Four years since The annavetticadgoes2themovies Awards kicked off, the one thing that has remained a constant in the Mumbai film industry is evolution. Cynics may not agree, but the truth is we’ve been witnessing dramatic changes in Bollywood* in recent years. The top 5 films in my Best Films list for 2014 are all signifiers of positive developments in the industry, including the exhibition sector’s increasing receptiveness to films that were earlier erroneously considered “too serious” and “too arty” to draw an audience, the fact that backing for such films now often comes from production houses that are primarily associated with mass-targeted entertainers, audience and studio support for contentious subjects in the face of fundamentalist protests and most of all, the re-emergence of commercially driven women-centric films.
When Amitabh Bachchan strode across the big screen in the 1970s dominating film after film with unprecedented box-office success, the Bollywood heroine declined in importance. Producers who saw the Angry Young Man as a formula for potential success in non-Bachchan films too, began relegating women to the sidelines of all their stories, usually leaving them with little to do apart from look glamorous and fall in love with the hero. With fewer author-backed roles to build up their stature, the era of Suraiya, Nargis, Nutan, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman and a string of other female stalwarts gave way to two decades of actresses with short-lived careers. During the 1970s and ’80s, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit were among the very few exceptions to this trend.
Things began changing marginally for female stars with the return of gentle romances in a big way in the 1990s and the advent of Shah Rukh Khan. The past two decades have been a period of gradual improvement – too slow, some would say – with heroines like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Rani Mukerji and Preity Zinta, and more recently, Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone successfully fighting to find equal space with their heroes in commercially driven films. They still don’t get as many films as their male counterparts do, in which they dominate the storyline; they still have a tough time finding projects in which they at least stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the leading man; and longevity is still a far greater challenge for women than it is for men even when they do all the right things. However, the drizzle that began in the 1990s with the Ash-Rani-Preity triad and the critical and commercial success of Madhur Bhandarkar’s women-led films at the turn of this century, turned into a steady shower with Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor (2007) and Bhandarkar’s Fashion starring Chopra (2008). It is still not a downpour, but there’s plenty of hope to be seen in a firm trend headlined by the likes of 2011’s No One Killed Jessica starring Mukerji and Balan, The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) with Balan, Padukone’s multiple hits in 2013 (Chennai Express, Yeh JawaaniHai Deewani and Ram-leela), Queen (2014) starring Kangna Ranaut, Mary Kom (2014) with Chopra and this year’s NH10 featuring Anushka Sharma in the lead.
2014 was interesting on this front because it began with the success of Queen and went on to give us Mary Kom, both of which exemplify an important aspect of this trend. Despite its many evident commercially viable elements, Queen – released in the first quarter – was not as heavily promoted as a massy SRK/Salman/Aamir Khan-starrer would be. Its producers seem to have gone along with the conventional wisdom that such films require audience word-of-mouth to make money. Despite the low-key marketing, the film ended up grossing Rs 97 crore worldwide (a smashing eight times its reported budget) according to the trade website boxofficeindia.com. Six months later came the biopic Mary Kom starring Chopra playing the popular Indian boxing champion. Mary Kom was promoted unrelentingly by its producers the way any potentially massy hero-centric film would be. The pay-off came in the form of excellent global gross collections of Rs 104 crore as per boxofficeindia. Even the poorly promoted Mardaani starring Mukerji in the previous month ended its run as a moderate box-office success.
These ladies kicked opened doors that have subsequently been entered by newcomers Alia Bhatt, Shraddha Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra who are now in a position to refuse to settle for roles where the heroine is little more than a showpiece. Small gains, but worth celebrating.
So if 2014 were to be given a title, I’d pick The Year of the Woman in Bollywood. This and all other developments discussed are reflected in The annavetticadgoes2themovies Awards for Best Films and Acting Performances in Bollywood in 2014:
WINNER: QUEEN DIRECTED BY VIKAS BAHL
Vikas Bahl must have been a woman in his last birth. Or perhaps he is a woman in drag? There can be few other conceivable explanations for how this man could understand a woman’s mind so perfectly. Well okay, here’s another viable possibility: unlike those who tell us the stories of women as defined by a male gaze, here’s a gentleman who clearly listens when women speak. The director’s own empathy and acute powers of observation combined with the skills of the writing team (story and screenplay – Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar, Bahl himself; dialogues – Anvita Dutt, Kangna Ranaut) resulted in Queen, the wonderfully entertaining, heart-warming coming-of-age story of Rani Mehra from Rajouri Garden.
Kangna delivered a career-defining performance as Rani, even astutely channelling the quavering voice that has been her Achilles heel since she entered films. She had the benefit of a sparkling supporting cast including the revelation of the year, Lisa Haydon, and Rajkummar Rao who had the courage to take on the role of the heroine’s highly dislikeable fiancé.
Single women who are not solely or primarily engaged in the task of falling in love with the hero or in some other relationship with him (sister, daughter, teacher, cousin, colleague) are a rarity in Hindi cinema. Team Queen could easily have played to the gallery by stereotyping Rani as a neurotic, frustrated creature the way Cocktail did in 2012 with Deepika Padukone’s Veronica, or they could have caricatured Rani to attract easy laughs. They did not. Their reward was the ecstatic viewer and reviewer response to their delicately nuanced, insightful, sensitive, realistic, thoroughly enjoyable film.
(For the original review of Queen click here)
FIRST RUNNER UP: FILMISTAAN DIRECTED BY NITIN KAKKAR
One of the best films of the year came and went without advertising itself from rooftops. It did however manage to draw in audiences. It’s good that glowing reviews from mainstream media critics and audience word of mouth on the social media can help films with limited marketing budgets, because writer-director Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan was certainly worth seeing. For one, it is rip-roaringly funny. For another, it is one of the most poignant and cleverly told tales on Indo-Pak relations to come to theatres in a long time.
Sharib Hashmi in Filmistaan played Sunny, an aspiring actor who is mistakenly kidnapped by Pakistani terrorists in place of an American they were targeting. Since this unknown Indian leaves them with little bargaining power, the hostage takers keep him imprisoned in a village on the India-Pak border until they can find their intended target. While there, the film-obsessed Sunny bonds with the locals, among them a smuggler of pirated Hindi film CDs called Aftab (Inaamulhaq), who too are in love with Bollywood.
Even when Filmistaan could have strayed into mushy, manipulative, tear-inducing territory, it kept a check on itself. With its crisp writing, incredible wit, fine balance between humour and gravitas, lovable, believable characters, sincere performances and inventive, sweet story, this one’s a gem of a reminder that art knows no borders. Waiting for your next film, Nitin Kakkar.
3: Haider directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
Few filmmakers in this world can adapt William Shakespeare quite like Vishal Bhardwaj. With Haider, Bhardwaj completed his stunning Shakespearean trilogy so deeply entrenched in the Indian soil. Maqbool/Macbeth and Omkara/Othello are well matched by Film No. 3, which was drawn from Hamlet. This was an adaptation that was begging to be made.
The brilliance of transposing the tragic Prince of Denmark to the bloodied snows of Kashmir was not the only awe-inducing aspect of this film though. Love, sexual tension, jealousy and family politics exploded against the backdrop of the terror-ridden state. Kashmir – wretched and strife-torn – was a character unto herself in Haider, though a trifle marred by a failure to convincingly weave the invisibility of Pandits into the larger landscape of the film and a couple of other moments of political awkwardness. These flaws could not, however, dwarf the gut-wrenching beauty or daring of Bhardwaj’s Haider.
Shahid Kapoor delivered an immersive performance as the titular character and Tabu was flawless as his young mother Ghazala. All these months later, the mere memory of Bhardwaj’s music, Gulzar’s lyrics and the choreography (particularly in the song Bismil) give me goosebumps. Considering the present political atmosphere in the country, it’s a miracle that this magical film was released at all. Thank goodness for miracles and magic.
(For the original review of Haider click here)
4: Dekh Tamasha Dekh directed by Feroz Abbas Khan
The funeral of a poor Hindu who, years back, converted to Islam when he fell in love and married a Muslim woman, was the focal point of this biting political and social satire. Through the scenario of politicians fighting over the body of Hamid Tangewala – formerly Kishan – Khan yanked the lid off a hypocritical society in which religion and votes matter more than a human being. It takes immense skill to tell such a tragic tale through the medium of humour – director Feroz Abbas Khan and writer Shafaat Khan achieved precisely that feat. Dekh Tamasha Dekh chronicled the absurd lengths to which communalists and politicians will go to prove a point and/or cling to a constituency. The funeral in the climax should rank among the best finales ever seen in a Hindi film. It was a stinging indictment of those who fail to recognise the diversity of customs across India and even within each micro-community in the country. That one scene alone was worth the price of a ticket and a place for the film on this list.
(For the original review of Dekh Tamasha Dekh click here)
5: Miss Lovely directed by Ashim Ahluwalia
It took almost two years for Ashim Ahluwalia’s debut fiction feature to make the journey from the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival to mainstream theatres at home. Miss Lovely’s struggles are a telling reminder that visibility and acclaim on the festival circuit are no guarantee of a mainstream release in India. Still, an optimist will note that the film did ultimately make it, and the wait – for those who had not already downloaded it or seen it at a fest – was well worth it. Miss Lovely was an unapologetically gritty, disturbing and matter-of-fact take on the crass sex-horror film industry that operated on the sidelines of Bollywood in the 1980s. The story revolved around Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who wants to make a sleaze flick in a trade where his slimy elder brother Vicky (Anil George) is already a well-established name. Ahluwalia’s firm direction was buttressed by an excellent cast, foremost among them being George, a remarkable talent from theatre. Miss Lovely’s costume design and art direction were particularly commendable for their unwavering fealty to the period in which it is set. Not an easy film to watch, yet so undeniably rewarding.
(For the original review of Miss Lovely click here)
BEST ACTOR (FEMALE):
WINNER: Kangna Ranaut in Queen
FIRST RUNNER UP: Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom
THE CONTENDERS (in alphabetical order):
3: Alia Bhatt in Two States
4: Anushka Sharma in PK
5: Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya
6: Rani Mukerji in Mardaani
7: Sonam Kapoor in Khoobsurat
BEST ACTOR (MALE):
WINNERS (tie): Shahid Kapoor in Haider and Sharib Hashmi in Filmistaan
THE CONTENDERS (in alphabetical order):
3: Aamir Khan in PK
4: Adil Hussain in Zed Plus
5: Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Miss Lovely
6: Rajkummar Rao in Citylights
7: Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi
8: Aditya Roy Kapur in Daawat-e-Ishq
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (FEMALE):
WINNER: Tabu in Haider
FIRST RUNNER UP: Lisa Haydon in Queen
THE CONTENDERS (in alphabetical order):
3: Amrita Singh in Two States
4: Mona Singh in Zed Plus
5: Tejaswini Kolhapure in Ugly
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (MALE):
WINNER: Anil George in Miss Lovely
FIRST RUNNER UP: Darshan Kumaar in Mary Kom
THE CONTENDERS (in alphabetical order):
3: Asif Basra in Ek Villain
4: Inaamulhaq in Filmistaan
5: Rahul Bhat in Ugly
6: Rajkummar Rao in Queen
7: Riteish Deshmukh in Ek Villain
8: Ronit Roy in Two States
9: Sushant Singh in Hate Story 2
Looking forward now to the awards season of 2015. Can any Hindi film actress better Kalki Koechlin’s performance in Margarita With A Straw or Anushka Sharma in NH10? What will the gentlemen offer us as the months go by? The conversation will continue next year.
[*Footnote: I’d like to clarify to those who are averse to the word “Bollywood” that I use it for practical purposes, with no pejorative intent, to signify the Mumbai-based film industry that produces films primarily in the Hindi language. I have discussed the use of this word at length in the Author’s Note in my book The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic.]
(1) Poster of Queen: bollywoodtrade.com
(2) Still from Queen: https://www.facebook.com/Queenthefilm
(3) Poster of Haider: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haider_(film)
(4) Stills from Haider: https://www.facebook.com/UTVMotionPictures
(5) Miss Lovely India poster: http://www.miss-lovely.com
(6) Filmistaan poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filmistaan(7) Dekh Tamasha Dekh poster: Everymedia PR