Scripts over Stars

The recent failures of large scale-star studded films has left the industry grappling with a number of very valid concerns. Is our content reaching out to the audiences in the appropriate way? Are we spending enough time developing good stories and encouraging good scripts? Are our films too focussed on certain segments of the audience and lastly, something that has been whispered a few times, but is now gradually becoming a full blown debate, are stars still able to hold sway and rise above weak or average content?

The last few months would be a undeniable no to that last question. After the rampaging success of Baahubali 2, the film industry had its eyes opened to what was possible for an Indian film to achieve at the box office. That, coupled with Dangal's stellar run in non-traditional overseas markets, gave the industry a huge high after what was an extremely disappointing 2016. This built expectation of what was to come. Following Bahubali we had big films from some of the biggest stars. Surely the industry was now on course for a home run. Sadly, that home run has pretty much been converted to three strikeouts. Big films, big stars, big directors have all underperformed at the box office and largely because the content has been rejected by the audiences they were meant to target. This has left the industry truly wondering if the unhindered era of star power is truly over.

It's hard to define what a star does for a film. A star and an actor are two different things. Sometimes stars are accused of being acting 'light', but their mere presence on the screen brings a sense of belonging to an audience that is still finding a connection to a story. The star settles them and their persona engages the audience in the ongoing of the narrative. Or so it is believed. Today though the persona of a star is everywhere. Social media, 24X7 TV channels and countless print and digital properties devoted to film has demystified them and made their lives a little less untouchable. This is certainly the case in the bigger cities where people are over exposed to media. Hence perhaps there is an argument to the dilution of a star's brand. But can this alone explain the recent spate of failures?

More realistically this can be explained by a series of poor content choices from actors and directors and perhaps Producers hoping that the addition of a star will help gloss over the scripts shortcomings. This for me must be the single biggest learning to emerge from this period. The days of star power alone saving mediocre content are gone. The audience will no longer accept the presence of a star unless that star is being given their full due and is utilised correctly in the narrative.

The brigade of people enjoying the apparent end of the star system though should also have some caution. Stars, if used correctly, can power off beat cinema to new heights. Look at Piku. Look at Neerja. Look at Finding Fanny. For every Lipstick Under My Burkha, where good actors have driven a good topical film into the public's attention, there is a star vehicle that also hits the bullseye driving a film into the mainstream and mostly driving it more mainstream that one without the star can. That is still the value of a star. It can still drive interest and excitement and if coupled with a strong script, there is no chance of anyone being on the losing side.

The doom and gloom around the industry should only be temporary. There are still plenty of big films to look forward to and they will come thick and fast. If they get their content right, the conversation in a month could be very different. The key is to get the content correct and use the star power they carry to extend that content to as many people as they can. That is what a star can and must do for a film. Make it accessible and get people interested. After that, the film needs to deliver. The star then is just an actor playing a role in the larger landscape of the story. That finally, is what has to click with the majority of the people watching.

Rahul Puri - MD of Mukta Arts Ltd. on behalf of Mukta A2 Cinemas