By: The Cinema Cynic
India is witnessing perhaps a record breaking performance by a Hollywood film as the latest incarnation of Marvel’s costumed clowns saves the world once again. Avengers: Infinity Wars has certainly done exceedingly well in India as well as around the world.
Neither is really surprising. Western superhero films have done rather well in India for some time – despite their inevitable mediocrity. Indeed, superhero films represent the ultimate cinematic escapist experience: impossible people doing impossible things in impossible ways.
However, what is rather disappointing is the fact that some Indians, in their typical fawning over anything Western have chosen to vest the nonsensical Avengers franchise with the label of “content driven cinema”. How? Why? What? It reminds me of a particular box office website that called films such as Newton and Lunchbox as “bad” and films like Dilwale as “great” merely because of box office sales. There is a difference between popular and good. Avengers and much of Bollywood falls into the “popular” category – not the “good” category. Indeed, I’ll believe that India prefers so-called Western “content” cinema when a movies like Hacksaw Ridge and Letters from Iwo Jima become record breakers in India. That is not going to happen.
It has to be stated that outside a few genres, Hollywood does not fare well in India. It is not “dominating” Bollywood or regional cinema in any way. But, in certain categories, it has no equal in India. The Jurassic Park franchise has done exceptionally well as has the Fast and Furious franchise. In both cases, cool dinosaurs and flashy cars compensate for non-existent plots, abysmal acting and nonsensical dialogue. Superhero films also do well – no matter how bad they are provided they don’t have strong competition. When such competition is faced, Hollywood often loses. Always remember when Khaidi 150 went up against Ms. Padukone and Mr. Diesel in the truly abominable Return of Xander Cage, Chiranjeevi beat them by a margin of five to one at the box office.
Also note that the Star Wars franchise – even an exceptionally good film such as Rogue One – continues to deliver flop after flop in India. In contrast, the Conjuring horror franchise has done extraordinarily well in India – Annabelle: Creation beating the combined box office takings of Baywatch and the Return of Xander Cage. Another surprise was Dunkirk outperforming the Transformers, Wonder Woman and The Mummy. Hollywood, therefore, will compete effectively in specific genres but not pose a serious challenge and will not “dominate” the Indian box office or outperform Hindi films outside the superhero and science fiction genres
If Bollywood faces a challenge – and it does – is the increasing quality of so-called regional cinema and the greater variety of cinema offered therein. Whether it is a magnum opus like Baahubali or a heartwarming (and heartwrenching) story like Kaaka Muttai, it is regional cinema and not Bollywood leading the way.
Bollywood’s biggest failing remains its complete inability to branch into new genres effectively. Arthouse and parallel cinema have their place and Indian entries in these spheres are excellent – in all languages. However, Bollywood has to date fared poorly in its attempts to build a superhero franchise. Krrish came close but a great character with tolerable special effects was totally betrayed by turning its last two outings into song and dance festivals with the hero spending more type singing and dancing than fighting bad guys. It does not work. As for the Flying Jatt… ouch! Nonetheless, until Avengers Infinity Wars came along, India easily forgets that Krrish outperformed Superman in India and Krrish 3 was the highest performing superhero film in India.
Bollywood needs to get out of its comfort zone and emulate, perhaps partner with and learn from its counterparts in the rest of India. A corrosive star culture has hurt Bollywood’s ability to introspect and innovate. In fact, in many ways, while Bollywood has made some efforts to improve its action genre and produces good thrillers and dramas on occasion, the majority of its fare has deteriorated since the 1970s where the charming sincerity of the films of that period have been replaced by foreign venues and item numbers. It is not working.
It is time for an Indian superhero or science fiction franchise to emerge. For a country that produced the fun Shaktiman and the remarkably good Captain Vyom on television and the amazing Supercommando Dhruva and Doga in comic form, why is there this reluctance to embrace the genre in cinema?
Let’s be under no illusions – one of the messages from both the Marvel and DC superhero movie franchises is that Indians are not wanted among the legions of the great and the good. If one is to be objective, these films are case studies in stereotyping, whitewashing and pushing an ethno-supremacist agenda that is typical of Hollywood. Even the kingdom of Wakanda bears more in common philosophically, as an exclusivist, discriminatory ethno-state, with apartheid-era South Africa than the emerging democracies, with their flaws, blossoming in Africa. The few Indian superheroes that graced Marvel and DC comics (too many of the females fawned over their white male counterparts) included such interesting characters as Neal Shaara (Thunderbird), Dinesh Deol (Grid) and Paras Gavaskar (Indra). These are completely missing from the narrative of the movies and the universes they inhabit.
It is time for Indian cinema to wake up. The superhero genre is popular in India. The country has done some decent action films to date – remember Baaghi 2 has beat every mulit-lingual pan-India release of all elements of the Fast and the Furious Franchise – and Tiger Zinda Hai (which was an action film) thoroughly clobbered them. However, the science fiction and superhero genres remain poorly represented. It is time for that to change. Indian audiences will be interested in a no-hold-barred superhero film with visual effects, villains and action to suit. To date, India’s efforts have been schizophrenic ventures not knowing whether they were mighty superheroes or auditioning for Dance India Dance. It is time to end this nonsense and make a good Indian superhero movie supported by comics, cartoons and merchandise. The market is there. Does Bollywood – or any part of Indian cinema – have the vision?
Postscript: The 65th National Film Awards produced some of the most deserving awardees ever. Unfortunately, the whole thing was marred by scheduling issues with the Office of the President which was entirely avoidable. However, the tantrum thrown by certain recipients with their boycott threats is indicative of a sense of entitlement in the Indian cinema industry that is not seen anywhere in the world. It is repugnant to see people given an award effectively demanding who is to present it to them. This is wholly unbecoming and makes me wonder whether the Indian government should do away with the National Film Awards or any support to the cinematic arts until the fraternity realizes that it has not a single claim on the country’s resources or indulgence. The awards were given in good faith and with good will. Yes, the President’s scheduling could have been handled better and communication could certainly have been more courteous. However, to see spoilt brats of the film industry threatening to boycott the ceremony over the award giver is beyond repulsive.