Like the character of Uday Shetty in Welcome, the critic needs to ‘control’ himself while reviewing this film. Try and not lash out, not completely trash this film for its poor sensibilities, uninspired direction, and regressive outlook. Because the fact of the matter is that Welcome rouses masses, leaves them satisfied, and is easily going to be the biggest hits of the year. So what yardstick does one use? Should this review deter readers from the film based on a vague understanding of what cinema should be, or should I ask you to watch this fare that caters to the lowest common denominator – and contributes to creating the image of ‘Bollywood’ as it is in the hinterland, as it is in the west. It’s strange but the Indian film critic is stuck in no man’s land.
The solution is of course that instead of ranting on about poor cinema scoring at the BO, critics need to acknowledge that Indian films are now of two types. The first type is the legacy stuff: films that are made for a pan-Indian audience (if such a thing is even conceivable) – much like Welcome. Actors (even relatively smaller ones) get paid nine figures and all they have to do is sleepwalk their way through their part. There is no ‘acting’ involved. In an insane revelation, at a B-center theater packed with 1100 men hooting for Mallika Sherawat the loudest, all it took was a random (misplaced) shy hands-on-face look from Akshay Kumar for a deafening reaction. Directors like Anees Baazmi know what works with these guys, they turn on audiences with German engineering-like precision while the more sophisticated directors concentrate on trying to create a cinematic masterpiece that talks the language of cinema (rather than of the audience) to communicate to a pan-cinema audience.
These ‘sophisticated’ directors helm the second type of Indian films in production today: the erstwhile crossover/multiplex films. You remember the crossovers don’t you? Films that were made for global audiences; Indian filmmakers soon realized that the global audience wasn’t so forthcoming afterall. Even sub $1 million films were struggling to break even, while the Salman and Shahrukh Khan starrers continued to be the biggest overseas grossers. Then the multiplex revolution exploded locally and crossover films crossed right back over in the garb of multiplex films. At least now any film with a basic advertising/marketing budget was breaking even and with multiplexes still mushrooming (more in B-centers now, having overrun the A’s) there is hope yet for smaller, non-mainstream films. By smaller, I only mean in terms of sheer hoot-power (as in the absence of item numbers and absurd expressions) and not in terms of production value or star power (try Bheja Fry) or content (Chak De, TZP).
Indian films have surely and steadily branched off into two directions and any product trying to stride both will fail. Critics must respect the mainstream, pan-India film and give them their due for entertaining an audience that thrives and needs their 3 hours of weekly flights of fantasy from their wearisome lives. Perhaps they should refrain from critiquing at all in cases such as Welcome (because regardless of the quality, the BO will be on fire) and limit themselves to the India’s latest new wave – one that is larger and more sure-footed in every way than the previous. With the burgeoning populace there is space and money for both branches of Indian cinema.
And as far as Welcome goes, you know what audience you belong to. Take your decision.