Between Reviews: Hit Happens

Posted on August 16, 2008


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AUG 17, 2008 – FILM CRITICS AND THE BOX OFFICE have traditionally maintained a very cordial distance from one another – thanks largely to the law of inverse proportions that states that if a critic likes something, the box office typically responds with the kiss of death – but this column, this week, deserves to be devoted to numbers. For one, we have been subjected to non-stop reports of the earth having been shattered, in several parts of the country, by the collections of Singh is Kinng. According to the site (which tracks, well, box collections in India), “Singh Is Kinng re-writes box office history by collecting over 8 crore nett on its opening day in India. The box office tornado that is Singh is Kinng is likely to fetch around 28 crore nett over the weekend destroying the 22 crore record of Om Shanti Om and RaceSingh is Kinng will surpass the 32 crore distributor share of the biggest grosser of 2008 Race in 9-10 days while the 26 crore distributor share of the biggest hit of 2008 Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na will be crossed in 6-7 days. It is the fastest money spinner ever.”

Secondly, there’s the juggernaut that is The Dark Knight, lodged comfortably at number one (at the North American box office) in its fourth consecutive weekend, with a 24-day total of $441.5 million. It is already third on the list of all-time domestic blockbusters, behind only Titanic (which grossed $600.8 million during a single theatrical run) and Star Wars (which made $461 million over multiple releases). There is, of course, some perspective needed to all this oohing and aahing – the fact, say, that ticket prices were much lower when those earlier films blasted through the record charts. But then you could argue that today’s records are more impressive, in a way, because they are created in an age of entertainment overload. Even with the easy distractions of cable television and DVDs being out in three months and so on, if large numbers swarm to the theatres to snap up tickets at the steep multiplex rates (or the not-inconsiderable single-screen prices), doesn’t it mean something?

Talk to old-timers in Chennai and they’ll go misty eyed about how MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s Haridas ran for three years at a single theatre. And over there, the figures adjusted for inflation show that Gone with the Wind – at $1.4 billion, in North America alone – is still the all-time box-office champ. But what else did people, those days, do for an instant entertainment fix but watch movies? And hence the question: which records are more, let’s say, valid? Those – or the ones created by Sivaji and Singh is Kinng and The Dark Knight, which have managed to displace droves of moviegoers from their couches or their consoles or whatever else? And, on a related note, what do these records mean? As much as I loathed Singh is Kinng, its unprecedented success does seem hugely significant – at least in terms of what it’s going to mean to an industry beleaguered by a number of flops. But that’s just the business end of things, and cinema being (at least in theory) the intersection of commerce and art, what does the success of Singh is Kinng imply in terms of art? Several more lamely scripted comedies rolling off the assembly line – and that’s the scary part.

The motorist’s dictum of objects in the rear view mirror appearing closer than they are is easily translated to the moviegoer, in the sense that long-ago movies flashing through the mind’s eye appear better than they are – and it’s not difficult to make a list of older films that did not really deserve to become hits (if indeed, deserve has anything to do with it). But think of the top three Hindi films of all time (Sholay, Mughal-e-Azam and Mother India) or the top three Hollywood films of all time (Gone with the Wind, Star Wars and The Sound of Music). Doesn’t it seem that, back then, the films that grew legendary for breaking records – not just the hits, but the mega-super-duper-whatever blockbusters, the kind that united all strata of the public in a collective moviegoing rapture – had something to them? Aren’t they films that have lasted well beyond their sell-by dates? Aren’t they so beloved that the outrage that surrounded Ram Gopal Varma’s remake of Sholay suggested that the filmmaker had waltzed into a temple wearing chappals and proceeded to slaughter a cow in the vicinity of the sanctum sanctorum, and didn’t the colourised version of the chaste Mughal-e-Azam power past the siren calls of a barely clad Antara Mali in Naach a few Diwalis ago?

Speaking of the latter, you can get tangled up in knots about what, exactly, goes towards making up a blockbuster. Sholay you can understand, as also Mother India – but I never cease to be amazed at the kind of hysteria that Mughal-e-Azam set off when it was released. Even with those beautiful songs, even with those big stars, it’s still filled with all that talking – in heavy, high-flown poetry. It’s exquisite stuff, those dialogues – but to imagine that such a film could work on such a scale is, even today, incredible. You can believe that select sections in select cities – the so-called “classes” – would have been drawn in by its formidable charms, but does the degree to which the film worked indicate that the masses, too, were more “cultured” then? And have the ensuing years witnessed a gradual erosion that ineffable substance we snobbishly refer to as taste? Because the masses, today, appear to be flocking to Dhoom 2 and Singh is Kinng – and somehow, I don’t see that audiences, thirty years hence, are going to bat an eyelid when a hubristic filmmaker makes known his intentions of a frame-by-frame remake.

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