If 20 people in a room are asked to list down the 50 films that changed Hindi cinema, there are bound to be differences or even heated debates. Even if the time bracket is reduced to 1995-2015, the debates would be as heated, or perhaps even more, given the fact that Hindi cinema possibly churns out more films in a year than the film industry of any other country.
When I read the title of Shubhra Gupta’s book 50 Films That Changed Bollywood 1995-2015 (Harper-Collins), I wondered what the criteria of her selection would be. There are multiple yardsticks to which we assess the quality of a film, such as the box office record, its influence on pop culture, critical acclaim and in my mind, the most effective yet the most subjective, how it made me feel.
While Gupta’s title clearly suggests that her yardstick is majorly the second one, i.e., how the films influence pop culture (or Bollywood in particular), she often deviates to other criteria and ends up accommodating a film in her exclusive list merely because of its roaring box office success, unanimous critical acclaim or her personal fondness for the film.
It is there that this otherwise well-researched and comprehensive book falters. It does not stick to its purpose which can be clearly seen in how she has tried to justify her inclusion of certain films in the list, but failed to put forth a convincing argument. While some films are obvious picks, others are worth considering. But there are a few amongst them that just do not go down well with you.
Since the lower limit is 1995, Aditya Chopra’s classic romantic drama Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge had to be there. It has qualified itself as a competent film in all criteria and continue to be a template for a large number of family-oriented romantic dramas.
Rangeela is yet another obvious pick but Gupta doesn’t explain why. All she ends up doing, after spelling out the plot of the film, is to draw a ‘Then and Now’ of the director Ram Gopal Varma, actors Aamir Khan, Urmila Matondkar and Jackie Shroff, along with tracing their working relationship over the years. Thankfully, she realises she could bite off more than she could chew and steers clear of such diversions in the other chapters, or at least attempts to do so.
In my mind, why Rangeela proved to be a trendsetter was because of its music, choreography and costumes. It is sad that Gupta gives no mention or short shrift to the technical aspects and only talks about the plot and characters, just like a majority of Indian film critics.
It was AR Rahman’s breakthrough in Hindi cinema and he went on to change the cinematic landscape of Bollywood by adorning it with his musical notes. Similarly, this was arguably the first film where we got introduced to the gymnastics-style choreography that still dominates commercial potboilers today. Gupta does delve on costumes when she explains how this film changed the way a Hindi film heroine looked.
Shekhar Gupta’s Bandit Queen is a film that I am glad Gupta was able to pinpoint. She does full justice to the film when she elaborates why it made it to her list. The rustic setting, the no-holds-barred dialogue delivery and the lack of cosmetic touch-ups of the actors ensured that there was score for cinema that felt ‘real’.
Hero No. 1 gave us a lead actor who could give all the comedians a run for their money. It also established a genre that was synonymous with the lead actor’s name. Govinda’s brand of comedies, though short lived, constituted a phase that saw thorough entertainers spruced up by signature Bollywood song and dance. While the genre faded away with Govinda’s age, there are the occasional Housefuls and Golmaals that still mint money at the box office.
While Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was an NRI film catering to nostalgia, Karan Johar’s directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai spoke the language of the GenNext. It was the first uber-cool film of Hindi cinema that fully embraced liberalistaion and globalisation. This film would establish Johar’s frivolous image that he still finds extremely tough to shake off.
Hindi cinema had been obsessed with the underworld ever since Adam. Case in point, Amitabh Bachchan’s character of Don. But what Varma’s Satya did was to get rid of the stylised way of storytelling and treatment and give us access to notorious criminals. They were not caricatures but immensely real beings which hinted at how worrisome the state of affairs in our country was.
Sarfarosh is remembered best for its soft patriotism. That film showed you do not need to wage war between India and Pakistan to display your nationalism, or jingoism for that matter. Sarfarosh was hard hitting not in terms of its decibel but its craft. Aamir Khan and Naseeruddin Shah immotralised their characters and made for a righteous cop and an assured terrorist – templates that filmmakers still swear by.
The most significant contribution of Kaho Naa… Pyar Hai was Hrithik Roshan. More than its hackneyed plot and obsolete treatment, Rakesh Roshan’s romantic drama defined what a 21st century Hindi film hero would look like. Hrithik fit the bill completely and with his acting chops, dancing skills and drop dead gorgeous looks, he set the bar for the holistic personality development that an aspiring lead actor has to undergo.
2001 saw three landmark films. Dil Chahta Hai changed the grammar of film making forever. Its colloquial dialogue, with a liberal use of English words, became a trick that every filmmaker had to employ for them to make their film sound cool. The other aspect was its cinematography. While stalwarts like Mani Ratnam and Sanjay Leela Bhansali had already stepped forward and mesmerised us with their larger than life long shots, Farhan Akhtar’s film did not orchestrate the grandness. It was just there even in the tiniest of moments. (Gupta misses this point.)
Another film, that broke all box office records, was Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Besides setting the trend of unconventional pairing (which Gupta missed too), the film humanised the other side of the border. That school of thought has trickled down to many hits including Kabir Khan’s 2015 drama Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which in my opinion, did not change Bollywood in any way but has made it to Gupta’s list of top 50.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan went back to the hinterland, as setting that had got lost in the midst of all the urban comedies. Also, Gupta points out an interesting insight into how it changed the behind-the-scenes working style of top actors. They started following in the footsteps of Aamir and chose to stick to one film throughout its shooting schedule rather than juggling between four or five films at a time.
With Jism came the entire brand of Vishesh films romantic dramas with a high quotient of oomph, sex and lust. John Abraham and Bipasha Basu sizzled it to such soaring levels that the audience embraced them despite knowing that they would burn with them. It paved the way for Murder, and in turn, Emraan Hashmi and Mallika Sherawat – the two sex sirens that took the industry by storm.
Gupta mentions Hum Tum as the first true blue romantic comedy of Bollywood. While I think Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai were rom-coms in their own right, what Kunal Kohli’s film did was to bring forth the insecurities that the GenNext had begun harbouring. It also introduced us to a metrosexual character, played by Saif Ali Khan, a formula for many such urban rom-coms today. Also, as Gupta points out, this was the first time that having sex before marriage was considered okay in family entertainers.
Another obvious pick, Munna Bhai MBBS introduced us to Rajkumar Hirani who could manage to impress the audience and critics alike with his lighthearted well packaged films with social messages and stories borrowed from the next door. Nobody has managed to make films like he does till date.
Bunty Aur Babli was not an urban rom-com but it did not explore the hinterland either. It found that middle path that lakhs of Indians relate to. The tier-2 cities were brimming with aspirations when this film came and addressed them. It was also a trendsetter in terms of fashion, as it brought back the good ol’ sasta sundar tikau non-branded outfits.
Sudhir Mishra’s film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi addressed yet another burning issue – education. The colleges were not depicted as the fantasy Riverdale or High School Musical stuff. They were real and addressed real life issues of students frustrated with the education system of the country. It was way ahead of its times as the dissent among students has started making headlines more often now.
Gupta justifies picking Dhoom 2 over Dhoom because it was the better film. While I agree with that assessment, it shows how disoriented she was while cherry picking the 50 films that changed Bollywood. Dhoom 2 only accelerated the change that was brought by Dhoom. In that respect, Dhoom deserves the credit for being a game changer and not its sequel.
Countless parallel or arthouse films had preceded Bheja Fry but what this Rajat Kapoor-Vinay Pathak film did was to demonstrate how they could also make money at the box office. From Shyam Benegal’s to Anand Gandhi’s, arthouse cinema has also undergone a considerable change. But Bheja Fry’s success proved that there was an audience, even though a niche one, for every kind of film.
Chak De! India was arguably the first true blue sports film of India. Other movies like Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and Lagaan also consisted of sports as crucial plot points but those were merely to increase the tension in the narrative. If there was a film that made an attempt to address the issues plaguing sports in the country, Chak De! India was the first one to do so. Other sports dramas like Mary Kom, Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal! and Dangal followed suit.
With Ghajini, Aamir introduced the industry to two business terms that the trade pundits swear by till date. Firstly, the wide pre-promotion of the film which almost ensured a certain opening at the box office. Since then, production houses started signing up with PR agencies to promote their film creatively. Secondly, the coveted Rs 100 crore club which devised a new yardstick to measure the success and reach of a film.
Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D was also arthouse in terms of its atmosphere but its treatment was commercial in many ways, given that it boasted of close to a dozen songs, composed by Amit Trivedi. But what this film did was to bring darkness to the forefront, though in a cool self-deprecating way instead of something intense and melancholic.
Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor was a path-breaker in many ways. It revolved around a taboo but its lighthearted comedy did not make the audience cringe. It made them smile and ponder. This film was also a hybrid of art and commercial cinema, though poles apart from how Kashyap approached the same.
Finally, Vikas Bahl’s Queen led to the boom of women-oriented or female-centric cinema. It was entirely a woman’s story with very little space for men. It also proved that a female actor could carry the film on her shoulders and command certain numbers at the box office.
Thus, these are the 21 films out of Gupta’s 50 that I think truly changed Bollywood, in terms of narrative, themes, plots, technique and the way the industry functioned. There are many on my mind, such as The Dirty Picture which started the trend of biopics, but I’ll save those for another day.
The other films mentioned in Gupta’s list mainly adhere to the template of their predecessors or break through to a very minor extent. Some are hybrid of the genres introduced by two of their predecessors while the others seem to have found a place only because it changed the way the author looked at the films that she had already listed.