Love and progressiveness: Are Bollywood romances losing their verve?

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in a still from ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’

Some of the releases in recent weeks suggest that mainstream Bollywood is in a self-reflective mood. Like the customary transformation scene in family dramas where the ageing generation gives in to the views of their kids after resisting change in the first half, Bollywood bigwigs seem eager to scrutinise the stereotypical tropes that once defined their point of view. They are questioning and scratching off entrenched patriarchy, casual everyday sexism, and gender and cultural biases that have blighted our society and cinema alike in the name of tradition and custom, but in the process, they are losing out on the verve and lilt that Hindi film romance once possessed.

Perhaps propelled by the ripples that some of the content on OTT platforms has created or spurred by the will to challenge their legacy, marquee banners are indulging in introspection. It is reflected in Rajshri Productions’ Uunchai in 2022, Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment’s Satyaprem Ki Katha and Bawaal and Dharma Production’s JugJugg Jeeyo and Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani (RARKPK). Even Anurag Kashyap who promised a parallel universe to mainstream fluff got caught in this game of catching up with the youth with Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat. So did Luv Ranjan when he mounted Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar earlier this year.

A Punjabi and a Bengali family overcome their cultural differences and learn progressive lessons in ‘Rocky Aur Rani...’

A Punjabi and a Bengali family overcome their cultural differences and learn progressive lessons in ‘Rocky Aur Rani…’

Veil of change

In RARKPK, Johar has even tossed a low-hanging metaphor — swad wahi, soch nayi (same flavour, new philosophy). The experiment requires courage to get over the obstacles of experience and ego but a closer scrutiny suggests that the change is only cosmetic and the new philosophy demands a newer way of putting across the message. At present, it is a case of neither here nor there as the subversion remains adsorbed on the surface. The noble intentions behind these films often feel contrived as if the creators are chasing applause for their message, only to revert to the status quo for their trusted multiplex audience. This renders their efforts seem more pretentious than impactful. The romantic build-up in the movie RARKPK, between a Punjabi ‘heartthrob’ and a journalist from an intellectual Bengali family lacks the intensity that could be overlooked by the stagy but progressive second half. Cinema like all art is about intent and gaze and here it feels like the film pauses to pontificate like a generic television soap. We are having a dialogue on male insensitivity towards women by taking Ranveer Singh to a lingerie shop.  We are making the hero dance to ‘Dola Re Dola’ to join his prospective father-in-law, a Kathak exponent.

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The screenplay reads like a PowerPoint presentation against cancel culture and surprisingly, after all the fuss over making parents see the parallax in their world view, the girl makes peace with the father of the boy who comes across as a misogynist. Similarly, in JugJugg Jeeyo, the sexist attitude of the father played by Anil Kapoor goes unpunished. It is like pushing the envelope and then gingerly pulling it back lest it offend the audience who loved Kuch Kuch Hota Hai for promoting make-up as a must for girls and the notion that short dresses attract unwanted male attention. Essentially, in Bawaal, the Varun Dhawan and Jahnvi Kapoor-starrer is bloated out of proportion perhaps to match the scale of the producer’s image and the urge to reach out to an international audience. The film literally keeps requesting the audience to be open-minded to accept the bizarre idea of a couple learning to bury their differences when the teacher husband is schooled on the pain and sufferings of the Jews during the Second World War. Hindi cinema has sold even more bizarre concepts to the paying public in the past but in those films, the makers were not trying to be too clever by half.  

A still from ‘Bawaal’

A still from ‘Bawaal’

Bawaal is not the only one in recent times that could not hold on to its one-trick show. Aanand L Rai’s Atrangi Re, a quirky love triangle on mental health, also could not pass muster once the director showed his cards.

The premise of Bawaal could have worked if Varun was shown as a primary school teacher in the Uttar Pradesh village and the couple learnt from the sufferings of one of the episodes of the freedom movement. But, perhaps, the makers were keen on making a big splash. Director Nitesh Tiwari recently said that every film could be subjected to scrutiny when viewed through a magnifying glass. It is true but the details invariable come out when the director fails to hold suspension of disbelief even in the first viewing. Music plays an important role in the process but the big shots are borrowing from the past to sustain the love stories of today. Johar has to rework Madan Mohan’s 1966 composition Jhumka Gira Re to hook the audience of today.

Originality is definitely in short supply and cheating is also a difficult art to master.

In mainstream Hindi films, the audience investment has more to do with how emotions are woven and expressed. Physical intimacy alone can’t help you sail through as Aditya Chopra discovered with Befikre.

In Bawaal, while the lead actors fail to sell the premise, Manoj Pahwa is absolutely relatable as the father of the protagonist. Similarly, in RARKPK, while the chemistry between Ranveer and Alia could not seep through the bling, Dharmendra and Shabana Azmi could not stir latent emotions and Jaya Bachchan looked out of place, Tota Roy Chowdhury could still find his way into our hearts amidst the shrill atmosphere and shallow writing.

Recently, a veteran popular cinema enthusiast told a journalist that the love stories of today don’t have the aaramdayak dard (comfortable pain) that the cinema of yore used to provide. Take Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan or Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha for instance. The films haven’t aged in 50 years. Their message is still relevant and the love story still provides goosebumps.

Screenwriters often say that society has changed and romance is no longer the same. But we have seen in Zara Hatke Zara Bachke and Satyaprem Ki Katha that if set, cooked, and cast well, Hindi film romance could still conjure up magic that could help in papering over the cracks in the screenplay. In the past, we have seen the likes of Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai, and Subhash Ghai fading away for they resisted change in their storytelling after a point. But it is also important to remember the popular fable where an ageing jackal accidentally falls into a vat of indigo dye while escaping an attack by wild dogs.

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Drenched in a blue hue, he presents himself as a new creature and finds a new lease of life in the cut throat ways of the jungle. However, he could not resist the urge to howl for long and one day when a heavy downpour washes off his blue coat, he gets exposed.

Watching some of the recent works of our top-notch film producers and directors gives one the sense that pushed by the OTT challenge they are deliberately falling into the vat to wear a new coat but finding it hard to keep away from the howl that defines them. The moral of the story is that one should be true to oneself.

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The rash of remakes of south Indian movies by the Bombay industry

For more than a year, the Hindi film industry is unspooling a popular concept of computer science on the screen: garbage in, garbage out. Bachchhan Paandey, Jersey, Cuttputli, Hit, Vikram Vedha, Mili, Drishyam-2, Cirkus, Selfiee, Shehzada, Bholaa, Gumraah, and Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan — there has been a glut of remakes of South Indian masala. A few of these such as Drishyam-2, Jersey, and Vikram Vedha have been fermented organically but the rest raised a stink at the box office and were trashed in review columns.

The art of remake is neither new nor confined to the Bombay film industry alone. But gone are the days when Mehboob Khan updated his film, Aurat (1940), to make Mother India (1957), a masterpiece rooted in Nehruvian socialism. Or when film director Tapi Chanakya successfully relocated the entertaining Ramudu Bheemudu as Ram Aur Shyam (1967) or for that matter, Farhan Akhtar reimagined Chandra Barot’s Don (1978), co-written by his father Javed Akhtar, into a sleek tribute in the new millennium.

Not on par

In the last few years, there has not been a single remake that is at par or better than the original. There is no Amar Prem (1972) that made one discover its Bengali original Nishi Padma or an Akhree Raasta (1986), which made us compare Amitabh Bachchan’s performance with that of Kamal Haasan in the Tamil original, Oru Kaidhiyin Diary.

Over the years, even the best in the business has featured in remakes that played a part in either changing the course or resurrecting their careers. Much before Ram Aur Shyam, when Dilip Kumar was advised to come out of the tragic hero image, he chose to do Azaad (1955), a remake of the M.G. Ramachandran-starrer Malaikkallan, which fetched him a Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Years later, in Shakti (1982), he essayed the role of an honest police officer in conflict with his antagonistic son, played by Sivaji Ganesan, in Thangappathakkam, when the Tamil hit was imbued with a fresh soul and verve by Salim Javed. The writer duo knew the craft of reinventing the original as they did in their first major success, Hathi Mere Saathi (1971), an adaptation of Deiva Chayal. Interestingly, the film’s success prompted producer Sandow M.M.A Chinnappa Thevar to remake it in Tamil as Nella Neram, with M.G. Ramachandran playing Rajesh Khanna’s part.

Jeetendra survived a slump in his career by acting in a series of remakes of Tamil and Telugu films, particularly with N.T. Rama Rao. Likewise, Mithun Chakraborty found a lifeline when T.L.V. Prasad rehashed Amaithi Padai as Jallad and Rajendrudu Gajendrudu as Jodidaar. Meanwhile, Anil Kapoor won respect by doing remakes of superlative films from the South such as Eeshwar (1989), a remake of Kamal Haasan’s Swathi Muthyam.

After legendary actor-director-producer L.V. Prasad set the trend by turning Missamma into Miss Mary (1955) and Edhir Paradhatu into Sharada (1957), K. Bhim Singh, K. Viswanath, Bapu, and T. Rama Rao frequently transcended barriers of language and culture to remake their South Indian films into Hindi. Later, Priyadarshan showed immense skill and a bit of creativity in Hera Pheri ( Ramji Rao Speaking) and seamlessly transported the soul of a South Indian potboiler into a Bollywood body with Bhool Bhulaiyaa ( Manichitrathazhu) as a shining example, but of late, remaking films from the South has become a formula for those who believe a star can sell trash and that a writer becomes redundant in the remake business.

Flashy treatment

Even the translation of concept films such as Sairat and Driving Licence as Dhadak and Selfiee, respectively are marred by flashy treatment, emasculating the essence of the original. Both came from the stable of Karan Johar. So, when recent reports suggested that Dharma Productions is planning to redo Pariyerum Perumal, one wonders whether Johar would make a mess of yet another good film from the south.

The casual approach that is being put in making remakes can be gauged from the fact that director Farhad Samji first wanted to make Ajith’s Veeram as Bachchhan Paandey, but then made Jigarthanda as Bachchhan Paandey with Akshay Kumar and remade Veeram as Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan after Salman showed interest in it.

Lack of flair

Remaking a film doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of originality in a particular industry but in the present scenario, it does suggest the Hindi film industry’s lack of investment in screenwriting and inability to gauge the taste of the audience. The writers lack the flair that Gulzar showed in turning Uttam Kumar’s Bhranti Bilas into Sanjeev Kumar’s Angoor. In Rohit Shetty’s Cirkus, only those portions worked which were directly lifted from the original. It seems Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan has been green-lit just because director Farhad Samji told Salman Khan and his advisers that the protagonist in the original runs away from making a matrimonial commitment.

Salman is not new to remakes. Be it Tere Naam ( Sethu) or Wanted ( Pokiri), in fact, when there was a lull in his career, it was revived by a remake. But those were the days when the term, ‘pan Indian’ hadn’t gathered weight and the southern stars didn’t shine on the northern horizon. One feels sorry for the likes of Kamal Haasan and Uttam Kumar who were often replaced in the remakes just because producers felt they could not sell enough tickets up north.

Remakes like Sooryavansham had always been the driving force of television channels dedicated to cinema but during the pandemic, the consumption of South Indian films on OTT and YouTube increased manifold because of time and cheap internet rates. For instance, the Hindi dub of Veeram was already watched more than two crore times on YouTube before Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan arrived this Eid. After COVID, when buying a cinema ticket has become a luxury, audiences expect a little more than fantasy from filmmakers.

They are not only aware of the source material but have also accepted the lead actors as their heroes. Prabhas, Allu Arjun, and Yash are household names now in the north and the audience prefers to watch the Hindi dub of Baahubali, RRR, Pushpa, KGF, and Kantara rather than wait for their remake. Technically refined, they touch the raw religious and caste nerve of the masses in the garb of entertainment.

A regressive shift

Industry sources say that the recent spurt in remakes of South Indian films is because audiences have rejected the Hollywood tilt of Hindi film content and want something rooted and polyphonic which the films from the South are providing. Many young Bollywood filmmakers, who handle Hindi films with an English mind and prefer to remake a European or Korean film, find this shift regressive and chaotic, and are taking time to adapt. Also, with the OTT space taking care of the dark, realistic themes, the big screen is increasingly meant for larger-than-life experiences which the single-note treatment of Hindi films has stopped delivering in recent years.

Industry insiders also say that it is not necessarily the film but the budget of remakes that is failing. When the original made in ₹25 crore to ₹30 crore is remade with a budget of ₹100 crore, the creative imagination doesn’t swell in the same proportion as the fee of the star, who in most cases, has a major say these days. For instance, a non-vegetarian Bholaa is no match for Kaithi in the present environment. The writer watched the film at an IMAX theatre with great expectations only to find how director Devgn failed actor Ajay in the din that the background score created.

It is time, the producers employ the rules of remake where reimagining the original is more important than a shot-to-shot copy and try to lace it with something original that we don’t have.

It is time the Hindi film industry gets picky when shopping for a remake, and that if it has to make garbage, why not churn out its own?

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