NEW DELHI (AP) — Bollywood has made a financial comeback this year worthy of one of its traditional singing-on-top-of-the-hills moments.
India’s Hindi language movie industry made an impressive recovery after a pandemic-driven slowdown, audience fatigue with big studio productions and Bollywood megastars, and streaming platforms taking away a large chunk of viewership.
According to consultancy firm Ormax Media, the cumulative box office in 2023 pulled in $1.3 billion, making it one of the best-grossing years of all time.
Indian moviegoers — both the masses and niche film lovers — are back in theaters and the massive commercial success of big-ticket Bollywood films has set at ease fears that Mumbai’s glitzy dream factory was losing its shine.
As one of the largest film producers in the world, India rolls out more than 1,500 movies yearly, its diverse storytelling traditions reflected in its prolific cinematic entertainers.
The films that made the cut this year were a mixed bag of visual delights. Some portrayed the classic Bollywood larger-than-life spectacles, others were action-filled spy thrillers with top-billing movie stars. Many included stylized special effects, slickly choreographed romantic songs filmed in stunning locales, and pulsating music that had fans cheering and dancing in cinema halls.
More than anything, the year belonged to India’s beloved superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, whose son was jailed amid controversy in a narcotics case in 2021 and subsequently cleared of the charges. Khan’s global fandom welcomed him back like never before, with his movies pumping the box office numbers.
The year began with his movie “Pathaan,” which made more than $100 million worldwide, according to The Numbers website. Then came “Jawan,” which raked in nearly $136 million worldwide. And the year is ending with yet another, titled “Dunki.”
“Very grateful to all the people around the world who have given me soooo much love as an entertainer,” Khan recently posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
“This year Shah Rukh Khan has almost single-handedly revived cinema, very similar to what Tom Cruise did in Hollywood with his ‘ Top Gun ‘” last year, said Nikhil Taneja, co-founder of the youth-centered media organization Yuvaa and host of the popular YouTube show, “Be A Man, Yaar.”
Other blockbusters of the year include the heavily criticized “Animal” featuring actor Ranbir Kapoor, “Gadar 2” with actor Sunny Deol, and Salman Khan’s “Tiger 3.”
It was also a year when hyper-masculinity overwhelmed Bollywood, often wrapped in misogyny and aggressive nationalism.
Angry young men have always been a staple of Indian movies but the excessive, fantasized screen violence this year took it to another level. Almost all 2023 Bollywood hits were filled with anger and violence, and led by alpha male protagonists with rippling muscles and blazing guns brandished on screen as they went on a bone-crunching rampage to vanquish their enemies.
Even Shah Rukh Khan, known as the king of romance, embraced the gun and gore while playing a spy fighting a militant outfit in “Pathaan” and a vigilante battling institutional injustices in “Jawan.”
While Khan’s soft machismo remained nurturing and women-friendly even in his action flicks, many critics slammed the superhit movie “Animal” directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga for glorifying the toxic masculinity and misogyny of its twisted leading man. The film is moving toward a $100-million run at box offices worldwide, its production company, Bhadrakali Pictures, said.
“Violent men do exist in the real world and a violent man can certainly be the central character in a film — the issue here, as always, is the manner of the portrayal, the script’s indulgence towards him, the humour and coolth written into his fictional character, and the various means used to give him an allure despite his violent ways,” film critic and author Anna MM Vetticad wrote in a blog post.
India has the world’s largest young population, who also make up the majority of movie watchers. In a country where movie stars have a cult-like following, and movies reflect as well as shape mass behavior, making dehumanizing violence and casual sexism aspirational can be damaging, observers said.
The country’s National Crime Records Bureau reported more than 445,000 cases of crimes against women in 2022, an increase of 4%. “Cruelty by Husband or Relatives” accounted for more than 31% of such crimes, the report said.
“Today what we see is the detachment of violence from emotional purpose,” in the movies, wrote social commentator Santosh Desai in the Times of India newspaper. “Given that politically, there is great comfort with maintaining more traditional gender roles, this emphatic assertion of masculinity might take us back in time.”
Taneja, the Yuvaa organization co-founder, has been holding roadshows to reach out to young Indians about what he calls “positive masculinity.” He said some films “feed into every single bias” of the viewer, whether it was misogyny or a villain of a different religion.
“When they see such films, they can relate to what they see in their homes where their fathers are misogynistic. They are patriarchal to their mothers. They see a certain kind of gender imbalance and they start believing it,” he said.
However, other successful films this year showcased a less angry, more accommodative masculinity, said Taneja.
Karan Johar’s “Rocky aur Rani kii Prem Kahaani,” or “Rocky and Rani’s love story,” won praise from most critics for its gender politics and for challenging male stereotypes and prejudices. The film went on to make nearly $45 million at box offices worldwide, according to the Bollywood Hungama website.
The answer lies in steering the public discourse away from movies that “aim to provoke only for the act of triggering,” toward those that espouse other versions of modern Indian masculinity, Taneja said. “We need to have more conversations about the alternates — positive, empathetic and gentle masculinity — and push them more.”