CHENNAI: One of the many joys of watching a movie in a packed theatre, at a time when OTT platforms pose a serious threat to the movie-going experience fuelled by successive pandemic-related lockdowns, is observing how others react to the film. Often, this spontaneous audience reaction becomes a part of the movie experience when you realize you’re not the only one who wants to stand up on the chair and hoot after a brilliant scene. More so, when it comes from totally unexpected quarters.
Watching the last show of Kamal Hassan’s Vikram directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj at a crowded city multiplex late on a weekday night with a senior colleague provided this scribe with several such moments. Almost two hours into the action-packed drama, when most films are either rolling end credits or grinding towards an insipid, predictable climax, there is a scene in Vikram when an unostentatious housemaid in the house of the protagonist, which is under attack from the bad guys, suddenly transforms into a swashbuckling super spy Agent Tina. Along with a majority of the audience, this senior colleague known for subtlety, suddenly started howling for a few seconds.
With the debate on whether south Indian action blockbusters have completely taken over Bollywood remaining alive with the nationwide success of several such high budget action movies like KGF 1 & 2, Pushpa etc. and now Vikram, the crucial question of what makes such action genre films click so regularly of late despite stiff competition from the likes of Tom Cruz’s Top Gun: Maverick is worth some thought. While the action-packed films have existed since the very beginnings of the celluloid era in India with mega stars of the 70s and 80s like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra in Bollywood and Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, and even Vijayakant here building careers out of it, the new crop of action flicks promise to take the genre to a different level.
The age-old formula for commercial Indian cinema with the screenplay broken into segments with slots for songs, fight sequences, a separate comedy track and some emotional melodrama, irrespective of the genre, has now become a thing of the past and these new age films stick true to the genre as they have been defined - crazy, gory action all the way.
If one were to look at the storylines of most blockbusters during recent times, they are pretty much the same. In Vikram, an super cop ex-secret agent in hibernation returns to active life against a drug lord, who is allegedly the Pablo Escobar of south India. As the plot unfolds, the lead characters suffer more and more and face bigger and bigger challenges until they come face to face in a massive climax in which the hero prevails. Just when you thought the movie was over, a new character arrives and gives a twist.
In KGF series of films, a young man born in the most-humblest of circumstances rises from the ashes to rule Mumbai, then moves to Kolar where he encounters larger than life opponents whom he successfully neutralizes. Pushpa is about an ordinary simpleton in the Red Sanders mafia story-world rising from rock bottom to eventually rule the business. In the process, his stakes and antagonists grow bigger and bigger as the movie progresses only to be neutralized in the end.
Any casual movie lover could lose count of the films they have watched having the same story arch with different settings and another team of actors. So what is it that works in these films now?
Since Aristotle and his Poetics, story tellers and script doctors have tried to refine the basic elements of a good story genre-wise. In his classic book Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert Mckee, considered to a gospel for aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood and elsewhere in the world, the author describes what works in cinema with some of best stories to have graced the silver screen, including Casablanca, Godfather, LA Confidential and Chinatown as reference. According to him, the basic beat that works in any good cinema remains the same and can be learnt. The action genre, always a favourite among the masses, too has its basic structure that works irrespective of the plot or the worlds in which massive clashes between the protagonist and antagonist take place.
Perhaps, it is screenplay writing schools that are to be blamed! However, Kollywood insiders claim that most script writers and story doctors in southern movie industries do not follow any structured formulae nor do they attend courses to study screenwriting. Aspiring screenplay writers follow the traditional practice of training under experienced directors and often follow the styles by watching their mentors. Besides, the huge exposure to international cinema has not just refined the tastes of the audience but also the film fraternity who draw a lot of inspiration from them.
What has probably worked for this kind of high end action-packed cinema, according to them, are best-in-the-industry graphics, planning scenes and dialogues that have a mass appeal, and extensive marketing that commences from the day a film is planned. All these contribute to a hysteria much before release that continues for weeks after release too. Similarly, a handpicked cast and crew that is a medley of various regional movie industries are also a must these days for major blockbusters to penetrate new markets.
Industry veterans also point out the tastes of people continue to change with the evolving social situation in the country or region. For instance, it is a well-known fact that the Great Depression of 1929 in the United States that left millions jobless and out of their homes also paved way for the Golden Era of Hollywood with some of the greatest films of the era made immediately post depression.
In a similar vein, the pandemic could also be a factor behind the phenomenal success of such films as people have remained locked down in their homes and often depressed for the most part of the past two years and seek an escapade when they head to the cinemas now over heart- wrenching drama.
While movies have always been an escapade from reality for most masses, it is possible now that the number of people who just want to get out with their friends and families to watch clean, entertaining cinema hooting and honking for every mass-appeal scene or dialogue.
With the pandemic now largely behind us and people returning to their normal lives, the urge to indulge escapist cinema might also become passe.
A great story, well told always makes for good cinema. And, good cinema has always been a magical experience -- Audience’s reaction to a gripping story unfold on celluloid can never be guessed just as the senior colleague surprised this author when the domestic help transformed into Agent Tina.