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28 December 2016

The Year That Was

It's been a momentous year - any which way you look at it. Much of which I either wish hadn't happened, or that I could forget that it did. So in a bid to drown my sorrows, I fell back on my long-time solace, films. So I was thinking this year has seen some good films come out of the Hindi film industry. True blue superstars playing characters instead of themselves, films where the story was king, films that made us think, that made us love or hate them with equal intensity. Perhaps this is a good way to end the year, to list the films that I liked very much.
I will state at the very outset that I make no claim for these being the year's 'best' films. I will not even state that these are my 'favourite' films. These are just films that I have liked very much, whether it is because they were made well, or had great performances (or both), or just entertained me enough. These are all films that I have watched this year, and at the end of the day (year), I remember them fondly, and I list them in no particular order. 

1. Dangal (December
Let me begin with the one I watched the last. I watched it in a theatre close to our home, having had to return crestfallen the first day I went to watch it - the shows were sold out. Watch it because it has a strong story, told well. It's a rousing sports film, anchored by some great performances, and it was not just from Aamir Khan. Every single actor - from Sakshi Tanwar, who plays Phogat's long-suffering wife, to Zaira Wasim & Fatima Sana Sheikh (who both play Gita Phogat), and Suhani Bhatnagar & Sania Malhotra (both playing Babita Phogat), Aparshakti Khurrana (who plays Phogat's nephew, Omkar) - fits into the skin of the character like the proverbial glove. From the Haryanvi accent to the rural sets to Aamir's paunch, the attention to detail is quite amazing. One expects much from a film toplined by the savvy Khan, and Dangal doesn't disappoint. It's a simple tale that sparkles on screen; the choreography of the wrestling sequences is amazing, showing us the sweat, tears and even the grime of the akharas, and even when one knows how it's all going to end, the Commonwealth Games sequences were still nail-biting; this sort of story-telling is the equivalent of cinematic gold. For an excellent review of the film (and interesting discussion in the comments: see here.) 

2. Pink (September)
Source: Wikipedia
It is interesting to have a movie that so solidly (and so stolidly) make the point that " 'No' means 'No' ". A film that focuses so closely on the point it wants to make that it doesn't deviate into a comic side plot or unnecessary item songs. Instead, it is anchored by great performances from the three girls who play the protagonists, and by the most famous baritone in the country as he defends the victims turned accused in a thrilling courtroom drama. Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang were very effective as three young independent working women who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Pink rightly kept the focus on the girls, not even giving Amitabh Bachchan's Deepak Sehgal a backstory. [From interviews post-release, it was clear that the film took its final shape on the editing table, where many of Amitabh's scenes detailing his bipolar disorder were cut to keep the film's focus on the story it wanted to tell; that worked.] It is a subject that needed to be told, and kudos to the film's team for lending their very powerful voices to the countless women who have not only been sexually abused, but have then gone on to face harassment from the system as well. 

3. Kapoor & Sons (March)
The story of a dysfunctional family, anchored by strong performances from veterans Ratna Pathak Shah and Rajat Kapoor, relative newcomers, Fawad Khan, Alia Bhatt and even Siddharth Malhotra, and a surprisingly strong cameo by veteran Rishi Kapoor, Kapoor & Sons was a stunning departure for Karan Johar's Dharma Productions. Director Shakun Batra took several Hindi film tropes and stood them on their heads, creating a messy, chaotic, black comedy where death casts its pall over a family reunion. While Rishi Kapoor's prosthetics alarmed me and even distracted me at times, his performance was pitch perfect as the new-age grandfather - not the benign one that Ashok Kumar got to play, but a naughtier version of the same. Given Rishi Kapoor's real life antics, one can only imagine that he must have had the time of his life playing this role. While the senior actors played a long-married couple who seem to be staying married because of force of habit than actually wanting to be together, the three young actors do not, as you may have thought, play the three angles of a love triangle. Their relationship, like it so often happens in real life, is part funny, part hurtful (and hurting), part fraught with past tensions. Kapoor & Sons is an exquisitely crafted slice of real life, complete with fights, love, laughter, resentment and warmth. It's complicated.  

4. Kahani 2 (December)
Source: Wikipedia
No, it has nothing to do with the original Kahaani. This is not a sequel, and Vidya Bagchi hasn't returned to our screens. There are quite a few things that are common between the two films: the protagonist's name is Vidya in both; there's a sympathetic cop; there's the unusual assassin; there's living, breathing Kolkata as a character in its own right. Only here, Kolkata is not the exotic vision of Durga Puja. It is the dusty lanes and the cycle rickshaws; it's the trams juxtaposed with the new, shiny metro; it's the heroine, so ordinary that she has sweat marks under her armpits when she comes in to work. Where does she work? In an office with crowded tables and dusty files. A whodunnit meets suspense thriller meets murder investigation meets... Vidya Balan turned in an exquisite performance as the tired, dreary, dowdy Vidya Sinha. As in the earlier outing, the peripheral characters have well-etched lives and, even if only there for a couple of scenes, feel vividly real. The actors who lend life to these characters also turn in fine performances: Arjun Rampal lends great verisimilitude to his cop, who's always passed over for promotion; Manini Chadha, similarly, is extremely good as his long-suffering wife (she doesn't even have anything really to do with the plot; it's a sign of how exquisite the detailing is that we get a sense of who the character is, and what her relationship is with her husband, and the state of their marriage in a few short scenes); Kharaj Mukherjee, who aced the role of the superior officer who is cut out of the investigation, but lusts after the promotion... It's a film that I quite enjoyed despite holes in the plot.  

5. Dear Zindagi (November)
I must confess I watched Dear Zindagi solely for Alia Bhatt. Oh, and for Gauri Shinde, whose debut film, English Vinglish, I'd really enjoyed. Alia is one of Hindi cinema's contemporary female actors who consistently surprises me with her grasp over the medium. I find her work incredibly mature given her relative youth, and from her second film onwards, have looked forward to seeing more of her. Dear Zindagi is her story; she has an author-backed role as Kaira, and lends a quiet vulnerability to her character. Dear Zindagi was a very introspective film, and had much expository dialogue, but Shinde crafted the sequences with a lot of finesse. There's no plot, really, to speak of, this being the story of a young woman's story of self-discovery, and the ending is not as neatly tied up as you would imagine. I enjoyed it as much for the performances as I did for the way the film meandered through issues that are not considered 'serious', but nevertheless seem to afflict a larger part of the 20-something generation. Could I relate to them? Not really, but it did give me an insight into this generation and their psyche. Alia's performance was perhaps the reason I bought into the film. While the 'therapy' may have been relatively simplistic (perhaps Kaira should have just looked up cat videos on FB or Snapchat or one whatever latest social media platform), it helped to see another Khan (the veritable Badshah at that) play his age, and look good doing so.  

6. Sultan (July)
Another sports drama, another film on the same sport - wrestling, another Khan playing closer to his real age, another 'Indian' film rooted not just in the soil (the film is set in the hinterlands), but in the ethos of the old-fashioned masala film. It has a crisp story line, and is tightly edited; besides, it does away with extraneous fripperies to focus on the pair who are at the centre of the film - Aafra (played by a fiery Anushka Sharma), and Sultan (Salman Khan, who turns in another restrained performance after last year's Bajrangi Bhaijaan). Unlike Dangal, where the girls are fighting societal norms and even their father's ambition to achieve their own dreams, Sultan focuses on fighting personal demons. Aafra's as much as Sultan's. It's very rare in a Hindi film to see a woman fight her imps - the resentment that her dreams have become his glory; that her choice (the only one she feels she could have taken) means the end of her ambition; that her sacrifice is negated by her husband's rising fame and the toll it takes on their personal life. Anushka Sharma turns in a bravura performance especially when she makes an even more difficult choice; one gets the feeling that there's so much she's leaving unsaid, that she dared not speak lest a storm break over their heads, destroying even her own self. Sultan was masala film-making at its best. Not once did Ali Abbas Zafar let go the reins; he keeps the core intact, the film's 'fight' scenes were excellently choreographed, and the supporting performances - Kumud Mishra as Aafra's father, Randeep Hooda as the coach - contribute their mite to making Sultan an extremely watchable film.  

7. Dishoom (July)
What can I say? Sometimes, all I want is to be entertained. As I wrote in my review of the film, 'Great cinema' this is not, but believe me, tightly edited at slightly less than two hours, I would classify this under 'great entertainment'. I didn't have one single 'I'm bored' moment, nor did I crave a samosa. Or popcorn. What's more, watched in a theatre at the end of a long, hard, frustrating day, wanting only to relax, Dishoom entertained me. Or, misquoting that original eccentric, Alfred P Doolittle, perhaps I was willing to be entertained, I was waiting to be entertained, I was wanting to be entertained. More importantly, however, S did not fall asleep. That fact alone raises the film's watchability quotient. Besides, I quite like Varun Dhawan. And John Abraham made for a very good-looking tree. (He has dimples to die for.) There's Akshay as well. Kumar, not Khanna. Looking drop dead gorgeous, even with a man-bun, and having the time of his life, apparently. There's also Akshay. Khanna, as well as Kumar. Dimpled and gorgeous. [So much male pulchritude on display disarms me.] Plus, a dog named Bradman. Cute. Forget plot. There is supposed to be one, but I lost track of it somewhere. Perfect for a Sunday evening watch with a glass of wine. 

8. Aligarh (February)
A serious film, an explosive issue, brilliant performances (Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkumar Rao), sensitive direction. Aligarh is set in small-town India, thus lending witness to the fact that there are many Indias, not one of which really knows about the other. Director Hansal Mehta takes a closer look not just at a man penalised for being who he is, but also the place where this man lives. The characters, a professor and a journalist, are 'different' - when is last time you saw people such as these in Hindi films? The real Shrinivas Siras (portrayed on screen by Bajpayee) was a Maharashtrian, a professor of Marathi literature, and the Dean of Modern Languages at the Aligarh Muslim University.  Deepu Sebastian (Rao) is a Malyali journalist who lives in Delhi. As the film ventures timidly into the facts of the case (Siras was filmed having consensual sex with another man, fired from his position, a sting that was funded by the university. Even though he won his case against AMU in the Allahabad high court, he died before his suspension could be revoked. His death occurred under suspicious circumstances, and even though the police treated it as murder, they had to close the case for lack of evidence.) It was a strong internalised performance by Manoj Bajpayee and he was pitch perfect as the timid, quiet, mild professor. Rao, on the other hand, is the journalist who fights for a cause that he barely understands, and slowly finds himself being drawn into a strange friendship with the mild-mannered man he is profiling. Rao is one of the finest young actors we have today, and he matches histrionics with Bajpayee, himself not a mean performer, with consummate ease. Aligarh is a quietly moving film that warns you how far we have to go as a nation in the fight for equal rights for the LGBT community. Now more so than ever because homosexuality has been criminalised again.  

9. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (October)
I find that I can usually watch Karan Johar's films once. As Shalini, a frequent blog reader said, it is sometimes nice to 'watch pretty people'. Johar's universe is always filled with pretty people, and pretty places. This time around, it was also a silent protest; I voted with my money to show my solidarity to a man who was quartered and hung for daring to have signed a Pakistani actor. Since I too usually go with not much expectation than that I have an entertaining three hours, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Johar had subverted his own tropes here. This was a very unlike-Karan Johar Karan Johar film indeed. For one, we got not one but two strong, very strong, women characters, complex, complicated, strong, fleshed-out flawed characters. It gave us - in Lisa Haydon - one of the funniest women characters in Hindi films, and gave her to us without apology. It is probably Johar's most honest film yet, and that sincerity shows on screen. Ranbir Kapoor probably has the man-child thing down pat; he can probably do it in his sleep. In this film, however, his manic energy is matched by Anushka Sharma's bravura performance as the almost-preternaturally self-aware Alizeh. Her irony lies in that she wants Ayan-wala love from Ali, but damned if she wants to give Ayan her Ali-wala pyaar. I suspect Aiswarya Rai has never had a part that she so completely owned; her Saba, like Aiswarya herself, will never be taken seriously because of the way she looks. However, Aiswarya as Saba made exquisite use of her eyes which spoke more eloquently than any dialogue ever could. I absolutely loved the laughter that sprung up from amidst all the tears, the controlled performances of all three leads (though I was a little teary that Fawad Khan was expunged from the film), the fact that Saba and Ayan were reflections of each other, and above all, that a forty-plus woman was shown, not as the mother of a 30-plus male actor, but as his lover. I loved the way Karan Johar used old Hindi songs. Like in Kahaani 2, the songs were there for a reason, and while self-referential, made absolute sense in context. 

10. Budhia Singh - Born to Run (August)
The year was made for biopics. While some were good (MS Dhoni) though hagiographic, some were just so-so. Budhia Singh is the beautifully crafted story of a young boy, just out of toddlerhood, who discovered running by chance, and went on to create history. Manoj Bajpayee turns in another nuanced performance as Biranchi Das, the coach who turned that passion into an obsession, being both despotic and loving by turns. Manoj Patole, as Budhia, gives such a layered performance - it's an incredible piece of acting from a little boy. Budhia Singh is an uncomfortable film to watch, and if you think Dangal normalised parental pressure as abuse (as some do), then watch Biranchi Das put Budhia through his paces. The child is barely five years old. Like many other films in this list, Budhia Singh was also people by ordinary people who made their roles memorable. Shruti Marathi plays Biranchi's wife, Gita, who, desperately wants to have children herself, manages to make a home for all the waifs whom Biranchi brings home. Watch it, not just for the performances, but for the nuanced screenplay that leaves us with so many questions - does the end really justify the means? Is the punishing schedule what Budhia needs to achieve greatness? Or is that greatness being thrust upon his frail shoulders in order to power Biranchi's dream? Should we weep for Budhia's lost childhood or applaud the passion that makes that little boy run? And run, and run...? By moving that goal post, have we failed that child? And a man who yoked that passion? Because the real life tale of Biranchi and Budhia has a tragic ending - Biranchi was murdered a couple of years after Budhia was taken away from him. And quite recently, Budhia ran away from the sports academy where he was housed, because the authorities weren't allowing him to run. In an interview to a leading newspaper earlier in the year, he spoke of how well Biranchi had treated him, giving him the love and affection that his own parents hadn't.  

11. Parched (September)
If there's one actress (who's not mainstream) whom I have fallen in love with, it is Radhika Apte. She is brilliant in any role, whether it is as the innocent wife of a criminal (Badlapur), or the fiery, supportive spouse of a gangster (Kabali). Here, she plays Lajjo, the barren wife of an abusive alcoholic. It is illuminating (to say the least) to watch how she sinks into the character. Her scenes are perhaps the best in the film, and that is not to take anything away from the other actresses who also turned in finely-tuned performances. (A special shout out to Surveen Chawla who completely owned her Bijli.) Parched is not a film that can be viewed lightly - the film pulls you into the life of its characters, four women, four very disparate women (the others played by Tanishta Chatterjee, Surveen Chawla and Sayani Gupta), into a world which is constrained in every which way by men. Not just the men in their lives, but the ones who people the larger society around them. In their own way, these women are strong and resilient. Some of them are cruel to other women - that's to say, in a film about women's persecution, some of the persecutors are women themselves. It allows us a glimpse into a mind-set where patriarchy is so engrained that casual gender cruelty is not considered against the norm. 

12. Waiting (May)
My husband calls her my 'frog'. But if there's another actor whom I like very much (very, very much indeed), it is Kalki Koechlin. I find her irresistible, whether it be in fluffy roles (Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani) or in a heavyweight political thriller (Shanghai) or as the protagonist of a different sort of coming-of-age film (Margarita With a Straw). Here, she's paired with one of my favourite actors - Naseeruddin Shah, in a tale of long-lasting love and irredeemable loss, and the process in between, when all you do, all you can do, is wait. Waiting is a flawed film. It doesn't quite get what it sets out to do, and at times, it's a little too expository. It appears that the actors talk to fill out the silences, when the silences could have said so much more instead. While Kalki makes the best of a rather underdeveloped role, Naseer, who has the better-written character, brings in a quiet dignity to the role of a husband who cannot bear to let his wife go. It's an effortless performance. Waiting could have been so much more, but it is still worth watching for its telling commentary on life, love, friendship and loss. By posing the same question to both characters, Waiting also leaves us with some disturbing thoughts at the end about our own choices, and the ones we get to make for others. 

There are some other movies that I have heard good things about, but haven't got around to watching. These include: Phobia, Udta Punjab, Neerja, Rustom, Airlift, Nil Battey Sannata, amongst othersAs I said, 2016 was a good year for Hindi cinema. It was refreshing to watch industry heavyweights get out of their comfort zone and bankroll smaller, 'different' films. If one expects an Aamir Khan to do just that, we also had Dharma Productions (Kapoor & Sons), Ajay Devgan (Parched) and Akshay Kumar (Airlift) lend their name, money and clout to smaller productions.  

There are movies that I have read about that are releasing next year that I'm looking forward to watch: Thugs of Hindostan, Padmavati, Jagga Jasoos, Raees, Badrinath ki Dulhaniya, Baahubali - The Conclusion, Phillauri, Begum Jaan, Rangoon, The Ring, Battle of Saragarhi...  Aren't films wonderful?

What movies did you watch this year? What movies did you like? What movies are you looking forward to? Feel free to share your likes and dislikes in the comments.

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