Can 'Brahmastra' Save Bollywood? Why Arthouse Drama 'Return To Dust' Is A Surprise Hit In China
This week I’m looking at two separate box office phenomena – the opening of what is being billed as the Hindi film industry’s biggest ever film, Brahmastra: Part One - Shiva, and whether it can stem the tide of flops that Bollywood has endured this year, and the surprise success of Li Ruijun’s arthouse drama Return To Dust which has grossed $15m and counting at the China box office.
Next week I’m planning to share some research into broader box office recovery in East Asia, but I’m also travelling across Britain and flying to India, which may not go smoothly. It feels strange to be leaving the UK at a time like this. I’m not a royalist, nor do I support some of the institutions she headed, but the Queen conducted herself with dignity and carried out her duties responsibly, which is more than we can say for the feckless government that Britain has had to endure during the pandemic.
1. Can ‘Brahmastra’ Save Bollywood? And Why Have Bollywood Films Been Failing All Year?
Today sees the opening of Brahmastra: Part One - Shiva, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, a film that is reportedly the most expensive Hindi-language film ever made with a budget of $50m (Rs4bn). In comparison, recent Telugu-language hit RRR was reportedly made for more than $70m, and while we can probably take these figures with a pinch of salt, we can also assume these films are not cheap by the Indian film industries’ standards.
Directed by Ayan Mukerji, Brahmastra is produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Star Studios, formerly known as Fox Star Studios, now owned by Disney, which is reportedly spending a ton of money on promotion and global distribution. This is not a guarantee of success – a few weeks ago Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha, underwhelmed at the box office despite having a major star, Aamir Khan, and studio Viacom18 behind it.
Advance ticket sales for Brahmastra were doing well at the time of writing on Thursday evening (Sept 8), but this is also not a guarantee of success, as Bollywood knows only too well that films can spark encouragingly in the run-up to release only to sputter into oblivion a few hours later.
The entire Hindi film industry, however, will be hoping this film has wings after a run of disappointing releases throughout 2022, during which time films from South India, including RRR, K.G.F: Chapter 2 and Vikram, have been tearing up the box office. I wrote an analysis for Deadline at the half year mark, when expectations in Bollywood were high for the second half of 2022, due to what looked like a strong release schedule, coupled with the fact that India’s exhibitors and producers had recently agreed on an eight-week theatrical window for Hindi releases.
Since then, at least three big films – Yash Raj Films’ Shamshera, Viacom18’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Zee Studios’ Raksha Bandhan – have all flopped at the box office. Indian press and industry have gone into overdrive theorising why so many films are failing – perhaps the films are just not very good; maybe the audience is turned off by Bollywood’s nepotism; the films have been hit by boycott campaigns claiming they’re anti-Hindu. Bollywood producers have also speculated that they’ve taken a wrong turn by catering to urban multiplex audiences and ignoring the masses in single screen cinemas in the heartlands of India.
I recently spoke to US-Indian director Tanuj Chopra for Deadline, while he was promoting the second season of Delhi Crime, who theorised that post-pandemic audiences crave reality and not the sugar-coated fantasy of Bollywood films. I thought that’s probably true to an extent – wealthier, globally-connected Indian audiences are probably more interested in hard-hitting HBO-style content – but remembered what another filmmaker, Dibakar Banerjee, told me years ago; that audiences who feel protected by social justice systems quite enjoy being outraged by watching other people suffering miscarriages of justice. But people who feel powerless just want the fantasy.
There again, that might just be my privileged, liberal Westerner’s interpretation of Indian audiences. As Youtuber Mohak Mangal explains in this video, there are many examples to debunk all these theories. Some films with detailed portrayals of social injustice have performed well in single screen cinemas, while others that supposedly cater to small town audiences have flopped. Also some films that were boycotted, such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018), were massive hits despite threats to burn down cinemas and death threats issued against the team.
Mangal puts forward four other theories for the Hindi film industry’s woes – but they basically boil down to the Bollywood star system and the rise of streaming. Bollywood films are recycling the same small pool of actors from the same old dynasties and don’t combine two or three big names to play off each other in the way that Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao were so cleverly paired in RRR. As for the streaming theory – well we’ve seen the damage wrought in other territories by premiering big titles online, or streaming them shortly after theatrical release, as the Hindi film industry did throughout the pandemic. Streaming has also introduced Hindi film audiences to a massive amount of content in other languages: South Indian films, House Of The Dragon, Squid Game, Japanese manga, all available subbed and dubbed with a localised user interface.
As in many other countries, now only the biggest spectacles will be considered worth the price of a cinema ticket, and the bar that a film like RRR has set is ridiculously high. Even if Brahmastra is a hit, few other Hindi movies will be able to reach that mark. That doesn’t mean Hindi mainstream cinema is finished, but it does need to reinvent itself, as streaming may have irreversibly broken the Bollywood spell.
2. Why ‘Return To Dust’ Has Become An Arthouse Hit In China
Realism, and how much audiences want to see of it, is also a question the Chinese film industry will be asking itself following the surprise success of Li Ruijun’s arthouse drama Return To Dust at the local box office.
This past weekend, the film rose to the top of the Chinese box office in its ninth weekend of release, grossing $5.3m (RMB36.2m) over the September 2-4 weekend. At the time of writing on September 8 evening, it had a cumulative gross of $15.4m (RMB107m), an extraordinary feat for a film set against a backdrop of crushing rural poverty. While it didn’t face any major competition last weekend, theatrical consultancy Artisan Gateway suggested its release on streaming platforms may have actually encouraged people to go see it in the cinema.
Set in Gansu province, the film revolves around two middle-aged adults whose families push them into an arranged marriage, clearly regarding them both as a burden, then follows the mutual love and respect that slowly builds between them as they face a life of hardship scratching a living out of the land. It premiered at this year’s Berlin film festival and was later sold by German sales agent M-Appeal to dozens of territories. I saw the film at Udine Far East Film Festival with a group of industry friends who have long-term connections to China – and we left the cinema in tears.
Some sections of the audience have criticised the film for pandering to international film festivals by showing China in a negative light. With some films that’s a valid argument – god knows we’ve seen enough poverty porn in Asia – and you could argue the film is a romanticisation of the ‘noble poor’, so it will be interesting to see how it plays in more cynical Western countries. But there is also something in the total lack of self-pity and silent strength in which these characters face the obstacles in their life that transcends the poverty porn genre.
What’s more surprising, in an era of endless propaganda films, is that Chinese state media also rebuked the criticisms and told the naysayers they’re out of touch – there are people in China who do live like this. The film is not overly political or confrontational, but at a time of such political sensitivity in China, it’s surprising it passed censorship and got released at all. Many other films that have portrayed China in a less than flattering light, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin for example, are either delayed or never get released in Chinese cinemas.
Meanwhile, the naysayers were in the minority – most Chinese audiences who saw the film seem to be deeply moved by it, not for socioeconomic reasons, as an industry friend in Beijing explained to me, but for the spiritual elements. His interpretation is that we’re all traumatised by the pandemic – and the characters in this film face their fate with simple, pure emotions rather than the seething resentment and divisiveness that has characterised the last few years.
Whatever the reasons for the film’s success, it is well deserved, especially in a country that has no specialist distribution circuits or platform releasing. Li Ruijun, who grew up in a Gansu village, went to extremes to capture the reality of that life, demanding that his cast and crew spend an entire year living in a remote town in the province. As this article in Sixth Tone explains, the female lead Hai Qing, who is quite a big star in China, had to move in with her co-star, a non-professional actor, and learn how to work the land. China could do a lot worse than submit this film as its entry for best international feature at the Oscars. It definitely stands a chance of making the shortlist.
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