My favourite Hindi film released in 2012 is not on this list. That’s because it’s a documentary, and since there are so few of those that come to our theatres, I thought it made sense to restrict this list to fiction features alone. It’s crucial though to celebrate the fact that Faiza Ahmad Khan’s heart-warming docu-feature Supermen of Malegaon actually managed to get a release in mainstream halls. The breakthrough came courtesy PVR’s pioneering Director’s Rare initiative – launched in late 2011 – for which no praise is too much. The release of SoM was just one among the many interesting new developments in Indian cinema in the year gone by.
2012 was a good year for Bollywood in particular … a year in which the lines between mainstream and offbeat were further blurred with films like Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2 and Vicky Donor; when the film industry’s assumptions about the box-office prospects of heroine-centric projects were further challenged by Kahaani and even English Vinglish; when Paan Singh Tomar ended up as an unexpected hit, hopefully sending a message to its producers who kept it in the cans for too long after it was ready; a year in which cash continued to flow into the industry’s coffers despite the challenges facing the Indian economy. Yes, there are many bad films still being made, sexism still prospers and there’s more clever strategy & PR involved in the fabled “Rs 100 crore club” than film makers would like you to know, but there’s also more good news than bad. Some of the good news is contained in this list of the Best Hindi Films released in 2012:
My Best Film #1: OMG Oh My God!
Gutsy as hell … that’s director Umesh Shukla’s OMG Oh My God! It’s the story of Kanjilal Mehta (Paresh Rawal) who sues god when his antique shop is destroyed in an earthquake and his insurance claim is rejected because earthquakes fall within the category of “act of god” as defined in the policy’s fine print. Based on the Hindi play Kishen vs Kanhaiya and the Australian film The Man Who Sued God, OMG combines gravitas with great humour to question the existence of god and slam the commercialisation of religion in India. Rawal is gorgeous, as is Mithun Chakraborty irreverently spoofing a famous real-life guru. Akshay Kumar – the film’s surprise package – is charmingly under-stated, making you wonder why the star short-changes his talent by largely confining himself to loud comedies. The production values should have been better, but all is forgiven in the light of Team OMG’s immense courage in a country where violence-prone religious bodies are constantly on the prowl with “sentiments” ever ready to be “hurt”. That the Censors cleared this film is a heartening sign of changing times. That no bigot called for a ban is not merely a miracle; it’s also proof that when a film’s PR managers want to avoid controversy, they usually can. Smoothly written and smartly directed, OMG is a quiet triumph for Indian cinema and society.
**** (For the original review of OMG Oh My God! click here)
My Best Film #2: Kahaani
Bollywood rarely makes good thrillers... Bollywood is sexist... Bollywood’s idea of a “woman-centric” project is rona-dhona and hard-core social issues... All true. Now turn all this on its head, and you get Kahaani. Directed impeccably by Sujoy Ghosh with a story by Ghosh & Advaita Kala, the film takes us to Kolkata where the very very pregnant Vidya Bagchi arrives, in search of her missing husband. Why does no one remember Arnab Bagchi? The answer comes in an excellently executed climax, but the beauty of Kahaani is that there’s so much more to it than just the wonderful suspense. Every tiny character has been so well-etched-out, every actor so well cast, every part so well played, that you come away from the film remembering not just the three leads - Vidya Balan’s spirited Ms Bagchi, the immensely cute Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s kindly policeman Satyaki and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s hard-nosed Intelligence official Khan. You also come away remembering the likes of Saswata Chatterjee playing the spooky hitman Bob Biswas although he barely gets a few minutes of screen time. Who would have thought that MCP Bollywood could give us a strong-willed heroine in an advanced stage of pregnancy as a metaphor for feminine resilience? Who would have thought MCP Bollywood could portray a woman with a baby bump as an object of romantic desire? Team Kahaani tujhe salaam!
**** (For the original review of Kahaani, click here)
My Best Film #3: English Vinglish
“Like two drops of coffee on a cloud of milk…” Of all the words used over the years for Sridevi’s beautiful eyes, none have been more apt than this description by a character in English Vinglish. This low-key film marked the smashing comeback of the country’s most successful pan-India, multi-lingual superstar, 15 years after she hung up her boots for marriage and motherhood. Sridevi is flawless as the film’s Indian housewife who has for years faced derision from her husband and daughter because she is not fluent in English. The language divide is representative of much else. This is a gently nuanced film about the need for respect in relationships, about how wives and mothers get taken for granted by husbands and children, about how men tend to believe their work is more significant than their spouse’s, about a woman learning to respect herself without the need for affirmation from others. The under-stated writing is complemented by Sridevi and the strong supporting cast that includes Adil Hussain playing her husband and French actor Mehdi Nebbou who gets to paint that memorable picture of her eyes. Debutant director Gauri Shinde – so evidently not in awe of her awesome heroine – is one of the big discoveries of 2012.
***1/2 (For the original review of English Vinglish, click here)
My Best Film #4: Vicky Donor
Imagine a film about a sperm donor in the hands of the Farrelly Brothers or Sajid Khan or Rohit Shetty! Oh dear! Now thank your stars for director Shoojit Sircar. With Sircar at the helm, Vicky Donor ends up as an intelligent satire on sperm donors, with a canvas covering infertility, adoption, mixed marriages, family and our stress-ridden modern lives. VJ Ayushmann Khurana makes an assured debut as the titular hero and his lady love is played by the pretty and talented model-actress Yami Gautam. The two are blessed with a formidable supporting cast that includes Annu Kapoor as the owner of a financially strapped infertility clinic and Kamlesh Gill as Vicky’s remarkably liberal grandmother. Juhi Chaturvedi’s writing is at the heart of this funny yet emotional film. Though the action revolves around the hero, the highlight of the film is his strong bond with the three very strong women in his life – mom, grandmom, wife – and the immense respect he has for them. Thrown into the mix are some hilarious interactions between the hero’s out-and-out Punjabi family and the heroine’s all-Bengali clan, good music and John Abraham’s well-muscled bare chest in the Rum rum rum rum rum song. The result: a pathbreaking, thought-provoking, highly entertaining film. Vicky Donor marks Abraham’s debut as a producer. Ah, a hot guy with a vision!
***1/2 (For the original review of Vicky Donor, click here)
My Best Film #5: Paan Singh Tomar
Based on the true story of an international-level Indian athlete compelled by circumstances to become a dacoit, Paan Singh Tomar is the sort of film that could make all Indians hang their heads in shame. Irrfan plays Tomar, an army jawan with a bottomless pit for a stomach who takes to running for reasons other than a love of sports. Tomar retires to manage home affairs but picks up the gun when an apathetic establishment scoffs at his contribution to the country and fails to protect his family. The actor gives the character an irresistible raw charm in a way that only Irrfan can, but goes beyond even what we’ve come to expect of him by rising up most remarkably to the physical challenges of playing an athlete. His performance is complemented by Sandeep Chowta’s disturbing background score and cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s haunting no-frills take on the Chambal. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has had some experience in the genre since he was earlier associated with Bandit Queen. Some of the supporting characters in Paan Singh Tomar could have been better fleshed out, and the denouement is not entirely convincing, but Dhulia still deserves to be ranked as one of the most multi-faceted, richest talents of the year gone by with his performance in Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2 and his helmsmanship of this heart-breaking film.
My Best Film #6: Harud
This is a stark film that rises above the usual partisan voices we hear speaking up for Kashmir. Aamir Bashir’s Harud (Autumn) is about an entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims who have grown up without knowing what it is to live alongside Kashmiri Pandits; it’s about the state after the exodus of its Hindus driven away by militancy; it’s about the all-pervading presence of the Army and mind-numbing tension in the lives of the Muslims left behind; it’s about the everydayness of bunkers and guns in the state; it’s about how the gloom of the Kashmiri autumn mirrors the seeming hopelessness of the situation the people face; it’s about one family struggling to cope with a missing son and a father descending into depression. The wonderful cast consists primarily of non-actors and amateurs, many drawn from a workshop held in the state by Naseeruddin Shah. They stand shoulder to shoulder with Iranian thespian Reza Naji (Children of Heaven) who plays a traffic policeman driven to mental illness, as many people in the state have been in reality. Debutant director Aamir Bashir is a confident storyteller. His team-up with cinematographer Shanker Raman, production designer Rakesh Yadav and sound designer Nakul Kamte gives us a Kashmir far removed from the picture-postcard prettiness that Bollywood romances prefer. Bashir’s Kashmir is grey, grim…and still gorgeous.
***1/2 (For the original review of Harud, click here)
My Best Film #7: Shanghai
Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai is about the maze of connections that nurture the country’s corrupt political system. So Indian is the treatment of the story that it’s hard to believe it’s based on the novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos which was made into the award-winning film by Costa Gavras. Well it is, and Shanghai is one of the many films of the past couple of years that comes as proof that Bollywood is gradually moving away from its penchant for plagiarism; and is increasingly legitimately purchasing the rights to adapt films and literary works that catch its fancy. But that’s not the only cause for celebration that this film gives us. There’s the fact that it’s darned good. Shanghai is set in an Indian state where the ruling party has staked its future on an International Business Park in the midst of protests against the resulting displacement of the poor in the name of development. With the exception of the uni-tone Kalki Koechlin playing a pro-poor activist, the rest of the cast deliver well on their well-written roles. The pick of the lot is Emraan Hashmi (yes, Serial Kisser Hashmi) in a career-best performance as a porn film cameraman whose friend becomes collateral damage in a hidden political war. Shanghai takes its time to draw you in, but once that happens, it’s hard not to be hooked.
***1/2 (For the original review of Shanghai, click here)
My Best Film #8: Chakravyuh
Director Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh is an indictment of the police-politician-industry nexus that indirectly nurtures the country’s Maoist problem. The film stars Arjun Rampal playing straight-as-an-arrow policeman Adil Khan, struggling to cope with rebellious locals, a weak-willed senior, corrupt political bosses, manipulative businessmen and a friend who has gone over to the other side. Abhay Deol plays that friend Kabir, who initially infiltrates the Maoists as Adil’s informant, but ends up so moved by the plight of the poor and their guardians, so disillusioned by police atrocities, that he joins the movement. The screenplay is not without its failings – we really did need to know more about Adil and Kabir’s friendship before they became professional collaborators, and the Maoists in the film are too one-dimensional to be compelling. But the pace of the proceedings is so unrelenting, the machinations of the film’s netas and industrialists are so exhausting, and the film’s amoral policemen are so coolly callous, that Adil’s frustrations and helplessness are almost tangible. It’s also interesting that the hero has an overtly Muslim name but the script does not make a song-and-dance about his religion, which is unusual for Bollywood. After Raajneeti’s affectations and Aarakshan’s sermonising, it’s a joy to have Jha back in the groove.
***1/2 (For the original review of Chakravyuh, click here)
My Best Film #9: Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1
Gangs of Wasseypur 1 is the first of a 2-part film by director Anurag Kashyap about an inter-family gang war in Dhanbad (today’s Jharkhand). GoW 1 takes us to the root of this battle, which is Sardar Khan’s hatred for mafioso Ramadhir Singh. The blood-letting in the film is unending, as are the sexual appetites of these gangsters who turn into simpering idiots in the presence of their wives and girlfriends. The towering strength of those women, an unexpected sense of humour in the midst of all that gore and Sneha Khanwalkar’s rustic music are among the many pluses of this film about the pointlessness of violence. The big minus is the initial portion that introduces us to a multiplicity of characters, some played by two actors to account for the passage of time, that feels somewhat like a confusing history lesson. Once the film gathers steam though, there’s little time for thought or even the drawing of a breath, as the cycle of killings goes on and on and on. GoW1 brings together Bollywood’s Best Ensemble Cast of 2012. Richa Chadda, Reemma Sen, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Piyush Mishra, Huma Qureshi, Manoj Bajpayee, Jaideep Ahlawat … If I were an acting student, I’d chant those names from GoW1 off a rosary every day!
***1/4 (For the original review of Gangs of Wasseypur 1, click here)
My Best Film #10: Maximum
Yeh sheher jagah toh deta hai, lekin apnaata nahin hai, says a politician in Maximum to a young journalist from UP. That’s a courageous statement for any Bollywood film to make in this era of Raj Thackeray’s violence-prone, North Indian-hating Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Director Kabeer Kaushik’s Maximum takes many more such stances through its story of the life-long, career-defining rivalry between two corrupt Mumbai policemen. Sonu Sood delivers an excellent performance – as always – as Pratap Pandit, the suave young encounter specialist with a roving eye. Veteran Naseeruddin Shah, playing his older rival Arun Inaamdar, seems more involved in this film than he usually is these days. Threading its way through their bitter competitiveness is the builder-underworld-politician-police nexus of Maximum’s Maharashtra. With Amit Sadh’s journalist, the film even steers clear of Bollywood clichés of mediapersons as either saintly or satanic. This is an otherwise extremely well-written film with one unfortunate flaw: the failure to explore Inaamdar’s character in as much detail as it acquaints us with Pandit. Still, with its gripping narrative and lovely music, Maximum is entertaining in a quiet sort of way ... and a good example of a fine film killed by poor publicity.
*** (For the original review of Maximum, click here)
My Best Film #10: Barfi!
True, the Internet is still abuzz with charges of plagiarism against Anurag Basu’s Barfi! Some of the criticism is justified (for instance, the scene in which Ileana D’Cruz’s mother takes her for a drive to show her the man she once loved is an embarrassing copy from The Notebook); some of it fails to appreciate the place of tributes in cinema (the Buster Keaton-inspired ladder scene and the Chaplinesque sequences are too widely recognised to be anything but homages); and some of the criticism is downright silly (one blogger went so far as to cite the scene in which Priyanka Chopra lies down next to a dying Ranbir Kapoor as a lift from The Notebook. Oh c’mon! So that’s not a scene that’s appeared in a zillion films, TV serials and real life?). Still, even over-reactions are understandable considering all these years of dishonesty by Bollywood and Basu’s own questionable track record in this matter. The debate notwithstanding, Barfi! is still that rare Hindi film that gives us a romance between two differently abled people without pity or condescension or teary-eyed melodrama. It’s a deliberately light-hearted telling of the relationship between a deaf-mute Murphy (Ranbir, excellent!) and the autistic Jhilmil (Priyanka, brilliant!). The unnecessary switch to thriller mode somewhere along the way and the overly elongated second half don’t alter the fact that Barfi’s positivity is pathbreaking for Bollywood. Wonderful music, locations and cinematography add to the package. A very moving film.
My Best Film #10: Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu
An unusual buddy movie about boy-girl bonding and that eternal question: can two people of the opposite sex be friends without falling in love? The answer comes to us in a completely unconventional, completely un-Bollywood-like ending that goes well with the undramatic tone of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu. Riana Braganza is a hairstylist who does as she pleases and could bring sunshine to the darkest corner of the earth. The somber Rahul Kapoor hates being an architect but wouldn’t dare defy the expectations of his rich, uncaring father. They meet, they become friends, he grows up, they get closer. Imran Khan as Rahul is charming, but the scene-stealer here – not unexpectedly – is the charismatic Kareena Kapoor who accomplishes the difficult task of making the free-spirited Riana sufficiently unlike Jab We Met’s Geet, ensuring that EMAET does not give us a sense of déjà vu. In keeping with her performance, subtlety is the highlight of director Shakun Batra’s film in which the Hindu-Christian angle is not rubbed in our faces in the interests of secularism and there’s a passing mention of Riana being a year or two older than Rahul, without a huge deal being made of that either. Simple yet not simplistic, EMAET is a gently entertaining film.
*** (For the original review of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, click here)