic rights: the freedom to choose. To stars obsessed with their images, we’ve failed to show them the mirror.
But 2018 was different. The year’s list of highest-grossing films featured some unlikely names. Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta-starrer Badhaai Ho, centered on an older woman’s pregnancy, earned nearly Rs 137 crore at the domestic box-office, comfortably eclipsing the figures of Akshay Kumar’s Gold and Pad Man and Ajay Devgn’s Raid.
The funny feminist drama Stree, similarly, lacked a star, but that didn’t affect its commercial success, becoming the year’s eighth-highest grossing film, just below Badhaai Ho. A Bollywood film helmed by an actress, devoid of a male star, has limited box-office appeal, but Raazi, starring Alia Bhatt, earned in excess of Rs 120 crore.
This year, though, wasn’t just notable for what found acceptance but also what got snubbed. Something extraordinary happened in 2018: the films of all the three Khans fared poorly at the box-office. The actioner Race 3, starring Salman Khan, made on a budget of around Rs 180 crore, earned only Rs 169 crore at the Indian box office. His last, Tiger Zinda Hai, had earned more than double.
In fact, Khan’s fans were so disappointed with the movie that they trended “We don’t want Dabanng 3”on Twitter. When the star thanked them for the film’s success, they wondered if he was also offering a refund. 2018 should be remembered as the year when even the Bhai-fans had enough.
Vijay Acharaya’s Thugs of Hindostan, starring Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, managed a casting coup. Produced by Yash Raj Films, made on a budget of Rs 335 crore, it was Bollywood’s most expensive movie, but the rest of the country wasn’t as enthused. The film was a box-office disaster, grossing less than Rs 150 crore. Even the recently released Zero, led by Shahrukh Khan, opened to a tepid box-office response, collecting Rs 87 crore in the first six days of its release. The Kannada film K.G.F., released on the same day, has earned more.
2018 also continued the trend of nationalist movies, which either directly professed their love for the nation or featured patriotic and honest Indians. Akshay Kumar (unsurprisingly) starred in two of them, Pad Man and Gold, both inspired by real-life stories, simplistically and conveniently funnelled to monetise the national mood. John Abraham, desperately trying to refashion his image as a no-nonsense action hero, appeared in two such films as well, Parmanu and Satyamev Jayate. (Both Gold and Satyamev Jayate released on Independence Day.)
Aiyaary, by Neeraj Pandey (the directorial counterpart of Kumar), was no surprise as well — neither in its patriotic fervour nor its mediocrity. Ajay Devgn starred as the painfully moralising cop in Raid (who, of course, does everything for the country), while Baaghi 2, an action thriller, gratuitously paid tribute to a real-life incident, involving the Indian army, that attracted much criticism. (In the movie, Tiger Shroff’s character ties a Kashmiri to the bonnet of his jeep, using him as a human shield, for desecrating the Indian flag.)
But there was notable resistance here as well. Films such as Raazi, centred on an Indian spy marrying a Pakistani military officer, could have been a minefield of jingoistic declarations, but filmmaker Meghna Gulzar upturned the genre conventions, giving us a complex (and enjoyable) story. Manto, by Nandita Das, explored the trauma of a man stranded between India and Pakistan. Then there was Mulk – a sympathetic portrayal of a Muslim family battling bigotry – which stood out for its inclusionary politics and discomfiting relevance. Ghoul, a Netflix series depicting an authoritarian regime targeting Muslims, was purportedly dystopic, but its comments on India’s current political climate were quite obvious (and, in several ways, heartening).
The standout achievement of the year, however, has to be Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, which used Rajnikanth’s stardom to tell a powerful story of Dalit resistance. Painting its frames black and blue, critiquing the notions of upper-caste ‘purity’, and subverting the Ramayana to deliver a stunning indictment of majoritarian politics, Kaala was a memorable rebellion, seeing the world from the ground up, with fire in its eyes.
Enumerating the top 10 Hindi films at the end of the year is usually a tough exercise – most of the time, you’re straining to complete the list. But 2018 gave us less reasons to complain. The year began on a slow note; the first four months saw just one light accomplishment, the delightful screwball comedy Kaalakandi. Mukkabaaz, Pari and October, released in the same period, excelled in parts, but failed to hold up as a whole.
The last four months, in contrast, gave us a slew of well-made films: Stree, Manmarziyaan, Manto, Sui Dhaaga, Badhaai Ho, Mohalla Assi and the finest movie of the year, Andhadhun. Even a film lacking in narrative and thematic acuity, Tumbbad, remains memorable for its cinematographic finesse. In fact, this list would have been richer if Bollywood’s foremost directors, Vikramaditya Motwane and Vishal Bhardwaj, hadn’t made two middling fares in Bhavesh Joshi and Pataakha.
It’ll be naive to think that one good year signals a wave of change in Bollywood. Even a cursory glance at the releases next month throws up at least two troubling titles: the hyper-nationalist drama Uri and the propaganda biopic Thackeray (starring, of all actors, Nawaazuddin Siddiqui, an outsider to Maharashtra and a Muslim – the kind of citizen loathed by Thackeray).
But for the first time in many years, the Hindi film audience wasn’t a genie in a bottle. A mere rub was no longer enough for us. We were no longer a formula. We had a voice. We mattered.
Published in arrangement with The Wire.