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Basharat Peer never seemed like the type to make a Bollywood blockbuster. A cerebral author and journalist based in New Delhi, he grew up in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a troubled region just across the border from Pakistan and home to a long-running insurgency. In 2010 he published Curfewed Night, a wrenching family memoir about the brutal conflicts of his homeland.
But then one morning a few years later, he received an unexpected message: how would he like to write a film script based on a Shakespeare play and set in Kashmir? “I got this email from a famous film-maker, who said he’d read my book and liked it,” Peer recalls. “He’d already made a Shakespeare adaptation and wanted to do another one, either King Lear or Hamlet. So I thought about it. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’: now that really works in Kashmir.”
The result was Haider, a spin on Shakespeare’s most famous play, in which a young man returns home looking for answers about the disappearance of his father during Kashmir’s peak years of conflict in the 1990s. It had understandably dark themes and almost no well-known actors, in contrast to the star-driven efforts that make up most of Bollywood’s output. Nonetheless, it found critical acclaim following its release last year, both for its screenplay, which Peer co-wrote, and its controversial subject matter.
The real surprise, however, was neither its strong performances nor glowing reviews, but the box office. Haider went on to gross more than Rs900m ($14m), not far off the Rs1bn mark at which a movie in India is considered to be a true blockbuster, and at a level generally reserved only for mainstream genre films with a big-name cast.
Even those who have never watched a Bollywood film have a fair idea of what they entail: a handsome couple fall in love; they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to being together; some hours and many song-and-dance numbers later, those obstacles are overcome, with a final celebratory musical routine to close.
Yet Haider’s success was an example of a new development in India’s film industry, in which many Bollywood film-makers are deviating from their industry’s traditional menu, ignoring established stars and trite formulas in favour of riskier themes more suited to younger, urban film-goers — and are being rewarded at the box office.
Many different types of film fall into this broad trend. Some remain recognisably Bollywood in their approach but are marked out by strong female lead characters and unconventional takes on romance, such as last year’s hit comedy Queen, in which a jilted bride heads off to Europe to take her honeymoon alone.
Others are simply small-budget films that find a larger audience, either by word of mouth or by picking up on buzz abroad — like Masaan, a coming-of-age story set in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, which this year won two awards at Cannes. The Lunchbox from 2013 — a bittersweet drama starring Irrfan Khan as a government bureaucrat near retirement who strikes up an accidental friendship with a younger woman — is another film that chimed with domestic and foreign audiences.
“There has been quite a big change, starting gradually but crystallising over the last few years,” says Gautam Pemmaraju, an independent film-maker based in Mumbai. “We’ve seen a far greater number of both independent and larger production houses diversifying their repertoire into edgy films, so to say. It has meant a sea change in the kinds of films that are being made.”
The rise of less orthodox Bollywood films is explained in part by the changing economics of Indian cinema, in particular the rise of multiplexes over the past decade. Old-style Indian films were made to appeal to children and grandparents alike, on the assumption they would be watched on family outings to the one, single-screen cinema in any Indian town or village.
But as hundreds of larger cinemas opened in cities, a new market appeared. “As people built more screens, they discovered there were multiple layers to the audiences,” says Jehil Thakkar, head of media and entertainment at KPMG, the business advisory firm, in India. “A set of movies began succeeding which earlier audiences really wouldn’t have gone to see.”
Rather than the whimsical fantasy of traditional Bollywood, these films touched on more contemporary themes. Vicky Donor, released in 2012, focused on sperm donation, a typically taboo subject. Others dealt with disability, divorce, religious extremism, spousal abuse or the malign role of India’s voracious media. This in turn opened a window for films that did not rely on established stars, in particular the trio of actors named Khan — Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan — who have been Bollywood’s “big three” action heroes for more than a decade.
“The film themes that worked in the past had to be for the big single screen, meaning lots of remakes, or brash films with plenty of star power,” says Jyoti Deshpande, chief executive of Eros, India’s largest domestic film studio by revenue. “The general perception is still that only family films do well, but that is not the case any more.”
Bollywood has become increasingly professional too. Once its films were made mostly by small independent production houses and funded haphazardly. Today the arrival of global film studios such as Viacom and Fox — alongside larger local players like Eros — have brought new discipline. India now has something akin to a Hollywood-style studio system, in which a smaller number of big producers churn out ever more films each year, allowing room for more diverse offerings.
“The studios are trying to spread their bets,” Thakkar explains. They are backing a range of more contemporary, smaller-budget films to balance out their main star vehicles, in the hope that one or two will find an audience. Distributors will even negotiate with cinemas, offering them films with big stars only if they also show some of the riskier ones, potentially winning a far wider audience. “There are many more of these types of films now, so more of them fail — and if they tank, they really tank. But those that do well do really well,” he says.
All of this is not to say Bollywood’s more traditional films are in decline — quite the opposite in fact. As the industry grows, the audience for big-budget action films and old-fashioned romances is growing with it. Last year was a particularly good one for such offerings, with each of the three Khans celebrating at least one huge hit.
Even so, many in Bollywood notice a generational change. Just as urban India’s film tastes are changing, so are those of its film-makers, having discovered that a market exists for cinema that challenges boundaries and pushes against conventions. “There is a changing sensibility,” says Peer, who is working on another script.
“One of the stories of globalisation is that younger film-makers in Mumbai will be using a VPN [virtual private network] to watch a Polish film-maker or a German film-maker, so the door has been opened to [foreign] film-making here. I think it’s going to stay open.”