Is a social message key to a box office hit?

The success of 'Toilet - Ek Prem Katha' has got the industry discussing social issues and wondering whether social issues are the driving force behind successful films. Films like 'Toilet', 'Hindi Medium' and 'Lipstick Under My Burkha' have all catered to a slightly different audience but the underlying social relevance of the films has not been missed by movie-goers, critics and indeed the trade. The immediate future also sees films tackle subjects like erectile dysfunction and sanitary napkins in an Indian context so does a social message in a film spell box office gold?

In my opinion commercial Hindi films have always tackled social subjects. Bimal Roy's films in the 60's handled them with great sensitivity. In the late 60's 'Aradhana' handled the subject of widowed women which was a huge success and that issue was tackled again by Raj Kapoor in 'Prem Rog' albeit with child widows. It too, was a super hit film. Even the so called potboiler period spawned films like 'Amar Akbar Anthony' which talked about secularity in India and this is often repeated in films like 'Naseeb' as well as many others. The potboiler period may not have had the over arching sensitivity of more socially relevant films but the social angle was always there and at times, was strongly highlighted.

Indian films are about social context. The social context has changed as India has changed. Social ills and issues that existed in the 60's and 70's may not be those social problems that are ingrained into society today. Society is not static. It's dynamic and it makes perfect sense that filmmakers change their film stories to incorporate current social issues as their predecessors did to great success in the previous decades. Audiences will always embrace a socially relevant subject. The history of cinema is testament to this fact. Something that has great resonance with the audience is something that can trigger empathy for characters and make their journey's all the more valuable to see.

The advent of social media and 24 hour news has also made information about social problems more widespread. Savvy producers can use this to help build interest in the audience for the subject so that there is a greater understanding in the public beforehand. This has been done with great success in films like 'Dangal' whereby people were made aware of the protagonist and his family well in advance. They knew the battles they were going to fight and therefore stood by them when that unfolded on screen. 'Dangal' is a film with a social message. So are many others which have been big hits - '3 Idiots' on the education system, 'Vicky Donor' on sperm donation, 'Piku' on taking care of our parents despite their ailing health however difficult and 'Kapoor and Sons' on the dis-function of a modern family. All have used the media to help educate audiences in advance which has paid rich dividends for the filmmakers.

So is it a magic wand? The answer is of course no. A good film still has to be made. For every film that is a roaring success on social issues, there are many others which fail. Audiences still need a filmmaker to engage them. They can't be cheaply bought over by something that is a relevant issue in our society. It's something that they see and read 24*7. It's only when that issue is combined with entertainment and emotion that it establishes resonance and empathy with people who will then be engrossed in the unfolding of the characters and the story. Finding a social issue isn't a pot of gold. Making a good film will always be that and that is what filmmakers must strive for first and always.