If how films in Bollywood have fared this year is any indication, accept this as a statement of fact: the storyline rules.

Spider-Man could be blamed for the rout. The Indian film industry managed to spin a dismal web of failure around itself in the past seven months and the Marvel Comics superhero in his third instalment took the wind out of Bollywood's sails with spectacular returns on its release in India in May. Hollywood caught on to the dubbing idea pretty late into the business, but the biggest film industry in the world has reason to be the most famous. It is a fast learner.

Spider-Man 3 could be the first English film to be released in India in so many regional languages (five including Hindi, Tamil and Bhojpuri). Spider-Man 3 did brisk business and those from the Indian film industry may have been secretly relieved at getting an excuse (any excuse) to explain the poor show that Hindi films put up in the last seven months (barring a few rare exceptions). But it is a fact that the industry only has itself to blame.

A good story is essential

In a recent interview with WorldNews.com, Bollywood (as the Indian film industry is more popularly referred to) trade analyst Komal Nahta blamed an inherent lack of depth in storylines (or even the absence of them) for the woeful fare that is being churned out in the name of cinema.

"Where are the good stories? You can't get away with just star appeal and good locales anymore," he says. A case in point was Yash Raj Films' Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. The well-known banner was trusted to come out with a whopper of a release with its reputation for strong marketing, tonnes of money and a stellar cast for its project that included father-son duo Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, Bobby Deol, Preity Zinta and Lara Dutta. Foreign locales were a given.

The film was a big flop. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom brought in figures of Rs126,970,246 (about Dh11.5 million) at the box office that was way below the film's budget spend of Rs250,000,000 (about Dh22.8 million).

Rajnikant's release of the blockbuster Tamil film Sivaji: The Boss also played spoilsport by releasing simultaneously and doing unexpectedly well in Bollywood's stronghold Mumbai in the first few weeks. But the main reason for Jhoom Barabar Jhoom's debacle could be attributed to the lack of a strong storyline backing the stars, the funds and the marketing.

A plot maybe novel, but it also needs vision as a follow-through right to the end. There is nothing as bad as a good plot disintegrating somewhere in the middle.

Eklavya — The Royal Guard was one such. Vidhu Vinod Chopra's film on a loyal guard torn between service to his lord and master and following his instincts, had a great plot. But the maze of sub-plots and a weak follow through buried Eklavya for good. It didn't matter that Amitabh Bachchan played the guard and was supported by an able cast including Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Boman Irani and Vidya Balan.

Indian audiences cannot be taken for granted. They understand cinema and revel in the twists and turns of a riveting and fun plot. Throw in a good cast and the Indian moviegoer's day is made. Cheeni Kum starred Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu and Paresh Rawal. The travails of a veteran head chef in London (played by Bachchan) who falls in love with a girl young enough to be his daughter and how he surmounts some hilarious obstacles to make the girl's father see reason as the chef saw it was serious, hilarious and melodramatic in parts and made for some excellent cinematic moments. It was also a big hit.

Hype helps

Of course a little hype always helps as well as some circumstances coming together. Guru was a Mani Ratnam film, one of India's most high-profile directors. It was also an Abhishek-Aishwarya film, two of Indian cinema's very popular stars. The two stars were also very much in love, with strong suspicions of a marriage being on the cards.

Then there was the surprise confirmation of their engagement plans a day after the official premiere of Guru in Canada in January. Then there were stories of how Bachchan and Rai-nee-Bachchan had stuffed themselves with rasgullas (an Indian sweetmeat) to gain weight to portray their characters. The characters were no less controversial.

Bachchan was supposedly portraying Dirubhai Ambani (Ratnam added to the controversy by not confirming this news. He still hasn't), the patriarch of the wealthiest business family in India, and Rai was playing Bachchan's wife. There was no way this film would do badly. And it didn't.

Guru is officially Bollywood's biggest hit this year by far, having collected Rs299,928,000 (about Dh27.3 million). The Saif Ali Khan-Rani Mukherjee starrer Ta Ra Rum Pum on car racing (another novel story line being declared a winner) is a distant second with revenues of Rs219,205,405 (about Dh19.96 million).

A big hit

However, the perfect example of the script being the star in Bollywood has to go to Bheja Fry.

This Sagar Ballary-directed film, with its unassuming cast (Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Rajat Kapoor and Sarika), could be Bollywood's biggest hit this year if the budget to returns ratio is considered.

Made on a shoestring budget of less than Rs10 million (about Dh910,590), the film went on to gross a whopping Rs61,503,389 (about Dh5.6 million). Bheja Fry also changed the fortunes of Pathak from an underrated television and film character actor to being hailed as Bollywood's latest comic talent.

Some films don't exactly require a good plot and just do well with populist sentiment for support. Namastey London, directed by Vipul Shah, had a good star cast (Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif), foreign locales (the film was almost wholly shot in the UK) and the absence of a novel plot.

The story of a British born Indian yuppie being coerced to marry a farmer from Punjab and the farmer convincing his wife of the positive attributes of all things Indian, is as hackneyed and forced as boring Bollywood scripts go.

It was a big hit, especially in the UK. Nothing could explain Namastey London's success. Critics were quick to write post-mortems in the first week of its release and equally hasty to hail Kumar and Kaif's acting skills when the film started doing well in Indian metros and the overseas market. Grossing Rs151,920,378 (about Dh13.8 million), the film is one of 2007's biggest hits, though not a patch on Guru or Ta Ra Rum Pum. It could have done as well if the plot was novel. Maybe.

— All box office figures courtesyindiafm.com