Devgarh. Ranakpur. Mandwa. Almore, Wasseypur. Some are fictional, some are real; all are small towns that were settings for this year’s humdingers: Rowdy Rathore, Bol Bachchan, Agneepath, Ishaqzaade and Gangs of Wasseypur in that order.
Small-town India — raw, dusty, rough and always ready for a ruckus — is where the Bollywood action and the big bucks are now.
But this harking back to the hinterland “is not just a landscape shift,” director Habib Faisal points out. It has shaped the movies coming out of Bollywood. Designer gloss is taking a beating, bone-crunching fist fights are winning over slick gunfights and those hoary “traditional values” so beloved of the formula film and non-resident Indian (NRI) movies are gaining a new twist.
Faisal, whose Ishaqzaade is a tragic love story peppered with gunshots, says, “Small towns have a different kind of heroism.” His hero, Parma Chauhan, is a violent, errant hoodlum; his heroine a gun-slinging firebrand prepared to pay the price for love. Together, they yell, fight, sing and dance in one high-intensity, high-decibel adventure.
In fact, that’s a description that could apply to all those other movies mentioned. Vajir Singh, editor of leading trade magazine Box-Office India, explains, “The cinema of the eighties is back, with the hero who can beat up 20 goons single-handedly the way Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan used to. The hero also cries, dances and does comedy — he’s a complete package.” The record-breaking success of titles in the Rs1bn (about Dh66mn) club — Dabangg, Singham, Rowdy Rathore, Bol Bachchan, Ready, Agneepath — proves this theory.
The Indian village rebooted
Sure, the small-town or village milieu has made for some of Hindi cinema’s greatest movies — think Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Mother India (1957), Sholay (1975), and all-time hits Gadar (2001), Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and Raja Hindustani (1996).
After a film named Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge released in 1994, NRI films and high-gloss flicks, set in telegenic locations abroad, ruled the box office.
It took about 15 years to turn the tide. Abhinav Kashyap, first-time director, set Dabangg (2010) in a town called Laalgunj, had his unsophisticated hero threaten to “confuje” (confuse) the enemy, and his heroine, covered up in bright folksy sarees, play a demure potter’s daughter. Lungis (traditional Indian wrap-arounds worn by men) flapped, cattle mooed and mud pots went flying as the hero, played by Salman Khan, fought scheming villains and thrashed them in true Bollywood style.
Dabangg shook Bollywood out of its glossy designer trance. “All those candyfloss films had stopped catering to the heartland. The urban audience had few other options, so they continued to see the romcoms and the NRI films. But it had reached saturation point. So, when more real films emerged, the audience said, wow, now we can see our own places, our own characters,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia, who grew up in Allahabad and has stuck to the heartland with films such as Haasil (2003), Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) and the outstanding Paan Singh Tomar this year.
When Dabangg crossed Rs2bn (about Dh131mn) in collections, writers, directors and producers pulled out their maps and started to “look inwards” as Faisal puts it. With one big difference from the films that came earlier: “Film-makers now look at the small town in the context of the global village,” he says. “In Ishaqzaade, for example, I did not want folksy music, but that of a present-day, post-internet small town, where drinking water might be a problem, but finding an internet café will not be, where people know about Lady Gaga and the Titanic.”
It helps that a number of younger film-makers come from small towns themselves. “We are writing about our own experiences. Only then is a film culturally rooted; only then does a film have that seamless quality. That’s what makes people identify with our characters and films,” says Dhulia.
Another reason for the success of these films, he points out, is the mushrooming of multiplexes in small towns. Sumant Bhargava, Managing Director, Stargaze Entertainment, which operates multiplexes in towns such as Ajmer, Ranchi and Chhattisgarh, explains, “Rowdy Rathore and Bol Bachchan have done phenomenal business in our theatres. Cocktail, whose storyline is anything but small town, is a hit too (in fact, I’m amazed at how it has been accepted in places such as Ajmer). In the long run, however, it won’t get the same numbers as the other two films.”
The role of older, single-screen theatres in small towns shouldn’t be underestimated either. Singh says, “Bol Bachchan, Rowdy Rathore or Dabangg made more than 50 per cent of their revenues from single screens. But Cocktail will make only something like 20 per cent from the single screens. That’s the difference.”
Like television serials, newspapers and marketers of consumer goods, Bollywood too has been cashing in on the growing awareness and affluence of small towns. “Our premium Rs500 seats, which are about 10 per cent of the total seating, are always sold out,” says Bhargava. Singh adds, “Jaipur’s Raj Mandir theatre has ticket-plus-meal packages for about Rs1,000 and they’re always in demand.”
Faisal sums it up succinctly. “It is a combination of economics, technology and a world view.” He explains the technology angle. “There was a time when a movie used to release in Mumbai and other big cities with 500 prints and small towns such as, say, Sehore, in Madhya Pradesh, (about 40km from Bhopal), would get a scratched print that was stuck together with Band-Aids. Now, thanks to digital prints, Sehore gets to see a beautiful print, as good as Mumbai’s, on the same day.”
Faisal, who grew up in Delhi, but spent a lot of time in Bhopal, his parents’ home town, says that its childhood influence has never faded. Even in films such as Band Baaja Baaraat (which he co-wrote) or Do Dooni Chaar (which he directed), that are set in Delhi, the canvas and characters are more small-town than metro in their attitudes, he says. Bittoo Sharma, for instance, the hero of Band Baaja Baaraat, who came from Saharanpur and used phrases such as “Bread pakode ki kasam,” ( I swear by bread snacks) lent the film its distinctive character. The movie culminated with the hero fulfilling his dream and getting the girl.
That, in fact, is the story of many of India’s contemporary achievers and heroes, who come from small towns. While politicians have traditionally come from villages and small towns, the number of entrepreneurs and corporate success stories from the heartland has now increased. Most noticeably, sporting heroes such as cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Ranchi), wrestler Vijender Singh (Bhiwani, Haryana), shooter Omkar Singh (Kotma, Madhya Pradesh) and boxer Mary Kom (Manipur) are some of the names on this list.
Television’s many reality shows have also been great agents of change, offering five minutes of fame and hitherto unimaginable opportunities for contestants from towns and villages that most Indians would not know where to place on the map.
The shift is a reflection of the growing power of India’s heartland, once bypassed as a mass of dusty outposts, out now seen as a vibrant market, growth hub and a nursery for winners. The founding fathers would have approved.