Covid-19: Will Hindi cinema's disaster genre now come of age?

It would be difficult to imagine that a real-life event like the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t usher in a new phase for the disaster genre within Hindi film.

 |  4-minute read |   25-04-2020
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While popular Hindi films often ‘remade’ Hollywood films with aplomb across genres, the one genre that rarely enjoyed acceptability was the disaster genre. It’s not like folks in India did not enjoy the typical larger-than-life disaster spectacle from the west.

Ask anyone from your parents’ or grandparents’ generation about The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) or The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and see their eyes light up. The genre had nearly everything that suited a typical Hindi film — an unlikely hero fighting insurmountable odds with enough plot twists and what have you, but perhaps it was the missing human villain aspect that compelled popular Hindi films to maintain a safe distance. In the same decade, the 1970s, two Hindi high-budgeted films Kaala Patthar (1979) and The Burning Train (1980) tried to usher in the disaster genre but despite all the elements including good music and great star cast, both films failed to fire up the audiences. In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, the disaster genre in Hollywood has enjoyed a revival thanks to the fine line between reel and real being down away with life resembling films such as Contagion.

Past responses

The way India has responded to the pandemic with real-life stories that cover an entire spectrum of society have come to light, and considering that popular Hindi films of late have been more inspired by reality than ever before, would the Hindi disaster genre now finally come of age?

main_uri1_twitter_042520104956.jpgLately, the reality/ historical genre has managed to grab the centre stage. Poster of Uri: The Surgical Strike released last year. (Photo: Twitter/ @AdityaDharFilms)

When it comes to themes and motifs there are usually two aspects that click with filmmakers across the popular cinema. Firstly, it’s the environment in which films are made, where reality either permeates into the narrative or escapism takes over. Take, for instance, the Emergency imposed in 1975 by the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. The singular event pushed filmmakers and producers to a point where reality was a no-go. The fear of government backlash saw realism in any degree readily traded by mainstream Hindi films made after 1975, especially the year’s highest grosser such as Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), and Dharam Veer (1977). The other is the revival of themes or a style of storytelling that usually comes back in fashion every two and a half to three decades. The mavericks such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich, who rewrote the filmmaking grammar in the America of the 1970s, were a throwback to the filmmakers of the 1950s.

Romance vs realism

Perhaps this also explains why the 1990s, a period of the revival of genres and themes for popular films across cinemas of the world, witnessed a revival of the disaster and action genres in Hollywood and the romance genre in Hindi films. Movies like Jurassic Park (1992), Speed (1994), Independence Day (1996), the twin extra-terrestrial impact movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, both of which released in the summer of 1998, might have enjoyed a revival thanks to great strides made in special effects, but these were also the kind of films that were popular in the 1970s.

By comparison, it was only natural for romance to make a comeback in Hindi films in the 1990s with Dil (1990), Saajan (1991), Yeh Dillagi (1994), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Rangeela (1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), to name a few, as this was the most popular genre of the 1960s and 1970s.

Advent of escapism

Barring a little variation in terms of the narrative, much of the template set by the 1990s’ revival of the romance genre continues to be the mainstay of the popular Hindi. Lately, the reality/ historical genre has managed to grab the centre stage. It has led to a spate of films that have been blockbusters, and the extreme reactions from critics notwithstanding, have managed to strike a chord with the viewer. Some of these films might not have been as successful as Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) or Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020) but they have rarely lost money.

In the wake of such a development, it would be difficult to imagine that a real-life event like the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t usher in a new phase for the disaster genre within Hindi film. The human face of this pandemic is unlike any disaster film, which makes it great fodder for Bollywood. Popular Hindi cinema loves the simplicity within anything complex and the nature of the Covid-19, the concerns about it being a bioweapon, it changing how humans function is as intricate as it could get, but at the same time, the toll it has taken on humanity where everyone from the rich industrialist to the nameless migrant worker have all suffered is emotionally as straightforward as Hindi films would like its narrative to be.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Why poor copies of great originals rankle


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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