In compiling year-ender lists, critics often find it hard to answer the near-abstract question — ‘So, how was this year at the movies?’ Let’s just say it was yet another exciting year in Bollywood, which had its share of hits and flops, the good ones and bad ones. Looking back, some trends emerge. And nothing encapsulated the mood of the movies better than spoonfuls of patriotic fervour that has become an indispensable ingredient in Hindi cinema recently. Hits like Gully Boy, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Mission Mangal, Manikarnika, Kesari and War prove that one surefire way of grabbing audience attention is to give them the adrenaline rush, or ‘josh’ to borrow from Uri’s ‘India-love’ lexicon. Phrases like ‘How’s the josh?’, ‘Surgical strike’ and the trusty ol’ ‘Jai Hind’ were on a new high in 2019. Indeed, such a trend shall continue until we exhaust all the patriotic possibilities that are in our arsenal. Now that Akshay Kumar has applied for an Indian passport, expect the game to be upped big time. Alright, that was a joke. (Or maybe, not).
Since Indianness was more than a passing buzz in Hindi films of 2019, we have a handful of them in our ranking, too. That’s purely because of their merit. Without further ado, here’s our list of 2019’s best Bollywood offerings. If you haven’t already seen them, a few are making the rounds on streaming sites.
Ayushmann Khurrana continues his winning streak — while maintaining his position as the chief exponent of the North Indian male identity crisis. Sorry, guys: whether it is about sex (his own in Vicky Donor and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan or his parents’ in Badhaai Ho), female voice (Dream Girl) or hair loss as in Bala, the exclusive right for modern Indian male anxieties have been sold to the highest-bidder, namely Khurrana. Directed by Amar Kaushik of Stree fame, Bala is a laughathon that looks at the impossible beauty standards set by India and the casual racism that has the power to give anyone a complex he/she isn’t likely to recover from easily. Honourable mention: superb performances by Bhumi Pednekar as Bala’s swarthy childhood friend, Jaaved Jaaferi as a Bachchan lookalike, Yami Gautam’s looks-obsessed Tik Tok star and the seasoned Seema Pahwa.
India’s official entry to the Oscars, Zoya Akhtar’s answer to Slumdog Millionaire follows a Muslim rapper (Ranveer Singh as Murad) from Dharavi who has his own Eureka moment when he discovers poetry slam and music of the street. Despite his impoverished father’s (Vijay Raaz) resistance (“a servant’s son can only be a servant”), Murad’s fixation with rap can be the only thing that will redeem him. Surely, there are rap battles to be won — but also inner battles and personal conflict. Director Akhtar is a patron saint of coming-of-age, usually set among Juhu-Bandra’s dysfunctional fat-cats. But this is no rich boy’s angst. Murad is Akhtar’s poorest character, yet. Also her angriest and maybe the richest.
When was the last time you had so much fun at the movies? A pure popcorn entertainer that makes you want more? War is easily the sassiest and raciest thrill-machine Bollywood has seen in a while. The Siddharth Anand caper has a lot going for it. Trigger-happy Hrithik Roshan’s hot-bod, bronzed sexiness. Tiger Shroff’s lean-mean balletic energy. Yes, the duo also appear in a dance together and face-off against each other in exotic locales straight out of CNN Traveller spreads. Plot is simple: Kabir (Roshan) is an agent gone rogue. His protégé Khalid (Shroff) is on his tail. There are slick car and bike chases, Bond-inspired mano-a-mano on a speeding flight and other daredevilry. Plenty of talks about terrorist plots, double agents, surveillance, plastic surgery and national security — all of which is genuinely glamorous, in an old-world, ’70s-style manner. What’s more, given the sharp patriotic turn that Bollywood has taken in recent years, Anand finds a way to end the film with ‘Jai Hind.’
Like War, Section 375 pits the mentor against pupil, this time in a courtroom. “Justice is abstract. Law is a fact,” quips old-hand Saluja (Akshaye Khanna), addressing a gathering of aspiring lawyers. At the film’s opening, the infamous Nirbhaya case is invoked. Shortly, Saluja finds himself defending a film director Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhat), accused of rape. In the time of the contentious Me Too movement, Section 375 has the power to open a can of worms. Much of the film transpires inside a court as the judges hear the arguments and counter arguments from Saluja and public prosecutor and his former underling Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chhada). While the Me Too movement has generated sympathy in favour of women who are often the victims of male predation, director Ajay Bahl, it seems, wanted to upend this narrative. More than halfway into the movie, the audience is reminded that there may be a thin line between consent and culpability.
Uri: The Surgical Strike
Arguably the hottest property of the year (a toast of the industry as well as politics), Aditya Dhar’s war-fest shall be best remembered in the coming years as a symbol of a belligerent India. Or “new India,” as Govind Bhardwaj (Paresh Rawal) puts it. To avenge the 2016 Uri attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist outfit, Bhardwaj proposes a surgical attack on PoK launchpads. Bhardwaj is India’s wily National Security Advisor modelled on his real-life counterpart Ajit Doval. If Israel can carry out a similar retaliatory attack on Palestine without facing international sanctions, why not India on Pakistan? And so begins a covert operation to take down Pakistan’s terror dens. It’s apt that a character bearing more than a resemblance to PM Narendra Modi shows up to lead from the front, at the very top level. He’s played by Rajit Kapur, who persuades a reluctant Major Vihaan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) from near-retirement to serve his “motherland.” The metaphor couldn’t be clearer — Vihaan’s own mother (Swaroop Sampat) needs him. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. But Mother India beckons, too. He belongs on the border, as someone says in the film. Taut and twisty, Uri: The Surgical Strike recreates the operation with brutal precision and dramatic suspense, offering audiences a glimpse into India’s intelligence and military response. Think of edge-of-the-seat thriller like Zero Dark Thirty. But the mother motif at its heart makes it a quintessentially, dyed-in-the-wool Hindi film.