It’s a story on which a real film could be made: one that tells you about the shifting of an epoch, an old order crumbling, and new shoots springing up silently all over, changing the landscape, giving it hitherto unsuspected colours and depth. Think about the cinema of the past few years, how ‘Bollywood’ (that name a dead giveaway) has decisively turned a corner in terms of aesthetics, credibility and intent. What enabled it? What impulse brought it forth? Who scripted this quiet renascence? Did the old moguls have a change of heart? Nahiiiiin! What’s gone unnoticed amid all the excitement is: there’s a new pack of movie moguls in B-town, who rode in on their horses from out in the hinterland, with different kinds of stories, dreams, nightmares.
Every change in epoch is about two things: a shift in who holds the power, and an inner paradigm shift in ways of thinking. The fiercely protected bastion of traditional production houses is under siege these days. And a bright breed of producers has arrived out of nowhere, with dew-fresh story ideas, to take over Bollywood, lock, stock and barrel, upstaging the established families that ruled the film industry for years. They’re different from the old dynasts because they think and feel deeply about cinema in a new way—partly because of their background, partly because many of them are directors with a cinematic vision, who have scaled up to control all aspects of film-making.
Rejected by almost all production houses, A Wednesday became a hit in 2008. He has not looked back since and has delivered many hits.
From Neeraj Pandey and Anand L. Rai to Sujoy Ghosh and Shoojit Sircar, ambitious directors have turned mainstream producers, churning out quality movies at regular intervals under their home banners. Some of them headed straight into production at debut; others delivered a few sleeper hits that defied the grammar of typical Bollywood before stepping up to a higher echelon.
The business of film-making once had a clear hierarchy: right on top, monopolising decisions, were producers with deep pockets and shallow worldviews. They would dictate terms to their directors with impunity, and that largely defined the universe of Hindi cinema. But the new generation of movie-makers who have overrun B-town blend the two roles: they hold the purse-strings, and use it with wisdom because they are also artistically entrenched. Hence, the creative impulse fills out its potential without any interference or encumbrance.
It’s having a distinct effect on the body of work. By yoking the two functions together, the new moguls are bridging the gap between the ‘commercial film producer’ and ‘cerebral director’. Gone are the days when a talented director, clutching the script of a potential blockbuster, had to queue up for hours outside the ivory towers of Mr Moneybags, waiting for his turn to pitch his story. Today, a promising film-maker has no dearth of financiers, with investors of all hues, from big studios to independent producers, offering a carte blanche to anybody with genuine potential.
It’s not as if the profit has gone out of the window, or that there’s no investor to bother about. It’s simply a reversal of trust: when it comes to story-telling, those with money are willing to bet on those with a genuine spark or proven nous. With the industry gradually gravitating to content-rich cinema in recent times, a kind of street-savvy auteur had already made his or her niche. This is the breed that’s steering this transition by turning producer. This way, they get absolute mastery over their projects.
What’s striking about this new breed? None of them has any family member in films, no father, nor even a godfather. It was just passion for cinema, the sort cultivated by millions of Indians who grew up on this most modern, but most bewitching forms of art/entertainment all over the land. It’s just their inborn desire to also tell a story—a story worth telling—to today’s audiences that they have had in common ever since they landed in Mumbai from distant places.
This does not imply it’s curtains for the banners of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar and the like, who still hold their franchises aloft, delivering hits every now and then. But more often than not, even they now need to join hands with emerging talents to keep pace with the change. In a way, someone like Aamir Khan is a transitional figure, one from the family stock who first showed signs of breaking out of the old groove. But look at any of the new ones, and you can tell the utter social distance.
Neeraj Pandey, a barely 27-year-old lad from Calcutta in 2000, was just another literature graduate who, in his own words, had “no talent whatsoever other than writing” when he landed in Mumbai to try his luck (see interview). After working a bit in television for a company floated by his friend Shital Bhatia, he took to writing film scripts, oblivious of what was in store for him. His first three scripts were summarily rejected. His fourth, A Wednesday, too did not have any takers despite him knocking on the doors of every possible production house in town.
He brought freshness to Hindi cinema with films like Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal, and remains a powerful voice despite Jab Harry Met Sejal.
Finding no producer, Pandey and Bhatia decided to make A Wednesday under their own banner. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Released in 2008, the Naseeruddin Shah-Anupam Kher starrer, made on a shoestring budget, marked Pandey’s arrival as a director with immense potential, one who could wring a gripping saga out of an ageing man’s response to politics, a plot that had seemed trite to many big banners.
Ten years on, Pandey sits pretty as a top-notcher, heading a banner with an enviable track record. He has lived up to his reputation as a ‘thinking’ film-maker with a string of hits—from Special 26 (2013) and Baby (2015) to MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), all critical and commercial successes. The 44-year-old is now set for the release of Manoj Bajpayee-Sidhartha Malhotra starrer Aiyaary, which is headed for a Republic Day clash at the box office with Akshay Kumar’s Pad Man. (The film showcases Pandey’s “tremendous writing and directorial abilities yet again”, says Bajpayee, an old associate).
But all these years, Pandey did not confine himself to directorial enterprises, nor did he wield the megaphone only for ventures he produced under his banner such as Total Siyappa (2014), Rustom (2016), Naam Shabana (2017) and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). If he directed the Dhoni biopic for an outside banner, he also gave breaks to new directors under his banner. All of Pandey’s contemporaries—figures like Anand L. Rai, Imtiaz Ali, Shoojit Sircar, Sujoy Ghosh, Dibakar Banerjee, Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane et al—show a similar trajectory.
Queen was a refreshing whiff under his direction. Upcoming Super 30, a biopic of mathematician Anand Kumar, will be his litmus test.
Among the most sought-after names at age 46 now, Rai did not have a grand start as a director. His first two movies, Strangers (2007) and Thodi Life Thoda Magic (2008), created no ripples. It was not until Tanu Weds Manu (2011), a fresh slice-of-life tale featuring Kangana Ranaut, that he found himself in the big league. The turnstiles have been busy since, with Raanjhanaa (2013) and the blockbuster Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015).
But again, it’s how that part of his identity engendered another part, that of an enabler, which is crucial to how the industry ecology is changing. Rai has by now produced some striking debuts—Nil Battey Sannata (2016), Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016) and Shubh Mangal Savdhan (2017)—giving breaks to directors like Ashwiny Iyer-Tiwari, Mudassar Aziz and R.S. Prasanna respectively.
The way he is juggling the two roles—and the exact two balls he’s juggling—shows the dual, mutually reinforcing strands at play here. Rai is directing Shahrukh Khan’s next project, tentatively titled Zara Tasveer Se Tu, for the superstar’s banner. And as a producer, he has under his sleeve Anurag Kashyap’s soon-to-be-released directorial venture Mukkabaaz.
The figure of Kashyap, indeed, connects the present lot to the first stirrings of freedom. He himself was a pioneering producer of parallel films in an era dominated by the Chopras and Johars. There were others too—Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Ram Gopal Varma, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Rajkumar Hirani, Tigmanshu Dhulia, R. Balki, Nagesh Kukunoor, all of whom prepared the runway for the smooth landing of the new ones.
To be sure, there’s an older precedence too in the shape of legendary producer-directors of yore like Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Subhash Ghai. Not only did they deliver a slew of knockout hits in their twin roles, they pretty much defined a whole epoch—with their own brand of the broad genre known as the ‘Hindustani film’.
But there’s a vital difference. As directors, they became the best exemplars of an existing type. They never extended the map of possibilities. And as producers, even when they had the wherewithal, they did not parlay some of their goodwill on other kinds of cinema, like say Shashi Kapoor did. They could not come out of their comfort zone of the stereotypical movie. Ghai did produce a few good offbeat movies like Joggers’ Park (2003) and Iqbal (2005) under his banner, but could not sustain it after a few failures. Even Yash Chopra did not venture out of his familiar terrain of romantic musicals after Lamhe (1991) flopped.
Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe and Piku have raised expectations, which he will have to live up to in his forthcoming October.
The current lot offers a stark contrast: restless by definition, not only unhesitant, but also eager to experiment with fresher and bolder subjects. The sheer diversity of content they have managed to introduce into the Bollywood frame speaks of artistic integrity and entrepreneurial flair at once. Rai could see potential in remaking a Tamil film that tackled the theme erectile dysfunction (Shubh Mangal Savdhan) and Pandey did not hesitate to back a plot that sought to highlight the scourge of open defecation in society (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha).
The ease with which offbeat is waltzing centrestage is quite striking for those who recall the old days. Trade experts attribute the change to a combination of factors. Many consider changing audience tastes to be the game-changer: a process of internal refinement has been on, aided by exposure. The explosion in new film-watching avenues (DVDs, web platforms) has meant easy availability of the best of cinema. Others think it’s material—the sharp dip in production costs in the digital era is offered as the real catalyst of change. But even they agree: change would have been inconceivable without the ultimate arbiters and stakeholders, the audiences, being ready for it.
Whatever be the reasons, the tribe of risk-taking film-makers seems set to grow. Imtiaz Ali, himself a trend-setter with movies like Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rockstar (2011), thinks the shift owes to the extremely varied lived experiences the new breed comes with, in contrast to the myopia and stagnancy of having lived long in one big city.
“The new directors, mostly from a small town like me, have brought a new sense and sensibility,” Ali tells Outlook. “They have gone through many journeys, met many people before coming here. So they have a lot of insightful knowledge about what’s going on in the country which, luckily for us, exceeds the level of knowledge of those who stay in one place.”
They bring the smell of the soil, and speak a dialectally rich language, feels Ali, who spent his own formative years in Patna and Jamshedpur before breaking into the marquee. “It presents a good opportunity to us since cinema has been trying to change from its archaic style,” he says. “We are happy we came at the transition point and kind of helped that transition. In a sense, we have been both the facilitators and beneficiaries of this change.”
A master story-teller who struck gold with Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel, he is backing content-rich films in a big way now.
The 46-year-old Ali says only two kinds of movies—art and commercial—were being made when he had come. “But if you go to a multiplex today, you can see posters of five movies of different genres and budgets running simultaneously,” he adds. “This is an ideal situation for film-makers,” says the Highway (2014)producer-director. He insists on one essential fact: all the new film-makers are primarily story-tellers. “All these changes in the movies business are story-led,” he asserts. “People like us are no doubt getting acknowledgment and respect and the studios are ready to invest in our projects but we should never forget the primary fact that we are basically story-tellers, not businessmen. In today’s times, anybody with a little sense of finance can handle production.”
Trade experts believe the trend of directors scaling up from their traditional role augurs well for the rapidly evolving industry. “It’s a healthy trend,” says Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine, Complete Cinema. “They’re not only making good movies themselves but also giving breaks to other newcomers.” Directors like Pandey, Rai or Sujoy Ghosh did not get success on a platter, he adds. “They had to face a lot of problems at the outset. So thankfully, they are giving opportunities to other talented directors and saving them from the unsavoury experiences they themselves had to endure.”
It also satisfies a kind of greed to keep telling stories, says Vikas Bahl, who shot into limelight with Kangana Ranaut-starrer Queen (2014). “They themselves cannot make more than one or two films every year so they all want to tell more stories through other talented directors. It also helps them learn from others,” he points out. “The more the merrier. All kinds of cinema can coexist but stories cannot come from the same land and space. They have to come from different people, different backgrounds, from those who have seen and experienced different things.”
They are also not perturbed by any baggage of the past, says Bahl, who says he himself became a film-maker by default. “I did my MBA and was doing a job with a multinational. It wasn’t until I wrote and directed Chillar Party (2011) with Nitesh Tiwari of Dangal (2016) fame that I realised I could write,” says Bahl, who had a taste of production as head of UTV Spotboy before joining Kashyap, Motwane and Madhu Mantena with the Phantom Films banner.
Bahl equates the present with the scenario 60-70 years ago: a sudden explosion of new talent from diverse backgrounds, amid great political churning. “There was no dynasty those days,” he says. “Their stories were so fresh and larger than life, and they connected instantly.” Bahl is at present immersed in making the biopic Super 30, where Hrithik Roshan plays the famed Bihar mathematician Anand Kumar. “The audience is always ready for content. I don’t think any film can be said to be ahead of its time. Today’s audience already has easy access to the best of world cinema,” he says.
Ali concurs with the idea of audience-led change. “We are only following the audience. World cinema, media, social media, Internet…people sitting in Ghatkopar are watching Bosnian films, lapping up any good content. They are watching Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and Tamasha (2015) or Newton (2017) at the same time. They are an enlightened lot now and cannot be categorised.”
The success of unconventional plots in recent years shows the window of audiences’ acceptance has been expanding. In 2012, Shoojit Sircar tackled sperm donation in Vicky Donor and came up trumps—inconceivable even a few years ago. He would have been hooted out by any big banner for such an idea. But Sircar had a sure grip on his intent. He turned a producer with his next, Madras Café, set in the unusual backdrop of the LTTE crisis in Sri Lanka. He has has since directed Piku (2015) for another banner, an enchanting tale of bonding with constipation thrown into the mix, besides producing Pink (2016) and Running Shaadi (2017). A creative admaker, who made his directorial debut with Yahan back in 2005, is back behind the camera for the Varun Dhawan-Banita Sandhu film October, due for release in 2018.
Like Sircar, Sujoy Ghosh too is immersed in his double role. He took time off after his striking Kahaani franchise, which set off an avalanche of women-centric films, to produce the Amitabh Bachchan-Vidya Balan-Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer TE3N last year for another director (see interview).
Similarly, Motwane has under his directorial belt Udaan (2010), Lootera (2013) and Rajkummar Rao-starrer Trapped (2017). But it’s what he’s doing as a partner in Phantom Films that’s as interesting. Besides his own upcoming Bhavesh Joshi, the banner has produced Udta Punjab (2016), Shaandaar (2015), Bombay Velvet (2015) and Hunterrr (2015), a few even in collaboration with Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. And Dibakar is adding to his impressive oeuvre with Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar, incidentally an Aditya Chopra production. But in between, he too turned producer with Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015) and co-produced Titli (2015) with Yashraj Films to give a break to another director.
Each instance seems to confirm the trend. A basic generosity of spirit, an opening out, marks the new breed of moguls. Indeed, the word ‘mogul’ does them disservice: it recalls egotistic titans interested only in their own larger-than-life image and empire, and erected fortress walls to keep away pretenders. The new empire is a confederation, a true collective enterprise.