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Mani Ratnam was masterly in his magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan

New filmmakers weigh in, but the mega stars rule

Saibal Chatterjee

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

INDIAN cinema underwent paradigm shifts in the new millennium. It transited to the digital format, production budgets soared, streaming platforms altered the entertainment landscape and VFX-laden pulpy period dramas from the South hit paydirt. 

Amid these changes, megastars continued to call the shots. With outlays burgeoning, filmmakers shunned experiments and focused on profits. For films that clicked — these inevitably were far less in number than ventures that bombed — box-office collections were the sole differentiator. 

Did swelling numbers translate to improved quality? Rarely. Filmmakers, especially those in Mumbai, continued to put all their eggs in tried-and-tested baskets. They aped Hollywood and devoted a good part of 20 years to developing spy and cop universes. 

The spy universe, centred on fictional RAW agents, emanated from the Yash Raj Films stable in the form of Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and Tiger 3 (2023). It continued with War (2019) and Pathaan (2023). Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Shahrukh Khan embodied the secret agents. 

The cop universe, producer-director Rohit Shetty’s brainchild, yielded Singham (2011), Singham Returns (2014), Simmba (2018) and Sooryavanshi (2021). Ajay Devgn, Ranveer Singh and Akshay Kumar were the stars of the show. They played supercops who revelled in breaking the law, signalling a dangerous faith in extra-legal methods of dispensing justice.    

In Chennai, screenwriter-director Lokesh Kanagaraj went a step further with the Lokesh Cinematic Universe (abbreviated to LCU) of Tamil action thrillers. It started with Kaithi (2019), featuring Karthi in the lead role, and continued with Vikram (2022), top-lined by Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh Faasil, and Leo (2023), starring Vijay.  

In a machismo-driven ecosystem, independent filmmakers chipped away with intent, creating cinema rooted in reality, dealing with urgent themes, marked by unique narrative methods and seeking a gender-sensitive approach to storytelling. A crop of writers and directors in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, riding on the streamers whose subscription base peaked during the coronavirus lockdown, carved a space for themselves.

Tamil cinema, always predominantly geared towards mass-oriented entertainment, produced a new breed of filmmakers who pushed in a new direction — Vetrimaaran (Aadukalam, 2011; Visaranai, 2016), Pa. Ranjith (whose Kabali and Kaala, both starring Rajinikanth, subverted norms of commercial cinema), Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal, 2018; Karnan, 2021; Maammanan, 2023) and P.S. Vinothraj (Koozhangal, 2021).

The ever-reliable Mani Ratnam took nary a false step in his magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan 1 and 2, which made masterly use of visual and sonic means — and minimal reliance on computer graphics — to vividly bring alive the past. The two films were a demonstration of how to mount historical epics — a skill that most Mumbai filmmakers are bereft of.  

From Kerala came clutter-breaking cinematic works like Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Ee. Ma. Yau., both directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, Ariyippu (2022), directed by Mahesh Narayanan, who edited Kamal Haasan’s Tamil espionage thrillers Vishwaroopam (2013) and Vishwaroopam II (2018), and Kumbalangi Nights (2019), helmed by Madhu C. Narayanan.

A new generation of Kerala filmmakers like Sajin Babu (Unto the Dusk, Biriyani), Don Palathara (Shavam, Everything is Cinema, Family), Prasanth Vijay (A Summer of Miracles, Daayam), among several others, sought, each in his own individualistic way, to carry forward the legacy of masters like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan.

In Mumbai, the start of the millennium coincided with the advent of directors like Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, Gangs of Wasseypur), Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool, Omkara, Haider), Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Shanghai), Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan, Lootera), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan) and Chaitanya Tamhane (Marathi films Court and The Disciple), who stayed true to their own personal visions while functioning in India’s movie capital.

The lone filmmaker from Bengal who consistently made his presence felt on the international festival circuit was Aditya Vikram Sengupta (Labour of Love, Jonaki, Once Upon a Time in Calcutta). In Bengali cinema’s shrinking non-mainstream space, three other names stood out — Atanu Ghosh (Robibaar, Binisutoy, Shesh Pata), Indrasish Acharya (Pupa, Niharika in the Mist), and Abhinandan Banerjee (The Cloud and the Man).


HATE AND HALF-TRUTHS For all the significant highs registered by Indian cinema in the past 20 years, what lamentably stood out was the mainstream Mumbai movie industry’s lack of spine and creative integrity. Many filmmakers slavishly perpetuated officially mandated narratives. Hyper-nationalism, Islamophobia and toxic masculinity overran the industry, swathes of which crawled when asked to bend.

The valour of soldiers was evoked for sectarian purposes (Uri: The Surgical Strike), a community was persistently othered (The Kashmir Files, The Kerala Story, Sooryavanshi) and bloodthirsty, badly behaved men were normalized in bloated narratives in which women had little agency (Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh, Animal).

Some films talked up government initiatives/achievements (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, 2017). Some lionized righteous Hindu rulers of the past and demonized Muslim monarchs — Padmaavat (2018) and Tanhaji (2018). Some others (Baby and Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty, both starring Akshay Kumar) presented the minority community as the source of all trouble.

The past two decades of Hindi cinema, broadly speaking, had two distinct halves — the UPA years (2004-14) and the Modi era (2014 to the present). It was in the latter phase that entertainment turned into a vehicle to peddle divisive ideas.    

Lopsided films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story minted money by taking advantage of a climate in which hate and bigotry were instantly marketable commodities. When The Kashmir Files director made The Vaccine War, about a fanciful scenario in which India covered itself with glory in its handling of the Covid-19 situation, it flopped because it had no minority-bashing to prop it up.


DEFIANT FEW While a segment of the industry allowed itself to be coopted by the powers that be, a small and defiant band of filmmakers, several young documentarians and South Indian directors articulated their growing discomfiture with the steady backsliding of democracy.

Independent documentary filmmakers, led by the formidable Anand Patwardhan, came into their own like never before. Patwardhan’s Vivek (Reason), a 218-minute documentary that traces the systematic demolition of secular democracy in a nation founded on the principles of freedom and equality, won the top prize at the 2018 IDFA International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam.

Younger documentary filmmakers Payal Kapadia (A Night of Knowing Nothing), Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh (Writing With Fire) and Shaunak Sen (All that Breathes) won major prizes at Sundance and Cannes, besides earning Oscar nominations.

Kolkata filmmaker Sreemoyee Singh’s And, Towards Happy Alleys, an exquisite personal essay on Iranian cinema, poetry and women fighting for freedom, earned a slot in the Berlin Film Festival’s official selection. Sadly, however, these wonderful films struggled to find domestic distribution because they called a spade a spade.

The industry developed global ambitions with three VFX-heavy Telugu period epics, RRR (2022) and the two parts of Baahubali (2015 and 2017), directed by S.S. Rajamouli, seeking to rival Hollywood superhero franchises.

On the domestic circuit, Baahubali: The Beginning set the stage for Baahubali: The Conclusion. The follow-up earned three times what the first film did, which was proof of the committed fan following for Rajamouli’s twin blockbusters, which in turn prepared the world for the advent of RRR.


GLOBAL AMBITIOUS RRR travelled all the way to the Academy Awards and generated a great deal of excitement without permanently prising open the doors that block Indian cinema’s chances of matching the global clout that the cinemas of China and South Korea possess.

The Kannada period action film KGF had an arc similar to that of Baahubali. KGFChapter 1 (2018) collected one-fifth of what KGF Chapter 2 amassed but what it did was set the stage for the 2022 follow-up, released after the cinema shutdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, to make a killing.

The Telugu hit Pushpa The Rise (2021) made big bucks, whetting the appetite of movie fans for the follow-up, Pushpa The Rule, scheduled for release in 2024.      

Dangal (2016), the highest-grossing Indian movie ever, wrestled its way into the Chinese market and grabbed the third spot on the country’s list of the most successful non-English films of the year.

Many medium-budget Hindi films that dealt with sensitive themes — homosexuality, body shaming, even erectile dysfunction — found takers. Most of these films starred Ayushmann Khurrana, beginning with Vicky Donor (2012), in which the actor played a sperm donor in Delhi.

In Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), Khurrana played a character with erectile dysfunction; in Bala, he was a man grappling with hair loss; and in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), he was cast as a gay man.

It was a period of turmoil and discovery, of lost opportunities and exciting breakthroughs. Every decade of Indian cinema, a volatile domain at the best of times, is marked by tremors that are felt for long. But never before had numbers trumped substance quite as emphatically as they did in the past 20 years.


Saibal Chatterjee is a senior journalist and film critic.


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