'Stree', 'Raazi' & 'Badhaai Ho' Prove Even 100-Crore Blockbusters Can Be Nuanced

The entire line of argument that mainstream masala filmmaking needs to oversimplify and paint characters and issues in black and white, is passe.

In a year where we’ve witnessed films like Raazi, Stree and Badhaai Ho – Rohit Shetty’s Simmba is on the verge of becoming the 13th Hindi movie of 2018 to make more than a 100 crores at the box office. In spite of the mixed reviews that criticised the director’s dishonest exploration of women’s safety issues, the film seems to be cruising past the 100-crore mark in less than a week. The usual retort to those critical reviews (apart from how film critics don’t understand mainstream, masala Bollywood films) is that an issue needs to simplified for its mass consumption.

Therefore, Rohit Shetty’s film championing death of the perpetrator accused of rape at the hands of a muscular ‘hero’ is considered acceptable. Filmmakers like Rohit Shetty and Karan Johar assume that unless a solution is served up in a ready-to-eat form, the audience won’t participate.

Meghana Gulzar’s Raazi, coming out in a year where deshbhakti has become a punchline, pulled off the unthinkable and didn’t paint a Pakistani as a villain. Characters of Shishir Sharma and Vicky Kaushal might adorn their cars with stickers of “Crush India” like medals on their uniform, but as the film progresses we discover their humanity. We discover their pride for their own country, we begin to see the blind faith they show on Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) even as she pops them one at a time. It’s no surprise that we feel Sehmat’s anguish as she questions the barbaric form her patriotism has taken by the end of the film. It’s a choice made by the filmmaker to view Brigadier Syed’s family through the lens of empathy. Raazi made a reported 194 crore at the box office.

Barely released a month after Raazi, came Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju. The film tests the limits of broad-stroke filmmaking, where it white-washes its protagonist with the help of glaring contrivances and fictitious characters. Making a film on one of the most troubled movie stars of Bollywood, Hirani makes the assumption that the audience should feel the need to sympathise with a protagonist to ‘like’ a film. And even though that might be partly true, considering the film made a reported Rs 350 crore at the box office, Hirani burns his reputation as a filmmaker in the process. Hirani’s film makes excuses on behalf of its damaged protagonist and even lies during critical instances.

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It’s amazing how in the same year, Amar Kaushik’s Stree infused their horror-comedy with the right proportion of gender politics and tickled their way past the 100-crore mark. Stree could have been just another film in the small-town template, but it subverts gender tropes by showing a ‘possessed man’ tied to a window-sill… reminiscent of the many witch hunts in the hinterland. Also, how it turns the tables on men asking the women of the house to return before dusk, not only makes you chuckle but also makes you nod for the sheer wit in the satire. Stree was one of the most profitable films of the year, earning a reported 180 crore.

Could Stree have dumbed itself down to capture a larger audience? Sure, the film threatens to do that when it shoe-horns a regressive item-number out of nowhere. However, apart from that one aberration, it sticks to the sensibilities afforded by its modest 20-crore budget.

Similarly with Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho, that deals with the taboo of a middle-aged couple’s pregnancy, the film benefits from its director’s good sense to convert the film’s tricky conceit into a warm family drama about middle-class values. Badhaai Ho could have easily disrespected its audience by assuming that ‘we won’t get it’, and turned the film into a more trite version of itself to please the ‘male population’ of the Hindi film audience. And then there would have been a big chance that it wouldn’t see the kind of reception it did. Badhaai Ho grossed a reported 221 crore on its 29-crore budget.

The entire line of argument that mainstream masala filmmaking needs to oversimplify and paint characters and issues in black and white, is passe. Three films from 2018 have already proved that a director can retain his/her sensibility, instead of adopting a tone that caters to the populist venom in society.

The only problem is filmmakers like Rohit Shetty, Rajkumar Hirani, Ahmed Khan (Baaghi 2), and Luv Ranjan (Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety) is that they’re too lazy to care about the writing. They’d much rather pay more attention to a slow-motion action sequence or choreographing a song.