NEW DELHI, India — For years, India has been trumpeting the advent of revolutionary new films that turn the cliches of Bollywood on their head — twins separated at birth, “Six Million Dollar Man”-type special effects, ludicrous fight scenes and, of course, the songs. But most of the films that the industry hailed as creative were lifted from Hollywood — like "Kaante," a 2002 rip-off of "Reservoir Dogs" that somehow managed to be utterly terrible despite copying Tarantino almost shot for shot.
But behind the much-hyped script pirating, a slow-and-steady revolution has actually been underway. Thanks to the rise of multiplexes, as well as a new studio that has pushed inventive story lines, and a crop of exciting young directors, the New Bollywood may finally be here.
“It's here to stay, because the audience has accepted it,” said Ronnie Screwvala, head of UTV Motion Pictures. “These are commercially successful films, they aren't art films.” On the strength of backing the New Bollywood, Screwvala's UTV has become the industry's second-largest grossing studio.
Once upon a time, Bollywood movies thrived on the absurd. As stylized as Chinese opera, they played to cinema halls packed with cheering and hissing fans. But somewhere along the way, the luster began to fade.
“Now the odds are pretty high against the [conventional] movies that are focused higher on entertainment than on storytelling — though I wouldn't call them mindless,” Screwvala said. “The percentage of them bombing has been disproportionate.” Though the successful campy extravaganzas still put up the biggest box office numbers, the new form of Bollywood films featuring more realistic acting, coherent plots and tighter scripts has grown more bankable. While the extravaganzas have descended into slapstick and self-parody, the so-called “multiplex films” have become more consistent as India's better directors have begun to crack the puzzle of how to incorporate the classic tropes of Bollywood into modern films. This year, half a dozen “multiplex films” have succeeded commercially, suggesting that a new golden age of Indian cinema could be on the horizon.
That could be important news for Hollywood, too, where its no accident that some of the hottest directors hail from as far afield as Mexico and Taiwan.
“Hollywood is coming to a stage where it desperately needs an infusion of creativity,” said Shekhar Kapur, a director who began his career in Bollywood before shifting to Hollywood and making the Oscar-nominated period film "Elizabeth." “You can see it in the films. When you start to depend so much on characters that were created 40 or 50 years ago, when you start to depend so much on remakes, you know that essentially they're running out of creative ideas.”
Three of New Bollywood's best films — each of which grapples with the legacy of classic Bollywood in its own way — showcase the directions in which the Indian industry is headed.
First, there's Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's "Delhi-6" (which refers to the postal code for the medieval heart of Old Delhi).
It's the story of an American-born Indian who takes his ailing grandmother back to Delhi so she can die in her homeland, and then falls in love with a “typical Delhi girl." Mehra's third film blends themes from classic Hindi cinema (reunification, the dying mother) with those of the glam fantasies of the '90s “non-resident Indian” genre (emigration and return). He modernizes the story, however, by avoiding stylized dialogue and Bollywood's biggest melodramatic cliches, like deathbed forgiveness (accompanied by wailing and buckets of tears), and by several sly inversions, such as the revelation that the “typical Delhi girl” whom the hero pursues is actually swapping her sari for jeans and a sexy top once she leaves the house for college. That Bollywood legacy Abishek Bachchan — the son of India's biggest film legend Amitabh Bachchan— signed on to play the hero shows how far the multiplex movie has come.
“What we tried with the movie is, we had songs, but there were no lip-syncs,” Mehra said. “So nobody was singing, and nobody was dancing.”
Though in some ways its story has the whiff of the art house, Anurag Kashyap's Dev D — this year's most popular multiplex film — marks a bolder departure from Bollywood's conventions, even as it utilizes them to entice and repel cinema goers.
The 10th remake of "Devdas" — arguably Bollywood's best-known story — renamed "Dev D," plays on the expectations stemming from the previous film treatments, which were dramatic tearjerkers about doomed love, to fuel a grimy, "Trainspotting"-inspired exploration of the fascination-repulsion that Indian culture holds for female sexuality. Moreover, Kashyap transforms the classic film's courtesan into a backpacker-ghetto prostitute forced into the trade after her boyfriend circulates a sex clip filmed on his mobile phone (based on a real incident at a posh Delhi school), and allows her to live happily ever after with the film's hero in a departure from the original that some viewers hailed as a new acknowledgement of the legitimacy of women's sexual desires. “Dev D is a breakaway from Indian cinema's conventions because it shows the leading ladies as sexual and it's not afraid to talk about sexuality,” Kapur said.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that the “multiplex movie” directors have cracked the code, however, came with Vishal Bhardwaj's breathlessly awaited “Kaminey” ("Scoundrels"). Formerly known for Maqbool and Omkara — adaptations of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "Othello" — with "Kaminey," Bhardwaj shed all vestiges of the festival filmmaker and embraced the most outrageous cliches of classic Bollywood with admiral panache. And he nailed it.
"Kaminey" is the story of (you guessed it) twin brothers estranged when one of them turns to a life of petty crime. One has a stutter, the other a lisp. Both are played by up-and-comer Shahid Kapoor in a “double role,” another Hindi-film standby. Turning on a lost guitar case filled with 50 million rupees in crooked money, the ensuing plot features mistaken identity and even a film forgiveness scene when one twin convinces the other that he shouldn't blame himself for their father's suicide.
Even if you've never seen a Bollywood movie, you get the idea: This is like shooting the moon. But the most amazing thing — and testament to Bhardwaj's mastery of both the Indian and the Hollywood idiom — is that it works. With “look ma, no hands” hubris, Bhardwaj has already proven he can do Guy Ritchie in India.
The question for the future is: Can he do Ang Lee in America?