Thought Box



by Monojit Lahiri July 24 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 28 secs

Monojit Lahiri investigates to find out if what OTT stars are to Bollywood today, is what European actresses were to Hollywood once upon a time.

The year 2020 triggered a paradigm shift in the way films were made, shown and received by the viewers. We all know about the lockdown effect on the Bollywood blockbusters and superstars, and the effect the STATUE game wreaked on Masala-land. 

Salman Khan, Bollywood’s Most Wanted, with trademark swag and dare did something no production house or star dreamt of doing. He released his ambitious Radhe across several digital platforms and theatres, at home and abroad. While reports everywhere indicated that it probably was the DABANGG dasher's most disappointing release in years, to the critical eye and astute Bollywood observer, didn’t it signal the beginning of the end for the star-system?

Isn’t the unconditional love and support from their fans, across decades, suddenly on tricky ground?  Did the combination of the lockdown (out-of-sight out-of-mind) and enriching OTT fare (vigorous, vibrant, varied) alter perceptions, taste and choice of what is good and what-is-not? Was KBKB an example for Bollywood to pull back and deeply introspect about their traditional, rock-solid affair with stars and content? Did the rising chorus mirror the fact that their moment of truth, litmus test and hour of reckoning had indeed arrived? And finally, didn’t the time come for mainstream Bollywood to unleash its (forever in the dark) brilliant galaxy of actors and celebrate them through powerful, attention-worthy storm-center roles that portray, with passion and purpose, the linear truth, not glamorously inane armpit rhetoric and hysterical posturing dramebaazi?

For some time now, powered by a magnificent mafia of young, new, daring, exciting directors and storytellers, this new lot has served notice that to ring out the old and ring in the new is their agenda. It was never about confronting, challenging or competing with the superstars or the movie moguls. It was about not being slung out as lonely sentries against the gated Bollywood border. About not being perceived as a one-off curiosity without garnering a decent audience base. This they did by clearly defining the difference between the mainstream and their content profile.

Bollywood manufactured movies. OTT makes films. Bollywood sold fantasy and escapism; OTT is into realism with engagement. Bollywood avoided controversy; OTT has embraced it (well almost, until the time that the government has started observing what they are up to)? Bollywood strip-mined genres and made movies out of cookie-cutters, OTT is passionate about expressing personal vision. 

If Bollywood made movies by committees, the OTT product was the result of individual sensibilities. While Bollywood hired directors to do a job, OTT worshipped at the altar of a process that popularized art in intelligent and relatable fashion. While Bollywood went for spectacle, action and special effects, OTT worked on an intimate scale focusing on mise-en-scene. If Bollywood pandered to popular taste, OTT worked without any set audience in mind, only inner calling. If Bollywood products were embedded in a system that cushioned risk, OTT films flew without a safety net. So, basically, the OTT films exist in the huge and available space between the shots of Bollywood movies!

To the evolved lover of both Hollywood & European cinema, the similarities are striking. While the world’s most glamorous movie industry Hollywood, like our Bollywood, was preoccupied with all that is grand and big, offering seductive star dazzle that paralyzed the senses, European films, like OTT, worked with small budgets, outside hierarchies, producing content that was visually and thematically innovative. Harking back to the older times like our present-day powerhouse actors (Neena Gupta, Rasika Duggal, Tisca Chopra, Divya Dutta, Tilottoma Shome, Sahana Goswami and the amazing Konkona Sen Sharma, among others), before Simone Signoret’s Room at the Top, could a head honcho imagine that a middle-aged, plump woman could also be desirable?

Before Jeanne Moreau, the idea of a sexy woman with a small bosom and experience written on her face was unthinkable! Individuality was the key and names like Anouk Aimee, Monica Vitti and gang were names to reckon with. Not typically STAR types, they were womanly in their luminous and unique personalities. Wasn’t American society flexible in allowing women alternatives to traditional role–playing and life-styles? How does one account for discrepancies in cultural association, myths and movie images? Did Americans polarize their women as good or evil? Or in their exuberant lack of introspection did Hollywood caricature and categories, overplay and overdress?

European films didn’t give such easy signals because they broke barriers and silos to reveal themselves as complex creatures containing and combining elements of unpredictability. Audiences thus, saw a range of emotions, not histrionics or performance, and were a riveted party to her fears and fantasies. Nothing stagnated and no one was readable at a glance and yet movies like those compelled us by expanding and sharing the female complex identities, rather than limiting them. 

Sophia Loren was a dazzling example. Had it not been for Two Women, and despite both American and British Academy awards, she would still be wandering about in tattered blouses flashing a tempestuous surface (Boy on a Dolphin, El Cis, Lady L) ignored by the establishment, despite the European made Boccaccio 70, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style, Sunflower, The Priest’s Wife. 

At the end of the day, OTT, like European heroines, presents her like a woman, not a little girl and refuses to surrender to clichés. Since it’s less sugar n’ spice and more fire n’ ice, viewing it could be, for the uninitiated, like undergoing surgery without anesthesia! Its cathartic because it cuts you while it cures, enriches and empowers you, re-focusing on the human viscera, probing the dynamics of women’s relationship with each other (Ajeeb Dastans, Lipstick under my Burkha), giving it a vitality and magic, unknown in mainstream fare.  Their perception, conversation and gestures indicate an intelligence, which star-driven projects can never dream of because introspection without snappy wit or glibness leans heavily on their concept of mass-entertainment and femininity. 

These actors represent anti-box office intellect. They care two hoots for designer clothes, exotic locales or big box-office leading men/directors. Bollywood, like Hollywood, therefore continues to be totally zapped about how to use these amazingly gifted stars just like the sublime Moreau and Liv Ullman were used as “imported products for exotica appeal” in Monte Walsh & 40 Carats.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.