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Box Office performances show local stories strike a chord with Bollywood audience

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-09-2017 Lata Jha

New Delhi: The box-office performance of Bollywood releases Jab Harry Met Sejal and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, released within a week of each other in August, is telling in more ways than one.

Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jab Harry... ended with a disappointing Rs64.30 crore and Toilet... took in Rs131.60 crore, becoming the fifth consecutive movie starring Akshay Kumar to cross the Rs100 crore threshold.

What the contrasting performance shows is the need to combine star power with a generous dose of Indian ethos and local flavour to attract audiences to the theatres, movie experts say.

Jab Harry..., a love story extensively shot in Europe, lacked the latter. Toilet..., a satire based on the problem of open defecation and set in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, struck a chord with the audience; the movie was obviously inspired by the government’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission.

“The whole aspiration value about the NRI (non-resident Indian) movie is no longer there,” said film critic Baradwaj Rangan. “None of them seems to be working and no one seems interested in watching them.”

“By sheer coincidence, all these Indian movies are coming up where it’s not about the setting alone; even the lingo, colour, the way the songs and dialogues are used in a Dangal or Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, are things you don’t see in the typical film.”

This month, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a comedy drama based on the subject of erectile dysfunction and set in middle-class Delhi, took in Rs24.03 crore. In August, Bareilly Ki Barfi, a romantic comedy set in small-town India, finished with Rs30.93 crore. Both are decent earners given their small budgets.

Evident in the stupendous success of not just other small-town stories like Dangal, Jolly LLB 2, Badrinath Ki Dulhania (BKD) and Toilet..., but also a slice-of-life tale set in Delhi like Hindi Medium is the fact that Indian audiences have begun to hold a mirror to themselves and relate to movies that deal with contemporary issues. Dangal and Badrinath..., for instance, dealt with women’s empowerment in small north Indian towns.

In the next one month alone, at least three films centered on local issues and with explicitly Indian roots are set for release.

Sanjay Dutt’s comeback vehicle Bhoomi is a father-daughter story that doubles up as a social drama set in Agra; in Newton, Rajkummar Rao plays a government rookie on election duty in a Chhattisgarh area where Maoists are active; Farhan Akhtar tries to escape from prison in Lucknow Central.

“I feel that (the fascination for exotic locations and unreal romances) got over when the invasion of the internet happened,” said Siddharth Singh, who co-wrote Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.

“That brought in so much exposure to world cinema and culture that you got to see those exotic locales on a small screen like a smartphone or a tablet or any digital platform for that matter. A story chooses its world. What happened is that in some films in the last ten years, the world became more important than the story and that is what people were put off by.”

To be sure, Singh and his co-writer Garima Wahal concede that if a worthwhile story lends itself to it and is packaged well, even if it is set in an exotic world, it may work.

For example, Akshay Kumar’s next outing Gold is based on the London Olympics of 1948.

And while real-life stories that appeal to the Indian ethos are largely a product of the rich and diverse directorial and writing talent that has made its way to Bollywood from different corners of the country, the challenge of convincing Mumbai-bred producers to fund them still remains.

“People in India have always been ready (for such stories) but producers haven’t. They are our first audience and they are all based in Mumbai and live a life that half the country is alien to,” said Singh.

“Issues for people in the interior parts of the country are more survival-based. But somehow in the last 10-15 years, our filmmakers had forgotten about them.”

All figures from film website Bollywood Hungama

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