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The state of Bollywood in 2016 – Did superstars grow or decline?

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The American Bazaar’s film critic Vikrum Mathur takes a look at the past year’s Bollywood movies.

dangal

2016 ended with another Aaamir Khan Blockbuster, Dangal.

A plethora of different kinds of Hindi films released this year, covering all genres, whether it was horror, drama, comedy, thriller, romance, or sports. Like any year, most of these films were experiments gone astray, with a majority of films failing at the box office. Yet, what was most exciting about this year was what went right. Whereas traditional masala fare floundered, hard hitting real life stories and movies on social issues set the cash registers jingling, reflecting a maturity in the taste of the Indian audience.

Instead of doing a regular ranking of which films were good or bad, which ultimately is subjective, I thought to take a slightly different approach this year when analyzing Bollywood 2016. It is always most interesting to take inventory of how our superstars fared and what their creative choices represented, both to them as actors and to the audience. Let’s take a look at what the big stars did this year:

Amitabh Bachchan

Once again, the year belonged to the legend – Amitabh Bachchan. He had three notable releases this year, all of which were not in the commercial cinema space – Wazir, Te3n, and Pink. While the first two films fared poorly, despite being interesting concepts, it was Pink which turned out to be the surprise hit of the year, and Bachchan once again proved that he is still one of the very best.

At this stage in his career, Bachchan is beyond box office hits or failures. He has already lived the life of a commercial hero, and thus he can try roles that he has never played before. In Pink particularly, he played a bold, yet very real, lawyer who is simply another member of society. No larger than life hero, no action, no unnecessarily cheesy moments here, just pure performance and intensity. This is why I would say that out of all of the films done by various stars this year, Bachchan made the most interesting choices.

One looks forward to Amitabh’s next with Aamir Khan, Thugs of Hindostan. The legend is still highest up on the success and acting chain after 2016.

Shahrukh Khan

Shahrukh Khan had a mixed bag this year with two releases, Fan, and Dear Zindagi. Fan was keenly awaited because it was yet another collaboration between Yash Raj Films and SRK, which has always been a winning combo. For the first time, we would see SRK working with new age director Maneesh Sharma, playing a double role of a crazed fan and superstar, and we all know that no one does crazy better than SRK (ok, maybe Kangana).

Fan tanked at the box office, at a level which is embarrassing for any superstar. Why did this happen? From my point of view, Fan had a very interesting concept, which started in a novel manner, but then fell into the formulaic and filmy mode. It lost its realism and logic, with the filmmakers expecting us to automatically believe that a lookalike can be 100% mistaken for a superstar and then not, at will. Furthermore, I was bugged by the message of Fan, which was nothing. The film ends tragically, when it could have ended happily with a message, encouraging fans to live their life as themselves. But, instead, the film takes a conventional and darker route, which made absolutely no sense to me.

From an actor’s point of view, I was glad that SRK chose this role, which is a departure from his latest feeble masala attempts. Unfortunately, the film was not the success that both his fans and he were hoping, but I do commend him taking a step toward experimenting with novel roles as opposed to playing it safe.

This leads me to Dear Zindagi, with Alia Bhatt in the main lead. Although SRK is the main male lead, his role is not the central one. I personally loved this film for its realism and deft handling of the dilemmas millennials face in their day to day lives in the space of relationships. Alia Bhatt really nailed it with this one. She was so natural and pitch perfect with her performance, I was floored. SRK on the other hand was fairly bland. I know he tried hard to underplay the character, because it was not a larger than life hero, but for some reason it came across as too understated. Once again I applaud him for picking this offbeat movie, but his performance left much to be desired.

My verdict regarding SRK this year is that we saw a welcome change in the types of movies he did, albeit some improvements were needed either on the script level or performance level. Finally, we saw the SRK again that had debuted in 1992, willing to go off the beaten path. Frankly, audiences are tired of him trying to play masala heroes, and he is too old to do the type of romance he is famous for. At this stage of his career, he should experiment like Bachchan because he also is beyond hits and flops, something that he has not recognized.

The coming year has 2 very big releases for him, Raees and an untitled film with Imtiaz Ali, which should continue to solidify and grow SRK as an actor.

Aamir  Khan

Man, this guy is undefeatable! Mr. Perfectionist once again only had one release this year, Dangal, and it is turning out to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time! Aamir is one actor who, at least for the past 15 years, has not done a single bad film or had a single flop. Each film has carved its own niche in Hindi film industry, from Lagaan to Taare Zameen Par to 3 Idiots, and now Dangal.

Aamir has proven with this film that a Hindi film megastar can do a film that is unconventional and still come out successful. In Dangal, based on the true story of wrestler Mahavir Phogat and his daughters Geeta and Babita, Aamir not only gained a tremendous amount of weight for the role but played father to two young women. Which superstar, besides Amitabh Bachchan, has taken a risk like this and gone the distance to play a character. Of course, one could argue that because Phogat is a real life character Aamir had to do it, but any other actor would have rejected the role because of the commitment required.

This year, Aamir has continued to maintain his brand of perfection and uniqueness as an actor by 100%. He continues to grow with each film, with both commercial success and performance. If you have not yet seen the film, go to the nearest theater to you and see it today!

Salman Khan

The pulse of the masses, Salman Khan has come a long way from his Maine Pyar Kiya days. For the past 7 years, the Dabangg Khan has given only mega successes. Up till 2012, Khan’s films ran due to sheer star power, however beginning with Ek Tha Tiger, Salman started focusing both on his draw and the script of his films. I officially became a fan with Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo in 2015, but this year’s Sultan cemented my admiration for Salman.

Salman put in a power packed performance as wrestler turned boxer Sultan Ali Khan, which, along with Anushka Sharma’s incredible performance, made the film earn 300 crores. Initially, I thought it would be a boring film, glorifying Salman as his films typically do. But it was more emotional and real than that, taking the tone of a kind of Indian “Rocky”. This realism made me fall in love with the film, and I rank it as one of the year’s best. The only flaw was the 2nd half stretching due to too many boxing matches shown, but it’s a flaw that can be overlooked.

Salman’s record as a superstar is also still intact, like Aamir’s, as they are the only two stars who gave films that crossed 200 crores. Salman is trying to show some growth as an actor by now picking a little less masala type fare, which is taking him far. The coming year has him in Kabir Khan’s Tubelight, which is once again expected to be an emotional film, and Tiger Zinda Hai, a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger. Salman should continue to do these types of films, as his fan base will only grow.

Hrithik Roshan

Poor Hrithik. He is such a wonderful actor, and has a great script sense like Aamir, however 2014’s Bang Bang and this year’s Mohenjo Daro have not been good for him.

Mohenjo Daro, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (Lagaan, Jodhaa Akbar, Swades), was one of my most awaited movies of the year. I love historicals and epics, and this one was to be made by one of India’s best directors featuring the one star who suits this genre. However the film, which is entertaining on its own, turned out to be a very expensive miscalculation. While it took place in the Mohenjo Daro civilization, it propelled forward on a fictional love story combined with a revenge drama, which just did not suit the expectation people had. People were hoping to learn something about the civilization and gain new insight but sadly, because there is very little record of that, the film only peripherally focused on what people wanted and more on the “commercial” story.

Undoubtedly, the production values, performances and action is all good, but the plot really takes away from what would have been an interesting cinematic experience.

Hrithik’s record this year is very poor, and one can only hope that his next release, Kaabil, does good business. Mohenjo Daro was one of the most expensive flops this year.

Ajay Devgn

This year, Ajay Devgn directed and acted in an ambitious action venture Shivaay. The trailer seemed like a cross of Taken and Cliffhanger, but featured very impressive scenes and special effects. Another point of interest was the launch of 2 new beautiful heroines – the Polish Erika Kaar and Dilip Kumar’s grandniece Sayesha.

More than its content, however, Shivaay was in the news for the wrong reasons. Most notably, the biggest news was the clash it was going to have on Diwali with Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mishkil, which had far superior buzz than Shivaay.

When Diwali hit, Ajay Devgn could breathe a little easier as his film did not trail too far behind Ae Dil Hai Mishkil. Devgn recognized that Shivaay could be a film that would appeal to the single screen mass audience, whereas Ae Dil Hai Mishkil was for the multiplex audience. Shivaay did very good business at the single screens, and Ajay’s faith in the project was somewhat justified. However, one wonders whether it would have done better if it was a solo release.

Ajay Devgn’s record this year is high, though not on the same plane as the years he had a film directed by pal Rohit Shetty. Next year should be interesting for Ajay with Baadshaho and Golmaal 4, both poised to be super hits.

Ranbir Kapoor

The Kapoor scion needed a hit, and badly. With back to back failures with Besharam, Roy, Bombay Velvet and Tamasha, Kapoor needed to prove that all the hype surrounding his acting abilities was not just a fluke. His one last hope at vindication was Ae Dil Hai Mishkil, alongside Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Anushka Sharma, a film that was eagerly anticipated.

Upon release, the film did not disappoint, and did very good business at the box office. Ranbir and Anushka’s chemistry, as well as Ranbir’s chemistry with Ash, was a high point for the film. Each actor, especially Ranbir, performed brilliantly. This put to rest any misgivings anyone had about this heir to the Raj Kapoor legacy and finally, Ranbir could breathe easy with the success of the film.

It was a very simple tale of one sided love, something often experienced by many of us. Although the climax took the film to an extreme condition, the bulk of the film was very relatable and natural, making it Karan Johar’s most engaging piece of work outside of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. The hit music also helped the film reach the pinnacle of success.

Ranbir’s track record this year was 100%, and we keenly await his forthcoming films Jagga Jasoos, Dutt and Dragon.

Ranveer Singh

Bollywood’s happiest superstar landed one of the most sought after projects any young Indian actor could want – a film directed by Aditya Chopra. When Befikre was announced, it was touted to be a departure from the films that Chopra was known to make. Typically, his films were 3 hour emotional, intense, and family oriented romances starring Shahrukh Khan. This time, however, Chopra himself stated that the film would be a happy film with no intensity, featuring a younger pair. Thus, his protégés Ranveer and Vaani Kapoor were cast as the two main leads.

The film has not matched the success of Aditya’s or Ranveer’s earlier works, but has done well for what it is. The film’s story about two young people who indulge in a no-strings-attached relationship only to fall in love was not only a cliché concept, but hindered the ability of the audience to relate to the characters. My belief has always been that a film can be very happy, but one needs to feel some sort of sympathy for the characters, in order to root for them ending up together.

If you look at Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, the story is very thin, yet the 2 leads are forced to hide their love as a result of a tragic circumstance, making the audience side with them. In a film like Befikre where the characters have no emotional core, why would we want them to end up together or believe that they are really in love? It boggled my mind, and probably that of other viewers too.

Ranveer was the backbone of the film, however. He made it watchable and somewhat fun with his energetic performance, something that lacks in many actors today who try to be suave, smooth, cool, and rugged. Ranveer is undoubtedly the new SRK, an outsider to the industry, rising on the merits of his performances. I have yet to see a bad performance from this guy.

Ranveer had a decent record this year, with Befikre being an average grosser. This is by no means a reflection of any fallacies with his talent. It was simply the problems with Befikre’s script that hampered it from doing better. Ranveer’s rise is still going smoothly, and his stock will only increase with his next – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padvmavati.

Akshay Kumar

Last but certainly not least, 2016 was the year of Akshay Kumar. Not only was he the superstar who did the most films, but also the one who gave the most diverse performances. His year opened with the stellar Airlift, the real life story of an Indian man who risked all to help fellow Indians escape the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Akshay’s restrained performance really impressed me, and he finally did a real life film shedding his “Akshay-ness”.

Then came Housefull 3. Let’s face it, no one does comedy better than this guy amongst the superstars. Although this was an unnecessary entry in a diminishing franchise, Akshay stole the show as Sandy/Sundi, a man with multiple personalities. This breezy and successful comedy started off the summer perfectly, and I really enjoyed its inanity. We haven’t seen Akshay in a role like this in a while, so it was good to see him back at something he does best.

Akshay’s last release of the year was Rustom, based off the real life story of an Indian Naval officer accused of murdering his wife’s lover. Akshay put in another restrained performance, and won widespread acclaim for it. The film was a big success, and people really enjoyed the mystery and intensity of the courtroom drama that unfolded before them.

Akshay is really an actor that has done the widest range of films, besides Aamir Khan, since his debut. Starting as an action hero, then becoming a comedic sensation, and then doing everything from action, romance, comedy, and now realistic performances, Akshay has become a complete actor. No one can challenge him on range or speed by which he does his movies. As Salman Khan once said that Akshay is the only actor of their generation which has evolved, I think that is an absolutely true statement. His success rate this year was 100%.

2017 will be another great year for Akshay with Jolly LLB 2, Toilet –Ek Prem Katha, and Robot 2.0 hitting cinemas. Once again, each of these films represent different genres, and I am confident that Akshay will once again be the most successful actor this coming year.

Other noteworthy Films of 2016:

MS Dhoni – An Untold Story

Azhar

Kahaani 2

Kapoor & Sons

Neerja

Dhanak

Mirzya

Based on all of this, our superstars are generally safe. No one really saw massive decline, only growth. In some cases, like Aamir, Akshay, and Amitabh, growth was monumental. For others like Salman, Ranbir, and Ranveer, things were good but static. If anyone needs to be careful (though I think they are beyond needing to worry about such things) are SRK and Hrithik. Ironically, both are releasing their next films on the same day, January 25. Let’s hope both find the success they are looking for.

2016 was a great year for cinema where new topics thrived and old ones failed. Mediocrity was rejected and novelty was appreciated. 2017 promises to continue to raise the bar set in 2016. Here’s wishing you all a very happy new year of watching films!

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