Did the year 2018 turn out to be exactly memorable for Bollywood? Hard to say. Films come and go, years tick by and countdown lists are duly cranked out by cine-omnivores every December. And, yet, nobody will ever fully know the mysterious alchemy that makes a film truly unforgettable. Looking back, what can be safely said about 2018 is that it was the year of medium-scale films, especially those fronted by Ayushmann Khurrana, Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal.
Khurrana is fast emerging as 2018’s Rajkummar Rao (who himself was 2016-17’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui), with consecutive hits in Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho. An indie darling, Vicky Kaushal rocked the mainstream space with Raazi, Manmarziyaan and a welcome comic turn in Sanju as titular Sanjay Dutt’s (Ranbir Kapoor) Gujju sidekick. Both Khurrana and Kaushal vie with Taapsee Pannu for the ‘Best Actor of 2018’ tag. A solid contender to that title, Pannu followed her strong performance in Mulk with Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan, a musical ode to Amrita Pritam. The Pink star, in an author-backed role, brought chunks of spunk to the badass Rumi.
2018 has also seen many young and debutant filmmakers on a roll. Hail Rahi Anil Barve, Amit Ravindernath Sharma and Amar Kaushik! May your tribe thrive.
This is not to say that the big sharks were in decline. But for every Akshay Kumar and Ranbir Kapoor who did reasonably well there were Aamir Khan and Salman Khan whose Thugs of Hindostan and Race 3, respectively, were rather meh. Among mainstream stars, 2018 was swell for lovebirds Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. Professionally, Kapoor gave his career’s biggest hit in Raju Hirani’s Sanju while Bhatt continued her winning streak with Raazi.
The ever-dependable Rajkummar Rao, who was a toast of 2016-17, had a mixed year. Sort of. The hilarious Stree which saw him as a local tailor coming under a ghostly spell is among the year’s big winners, thus finding a spot in our countdown to the five best Bollywood films of 2018.
An Indian girl marries the son of a Pakistani army officer. This is no ordinary girl. She’s a spy and her name is Sehmat, brought alive on screen by Alia Bhatt. The Meghna Gulzar spy caper once again proves Bhatt as an acting powerhouse, who had previously wowed critics with a hard-hitting portrayal in Udta Punjab (2016).
Intrepid Sehmat, a RAW undercover agent, picks up the threads which her ailing father had left. She uses her marriage to Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal), son of a Pakistani military officer, to rat on the enemy.
Raazi combines the dirty intelligence-gathering that goes on both sides of the border on one hand with a more balanced and humanistic idea of patriotism and what you can do for your country, on the other. It’s one of those rare films that does not go all bombastic on Pakistan, reminding us that people across the LoC, too, are just like us. As with Talvar, Meghna Gulzar displays a knack for handling a complex subject with fast-paced plotting and enough twists and turns to keep a regular viewer hooked.
Based on a “ridiculous phenomenon,” first-timer Amar Kaushik’s Stree is a horror comedy, on the lines of Go Goa Gone. No coincidence, then, that the two films share the same writers — the two-headed directors, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.
A novel take on a popular folktale, Stree is about a female ghost (Shraddha Kapoor) terrorising Chanderi, a village in Madhya Pradesh. Seeking retribution for male cruelty and humiliations, she preys exclusively on men (usually hunting at night). If only the rest of real-life India were as safer for women as Chanderi! Anyway, to defuse the ghost’s evil intent, the only solution seems to be to put up a sign outside your home that reads, ‘Aye woman, come tomorrow.’
This is a smart, tightly-edited film with an open-interpretation ending in which the principal cast Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee appear to be having a blast. Ditto the audience.
Ayushmann Khurrana has scored big this year. The reason could be his interesting choice of scripts. First Andhadhun, then Badhaai Ho. Both released within weeks of each other in October. Usually, two films in such close succession is career suicide. But in Khurrana’s case, they turned out to be blockbusters. Lucky streak!
Khurrana, who has a soft corner for quirky subjects (sperm donation in Vicky Donor and erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), plays a man trapped in an awkward situation. The Kaushiks are a regular middle-class Delhi family. Until, Khurrana’s middle-aged mother (Neena Gupta) discovers she is pregnant. Director Amit Ravindernath Sharma uses this thread to give us some of the funniest everyday comic moments of 2018. The senior Kaushiks (Gupta and screen husband Gajraj Rao) become an object of curiosity. Then, one day, the embarrassed Khurrana accepts the reality of his situation. When teased by friends about his mother’s unexpected pregnancy, he tells off one with, “Tere liye toh mera baap hi kaafi hai.” The father, who had till then done nothing extraordinary in life, finally becomes a hero in the eyes of his children, oddly by way of becoming a father once more. One commentator interpreted it as a “spiritual sequel” to Vicky Donor. Now, that’s a fun way to look at this refreshing comedy!
Could this be Sriram Raghavan’s best noir? It’s certainly one of his most darkly enjoyable. Watch the absurd scene where the blind pianist (Ayushmann Khurrana) has walked into a murder. He sits there, as Tabu, the adulteress, cleans out her dead hubby’s body. At hand is her lover, a bulked-up cop who eats dozens of eggs at breakfast lovingly prepared by his wife and unloads all the protein in bed with another woman. (This is his betrayed wife talking). Add to this mix a doctor and his shady organ racket and what you have is probably the raciest and craziest thriller of this year. Wait till you get to the bizarre climax. No spoilers: We will leave you to crack the ending on your own. Oh wait, a word of caution: hold on to your liver!
‘The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.’ The Mahatma Gandhi quote sets the stage for director Rahi Anil Barve’s debut. That quote is the film’s guiding moral force but Vinayak Rao (Sohum Shah), Tumbbad’s protagonist, is unfazed by Gandhi even though the future Father of the Nation is omnipresent. In one scene, he is seen mumbling about how Gandhi’s ‘female empowerment’ speech has messed up women’s heads. It’s clear that Vinayak Rao is no fan of Gandhi. ‘Greed’, as he proudly declares, is the only quality he has. And he uses it to disastrous consequences.
Based on local folklore, this fantasy epic is set in the village of Tumbbad, where an ancient curse has wrapped it in a year-long fog and thunderous rain. As Vinayak explains, demon god Hastar is a boon for his family, from whom he steals gold coin to feed his debauched lifestyle. But greed runs thicker than blood in the Rao clan. Vinayak’s young son is a step ahead of him. He wants the entire pot of gold buried in Hastar’s rear in their crumbling family mansion. Divided into three episodes, spanning 1918 to 1947, director Barve has described the three chapters as an allegory on the changing faces of 20th century India. The first chapter is a parable on feudalism (Vinayak’s mother was content with one mudra, or gold coin) followed by imperialism (Vinayak wants more) and finally, capitalism (Vinayak’s son wants it all).
Visually arresting, Tumbbad is a marvel of atmospheric chill. Most of the film is set in darkness, sometimes the only source of light is a lantern or the good ol’ fire. While Hollywood has gone all hammer and tongs at post-apocalyptic, planet-is-in-danger parables in the recent decade, it’s remarkable to see the rain-soaked Tumbbad take the opposite approach, going primitive and all the way back into earth’s womb. It taps into our homegrown traditions to conjure a terrifyingly compelling portrait of a family with a slice of mystery, horror fairytale but mostly, nightmarish sound design primordial enough to give you the scares. And it’s not just cheap, creepy scares. It’s psychological high-concept blood-curdling that appeals to both your brain and the senses.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)