Are reality-based films passť?
A series of ambitiously designed big budget films focussing on real life, fact-based themes have come and gone, leaving in their wake confusion over how far reality can be translated into success at the box office.
By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Almost all the biggies this summer have been headline-related.
Mani Ratnam's "Yuva" dealt with myriad contemporary themes such as student unrest, the nexus between gangsters and politicians and brain drain - all coming together in a riveting melange of sub-plots.
Though the film did well enough to ensure no losses for the distributors, there wasn't the box-office rage that the huge star cast had initially suggested.
Govind Nihalani's hard-hitting recreation of the Gujarat communal riots in "Dev" didn't find enough takers either. Though Amitabh Bachchan's towering presence ensured it a decent opening, it finally turned out to be a losing proposition.
Farhan Akhtar's "Lakshya", with its anti-war message and its hugely provocative look at the average affluent boy's aimlessness in life, was greeted with a mixed roar of approval and disenchantment. "Either people hated it or loved it. No one was okay with it," smiles Akhtar.
The rather tepid response to three such mammoth reality-driven projects raises some critical questions about the Indian audience and its famous penchant for escapism.
Are audiences unwilling to pay hard-earned money to watch their favourite actors recreating slices of history? Are headline-inspired films doomed?
Even the shock value in Karan Razdan's "Girlfriend" couldn't raise it above the level of an also-ran at the box office this summer. Though the initial controversies kept the film alive over the weekend, it slumped thereafter, as did the other films this season that purported to reflect attitudes and mores in real life.
The fact that the three biggest hits of 2004 so far are Farah Khan's out-and-out mainstream product "Main Hoon Na", Anurag Basu's skin-and-adultery drama "Murder" and Kunal Kohli's fluffy "Hum Tum" is evidence enough as to which way the audience tastes swing.
Says ad filmmaker Arjun Sablok: "Audiences just don't want to see headline-based films. In fact, they make the effort to go to the theatres for the contrary kick, to view not what they've watched on television's news channels and read in newspapers, but to simply escape as far away from reality as possible.
"So yes, escapism, be it wrapped in sex ('Murder'), romance ('Hum Tum'), patriotism ('Main Hoon Na') or mirth ('Munnabhai M.B.B.S.'), will definitely score over grim and probing issue-based films.
"If I haven't been able to decide what film to make after my debut 'Na Tum Jano Na Hum', it's because I'm confused by the demands of the box office."
Producer Vashu Bhagnani, who believes audiences want nothing more or less than an easy evening out at the movies, is excited about his new film "Vada". "It's an out-and-out entertainer. And yes I've opted for stars like Arjun Rampal, Amisha Patel and Zayed Khan because they're available to me. I do believe audiences are drawn to films to see their favourite stars doing heroic and glamorous things."
Producer Gaurang Doshi's "Deeewar: Let's bring Our Heroes Home" is the latest reality-based film to have received a lukewarm reception at the box office. Though the film is doing very well in some centres up north, it isn't the blockbuster it was expected to be.
Is it because the audience isn't interested in the plight of the Indian prisoners of war in Pakistan?
Shrugs Doshi: "I don't know. But I do know audiences will lap up a good adventure story any time. History is certainly not a favourite subject for audiences. If 'Gadar' and 'Lagaan' worked so well, it wasn't because they were set during a specific time from the past, but because they told absorbing stories.
"At the end it's the same story all over again. It's how you tell it that counts."