Spy, Cop, and ‘Astra’ Universes Taking Over Cinema, Points to the Marvel‑ification of Bollywood
Pathaan‘s resounding success has thrown the country into a frenzy — social media is celebrating the return of Shah Rukh Khan, and fans are traveling far and wide to catch a glimpse of their favorite actor on the big screen. People are attributing the film’s success to a silent rebellion brewing in the hearts of the superstar’s fans following the attacks on his character in the recent past, even as haters continue sloganeering and pelting stones in theatres. It’s like a real-life resurrection of a superhero — one that signals a shift in how Bollywood audiences have begun relating to the film industry itself. Stars become main characters off-screen while their on-screen avatars participate in parallel universes replete with identical motifs. In other words, it’s the age of the Marvel-ification of Bollywood.
Pathaan isn’t the first piece of this gigantic puzzle; it is, however, the latest — and, arguably, on its way to becoming the most successful part of the ongoing trend of creating plot “universes” in Bollywood. Alongside Hrithik Roshan’s Kabir from War, and Salman Khan’s Tiger from the eponymous trilogy, SRK’s Pathaan has been inducted into Yash Raj Film’s “Spyverse.” Similarly, director Rohit Shetty has been building a “cop universe” that has, so far, featured the trifecta of Singham, Simmba, and Sooryavanshi (played by Ajay Devgn, Ranveer Singh, and Akshay Kumar, respectively); multiple production companies, including Reliance Entertainment, have bankrolled the project. In the meantime, the success of Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva in 2022 launched Ayan Mukerji’s “Astraverse” — a universe of astras (weapons) — backed by Dharma Productions. Maddock Films, too, has been building a horror-comedy universe with Stree and Bhediya in its ambit until now.
The trend of building multiverses backed by big-money production studios is a relatively new trend in Bollywood. Unfortunately, that comes with the risks going the way of Hollywood, where franchise movies have become the order of the day — given the raging dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over how films are made in the industry. Critics have been expressing concerns about the sacrifice of storytelling at the altar of capitalist ambitions. The debate is an old one between art and commerce.
“Marvel promises entertainment, and the box office tells us that it makes for good business. But herein lies the catch: entertainment is often driven by a profit incentive that dictates where stories can go, and, indeed, what stories are even told. In cinema, the argument goes, art is what it’s all about… [I]n the bid to stay at the zenith of the cultural moment, the studio churns out more while also offering less,” Rohitha Naraharisetty had written in The Swaddle. “In other words, Marvel is a result of what happens when capitalism meets cinema: it is palatable, repetitive, safe, and never subversive or risky the way art is sometimes called upon to be.”
The reigning narratives in most of the Bollywood multiverses — especially the cop and spy ones — are rooted in nationalism, and the normalization of police violence, with their chauvinistic machismo and brutality being paraded as bravado. Further, the movies also rely on hypermasculine fervor to attract audiences, which is, arguably, not ideal in a country that is dealing with the ramifications of toxic masculinity — not only in its crime rates but also in the rapidly deteriorating mental health of its citizens.
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Indeed, the trajectory of the MCU, which has inspired production companies and filmmakers around the world, doesn’t bode well for the future of cinema. MCU does have its gems — with 2022’s Ms. Marvel being notable for its South Asian representation, and 2018’s Black Panther shining in terms of a well-written story, its “race-and-gender-conscious casting and costuming,” and its well-rounded characters and truly marvelous world-building. However, lately, its offerings like Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, all feel factory-made — with many pointing out how it’s become impossible to immerse oneself in a single story without having consumed all the others in the universe.
“[MCU films] are made as commodities like hamburgers, and it’s not about communicating, and it’s not about sharing our imagination. It’s about making a commodity that will make a profit for a big corporation. They’re a cynical exercise. They’re market exercises, and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema. William Blake said, ‘when money is discussed, art is impossible,'” Ken Loach, a British director, said in 2019, critiquing the MCU’s hegemony over Hollywood.
The heavy emphasis on box office numbers when it comes to the reception of these movies — with the flurry of social media posts measuring the movies’ success in terms of the profits they churned — doesn’t leave room for art that challenges us. When the end goal is grossing the highest collections, the goal of authentic storytelling is readily sidelined.
Turning art into retail is probably the fate that awaits Bollywood, too. Commenting on the trend, Naraharisetty had added, “There is no way to ask for different stories — what franchise filmmaking offers instead is to put different people, at most, in the same types of stories. Behind all the bluster and spectacle, then, is something formulaic that arguably never challenges people. Instead, it caters to our needs and takes up too much space in doing so.”
While the universes of spies and cops follow the formula of Bollywood’s age-old masala blockbusters, the universes of astras and ghosts appeal to our fantasies and curiosities about the supernatural. In the process, however, genuine stories of the human condition are lost. Naturally, then, franchise moviemaking has been accused of diminishing creativity and eclipsing smaller, independent movies. They have also induced a state of “franchise fatigue” among a number of moviegoers.
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Marvel-ification comprises two things: franchising, and relying on formulaic narratives that focus on making money more than anything else. Arguably, the larger problem lies with the latter. Indeed, franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings — despite the sexism and misogyny embedded in their original plots — built a dedicated fan base over the years. At present, however, they have been reduced to geese that lay golden eggs, with studios building newer franchises drawing on narratives and characters from the original works.
The fact that the latest installments of the franchises are often diverse and inclusive — in keeping with the times — is indeed welcome. But it doesn’t obscure production studios’ obvious lack of faith in fresher, original, non-franchise stories that may not necessarily become the next Game of Thrones, but could, if given a chance, become the next Parasite.
“Instead of introducing us to new characters and new worlds, we are increasingly being marched down memory lane and told the same stories again and again. Instead of funding original content, studios are now scrambling to establish their own franchises to muscle in on Disney’s monopoly. And instead of coming up with something new, filmmakers are relying more and more on IP adaptations,” noted an article in Haste Magazine.
In India, the rise of pan-Indian movies — like Baahubali, RRR, KGF, and Liger — speak to the trend of filmmakers opting for the now-standard formula of hypermasculinity following Baahubali‘s success, rather than exploring newer terrain. Their stories are original, yes. But still, formulaic — curbing the wings for fresher, less-formulaic ideas.
It is indeed the fixation with assured, easy monetary success, then — than franchising itself — that is on its path to sound the death knell for creativity in mainstream motion art.