The Mattel doll loses out to Nolan, the Bomb and the Gita in India

Anand Venkitachalam

New Delhi, July 30 (IANS) Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” may be leading the “Barbenheimer” sweepstakes internationally, but “Oppenheimer”, despite its dark overtones, has bombed out its competition in India — earning Rs 77 crore in its first eight days, compared with Rs 29 crore made by “Barbie”.

In fact, the Cillian Murphy-headlined biopic helmed by Christopher Nolan made more money on its first day — Rs 14.5 crore on July 21 — than the much-hyped Ranveer Singh- and Alia Bhatt-starrer “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” — Rs 11.5 crore on July 28.

“Oppenheimer” is now projected to be well on it way to leaving behind the Tom Cruise spectacle, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” (M:I7), which had grossed Rs 97.8 crore by Friday, July 28, its Day 17 in India, the film’s fourth largest overseas market after China, South Korea, and the UK.

It is indeed a rare scenario where three Hollywood films back-to-back have delivered great numbers, filling up halls and garnering a great response from viewers. But “Oppenheimer”, which is very dark, serious, three-hour-long biopic, is far ahead of “Barbie”, which is fun and light-hearted musical drama starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. But don’t audiences in India love over-the-top fantastical films?

There is no one response to this perplexing though as there are in fact many possible reasons, each being responsible for this trend in one way or another.

One is Christopher Nolan’s popularity in India. While audiences are not that familiar with his earlier works like “Memento” and “Prestige”, later films like “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Interstellar”, and even “Tenet” had very good reception, making Nolan one of the most beloved Hollywood directors in the country, where people line up for first day first show.

Then a very big factor that cannot be ignored is the interest in Hinduism that the ‘Father of the atomic bomb’ had, leading Oppenheimer to study classical Sanskrit and read the Bhagavad Gita. During the detonation, he had quoted a verse from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”

The physicist’s interest in Hinduism combined with the present-day political scenario in India, where Hindutva based politics is on the rise and people want content that refers to Hinduism in a more pro-Hindu rather than anti-Hindu way, has generated more interest.

The sex scene in the movie has become a topic of backlash and controversy, though it hasn’t really exploded all that much as it’s been relegated to more of a social media joke.

Many people have largely been indifferent to the scene, in fact that scene did, in fact, spark up the scholarly debate among many netizens and researchers regarding Oppenheimer’s understanding of the Gita. A peculiar development, but it did unexpectedly make people more eager to watch the film, because controversy almost always sells.

Another reason is the very clever marketing. The film’s hype was built up incredibly well with its featurettes, teasers, trailers, while keeping more than 90 per cent of the movie details under wraps. This allowed the suspense to build up, which coupled with the film’s brilliant star cast consisting of Hollywood stars who are well known in India, such as Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., and Emily Blunt really sell the whole thing.

Then there is the whole scenario regarding IMAX, where Nolan had stated in many interviews that the movie was meant to be seen in IMAX format, because this was the first time that black and white scenes were added in the format.

The film was already a darkly grand spectacle but to see it on a massive screen worked well, and currently wherever in India there is a theatre with IMAX screening, the show goes house-full instantly, regardless of the fact the IMAX screening costs a lot more than standard 2D screens.

Another massive attraction of the movie is that it has zero CGI. This was one of the biggest global trends alongside the IMAX hype, because audiences these days are used to movies with massive CGI be it movies from the MCU or DCEU, or other films such as “Avatar 2”, “Dune” or even Indian films such as “Bahubali”, “RRR”, “Brahmastra”, “Pathaan” or most recently, the widely panned “Adipurush”.

Audiences therefore are used to films with CGI. But seeing a complex movie with no CGI whatsoever is a far more interesting prospect.

One of the film’s biggest attractions was the recreation of the nuclear explosion which was done entirely through practical effects. Over 160 VFX artists worked on this, and while VFX is synonymous with CGI, it means different things.

VFX means visual effects and is far more time consuming, consisting of actions to polish up things on screen such as using digital tech or even hand drawn illustrations, concept art and more while keeping things fluid on screen. CGI means computer generated imagery and is made entirely on a computer with static animations.

As such, it was a visually extremely impressive feat to create a nuclear explosion with zero CGI while capturing everything from its nuances to heatwaves, radiation and the absolute terror due to the authenticity of the explosion. It worked very well to hype things up for the audiences, and this is currently one of the movie’s biggest points.

Nolan’s adherence to keeping things real and grounded has always been a point that attracts people to his movies, but tackling the subject of J. Robert Oppenheimer was a very difficult task, given the man’s historical controversies, though Nolan was able to present things as they were is another big point.

The entire movie is not just a historical retelling, but rather a dark but epic socio-political commentary which subtly chastises the US stance over Communism and atomic warfare from World War Two to the period of Cold War, and despite the horrible things that happened in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American politicians to this day care very little about the consequences.

However, despite the dark and brooding story with a layer of socio-political commentary, Nolan’s screenplay never lets go of the element of tension and suspense while building up the drama through a three-hour- runtime, winning the film global praise and universal acclaim.

Now this brings us to Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” which is a creative but feel-good comedy fantasy film with some legitimately emotionally heavy moments. The movie undoubtedly did things in a very unconventional style too and gained immediate traction, much like Nolan did even if they were too drastically different films.

But the “Barbie” factor didn’t make its mark the same way due to its preachy commentary at the end, which by this point audiences have become tired of. While “Barbie” covers some serious topics on an indeed serious topic aka patriarchy, as well as problems of capitalism and unrealistic beauty standards, “Oppenheimer” takes a sombre and melancholic haunting subject and turns it into a very intriguing drama.

Both the movies have a global appeal, but in India the subject matter of “Oppenheimer” resonated with audiences on a deeper scale piquing the intrigue of people and delivering on a massively built-up hype.

The “Barbie” movie was a clever feature but the appeal of the Mattel dolls did not fully strike a chord with Indian audiences as the expensive Barbie dolls are not the biggest selling toys in the country.

Last, there is also a growing interest in grounded, dark and serious films that tackle topics of science, technology, space and time, deep human philosophies rather than just your typical masala films and serials which led to the success of films such as “Rocketry” or the serial “Rocket Boys”. Then other grounded historical films such as “Sardar Udham”, which was one of the biggest Indian films in 2021, albeit in the streaming space.

The people are craving content that is different and the trend of only typical masala movies has thinned out a little because of that.

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