Why Thugs of Hindostan is such a dud

The superexpensive Bollywood flop shows what happens when marketing becomes more important than the product

‘Thugs Of Hindostan’ released on November 8 in India to mostly negative reviews.

The failure of Thugs of Hindostan, announced as the most expensive Indian film ever, should have Bollywood thinking about its strategies.

By and large, ‘blockbuster strategy’, which is pouring huge amounts of money on a handful of ventures rather than small amounts on a large number, is considered the safer option. That is because films need to provide for marketing and the smaller the film the more disproportionate the marketing budget is likely to be.

This emphasis on marketing may have persuaded producers that the product itself is of little consequence, which accounts for the general lowering of film standards all around. Thugs of Hindostan opened to huge crowds but lost ground very quickly when word of mouth put it out that the film was a dud in every sense.  

Strange though it may seem, there is little evidence that the film industry in India knows what it is doing. The hits are very few but they are so extensively publicised that the public gets the impression that film-making is a highly profitable business. It is known that most producers do not produce more than one or two films and even this money comes from outside the film industry, with real estate and black money largely contributing.

The glamour in the film industry draws this kind of money into it and one-time producers don’t mind losing a bit to find themselves in the company of celebrities for a while. Perhaps this is why. unlike Hollywood, where the how and why of filmmaking has been extensively documented, Bollywood is still only guessing about the ingredients of a successful film. Even in filmmaking families, there is little evidence that knowhow is being passed down.

Thugs of Hindostan was initially announced as an adaptation of Confessions of a Thug by Phillip Meadows Taylor (1839), based on the Thuggee cult in India, in existence for over 500 years. The Thugs were described as murderers and robbers and eliminated by the British when Lord Bentinck was Governor General. The man credited with destroying the cult was William Henry Sleeman and the town of Sleemanabad in Madhya Pradesh was named in his honour. With history being revised in the post-colonial era, the real truth about the Thugs was called into question, especially the notion of ‘criminal tribes’ created by the British, implying that everyone in a tribe could be branded a criminal. Thugs of Hindostan, which is now denying that it has anything to do with Meadows Taylor, appears to have concluded that Thugs were freedom fighters, and embarked upon the project as an exercise in patriotism, anti-colonialism to be precise, though the sentiment died with the Congress era, when it had been kept artificially alive, since the Congress subsists on the mythology around the Freedom Struggle. Confessions of a Thug can perhaps be made into a spectacular Hollywood film (by Ridley Scott), complete with period details pertaining to early 19th century India, but Bollywood operates on completely different principles. In the first place, it is the story that is all-important, one that will deliver a sentiment that touches the right chord and, secondly, the audience craves the familiar rather than novelty. Where international audiences would like to see the Pyramids being built or one of Alexander’s battles, Indian audiences are happy seeing rich Indians spending money in Europe. Despite the advent of digital animation, Indian films have not tried to create convincing historical spectacle. Given these factors, one does not quite understand what drew Bollywood to the Thugs, but, perhaps realising its folly, it tried to make something resembling Pirates of the Caribbean with Meadows Taylor.         

Thugs of Hindostan finally emerged as a masala patriotic film resembling Manmohan Desai’s Mard (1985), the producers perhaps hoping that ‘fun’ would carry it through. It should be noted here that genuine ‘enjoyment’ is not something easily to be had. Most often, fun and enjoyment are only noise; they are like raucous students trying to convince themselves that they are having a good time just before a fight breaks out and the suppressed ill-feelings emerge. What is happening today is that because of the pressures on the public, it is in a state of great unhappiness and, to some people, even suicide may be just around the corner. The ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’ announced by advance film publicity should be seen in this light–as a promised palliative out of unhappiness.

It is not easy to discern when one is truly enjoying oneself and most kinds of entertainment thrive on our uncertainty about the emotions we are actually feeling. Thugs of Hindostan may either have made enormous miscalculations about what could be passed off as ‘enjoyment’ - or it may mark the moment when Bollywood audiences were finally able to differentiate between true enjoyment and the ‘fun’ they were persuaded to feel by the huge money spent on film publicity.   

(Well-known critic and scholar)
 

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