Comment: Have Indian audiences become insensitive to sentimental stories like Chhapaak?

#BoycottChhapaak calls notwithstanding, Indian audiences largely stay away from watching a tragedy film

Deepika Padukone in Chhapaak [2020]

By Mayur Lookhar

Numbers don’t lie.  Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak [2020] is struggling at the box office.  After five days, its domestic box office collection stands at a meager Rs22.5 crore nett, as reported by BoxofficeIndia.com. With an estimated budget of Rs45 crore, Chhapaak faces a huge task to break even. With competitor film Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior [2020] bagging Rs88.50 crore nett in the same period, the task is cut out for Chhapaak to grow much.

Chhapaak received mixed reviews, and there is no denying that are cinematic flaws, but the poor show is being cheered by those who had called for the film to be boycotted after Deepika Padukone met with Jawarhal Nehru University Students’ Union president Aishe Ghosh.  The film’s poor opening [Rs4.75 crore nett] saw #DeepikaPRBackfires trend.  With the film failing to lift much over the next four days, many trolls reckon that the nationalist junta had adhered to its #BoycottChhapaak call.

Did Padukone’s visit to JNU scupper her film’s prospects? Well, save for personal opinions, there is no real mechanism to measure whether that influenced audience choice.  Well, the audience did have a choice in the form of a more entertaining film Tanhaji.  The latter had much more screens [3880] but Chhapaak, too, had a decent 1000-1200 screens.

Perhaps it would be easy to pinpoint Padukone’s JNU visit as the reason for audience snubbing Chhapaak.  Leave aside all controversies, competition and open your eyes to the fact that here is another tragic story not getting enough eyeballs.  A film that is based on acid attack victim and social activist Laxmi Agarwal, should ideally be drawing empathy from civil society, but the low turnout in theaters begs the question, have we become insensitive to sentimental stories?

While it is expected of trolls, especially paid ones, but it is worrying when people in position of authority mock the film using text like ‘audience throw acid on Chhapaak’. 

If one looks in recent history, Chhapaak isn’t the lone tragic story to not get adequate eyeballs.  Director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink [2019] was based on the life of the late motivational speaker Aisha and her parents Nirav and Aditi Chaudhary. The family lost a baby girl and then later Aisha passed away at 18.   Co-produced by Priyanka Chopra, Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur,  The Sky is Pink had a decent 1100 screens, but it sadly made just Rs20 crore nett in domestic business.  Priyanka Chopra’s global appeal, too, took a hit as the film only grossed Rs10 crore overseas.

While the film had its flaws, but it wasn’t a ‘cry by bucket’ film as many desi reviewers called it.  Aisha’s short life was largely spent battling sickness, but the film portrayed her as a lively character.  As opposed to the usual tropes where there is lot of emotional drama surrounding a death, Aisha [Zaira Wasim] just passes away in a jiffy.   There’s no melodrama to Aisha’s death but the film urged the viewers to be spirited like her. 

Each reviewer has his/her own perspective, but one was shocked when a flop actor, self-styled critic condemned the film, berating the Chaudharys as high society people who want their daughter to have sex before she dies.  Imagine this YouTuber has a sizable following and what picture s/he painted of the film to his/her 400k plus subscribers. How insensitive one can be.

Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl’s Mukti Bhawan [2016] was critically acclaimed but barely got enough screens.  The film told the story of a dying man [Behl] and his last days spent at Mukti Bhawan ashram. Your reviewer was reminded of an insensitive comment by a young entertainment journalist in a Whats App media group.  It still rankles me when the journalist termed Mukti Bhawan as a sleep-inducing coma.  To think that this scribe now works for a top tabloid, only highlights the state of entertainment journalism.

If there is one crime that disturbed us the most, it is rape.  As we write, news comes in that the convicted rapists of Nirbhaya may not be hanged on 22 January as one convict has filed a mercy plea. Well, Indian laws, judiciary that can be debated another day, but how has Bollywood fared with its avenging rape stories?

Rani Mukherji in Mardaani 2 [2019]

Films like Mardaani 2 [2019], Mom [2017] dealt with the subject  Both fetched around Rs50 crore nett.  The respective producers claim it to be a success. Well, we take their word, but both these films had fairly wide releases, and given the severity of the issue, you do question why didn’t the audience come out in large numbers to support these films?

There is exception here in Rohit Shetty’s Simmba [2018] that amassed close to Rs240 crore nett. 

It can be easily presumed that Simmba was perhaps a better film than Mom [2017] and Mardaani 2 [2019], but a Ranveer Singh-starrer invariably gets double or triple the screens than the female-led crime dramas.

Rohit Shetty’s Simmba adopted the more conventional over-the-top approach. The unabating sexual crimes trigger public anger. A Simmba reflected this frustration, call for swift justice.   Shetty and Singh should be respected for Simmba, but why doesn’t this anger, sense of justice attract many to a Mom or Mardaani 2? 

It’s an individual’s choice to stay away from a Mom, The Sky is Pink or Chhapaak, but it belies sanity when people give a huge thumbs up to misogynistic, regressive films like Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety [2018], Kabir Singh [2019]. 

Well, we don’t want to trigger feminist talk here.  Quite frankly, this reviewer, too, is not too fond of the feminazis. But how have our modern women empowerment films fared?  A fake feminist story like Veere Di Wedding [2018] bags Rs80 crore nett but a more pertinent film like Saand Ki Aankh [2019] only limps to Rs 23 crore nett.  A Pink [2016[ was a commercial success. It attacked chauvinism, but was it really a true feminist tale as many critics called it?

Mission Mangal [2019] was an inspirational story led by large female presence. But you wonder if there was no Akshay Kumar, then would it still have crossed Rs 200 crore nett? 

Truth be told, female-led films always face a daunting task to score big at the box office.  Not that the society is largely patriarchal, but many female artistes are also honest about their box office appeal.

But coming back to tragedy films, given the low reception are we to assume that our audience is insensitive?  Well, there was a time when Indian families empathised and cried buckets after watching films likes Mother India [1957] , Anand [1971]. The 90s saw us bring out the tissue to teary family dramas like Swarg [1990], Maa [1991]. The millennium threw up Devdas [2002], Kal Ho Naa Ho [2003].  What is it then that we no longer express solidarity with aggrieved souls?

It doesn’t help when a leading super star uses words like ‘not even dogs came to see’ his 1996 film [Khamoshi – The Musical]. Besides, who can forget the insensitive ‘it felt like rape’ remark.

It’s not right to dictate these stars to stop making mindless entertainers, but such comments , even though these stars don’t mean it, send a wrong message in the digital age.

It would be a bold statement to conclude that cinephiles have become insensitive. Before laying fingers, most filmmakers, actors should do a self introspection of their work. The films that don’t work perhaps lacked something. An overdose of tragedy, feminist tales can also dissuade audiences from watching similar content. Bollywood has a history of herd mentality. If one story clicks, then other filmmakers, too, tap into a tragedy. India continues to suffer from rape, and so it’s natural for cinema to show the mirror, but barring a Mom [2017] and to a certain extent Mardaani 2, the other Hindi films that dealt with sexual crimes lacked quality.

While Bollywood needs to introspect the way it tells emotional, sad stories, but the society, too, needs to look within. We live in times, where emotions often run high. The prevalent socio-politico scenario often leads to a Left v/s Right slanderous debate in media. Difference of opinion is deemed as dissent and the war of words begins on social media. Somewhere, this antagonistic attitude has crushed the value of empathy. One may not agree with a ideology, but what does it speak of us as a race when many laugh over visuals of a severely wounded Aishe Ghosh?

Affordability is always a concern, and that has seen audience being very pricky about their films. Far too long have we snubbed sentimental tales citing that cinema is meant to be a tool of escapism, entertainment. Cinema is there to entertain, but God forbid, if you or a dear one faces a tragedy, will you be still taking the escapist route?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s