Here’s where we are, on the last Sunday of the decade.
The Khandan, the mighty trio of Salman, SRK and Aamir, is in a holding pattern. Bhai’s latest may not have tanked exactly, but there is no doubt that he and his minders are fresh out of ideas if the deathly Dabangg 3 is anything to go by. Shah Rukh Khan is looking for a complete makeover, and has reached out to Aashiq Abu for his new venture: how Abu, whose idiom is so strongly rooted in Kerala, will manage to function in Bollywood and keep his singularity intact, is anyone’s guess. And Aamir Khan’s new film, a remake of Forrest Gump is still a year away.
The other male A-listers Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn have been energetically waving the flag in their sanskari films, all of which have had predictable, ho-hum arcs. I am tired of their flailing about in their Padmans and Toilets and Housefulls and Singhams: you may get full houses, no restrictions on idiocy, bad taste and sycophancy, but there’s no sparkle. Akshay, though, may have found the light in Good Newwz, in which he is reunited with his brash, bawdy, jokester self. How about more where that came from, Mr Kumar?
The A-list ladies have striven and come up top in ways that haven’t happened before. Kangana Ranaut, Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Katrina Kaif have made some interesting choices. A few, like Queen worked all the way; Pari, on the other hand, was garbled but brave. Most of these top leading ladies have struck out on their own, and though they are still bringing up the rear in hero-driven vehicles, they are also setting up their own production houses to be able to do stuff that needs doing.
Looking at the splashy schmaltzy universe of the big-budget, backed by big production houses, star-heavy films, one thing is clearer than ever before: only good, solid writing can rescue Bollywood from the creative stagnancy it finds itself in.
The films that have caught our fancy are the ones that have plots which give off at least a smidgeon of newness, or wrestle with a Big Idea, while keeping things real. Sperm donation (Vicky Donor). An alien who forces us to take a hard look at religious hypocrisy (PK). Erectile dysfunction (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan). Constipation, and the troubles that arise thereof (Piku). Getting off, both male (Delhi Belly) and, gasp, female (Veere Di Wedding) Oh yeah, oh yeah. Or the ones in which caste and class and religion are dusted off and put in the middle of the frame– Shahid, Mulk, Article 15. Or the ones which dared to challenge patriarchy, and sexism so effectively in Anarkali of Arrah, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and in the quiet, powerful Soni. Or explore same sex love (Kapoor and Sons and Aligarh, and the more thorny intersectionality of disability and sexuality. (Margarita With A Straw).
2020 onwards, we will see old styles crumbling even if the big-budget tentpoles will stay firmly in the centre of the canvas: nothing can dislodge the pleasures of a massively-mounted, well-done masala movie. Baahubali parts one and two, have changed the perception of Indian movies in the eyes of the world: S S Rajamouli went small and smart with Eega, experimented with bigger with Magadheera, and then exploded with the twin towering mythological sagas: now every single ‘big’ movie has to compete with Baahubali.
Bigger, yes. Creating a larger scaffolding or a larger set may be possible. Better? That’s the challenge. More sensitive towards the rights of women, working in front of, and behind cameras, in these post-MeToo times? Fingers crossed on that one. Will the OTT platforms radically change the landscape? The initial big-ticket series on Netflix and Amazon (Sacred Games, Made In Heaven) have grabbed eyeballs, and taken away from the box office: if interesting moving images are being streamed in the comfort of your home, and your time, why go to the theater? These are questions all film industries around the world are grappling with. Bollywood is decidedly feeling the tremors.
Meanwhile, here are the films that made my decade. Some for creating brand new metrics to measure heroism, both male and female. Some for breaking out of mouldy molds. All for telling us, all over again, why we love the movies.
Band Baaja Baraat (2010): This Yash Raj smash-hit managed multiple things. Dived back into the safe, tried-and-tested zone of ‘shaadi-vaadi-pyaar-vyaar’, in order to rub off the humiliating failure of 2009’s Rocket Singh, one of YRF’s best, most original films. Cemented our enduring love for plots set against the great Indian marriage, served with a new-agey twist. Placed Delhi, and (haww) pre-marital sex, at the centre of the Bollywood map. Gave us a sparkling new romantic pair in Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma. Created one of the decade’s most popular stars: on the cusp of the new decade, Singh is on the top of the Bolly heap. Sharma thrives too, as an actor and producer.
Udaan (2010): Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut, and Bollywood’s first true coming of age film, blew me away. So many mint-fresh protagonists in a moving, affecting, sharply unsentimental portrayal of teenage angst. A father who routinely brutalizes his sons (Ronit Roy is flat-out fabulous), an exploration of patriarchy and masculinity that tamps down on joy and laughter, and the desire to be free. I have seen it multiple times, and liked it better each time.
Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010): The catchy title was a stroke of genius from producer Ekta Kapoor, but the film is no laughing matter. Dibakar Bannerjee trained his lens (several, actually) on the things we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone talk about. Caste, class, discrimination, violence, sexual extortion, come disturbingly together in the tryptich (three strands which connect in the end) in an urgent, brutal, demanding watch. (In its uncut version, you see a female head separated from her torso in the most dishonorable killing: I have never been able to forget it). It has remained highly relevant, an uncanny precursor to the question we have been left asking: what is the meaning of privacy in the time of social media? You Are Always Being Watched.
Vicky Donor (2012): The arrival of Ayushmann Khurrana, and the beginning of the makeover of the Bollywood hero. This Shoojit Sircar directorial created history by getting a ‘hero’ to do things no hero had done before – giving middle-aged ladies a ‘padicure’ in his mum’s middle-class Lajpat Nagar parlour, becoming a sperm donor (we see vials of the stuff in his hand, as he comes out of a room where he’s been made to, you know, gulp, masturbate) in order to help childless couples. There’s also a granny who drinks. We gave the film and Khurrana a big thumbs up, and he has gone from strength to strength, dismantling the singing-dancing-three-bags-more hero one film at a time. Now films are being written for him, and he is certifiably one of the biggest game-changers in Bollywood.
Paan Singh Tomar (2012): Those of us who had grown up on a diet of colouful daakus on horses romancing ghagra-clad shy maidens had a rude shock when Sholay’s Gabbar came out of his ravines, in khakis and boots. Bandit Queen deep sixed that romanticized notion of a daku, as Seema Biswas’s Phoolan Devi raised her gun aloft. And with the brilliant Paan Singh Tomar, Tigmanshu Dhulia gave us a baaghi, not a daaku, a rebel with a cause, a character so real that you could smell the dust of the Chambal on his fatigues. Irrfan Khan was terrific as Paan Singh, and his line ‘Daaku toh sirf sansad mein hote hain’ is a stayer.
Gangs Of Wasseypur, part one and two (2012): There has never been a gangster film with such a long wagging tail, such an engaging tale and such crackerjack characters. Anurag Kashyap’s testosterone-filled soaring epic is Bollywood’s most cinematic, enjoyable blood-and-gore-and-invective-laden gangsta rap. The music matched the film’s raucous imagery. The actors were fabulous (Manoj Bajpayee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Pankaj Tripathi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Piyush Mishra, and a whole phalanx of supporting characters). And oh the lines: ‘tum se na ho payega’ or ‘keh ke lenge/loonga’, or ‘permission toh leni chahiye thi na’. Which one is your favourite?
Ship Of Thesus (2013): Anand Gandhi’s debut feature asks the existential question: if you take parts of someone/something away, do they remain the same? A blind photographer learning to look, an ailing monk learning the meaning of life, a stockbroker understanding what empathy truly is, and all these disparate characters finding a common link: these circularities weren’t something we had seen before in Bollywood, which is not really known for dealing with the abstract. The film’s characters, structure, and sheer visual sparkle helped make the esoteric familiar. And memorable.
The Lunchbox (2013): Ritesh Batra’s debut feature is a gently observed relationship drama between a sliding-down-the-slope-of-middle-age widower and a lonely young wife. A ‘dabba’ reaches the wrong person, and a connection is made. Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin are all very good in this flavoursome ode to loneliness, a recurring theme in Batra’s work. The Lunchbox created history by becoming the most successful Bollywood box office story in non-NRI pockets in Europe.
Titli (2014): Kanu Behl’s striking debut feature is set on the outskirts of Delhi. This is not the capital of expansive streets and green parks and roundabouts filled with flowers. Nary an India Gate or Qutub Minar in sight. What we see in Behl’s terrific film is a city growing upon itself, despite itself, its borders being stretched to accommodate the no-where people who live here (if you can call it living), trying to hack a life. A broken family, comprising a father and three sons (Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Shashank Arora, Lalit Behl) and their violent doings, leave us shattered. Can they ever escape the cycle of abuse? Can Titli, the youngest, break free? The film is deliberately unsettling, and a powerful testament that patriarchy damages us all. Men too.
Queen (2014): Queen was the break-out movie which gave us a Dilli girl coming of age in Paris, having put behind her the catastrophic occurrence of having being dumped by a guy who is a class A entitled jerk. Instead of sobbing and asking for forgiveness, Rani, played superbly by Kangana Ranaut, takes off, and finds herself. And we found a real, live, breathing girl that we could take home. Yes, Bollywood heroines could.
Ankhon Dekhi (2014): I am still thinking about this Rajat Kapoor gem, in which we get not just characters we hadn’t met before, but a whole texture that we hadn’t experienced before. Kapoor has always been an exponent of spiky comedy-of-manners, but here he creates something rare in Hindi cinema: whimsy. I will only believe what I see with my own eyes, declares his protagonist, the Purani Dilli dweller Babuji ( Sanjay Mishra has never been better): kar lo jo karna hai. Mystical, magical, unforgettable, one of Bollywood’s most unusual films of the decade.
Masaan (2015): Debutant Neeraj Ghaywan brought a clear-eyed harrowing intensity to his tale of star-crossed youthful lovers negotiating the cusp of modernity and aspiration in the ancient town of Banaras. It was Vicky Kaushal’s debut, and he shows just how talented he is, in a role that could so easily have turned banal. Small town restrictions, sexual repression, young women struggling to break barriers — Masaan is a riveting look at today’s India. It introduced us to major new talents: I am now waiting for Ghaywan’s next.
Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha (2015): For a Bollywood movie to topline an ‘overweight’ or plus-sized leading lady, and that too from Yash Raj Films who created the infamous Size Zero, with the help of Kareena Kapoor Khan and her wisp thin waistline (remember Tashan?). That was the USP of this wholly winsome Sharat Kataria debut, and what was nice was that our lady isn’t forced to go off to shed the weight. She is happy as she is. Yay. And she gets her petulant spoilt-brat of a husband to accept her the way she is. Double yay. Khurrana was wonderful; as was debutant Bhumi Pednekar, who also hasn’t looked back since.
Pink (2016): ‘No Means No’. This one-line anthem. which rippled out from the movie, quickly became more than just a line, and has continued to reverberate today when more and more women are coming out with their stories of harassment and worse at the hands of male predators.
It didn’t matter that it was spoken in the film by the big male star, Amitabh Bachchan. It didn’t matter that Bachchan’s legal eagle is the saviour (in court) of the three girls’ and their ‘honour’, as they battle against ingrained misogyny and powerful male adversaries.
What mattered was that the trio, which included flavour-of-the-season Taapsee Pannu, was shown to be dealing with the casual sexism that so many women face on a daily basis. And the kind of comments they have to combat when a seemingly harmless dinner date turns into a nightmare. What mattered was that they fought even when they were scared. And most of all, what mattered was that they won. Pink beat the drum for equality, and was determinedly feminist while doing so. Win-win.
A Death In The Gunj (2017): Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is a finely-written, beautifully-acted film on the evils of bullying, the pressures of being a man, and the problems of being a single, attractive woman. A clutch of consummate actors, chief amongst them being Ranvir Shorey, Gulshan Devaiah, Vikrant Massey, Tillotama Shome, Kalki, Tanuja, Om Puri, hold us in thrall as they bring alive an India of the 70s, in a tiny colonial town which is busy fending off the pulls of the past, while feeling the pushes of the present.
Sen Sharma posts notice of a helmer to watch out for, and Massey’s besieged young man trying to come to grips with his overpowering family will haunt me for a long, long time.
Anarkali Of Arrah (2017): Another debut feature, from Avinash Das, about a folk dancer who stands up for herself against insurmountable odds. The film becomes what it is because of deep authenticity in terms of setting, language and characters: Swara Bhaskar goes full throttle at the woman who entertains an assembly of mostly men, men who think she is game for anything, especially a deeply entitled prominent lustful Arrah citizen (Sanjay Mishra), while owning her sexuality. It is a marvellous performance, in a film with its gender politics squarely in the right place.
Newton (2017): Amit Masurkar’s Newton is a miracle. Employing a deceptively straight-forward style, it takes us into one of India’s least-known places, the forest of Dandakaranya, deep in Naxal country. A bound-by-rules rookie election agent, played by Rajkummar Rao, learns some life lessons as goes about setting up his polling booth. As he and his companions (Raghubir Yadav, Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil) wait for the tribals to show up, he understands what it means to be so far away from what we term civilization, and how we, callous city slickers, need to learn more about the country we live in. A hard-hitting, savage serio-comedy which asks: does casting our vote make us citizens with rights? The question Newton poses can be flung just as easily out into the ether today, as the young protest and claim the streets: who, indeed , is Indian?
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017): Being a woman constantly under the thumb of their menfolk is a dismal reality. A college-going student, or a sexually adventurous beautician, or a wife trying to find her way out of an abusive marriage, or a middle-aged universal buaji who is dying to explore her sexuality: this quartet finds a camaraderie which keeps them going, and finally, when the going gets tough, they choose to keep going.
Alankrita Srivastava’s creation of the claustrophobic Bhopal setting, and these characters, especially Ratna Pathak Shah as buaji, is spot on. You feel for these women, you want them to be set free, and the payoff has weight.
Mukti Bhawan (2018): Does death really come as an end? Or is it just another stage of life that some of us aspire towards? Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut feature takes us down paths that Bollywood hasn’t cared to tread: the only way the final destination is shown in our mainstream movies is picturesque shamshaan ghats, burning pyres and characters wearing pristine white kurtas. In Mukti Bhawan ( English title – Salvation Hotel), an old man actively works towards his death in a rickety ashram in Banaras, with his reluctant son in tow: for a film with such a morbid subject, it is surprisingly upbeat without becoming sentimental. Lalit Behl as the death-seeker is solid, and Adil Hussain, as the ultimately supportive son, is near-flawless.
Mulk (2018): Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk needs to be essential viewing, especially these days, when it is more imperative than ever before to keep India’s syncretic traditions alive. Hindu-Muslim ekta, the fight against legislations that divide people on religious lines, and the corrosive lines that divides communities: these are all part of Sinha’s impactful film, which feels more fact than fiction. Who is Us and who is Them?
Tumbaad (2018): Can greed ever be good? How much is enough? Can someone who is enslaved by the very act of acquisition ever stop?
Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbaad has to be the most vividly cinematic film of the decade: the screen is drenched with rain (it always rains in accursed Tumbaad) and the sights and sounds of the mouldering mansion which housed the monster: I can still feel the dampness and desire that wafted off the screen.
Sohum Shah as the man who exemplifies I-want-more, whether it is the sensual company of women, or the seductive clink of gold coins, is astonishingly good. As is the film: something like this, part horror, part myth, part supernatural cautionary tale wrapped in terror and enigma, has never come out of Bollywood.
Gully Boy (2019): Mixing the anger of street rap, reflecting the real-time angst of a slum-dweller, doubling as a rallying cry for the have-nots against the thoughtless tyranny of the haves, Zoya Akhtar’s film is a lot of things. Her protagonists, played by Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, are Muslim, but that’s not the most distinctive thing about them: what is, is the insistent desire to get out of a stultifying life and aim for something better.
A mainstream film which catches the zeitgeist with such felicity and ferocity, despite its nods to filmi tropes, is a huge achievement. We are, at heart, all gully boys. And girls. And we are, as we speak, coming out and spilling what’s in our hearts and minds. Look around.
Article 15 (2019): Anubhav Sinha returns, within a year, to showcase the ugliness of caste, and how it is the insidious thing which has kept us in our place for centuries: ‘santulan mat bigaadiye,’ says Manoj Pahwa’s Brahmin local cop to Ayushmann Khurrana’s English-speaking ignorant- of-local-ways outsider. But Khurrana’s job is just that, and we see, as he fumbles and mumbles, and finally draws a bead on the culprits in this brisk police procedural cum sharp social commentary, just how deep the fault lines are.
The film has got flaws, sure. The portrayal of the Dalits-as-victims, those that go into manholes and emerge coated in human filth, may be restrictive, but Article 15 is more than the sum of its parts. It tells us that it is entirely possible to make films that mean something, and that the constitution is worth saving.