This was the year of the sleeper hit in Bollywood, when the films people didn't expect to make it became the biggest hits of all. The three big Khans (Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir) failed to make an impact at the box office, and smaller stars such as Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal and Kartik Aaryan emerged victorious via Andhadhun, Sanju and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety.
With so many entertainment options now available to the Indian audience – international films, Netflix and Amazon, to name a few – the Hindi film industry is growing up. The standard masala formula – featuring a mix of song, dance, slapstick humour, drama, action and romance, without much logic – proved less popular in box office terms, though it would be inaccurate to say it didn't work altogether. An example of the genre's success is February's Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, which proved to be a big hit despite a relatively up-and-coming cast.
Another masala film that did well was Veere Di Wedding, but this film was unlike past Salman- or Shah Rukh-driven hits. In an industry first, it was a movie carried totally by its four female leads – and it earned big bucks at the box office, shattering the belief that only having a strong male lead can bring in business. Unfortunately, however, it simply wasn't a very good film.
But two others featuring female protagonists also proved to be big hits, and excellent pieces of filmmaking. Raazi, which was shot on a modest budget by female director Meghna Gulzar, stars Alia Bhatt as an Indian spy who marries a Pakistani army officer during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Not only did the film boast fantastic performances by Bhatt and Kaushal, it also made almost two billion rupees (Dh104.7 million) at the box office – about the same takings as the huge-budget Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan film Thugs of Hindostan.
Meanwhile, the Shraddha Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao film Stree, a horror-comedy about a female ghost who abducts men at night – and, as it turns out, just wanted some respect – was a winner as well. These successes will hopefully encourage directors to tell more female-led stories, which has been considered a niche art in Indian cinema in the past.
Sure, some big-budget films also reeled in numbers – Padmaavat, Dhadak, Padman, Sanju and Sui Dhaaga for example – but these wins weren't due to star power alone. The political controversy surrounding Padmaavat drove audiences to cinemas to see what the fuss was all about; Dhadak, which came out soon after actress Sridevi's death, was her daughter Janhvi Kapoor's first film; Padman, was based on a true rags-to-riches story; Sanju was director Rajkumar Hirani's take on his friend and controversial actor Sanjay Dutt's life, which intrigues almost everyone in India; and Sui Dhaaga saw Anushka Sharma and Varun Dhawan take on the role of poor artisans struggling to make their mark, making it incredibly relatable.
It was truly the slice-of-life, "real people" films that touched a nerve. Khurrana's Andhadhun, a black comedy thriller about a blind man who witnesses a crime and Badhaai Ho, a drama about a middle-class twenty-something guy whose mother becomes pregnant – were both made on modest budgets, and their success proved that big bucks don't necessarily spell success. They both boasted strong storylines, stellar performances and, at around the two-hour mark, were much shorter than classic Bollywood films.
In the past, lower-budget and edgier films didn't make a splash in Bollywood – they were just a little drop in the big-budget, song-and-dance masala film-dominated ocean. But, as we look at the top films of the year, we see that audiences are demanding more story-driven, smarter films.
This all comes down to access and options: 36 per cent of Indians now have a smartphone on which they can choose to watch any clip they want, whenever they want to; and there are now multiple streaming services – from Eros Now to Hotstar and Netflix – on which marketing budgets matter less than quality of story. A huge number of young, savvy, 'digital native' Indians would now rather binge watch a quality show than waste their time on a film that revolves almost entirely around a few item songs.
With a number of exciting releases due out next year, such as Mental Hai Kya, Gully Boy and The Sky is Pink, set to deal with mental health, poverty and death, is it finally safe to assume that Bollywood's days of shamelessly copying Hollywood flicks is over? Will more stories by Indians, about Indians, that are relatable get their time to shine on the big screen? Here's hoping!