Of late, Bollywood has witnessed a new star rising on the horizon. Forget big-name actors or chartbusting item numbers, "concept-driven" film script are the buzzwords.
Variations of age-old plotlines helmed by stars are still going strong, but 2012 is proof that out-of-the-box films that provoke thought and excite debate with their unusual concepts can also strike critical and box office gold.
Few in Bollywood believed that Barfi!, a tale of a deaf-and-mute boy and an autistic girl, would gross Rs 100 crore. But the film proved to be a viewer favourite, reiterating the fact that you cannot second guess the audience. This Anurag Basu film didn't coast on its stars Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra's image, but preferred to tell an oddball story; and the well-received film has now been chosen to represent India at the Oscars.
Sridevi made her triumphant comeback in English Vinglish, a film markedly different from some of her biggest hits of the 1980s. Gauri Shinde presented her as a woman who intrepidly learns a foreign language to earn the respect of her daughter and husband, only to assert that self-respect transcends all languages.
Akshay Kumar chose to make character actor Paresh Rawal the protagonist of his home production OMG: Oh My God! a film that questioned the traditional ideas of religion. The theme tried to find a rationale behind the rituals with which we worship our gods; and appealed to millions of viewers.
Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani boldly showed its protagonist to be pregnant for most of the film. In a marked contrast from her The Dirty Picture appearance, Vidya Balan played a woman purportedly tracing the whereabouts of her missing husband and won over the audience.
And, this year, for the first time ever, a sperm donor played the protagonist of a successful Hindi film. The Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam starrer Vicky Donor was a unique attempt at showcasing the life of a sperm donor, who helps childless couples have babies.
This new array of films that have clicked with the audiences and critics alike are proof that the so-called division between art and commercial cinema is blurring. A film with a good concept is what the audience wants to see.
"Content has always been important," feels Siddharth Roy Kapur, managing director -- Studios, Disney UTV, "but it is true that today, movies that deal with different themes and subjects are receiving huge appreciation from an audience that is hungering for great content. It's an incredible time for filmmakers, artistes and studios."
Kapur defines his filmmaking endeavour as "an attempt to offer audiences cinema that is entertaining and pushes the envelope at the same time." True to his words, his studio has produced several content-driven films such as Khosla Ka Ghosla, A Wednesday, Aamir, Dev D, Udaan, No One Killed Jessica, Paan Singh Tomar, Barfi! and Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.
Sujoy Ghosh believes filmmakers are simply following the audience, which has made its proclivity for new themes amply clear. Ghosh's Kahaani has been in the vanguard of the content revolution, and he reasons, "The audience has become more generous now, they are more open; it is a natural progression. Earlier, we didn't have access to DVDs and the Internet and we didn't know much about subjects other than two people falling in love, or a son taking revenge for his dad's death. As the world evolves, we also evolve; and so does our acceptance."
Umesh Shukla, the director of OMG: Oh My God!, heartily welcomes the changing scenario. "If your concept is the hero of the film, you don't need anything else. The box office collections on the first two days might not be as good because of the absence of a star, but the subject will do wonders later," says Shukla, whose film had character actor Paresh Rawal in the lead, with star Akshay Kumar coming into the picture only in the latter half of the film. Shukla insists, "Even the stars want good scripts."
Actors are game
Mainstream actors and directors too are gravitating towards concept-driven films. Even newcomers are beginning to look at such films as a safe bet with which to enter Bollywood.
Ileana D'Cruz, who made her Bollywood debut with Barfi!, opines, "I honestly didn't expect to have a debut like this. I wanted a song and dance film. But I think people are more open now to different stories and they are giving such films a chance. Mainstream commercial actors like Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are doing unconventional characters. There has been a big change in the films that are being made."
Kunal Kapoor firmly believes, "Content driven films are being liked by the audiences." This is reflected in his choice of films like the recent Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, which revolved around finding the right recipe for a chicken dish.
Tabu, who has given exceptional performances in films such as Maachis, Chandni Bar, The Namesake and the recent Life Of Pi, approves of the trend. She says, "If I get an offer to do a film like Vicky Donor and worthwhile money, I will do it. I really enjoyed English Vinglish too."
Tried and tested
Though mainstream films like Rowdy Rathore, Student of The Year, Bol Bachchan and Housefull 2 have done roaring business at the box office this year, it has not deterred the spirits of the directors who want to try something unique.
But filmmakers making concept films are well aware that audiences still have a taste for the tried and tested; and that they have to work hard to ensure their films stand out. Umesh Shukla reveals he was a bit apprehensive about OMG: Oh My God!. "When I was making OMG: Oh My God!, mujhe darr laga ki meri film chalegi ki nahin.
Paresh said, 'We should try to make a good film. Whether it works at the box office or not is secondary.'" OMG released with Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal, a sequel to the 2006 hit Malamaal Weekly. Despite expectations from the Priyadarshan film, it couldn't replicate the success of its predecessor while Shukla's film surprised everyone, including the director, by doing very well.
Shukla says, "I wasn't expecting it to be such a big hit, but I expected it to do well. The problem lies in the formula that we (Bollywood) have created -- some action scenes, romance and an item song in a film and it's bound to work.
Our film didn't subscribe to trade norms -- there was no heroine in the film, and we didn't have any double meaning dialogues or item songs. It is a surprise that our film is nearing the 100 crore club."
Ghosh discloses that factors that are conventionally considered safe are not of paramount importance in the long run. "If I have a face like Vidya, Ranbir or Sridevi in my film, it does help to draw an audience, but finally, it is the film that speaks for itself."
The success of these concept-driven films has enthused new directors who are willing to experiment with projects in which the script is the star. On the anvil is the Vidya Balan- Emraan Hashmi dark comedy, Ghanchakkar, Table No 21 which stars Paresh Rawal in a negative role, and Nautanki Saala which has Ayushmann Khurrana playing a theatre actor.
Shukla sees a not-so-distant time when "people will soon start working on better scripts rather than chasing stars." Ghosh envisions the emergence of "other themes like science fiction, or maybe time travel."
But he also warns against being hung up on 'the idea'. "If you make a film thinking it is concept-based, it might just turn out to be a gimmick. The film should essentially be a story that audiences can connect to."
"Honestly, I wanted a song and dance film for a debut. But people are now giving concept-driven films a chance. Mainstream actors like Ranbir and Priyanka are playing unconventional characters. There has been a big change in the films being made."
-- Ileana D'Cruz, who made her Bollywood debut with Barfi!
"A person will watch Vicky Donor because of the quirkiness of the subject. It had a brilliant team and I was surrounded by the right people --John Abraham, Shoojit Sircar, and Annu Kapoor. It is always safe when you choose an unconventional subject and a credible director."
-- Ayushmann Khurrana, lead , Vicky Donor
What has changed
"Today, movies that deal with different themes are being appreciated by an audience that is hungering for great content. It's an incredible time for filmmakers, artistes and studios."
-- Siddharth Roy Kapur, Managing Director -- Studios, Disney UTV
"The audience has become more generous, they are more open. Earlier, we didn't have access to DVDs and the Internet and we didn't know much about different subjects. As the world evolves, we also evolve."
-- Sujoy Ghosh, Director of Kahaani
"If your concept is the hero, you don't need anything else. The collections on the first two days might not be as good because of the lack of a star, but the subject will do wonders later. Even the stars want to act in a good script."
-- Umesh Shukla, Director of OMG: Oh My God!