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Gaiety in Bandra is a 400-seat theatre and part of the 7-screen multiplex - known popularly in Mumbai as G7 - that has been around for many years. Don't let the crumbling edifice and handwritten signs throw you off because even though the canteen sells mostly samosas and nachos haven't yet made an entrance, the theatre remains the most accurate and immediate predictor of a film's popularity. Much before the first-day collections make it to the newspapers, G7 gives you a sense of what is to come, with its 'black' prices and housefull board. It has a long tradition of stars coming (sometimes in disguise ) to gauge true audience reactions.
On January 26, the day Agneepath released, Hrithik Roshan came to Gaiety to see how his film was being received. Such was the frenzy that he had to stand on the roof of his car to span the crowd. Next day, the news broke that Agneepath had grossed the highest opening ever for a Hindi film at Rs 23 crore and was indeed the first hit of the year.
Hrithik's Vijay is the angry, brooding hero, though not given to spouting lengthy dialogues like Amitabh Bachchan did in the original film in 1990. He looks tired but strong. Also this Vijay gets hit and hits back in almost equal proportion. The difference doesn't stop there. In the original Agneepath, a white-suited Amitabh Bachchan calmly sits in front of Police Commissioner Gaitonde and says, "Pura naam, Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, baap ka naam, Dinanath Chauhan, maa ka naam, Suhasini Chauhan, gaon Mandwa, umar chathis saal. " Hrithik's Vijay, on the other hand, delivers an abbreviated version of the line while he is furiously stabbing an old enemy. The fist, it would seem, is speaking more for Vijay than the words.
Watching Agneepath at Gaiety is a heady experience. The entire theatre shouts and whistles every time Hrithik/Vijay Dinanath Chauhan lands a blow or fires a shot and even Chikni Chameli's pelvic thrusts can't dim the fervour for Vijay or the villain, Kancha. The arrival of this Agneepath, unlike its cult original, has been timed well. Questions of artistic merit aside, it also has the advantage of being at the right place at the right time because action films have staged a spirited comeback in Bollywood.
The first indication of this came in 2008, when Aamir Khan aggressively growled and smashed his way to the box office milestone of Rs 100 crore with Ghajini. Today, of the nine films that have grossed over Rs 100 crore (net) in India, six belong firmly to the action genre (Dabangg, Ready, Bodyguard, Singham and Don 2 are the other action biggies ) and if the box office trend holds, Agneepath could well be the tenth (as of January 30, it had totalled Rs 67. 5 crore).
Every film that enters the Rs 100-crore club cannot automatically claim to have captured a sense of the cultural zeitgeist but sometimes the iconic and the superhit merge to reveal a pattern. Agneepath, Singham, Dabangg and Ghajini seem to have breached the ennui that the metrosexual-romantic themes now evoke in audiences. There is the looming sense that the hypermasculine hero is back.
Hindi cinema, for all its escapist glory, has never existed in a vacuum. The continuing success of action films with their larger than life, muscle-bound heroes could also be rooted in what our country and the world is experiencing. Raj Kapoor's na?ve tramp, Dilip Kumar's Nehruvian characters and Amitabh Bachchan's angry Vijay have all, at different times, embodied the prevailing spirit of the nation.
In 2004, when the Congress election campaign asked, "Aam aadmi ko kya mila?" and won that round, the general consensus was that the campaign struck a chord in a large section of Indians who live outside the metros and felt ignored by BJP's 'India Shining' campaign. Hindi cinema too felt the aam-aadmi reverberations. More mainstream films started telling India specific stories - Rang De Basanti, Lagey Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots for instance. Today, there is a resurgence of this disenchantment with both the political and financial establishment. And it is time, again, for the macho hero to flex his muscles.
So, is it time to bid farewell to Raj of DDLJ and welcome Vijay back? This Vijay of 2012 is morally conflicted and has shades of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns which have long defined American individualism. As Eric Patterson, scholar in American cultural studies, puts it: "Eastwood has become and remained the most popular actor in America because of his persistent theme of rebellion against an established authority which deprive the individual of autonomy. " As Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, he succinctly summed up his philosophy on violence as, "Nothing is wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot. "
But because this is Bollywood, the creative pillars of the action genre haven't changed much. There is the mother or girlfriend in peril. The hero still slowly wipes the blood after he is punched in the face by the villain. The dialogues are still crafted so they can be repeated on the streets by fans. Tough times, it seems, call for larger-than-life heroes and thrills. Who knows the larger-thanlife syntax better than Bollywood?
The return of brawn is good news for action actors who had to turn to comedies to stay relevant at the box office. Ajay Devgn, for example, made his debut in Phool Aur Kaante memorably by entering the frame straddling two moving motorcycles. He returned to the genre as Inspector Bajirao Singham spouting the line: "Jisme hai dam. Toh fakta Bajirao Singham. (Bajirao Singham is the only man with any gumption). "
Akshay Kumar, known to be an action junkie, had taken to comdies in a big way and delivered hits like Singh is Kinng, Namastey London and Housefull. But his recent comedy releases like Tees Maar Khan and Thank You fared poorly at the box office. His next release is the Prabhudeva's Rowdy Rathore, remake of a Telugu film. In a recent interview to TOI he said: "I want to get back into the action space. I haven't done one in the last few years, and I have been missing doing stunts and I am itching to get back to it. I want to do fight scenes, chase scenes, crashes, jumps and kicks. " Fittingly then Rowdy Rathore has Akshay in a double role. Hand-painted teaser posters of the film carry the slogan: "Faulad Ki Aulad".
The mard, it seems, is back.
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