‘Disappointed’ – that’s the kindest comment Abhishek Bachchan got from detractors of the film The Big Bull. The negativity comes from a comparison with the recent web series - Scam 1992 on the same Harshad Mehta scam from three decades ago.
Yet, the ruthlessness showered on Mr. Bachchan is partly also due to the ignorance of an average viewer who loves to hates with a vengeance but knows little of the mechanics of filmmaking. Though actor Pratik Gandhi in Hansal Mehta directed Scam 1992 was impressive, whatever Abhishek missed is not entirely his fault.
In this battle of the Bull vs the Scam, we discover metaphors that the many cinemas of India could benefit from. Scam.. in this case, is actually the bull, and the ..Bull may be another Bollywood scam.
The Big Bull desperately fits events into established clichés. Thus, a story about ambition begins with a love trope, there’s a romantic song around monuments, the screen is filled with a rainbow of bright colours, the true story is made fictional, and its range and mix of emotions have been done to death in a thousand other films. A hip-hop track tries to hide its flaws because, well, rap is the latest cliché of Bollywood.
The Big Bull is an excellent example of what I call the ‘hatke, magar same-same’ syndrome afflicting Bollywood i.e. desperate attempts to make the familiar, different. Sounds Kafkaesque? It is. To use a cliché, it is trying too hard to fit a square story keg into a round Bollywood hole.
Scam 1992, on the other hand, is bold, brash, and brave. It names names, it shames names (even current market big Rakesh Jhunjhunwala – allegedly a bear then – has been called Rakesh in an unflattering portrayal). The establishing emotion is unbridled ambition. Its colour palette is slightly sepia-toned and is shot deliciously across Mumbai from its ancient cobbled streets to actual Irani cafes. Even the Times of India (ToI) office looks a lot like how I remember it from the mid-90s.
And as someone born and raised in Gujarat, the Gujarati in the film and the way it’s effortlessly mixed with Hindi is unlike any I have seen. How do the makers achieve this feat? First, they hire great dialogue writers, have a Gujarati director (duh?), and most importantly: they hire actors from a particular region to play roles belonging to that region. Thus a Tamil character is played by one, Parsi by a Parsi, and almost all Gujarati roles are played by Gujarati actors making full use of the exquisite variety of talented Gujarati actors available in Mumbai.
And the crowning glory of the series, though invisible, are its writers. Having myself struggled with trying to extract drama from tepid history in my screenplays, I can only imagine how hard the writer's room struggled with the material at hand. Yet, the story beats they manage to pull off, is nothing short of magic and best of all, easy enough even for a non-financial person to enjoy the serving.
Scam 1992 also pits a triangular contest – between Harshad and the cartel he upends, and a journalist Sucheta Dalal from ToI who not only exposed what till then was India’s greatest scam but also paved the way for what financial investigative journalism should be like.
Compare this to the character of Sucheta in The Big Bull where she is sexed-up, as if how a woman looks is the only attractive feature in her. Having met Sucheta a few times, I can tell you that though Scam 1992 may not have got her mannerisms exact, they do full justice to the indomitable spirit of a woman who even after 3 decades of exposing many other high profile financial scams (Enron scam, the Industrial Development Bank of India scam, Ketan Parekh scam etc.), has not stopped fighting injustice in the system and whose own life and activism could become a multi-part series in itself.
Scam 1992 also busts a recent Bollywood web-series myth: that you need sex, violence, and expletives to hold attention in a series. A good story told well can make a great series or film, is the message.
Having said all this, I know how Bollywood works. Hence, I cannot entirely blame the team that made The Big Bull. If given a free hand I know they could have come up with something better than Scam 1992. But that’s the root of the problem: they are not free. Bollywood is mostly a system of filmmaking that ties the limbs of its creative folks and asks them to run a marathon.
Why you’d ask, is Bollywood this way? The answer lies in its perception of the average Indian viewer. Anyone who has dealt with Bollywood producers and heard endless gyan about what the Indian cinema viewer wants would think of him/her as a 5-year-old toddler with the mental faculties of a 2-year-old. But are you, dear reader of this piece and a movie-buff, that?
India has been a nation that jumps the queue. Computers and the internet came late but within a few years, we became the digital back office of most of the world. The rock-bottom prices of both the device and mobile internet, especially since the launch of Reliance Jio in 2016, has meant that the moving images of the whole world are at the fingertips of the audiences. And that has changed tastes dramatically. Today an alleged gaon ka gawar is not so gawar anymore because he may not understand a foreign language, but he does appreciate good visual language. And if foreign films are dubbed, as most have smartly begun doing, he’ll lap it up. My 17-year-old niece’s favourite films are neither Hindi nor English. She hungrily devours dubbed Tamil films on TV at her home in Guwahati.
With this viewing revolution, the filmmaking grammar that people watch and appreciate has also grown. Yes, you can argue that the serials on popular channels are as insipid as ever. That’s because the five days a week format is anathema for creativity. When Zee TV introduced Pakistani and Turkish series, they were a smash hit. Take the queen of terrible soaps – Ekta Kapoor. Whatever she might make for TV, when it comes to her web-platform Alt-Balaji, there’s some extremely good content there – including another series Hansal Mehta was part of as an executive producer: Bose: Dead or Alive.
In politics, parties like the BJP that have seen the changing dynamics brought about by mobile phones and cheap internet, have reaped huge rewards. Even investment itself – the subject of both ..Bull and Scam.. – have gone mobile with apps like Zerodha, Share Khan, Religare Dynami etc. creating an increasing base of retail investors. A tribal in the deep interiors of Manipur gets fashion cues at the same time as a teen in Mumbai or New York and often dresses – at times designing and stitching her own clothes - better than her global, urban counterparts.
Yet most of Bollywood seems to be completely blind to the changing direction of the viewership wind. They can take a leaf out of Hollywood. The story goes that director Doug Liman wanted to direct a James Bond film but knew an indie filmmaker won’t be allowed to direct such a popular franchisee, so he made the gritty Bourne Identity instead. Casino Royale, when it came 4 years later, surprisingly abandoned its neither-stirred-nor-shaken action scenes, and copied Bourne series’ grit and grime action wholeheartedly.
There is a global homogenization of visuals going on, thanks to the democratization of shooting and editing unleashed by the digital age. That much is known. What isn’t recognised often, is that there’s also a refinement of the way a story is told and shot. Unlike her father, that Manipuri teenager will like a well-made play, series and film without really knowing why.
The reason is that her education into the grammar of storytelling began as a toddler when she first held the smartphone and saw something made well (perhaps commercial Korean films and series which are popular in the region for their excellent quality). Today she goes ‘meh’ on The Big Bull but ‘not bad’ on Scam 1992, again not knowing why.
But it is the job of the many commercial Indian film industries to know. The science and art of storytelling have evolved over the world and the gatekeepers in India are sitting over their dwindling treasures like an attack serpent, ironically like the villains in both Scam 1992 and The Big Bull. A change has to come before Bollywood itself is relegated to a forgotten scam, before the other cinemas of the world uproot it forever.
Same 1992 raises the bar high for Indian content. Though The Big Bull came later, it looks like an antique from the past that Indians are abandoning quicker than investors sell stocks in a market crash.
100 years ago everyone drove Ford T model cars. Today you’ll laugh if someone drives it outside a vintage rally because there are many better cars to choose from and the best yet, the (Elon) Musk-melon called Tesla, is on the way to India. Bollywood continues to make films that look like driving a Ford T in the age of Tesla. It’s about time they caught up with a better car or at the very least, change the engine. Even the talented Mr. Bachchan would thank Bollywood for doing so.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)