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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Before Aparshakti Khurana’s Helmet, a look at Bollywood’s ishq with risque

A lot of these family entertainers centered around taboo topics star Ayushmann Khurrana in the lead role. But with him out of the picture, can you think of films that have done even half-a-decent job of portraying sensitive subjects on-screen whilst keeping the audience entertained? Turns out, there are a few hidden gems.

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi |
September 3, 2021 10:19:22 am
helmet movie release(From left) Stills from Vicky Donor, and Cheeni Kum. (Photos: Eros Entertainment, Eros International)

Ask any film producer and they will tell you that ‘family audience’ is the key that opens the lock to a blockbuster. Any film that is accepted by them is a certified hit. So, when it comes to mainstream masala that has a lot of money riding on them, makers tread cautiously. Risque subjects, the dreaded s-word (sex, of course) and anything that can scare away their prized family audiences is a no-no.

No surprise then that films that do justice to sensitive topics are rare in Hindi cinema. In case they do take up these topics, they end up lampooning the same (here is looking at you Dostana). It is rare that good intent meets good cinema and we get to see films that are not only entertaining but educating.

badhaai ho A poster of Badhaai Ho. (Photo: AA Films)

If we enter this arena of social entertainers that are not afraid of going risque, you will find that a lot of them star Ayushmann Khurrana. Be it the 2012 Shoojit Sircar movie Vicky Donor (sperm donation), or the more recent releases like Badhaai Ho (middle-aged pregnancy) and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (gay love). Fair to say that the actor has more than done his social service delivered via hits. But besides those features, can you think of any film that has even done half-a-decent job of portraying sensitive subjects on-screen? Turns out, there are a few hidden gems. The risque factor, if you look at a couple of them now, might seem negligible. But it was very well there at the time they were released. Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu-starrer Cheeni Kum on mature romance, and Preity Zinta-Saif Ali Khan film Salaam Namaste on live-in relationships and an unannounced pregnancy comes to mind.

While Siddharth Anand directorial Salaam Namaste released in 2005, Cheeni Kum came two years later (helmed by R Balki). It was the mid-noughties, discussing live-in relationships and romantic relationships with a considerable age gap between the pair was indeed both risque and a risk. Risque, because those were different times, and a risk because taking such big stars and making a film on taboo topics meant you were putting your neck out there — what if the audience did not like it? what about the returns at the box office? And what about the star’s reputation itself? If this one failed to strike a chord, would families flock to theatres come their next release too? The audience can be fickle.

It is not that Salaam Namaste embodied the perfect depiction of young love, or that it got all its nuances right, but what was refreshing to see at that time was the willingness of makers to take that issue head-on. Some parts of it were a bit unrealistic, but both Saif and Preity tried to carry out their roles with honesty and enthusiasm, which is a lot more that can be said about a film based more or less on the same premise — Luka Chuppi. The whole thing was a slapdash attempt at a risque family entertainer. And as far as Cheeni Kum is concerned, this was another film that would raise eyebrows if it released today. A romantic pairing with a 30-year age difference between them would become hot topic of discussion even today, especially if a person walked into their family with such a partner. Imagine this scenario more than a decade ago then? To take up this topic, deliver it with finesse and package it like a family entertainer is an art that not many filmmakers possess.

Cheeni Kum revolved around a 64-year-old arrogant chef (a superb Amitabh Bachchan) and a 34-year-old charismatic Nina (a flawless Tabu, as usual) who cross paths at the former’s restaurant and end up falling for each other. What marred those delightful performances was that cliched end. But hey, full marks for trying something challenging!

Then we quickly fast-forward to Vicky Donor, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Bollywood debut, that broke many moulds as it spoke openly about sperm donation. The film was a critical and commercial success, and launched both Yami Gautam and Ayushmann’s wonderful innings in the industry. Since then, Ayushmann has been unstoppable — from a movie on erectile dysfunction to same-sex romance, and the issue of late parentage, there is very little the actor has not done in this space.

Other examples include the Sonakshi Sinha film Khandani Shafakhana and Rajkummar Rao-Mouni Roy’s Made in China, one based on running a fertility clinic and the other on selling a suspicious-sounding aphrodisiac. Though not the greatest examples of sensitivity on-screen, they get some points for at least trying. However, when taking up such projects, what the makers should also remember is that there is no ‘formula’ for converting issue-based movies into successful family entertainers. It is a tough terrain to navigate, and one you should proceed with caution, or you might end up making a fool of the cause and yourself in the process.

Here’s hoping the latest Aparshakti Khurana film Helmet doesn’t follow suit.

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