Bollywood Changes Its Tune

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Courtesy Yash Raj Films

Shahrukh Khan in Chak De! India

Chak De India is not your average Bollywood blockbuster. The film, released on August 10, may star Shah Rukh Khan, but the A-list heartthrob plays a disgraced field-hockey player who redeems himself by coaching the Indian women's hockey team to win the world cup. Khan doesn't get to show any cool dance moves while wooing a beautiful female lead, or display his well-toned muscles in fight sequences with bad guys. In fact, the film gets by without a single song-and-dance routine at all. Yet, it ran to packed houses even two months after its release, and "Chak De India," a Punjabi phrase meaning "Go India!" has become a trendy catchphrase across the country. "Everything about the film is different," says well-known film critic Vinayak Chakravorty. "The script, direction, treatment, all stray from the usual formula. The result is a good film, which is what audiences increasingly want."

While big-budget Bollywood productions continue to dominate India's movie screens, smaller, alternative films are beginning to jostle for space. Helped by evolving audience tastes and greater availability of finance from more diverse sources, they are an increasingly successful antidote to the glitzy song-and-dance fare. Chak De India is the latest and most successful of these mold-breaking films. Trade figures show the film has done very well in bigger cities and among what Chakravorty terms "the multiplex crowd," who are more educated, have more spending power, and have greater exposure to films from around the world. "Filmmakers are making more films to cater to this niche segment, because its numbers are swelling with rising income and educational levels," says Chakravorty.

It may surprise non-Indians to know that Indian cinema has always been more than just Bollywood, as Hindi cinema is popularly known. In fact, true Bollywood movies make up only a fifth of the 1,000 or so films made in India every year. Film industries in the south — Tamil, Telegu, Malayali — are huge, as is the Bhojpuri industry in central India. India has also long produced first-rate art films, from the work the legendary Satyajit Ray to contemporary maestros like Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal. Critic Chakravorty says the new brand of cinema caters to the viewer who is exposed to art house but also enjoys Bollywood. The budgets are typically small, the cast are good actors but not necessarily stars, and the audience is select. "Noir, comedy, sports — new genres are being explored," says film critic Rajeev Masand of TV channel CNN-IBN. "Filmmakers have finally realized that they need to stop seeing the audience as one giant mouth to feed, and that different mouths have different tastes. There's room for all cuisines."

A few recent films have tried to do just that: Rang De Basanti made a realistic portrayal of disaffected Delhi youth; Omkara was an adaptation of Othello; and Khosla ka Ghosla was a realistic portrayal of a Delhi family's brush with unscrupulous estate agents.

Crucial to this shift has been the rise of talented new film makers such as Chak De India scriptwriter Jaideep Saini and Khosla Ka Ghosla director Dibakar Banerjee. At the same time, established stars are becoming more open to trying different roles — as Khan did in Chak De India. Producers are also more willing to bet their money on innovative scripts, in part because of an interesting change to the way Indian films are financed. Traditionally, a big part of Bollywood's funding has come from the Mumbai underworld laundering its ill-gotten gains. To try to assure profits, underworld backers insisted on tried-and-tested formulas. But with liberalization of the economy, producers now have legitimate means of raising film finance; big production houses such as UTV and Adlabs have recently raised money by listing on the stock exchange and some producers are even tying up with Hollywood studios. Neelesh Misra, a journalist and lyricist, whose story based on a young, ailing professor who helps his students mend their lives has been bought by a leading production house, says, "Ten years back if you told a producer you had a story starting with a dying professor, they'd show you the door. Now, they are seeking out scriptwriters who'd give them something fresh."

Does this mean the end of Bollywood as we know it? "Hardly," says Misra, "It might be easier to sell an offbeat script today, but you still can't negotiate a [decent] price." Trade analyst and Film Information editor Komal Nahta says audiences in smaller towns still want the usual fare, and they make up the majority of the 4 billion film tickets sold in India every year. Chak De India may be an unexpected hit, but the box office king so far this year is Partner, a straight-out Bollywood formula with big funding, big stars and, yes, song and dance.