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The Potboiler Cometh

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There is a ritual that is played out on the Friday of every big Hindi film’s release in Mumbai. Industry-ites go to either Chandan in Juhu or Gaiety-Galaxy in Bandra to see the crowd-response.

I don’t know where the phrase crowd-response originated. It could have been a product of ’60s or ’70s or ’80s. Somehow ’50s seem unlikely. But then again that’s the ’50s of my imagination. Anyways, let me try defining it.

Crowd-response [noun] is the level of loudness of whistles and applause measured during a Hindi film, in response to its scenes, songs and dialogues.

The measure is better recorded in a single-screen theater than a multiplex because it is assumed that a he who buys the ticket at a single-screen does so only to watch the film and not to eat the popcorn from a swanky tub, or to lie comfortably on a reclining sofa with a blanket or to be flanked by butlers during the film. What you get from this single-screen-guy is pure 24 karat crowd-response and that’s what everyone goes to hunt for.

I had first heard the phrase in 2001. Ram Gopal Varma’s Company had just been released. The film was hyped to have been inspired by Dawood Ibrahim and Chota Rajan friendship-rivalry story. Press said that Ram Gopal Varma had received threats from the underworld. Television Channels played the song”Khallas” with a half-wet Esha Koppikar dancing to the tunes. And to top it all was Ram Gopal Varma documenting the underworld after the super-success of Satya. The buzz was phenomenal. I wanted to watch the film first day, first show. I was working with Goldie Behl in those days, and Anurag Kashyap was writing a script for Goldie. While sitting with them I suggested that we go and see Company together because we were talking about it most of time instead of working anyway.

‘Ok. Let’s go and watch it at Shaan. We will get a better idea of crowd-response.’ Goldie said. Decrypted, those words could simply mean ‘welcome to the film industry.’ Now, instead of watching the film you start paying attention to the moments when there’s a collective euphoria voiced by the crowd in the form of applause and whistles–that’s the film professional’s way of seeing things. Welcome to Bollywood!

Then there’s another phrase that comes to mind – leave-your-mind-at-home. Sometime in the late 90s, I had seen David Dhawan saying on television, ‘to watch my film you must leave your mind at home.’ Some might credit Manmohan Desai as the father of the phrase. They say that he said it in defense of his scene in Amar-Akbar-Anthony, where three sons give blood to their mother simultaneously. But Manmohan Desai never asked you to leave your mind at home because he was damn sure that each guy who walks into the theater to watch his film arrives not only with a mind but with a heart too, and he was confident that he was going to win your heart a hundred times over. I’ll come to Manmohan Desai later.

Right now lets stick to our two phrases.

On 10th September 2010 a film released that embodied these two phrases, unlike anything that had come thus far during that year. The film was Dabangg, directed by debutant Abhinav Singh Kashyap, starring Salman Khan in an action role after super-success of Wanted. How Kashyap ended up making the most anticipated release of 2010 is another potboiler of a story but that story was not told or heard in the noise that surrounded the release of his creation itself. And then there was Eid.

Along with a friend I decided to catch the first show at Gaiety. Getting first row stall tickets, we made a dash for Chandan to catch the matinee show. Tickets were bought in black – it doesn’t pinch these days because in days of multiplexes buying ticket in black also adds to the nostalgia.

We ran into some of our colleagues from the industry, some of who were walking out of the first show and waiting to get in for matinee for a repeat viewing.

We asked them about the film. They told us that if you have left your mind at home, then you’ll enjoy it. My friend and me looked at each other and wondered whether or not we had left our minds at home. But then we had brought our hearts along so we decided to stick around. In the same conversation we were told that the crowd-response is tremendous and the film will be a blockbuster.

But then crowd-response could be misleading sometimes. I remember I had watched Aamir Khan’s Mela at Plaza in New Delhi. Back then Plaza used to be a single screen theater. The 30 rupees stall ticket was going in black for 80 rupees. It was first day evening show. The decibel level of whistles and applause was making the auditorium walls tremble. I had myself stood thrice on my seat and clapped. And I wasn’t even noticing the crowd reaction. Back then I was the crowd.

The film was written off as a flop few days later. How that happened is a mystery to me. For how could an army of people, going ballistic inside the theater, not walk out and tell others to watch it? I remember I recommend it. And it was Aamir Khan and director Dharmesh Darshan picture after super-success of Raja Hindustani. Yet Mela remains one of the most memorable movie viewing experiences of mine in a theater, followed by Lagaan, Border, and Haqeeqat (Kuku Kohli’s) – not necessarily in this order but the film on top of this list of mine is Ram Lakhan.

I walked in for Dabangg expecting a Border, a Haqeeqat or a Ram Lakhan. What I got instead was something very different. If there was a story in Dabangg, I failed to see it. People were rising to their feet whenever the super-star was doing something, but at no point in the film he gets beaten down or faces conflict, unlike heroes of Lagaan, Border or Haqeeqat. He beats people to pulp at the start of the film or at the end instead.

We walked out of the film disappointed. But we didn’t try to find any flaw in the film. We searched within ourselves instead, trying to see if perhaps we had carried too much mind inside the theater. 

A day later, purely as late night coffee discussion, someone asked me why didn’t you like Dabangg. My reply was: it had no story. The person argued back and said that it had indeed a story, several of them: there’s the brother’s story, there’s a love story, and there’s the villain’s story. My reply was that may be I am a sucker for conflict in a story: I like the guy getting beaten up before he hammers people around. I gave examples of Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer and Sunny Deol in Ghayal.

“But you see Ghayal is serious cinema. Its not an entertainer,” the person said.

The statement stunned me.

He perceived silence on my face. I saw this man, a film graduate from New York, and I wondered if I was arguing in vain, because in India you cannot argue with success. But then I wondered if this person had already decided that he was going to like the film, even before had had walked into the theater. It was as if he did not want anyone to accuse him of having carried his mind to the theater.

That’s when I realized the enormity of David Dhawan’s phrase. From the looks of it, it’s a pretty innocent phrase that could simply mean ‘please do not judge this potboiler entertainer intellectually,’ but over the years it has made people panic and put them into self-doubt. Not many realize that even David Dhawan came up with the phrase to defend one of his weaker films because in case of Aankhen, Shola aur Shabnam, and Raja Babu people lapped it up with their hearts. And the phrase right now has become a sort of accusation. An insinuation. No one wants to be accused of having a mind. Everyone wants to be a part of success story and pretend to fully understand.

But what if it’s not successful?

Let me take you back to the father of Hindi Cinema’s potboilers – Manmohan Desai, since I promised that I will come back to him. Whether its mother receiving blood from her three lost sons, or Sai Baba’s light traveling to a blind woman’s eyes to restore her vision or a tiger coming in to save hero’s mother, no one did it better than Manmohan Desai. These films worked on you. You didn’t have to leave your mind behind and make the film work for yourself.

Except for Naseeb, I don’t have vivid memory of theatrical viewing of any of his successful films. What I do remember is that sometime in 1988, as an 11-year-old kid, I was enamored by a poster of an upcoming film. It had Amitabh Bachchan standing with a live crocodile on his back. Its songs Sajan Mera Uss Paar Hai and Disco Bhangra had already become a rage. I remember looking forward to the day of release of the film. I remember watching it on the first day of its release.

After 13 weeks of continuous run the film came off from Shree theater in Agra. It was declared a flop. I asked my father, the person who had once explained to me what a Silver Jubilee, Golden Jubilee or a Platinum Jubilee meant, how could they call Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati a flop? My dad replied that 13 week would have been considered a good run for any normal film but for an Amitabh Bachchan film it must do 25 weeks at least to be called successful.

On the third day of its release Dabangg had broken all past box-office record and had crossed the weekend collection of 3 Idiots to become the biggest grosser of all times. All the news channels were airing the figures and newsreaders were reporting it with an exclamation.

What Toofan and Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati would have done if they had such media support? Of course, such media never existed in those days and we will never know.

But given the fact that these movies were flops, are they therefore not as good an entertainer as Dabangg? Or may be that was the era of if-its-good-it-will-be-successful.

Films, not for the reason of being good or bad, have been successful and unsuccessful in past. They continue to be successful for a variety of reasons. Others have tried to repeat the successful formulas and stray away from the recipes-for-disaster but no one can say anything for sure. But never has one seen birth of a phrase that now seems to be struggling to break away from its two parent-phrases. The era of if-its-successful-it-must-be-good is here.

When I buy a film ticket its in all earnestness to enjoy the film and not to judge it. I am not sure if I can leave my mind behind or if anyone is capable of it, but I want the film to surpass all that. I’m not that difficult to be won over after all. Some films have done that magic to me in past.

The films are capable of that magic.

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About Atul Sabharwal