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Dear Sanjay Dutt, anti-caste movie isn’t a formula. Sad that Shamshera learnt it the hard way

There's no 'hate' for Bollywood. Hindi films are just not offering what's working for Indian audiences—take a cue from South India's Pushpa, KGF and RRR.

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We saw your painful message on Instagram, Sanjay Dutt, about how people spoke and wrote negatively about your recently released film Shamshera, and how your hard work was not appreciated. You also told us just how much passion and hard work was involved in the project and the blood and sweat that went into it.

You wrote: “Shamshera found a lot of people hating on it; some of the hate came from people who didn’t even watch it. I find it horrible that people don’t respect the hard work we all put in.” In this message, you empathised with lead actor Ranbir Kapoor and wrote, “It pains to see how people are so eager to spew hatred on the work of one of the most hardworking and talented actors of our times.”

Similarly, director Karan Malhotra, in a separate social media post, also complained about the hatred expressed for this film.

The problem? Shamshera tried to be an anti-caste blockbuster movie like RRR and Kaala but took historical liberties and didn’t give the audience something worth getting out of their houses for.

Also read: ‘Why is your dad wearing a sari?’ South Indian films handle queer with care, unlike Bollywood

Big hopes, deep fall

It is true that the Hindi film industry had high hopes for Shamshera. Yash Raj Films, one of the biggest banners of Bollywood, had made a formidable team for this film. Karan Malhotra directed it. He has previously delivered successes such as Agneepath (2012) and was associated with Brother (2015), Main Hoon Na (2004), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), and My Name is Khan (2010).

Ranbir Kapoor is, of course, a star, and Vaani Kapoor is a glamorous actress. She dances well too. A lot of dance and song sequences were there in the film to showcase her talent. A lot of effort and money must have gone into creating the special effects for Shamshera. It was released on more than 5,000 screens with no other major movie competing with it in the release week.

Still, the movie bombed at the box office. Shamshera is not an offbeat or experimental or parallel type of film. The project was to make it a formula masala movie. It tried to have all the ingredients of a masala movie — enthralling dance, flashy music, romance with lots of steamy scenes, a lonely mother, the triumph of truth over tyranny, a cruel villain, hero beating dozens of people at the same time, gravity-defying stunts, exotic locations, and so on. There were days when such formulas attracted millions to the movie halls. But that did not happen this time.

Also read: Move over RRR. Shamshera is Bollywood’s answer to South Indian masala movies

Here’s what went wrong

How to make sense of the failure of Shamshera at the box office? Why did it fail to stand up to the expectations of its makers?

I have some interpretations and assumptions about the not-so-successful show of Shamshera.

Despite all the effort, Shamshera failed to be a formula masala film. This has something to do with the basic craft of storytelling. It’s a given that popular movies are not supposed to resemble documentaries. The filmmaker can always take some liberty in tweaking the storyline. So, the complaint is not that this movie is not telling the truth. There can be fantasy components in the historical genre. But the storyline should not be absurd. The plot of Shamshera goes like this — a warrior clan in Rajputana had to flee after the invasion of the Mughals. Defeated and dejected, they ran away and settled in a far-off place where they were exploited by the native upper caste inhabitants. They were made ‘untouchables’ and employed in dirty professions.

We know that untouchability never evolved like this.

Anyway, a bunch of these former warriors then became dacoits. The head of this group is Shamshera who makes a pact with a British officer to liberate his people. But he was tricked by the villain, an inspector and the local British officer.

The story was too flat and linear. ‘The good defeating the evil’ stories used to work in Bollywood. This time, it failed. There were good, bad, and ugly characters in the movie, but they lacked complexities and layers in their roles.

Also read: Big hits, bigger numbers—South Indian films have charmed Hindi viewers, and for good reason

Anti-caste works in the South

Anti-caste movies from South India have done good business in the Hindi film industry. Movies like Kabali (2016), Kaala (2021), Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Karnan (2021), Asuran (2019), Shyam Singha Roy (2021) and Jai Bhim (2021) did well in Hindi also. Sairat (2016) was a super hit Marathi movie, but its Hindi remake, Dhadak (2018) didn’t live up to the original. Pushpa (2021) has the caste factor interwoven as the lead character is of ambiguous lineage and worked as a wood cutter. Another south Indian blockbuster RRR (2022) tells the story of a tribal freedom fighter. Shamshera tried to be an anti-caste movie but failed.

Unlike South India, there is no rich tradition of anti-caste movement in the North. So, the tastes of the audiences are not cultivated accordingly. Also, the genre of anti-caste movies is new, and the audience hasn’t developed a taste for such movies. Anti-caste movies in the South have been in the making since the 1960s. The makers of Shamshera did not even claim it to be an anti-caste movie. During publicity and promotional events, the anti-caste tone of the movie was never highlighted. The potential audience was not in the know. By the time the discussion about the film started, it was time for it to go.

Bland music, bad time for Bollywood

One added factor might be that the music of the film is not great. None of the songs in the movie became popular. Super hit movies usually piggyback on popular music and songs. It’s sad that the people are not humming any songs from Shamshera. Or dancing to its beats.

Another reason can be that almost nothing is working for Bollywood at this juncture. So, Shamshera’s failure at the box office is not unique. Bollywood is facing a drought of success since the outbreak of Covid. Most movies are failing. Ajay Devgn’s Runway 34, Kangana Ranaut’s Dhaakad, Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj, Taapsee Pannu’s Shaabash Mithu, none succeeded at the box office. Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Gangubai Kathiawadi were the only films that did average business. Therefore, it can be assumed that people are not coming to watch movies in the theatres as before or don’t have good enough movies to choose from.

Now, people are not solely dependent on theatre releases for their dose of entertainment. They are watching a whole lot of content on OTT platforms from all over the world. Web series like Money Heist, Lucifer or Maid were actually made for global audiences and became very popular in India. Such content has given Indians access to world-class entertainment. Maybe the Indian, especially the Bollywood, content has failed to match up.

South Indian movies are doing good business in Hindi. This proves that the audience is willing to come to the cinema halls, provided they get content of their choice and liking. It is also being argued that today, people do not want to spend too much money in theatres. This argument is baseless. Hindi-speaking audiences have made the dubbed versions of PushpaKGF-2 and RRR big successes. It means that the audience is there, but they are not watching original Hindi content. Hindi movies are probably not offering what South Indian movies are.

So, dear Sanjay Dutt, nobody hates Bollywood or their work. Rather than cribbing, provide the audience something they cannot refuse.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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