The Superstar is dead. Long live the Actor.
Coasting on calcified stardom results in films no one wants to see, even the star’s most ardent fans. This should be the single most important takeaway for the Hindi film industry from 2018. And 2019 will see the Story racing ahead of the Star.
Bollywood’s ruling A-list has long consisted of the Khans and Kapoors, Kumars and Devgns, and for the past two decades and more, there has been no break in this bunch’s popularity, give or take a seasonal dip or two.
Loss of invincibility
Looking back, 2018 will be remembered as the year that managed the impossible: to show that the three biggest Khans — Salman, Aamir, Shah Rukh — are not invincible.
The Khan who effortlessly manages the biggest numbers, Salman, showed up in Race 3, the third instalment of a franchise featuring bad guys and gals, doing exactly what he has done before. It wasn’t a solo act. He shared the screen with a number of co-stars. That it is one of the year’s biggest grossers has more to do with the fact that our tolerance-for-trash bars are set so high, rather than the abysmal quality of the film.
Salman’s only real solo outing in 2017, Tubelight, was so awful that even his fans had nothing good to say. Franchise piggy-backing appears to be his only recourse: two years from now, there will be a Dabangg 3, but we can safely predict that the audiences are not going be as forgiving.
Film-wise, Aamir had a terrible 2018. The lavish Yashraj production Thugs Of Hindostan, in which he co-starred with Amitabh Bachchan, was blown away not just by carping critics, but by viewers who could not believe something quite so ghastly could have come out of the country’s biggest actors-and-studio combine.
And we are still reeling under the unsalubrious effects of Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero, in which he plays a vertically challenged man in search of love. For the last three years or so, SRK has been looking to reinvent, but the trouble with super-stardom is that it is buoyed by fans who get skittish when faced with true difference. SRK was fabulous in Fan, in which we saw an actor reaching inside, and stripping down. Subsequently, he has retreated to his safe zone, where the experiment stays on the surface, and the rest of it is same old.
Kamal Haasan played a dwarf in Appu Raja 30 years ago, and that role is still as memorable today because it was really, truly different. Mining the black rage that can occasionally fill a midget’s heart would have made Zero a film with integrity and heft: in the way it has mounted, SRK is left counting on his dimples. The charm is still effective, and all the world still loves a lover (still a strong SRK domain), but it cannot be a substitute for a solid plot.
And that should be the other equally big lesson for Big Bollywood: give us a story, give us substance, give us, by all that’s holy, characters. Any one with an ounce of charisma can become a star. Greatness comes only with being able to become another, wear a face on top of yours, and make us believe.
This year’s most interesting films have placed plot right up top, and used actors to sell their wares. A middle-aged couple catches pregnant, and the news of the arrivals throws the family (two young lads, and a grumpy grandma) in turmoil. Badhaai Ho’s premise is delicious, and even more crucially, fresh. The actors are subservient to the plot, which is just as it should be, and the superstars of this venture are veterans Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao.
Rao who? If that’s a question to you, you haven’t seen one of 2018’s best films, which trundles past its weaknesses because of its varied strengths.
The other Rao, Rajkummar, toplined Stree, one of 2018’s most entertaining films, in which the old myth of the ravening female spirit is flipped on its head. In a small Indian town, it’s the men who fear going out in the night, because beware, stree is out and about, and if she catches an unsuspecting male, all that’s left are his clothes. The subversion is not subtle, but most pleasurable all the same.
The rich entitled spoilt South Delhi gals making whoopee in Veere Di Wedding, or a blind pianist tap-tapping his way into murder and mayhem in Andhadhun, didn’t need stars. All they required was a plot, and a director who knew exactly what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it.
That the dying can give the living a purpose is beautifully rendered in October. Shoojit Sircar’s film is a good example of a hugely popular rising star making the right choices to stay relevant. Varun Dhawan has edges which don’t quite fit into his annoyingly aimless character, but his attempts at broadening his base are notable. If he does manage to sustain variety, he is in a good place.
Here are a few post-crystal-ball-gazing predictions, in no particular order: the big-budget tentpoles are not vanishing anytime soon, because both set-in-their-ways Bollywood and audiences will continue to hanker after these. But even these top-heavy spectacles will be more plot-driven, because that’s the only way forward.
After taking a lateral step and winning over a section of viewers with Badlapur and October, Dhawan will continue to widen his catchment. As will his contemporaries, Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, Ayushmann Khurrana and Vicky Kaushal, and, of course, Rao. But not one will be termed a superstar. They will be star-actors, or actor-stars, and they will have to whistle up or agree to be part of plot-heavy movies in order to keep growing their base.
The era of the superstar is done and dusted.
The MeToo campaign, which seems to have deceptively petered out in Bollywood, will continue to have a subterranean effect. More women being able to work without constraints will lead to a more equitable slate.
It’s time to stop calling films female-centric: Raazi has a strong female character at the helm, but there are equally strong male actors in the film. It’s time to have men and women splitting up the pie equally if our cinema has to be worth our time and money. Or, there is always the growing option of more Netflix and chill.
And last, but most significantly, if the tottering-on-the-brink Khans & Co want to continue to have skin in the game, they will have to shed theirs. Not partially, not half-heartedly, but all the way.
Here’s to a better, brighter cinematic 2019.