India's Bollywood is fond of creating loose plot lines strung around a constellation of stars aimed at delivering pure unadulterated escapism in the form of song and dance.
A revolution in cinema
India's Bollywood is fond of creating loose plot lines strung around a constellation of stars aimed at delivering pure unadulterated escapism in the form of song and dance. But with the emergence of multiplexes and a growing middle class, the appetite of Indian cinema-goers is changing. Lately the nation has undergone a cinematic revolution of sorts with a slew of sleeper hits dubbed "new age" films, made with lesser-known stars and compelling scripts which address the realities, not the fantasies of modern-day India.
Recent big-budget films such as Tashan (Attitude), a con man and his capers, Love Story 2050, a sci-fi drama and Mission Istanbul, a thriller, made for budgets of around Dh30 million each, have all bombed at the box-office. While a slew of small films such as the comedy Bheja Fry (Brain Fry) and the drama A Wednesday, were both made on a tight budget of Dh735,000 and raked in over 10 times their production costs.
Driving this is the upswing of Indian economic fortunes. The great Indian middle class is more cosmopolitan, demanding and affluent than ever, and 60 per cent of the Indian population is under 35 years of age. Made up of college-going youth, yuppie techies, call-centre workers and multinational middle managers, this new aspirational demographic is in search of a rarefied cinema experience. While Dh4 provides a few hours of escape in a somewhat shabby and chaotic Indian "movie hall", Dh18 buys entrance to a state-of-the-art multiplex, complete with plush seats, a sophisticated sound system and a food court. These gleaming new entertainment hubs have become popular hang outs.
But it's not only the domestic audience. Improved distribution channels are pumping out films to the 20 million-strong Indian diaspora and the growing interest of western audiences in Indian film means that directors now cater to a completely new demographic with different interests and concerns. A fresh breed of talented young filmmakers is responding to the challenge with hard-hitting films on contemporary issues. Take for instance, the recent success of the film, Rock On! by the first-time director Abhishek Kapoor. This movie has little archetypal star presence. The hero is the unconventional-looking, raspy-voiced Farhaan Akhtar (who until recently, was better known as a film director) and the supporting cast are all fresh faces - including the heroine Prachi Desai, in her debut role.
But this film, with its candid hipster aesthetic, youthful, peppy music and a strong storyline, struck a chord people from all walks of life. In it, Akhtar and his buddies grapple with their parents' traditional mindset and societal pressure to achieve financial success. In the end they throw off the parental yoke and realise their dreams to become rock musicians; it's a message that speaks very much to this new generation of overly pressured idealistic youths.
Then there is Dibakar Banerjee, who got his start making television commercials and has produced some provocative fare with his film Khosla ka Ghosla. Translated as Mr Khosla's Nest, the film aims straight at real life, digging into the messy topic of illegal seizure of land by property developers - a problem which plagues the middle class of India from Bhubaneshwar to Baroda. The film features stellar performances by the then-veteran theatre actors Boman Irani and Anupam Kher, and has earned both critical praise and popular appeal.
Unlike the typical Bollywood blockbusters, these films are not afraid to venture into treacherous terrain. For example, My Brother Nikhil, Onir's directorial debut, explores the previously taboo subject of Aids. Here the director offers a touching portrait of an HIV-positive individual, shunned by his parents and ostracised by society, and probes the audience to ponder the stigmatisation of those with the illness.
The list goes on to include Aamras (Mango Juice) by the director Rupali Chatterjee and Dibakar Baneerjee's next, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, due to be released in the next few months and both films which are changing the Indian cinematic landscape. Classic Bollywood is certainly in no danger of extinction, but as Indian cinema goes through this drastic metamorphosis, the ultimate winner is the audience who now finally have the benefit of seeing their reality reflected on film.