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Monday, May 16, 2022

Ten must-watch Bollywood and indie movies from the 21st century

According to critics, the 1990s was lousy. But at the turn of the millennium, things got only worse. Just when all hopes were lost, miraculously, thanks to the emergence of a new breed of indie actors and directors, Bollywood veered towards a seismic shift whose legacy shapes it even today.

Written by Shaikh Ayaz | Mumbai |
Updated: May 8, 2020 10:38:07 pm
Bollywood movies Take a look at our pick of Bollywood and indie films from the 21st century.

Think of ‘modern’ Bollywood and two films stand out. Both so outrageously different from each other in their subject matter and visual styles that their very utterance in the same breath may sound like an outrage to cinephiles. Hold your horses. They are Satya and Dil Chahta Hai. Don’t be surprised if the first person to take offence at that declaration is Ram Gopal Varma himself, Satya’s ‘lost genius.’ And the man who had redefined the grammar of romance way back in the 1990s with Rangeela. But give yourselves a moment to let the comparison sink in. Scratch the surface and they do have a few things in common. Satya practically invented modern Bollywood realism. Set in Bombay’s gangster-land, it was, on one level, perhaps more fantasy than reality. According to the maverick RGV, today reduced to being a ghost from the past, Satya’s grittiness, starting with the title, was influenced by Govind Nihalani’s haunting Ardh Satya.

In other words, what Satya did to ‘realism’ what Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai did to urbanism, a game-changing debut that laid the groundwork for every urbane comedy that came after it. DCH wowed us with a fresh depiction of urban realism. Satya’s uncouth gangsters talk a lot like uncouth gangsters might, unless you personally happen to know a slick mobster who, as lyricist Gulzar once remarked, would invoke Ghalib instead of ‘Goli maar bheje mein’. On the other hand, Dil Chahta Hai’s on-point urban bon mots were probably the first time you heard the millennial-speak on a Hindi screen. Quips from the film continue to grace GIFs and memes.

Fuelled by trendy haircuts (that’s what happens when your wife owns a salon), Goa road trips and elite boys’ day-outing, DCH has, since its release in 2001, gathered a huge fan following. If, at times, the ensemble coming-of-age (starring Aamir Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Akshaye Khanna, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan), with its high production values, plays like an expensive ad-film blame it on director Farhan Akhtar (mining personal experience of privilege and rejection to pour into the script) who had cut his teeth in advertising before his film days.

Today, we may have lost Farhan Akhtar The Director to, unfortunately, Farhan Akhtar The Actor, his debut came at a time when Bollywood was in dire need of bold new voices. This was long before Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj and other harbingers of hope burst onto the scene to give us their own interpretation of ‘love’ as if to challenge Bollywood formula. While Karan Johar’s gloss factories were all about loving your family, Kashyap, Bhardwaj and the likes upended that idea in open defiance, espousing instead dysfunctional families and relationships that was probably more real than Johar’s designer emotions.

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Hindi cinema clocked in the millennium with Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest of them all, struggling to find his lost mojo via Mohabbatein, the birth of Hrithik Roshan (also, woefully, of Amisha Patel in Kaho Naa..Pyaar Hai) and a classic Akshay Kumar-Suniel Shetty camp called Dhadkan in which Bollywood’s resident Anna hammed away as a jilted lover. The hits of 2000 were mostly cut from the same cloth as those of the 1990s, the umbilical cord finally clipped open by the holy grail that was Dil Chahta Hai.

The decade 2000 may have had tentative beginnings, but in the end, as it turned out, it proved to be an invaluable era, which gave us dozens of influential films to cherish and think about – a legacy that continues even today. The most extraordinary development of 21st-century Hindi cinema is the unexpected rise of such diverse talents as Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao, Manoj Bajpayee, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Radhika Apte, Ayushmann Khurrana, Sriram Raghavan, Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal, to name a few. In an ecosystem of newfound freedom and new pecking order, Hindi films became a reflection of the society we were inhabiting and fiercely personal expressions of those making this uncompromising brand of cinema, helping explain a creative resurgence in Bollywood previously not seen. Whether it was a case of finally finding the pulse of the audience, a group of unconventional filmmakers forcing their refined, encyclopaedic taste on the audiences or simply, that the movie-goers got smart, it’s difficult to tell. Faith in good cinema was restored. As the boundaries between art and commercial fell like Berlin Wall, interesting stories emerged out of the rubble, breaking all rules and norms.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla (2003), Raju Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004) and Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009) were few of the cornerstones of the last decade. Film types are often wary of advertising, but it’s easy to forget how much advertising has enriched this medium. Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal should be enough to name-drop for now. Much like them, Dibakar Banerjee’s advertising background helped him break into films. A gentle comedy that immediately earned the debutant comparisons with the works of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Khosla Ka Ghosla is a slice of life that has steadily found its dedicated audience over the years. But unlike the beloved Mukherjee, the fellow Bengali’s career has forged a tantalizingly different future since.

Come 2005, and you have old guard Sudhir Mishra delivering his finest. Drunk equally on Marx and Ghalib, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi combines the director’s twin passions – poetry and politics. That we were living in momentous time could be judged from the fact that it was possible for Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap to make films alongside their predecessors like Mishra and Mira Nair. Incidentally, Nair brought in the decade with Monsoon Wedding, a 2001 crossover classic that, according to critic Philip French, was her “best film since her memorable 1988 debut, Salaam Bombay!”

Our ten titles reflect our attempt to whittle down the best from the post-2000 era, including recent ones like Piku, Mukti Bhawan and Dangal. Highly active and yet, more slow-paced than his peers, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani feature on our list. These two magnum opuses are best representative of SLB’s grand sensibility, visual style, his fine ear for music and his very ability to conjure visions of beauty. One historical epic at a time.

Listed alongside the epics are under-appreciated small films that some of you may have missed on initial release. We will let you discover those, along with the familiar ones. Feel free to disagree.

Padmaavat (2018)

‘Allah ki banayi har nayab cheez par sirf Alauddin ka haq hai’ – Alauddin Khilji

padmaavat Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor in Padmaavat. (Photo: Bhansali Productions)

The best Sanjay Leela Bhansali films are often, at heart, doomed love triangles – Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Saawariya and Bajirao Mastani. Top-lining Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, Padmaavat is no different. As always, Bhansali sets out to make a magnum opus and nearly achieves it this time. You can see the SLB touch in almost every frame, carefully crafted like a baroque mural that tells the saga of the warrior queen Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) and king Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) whose only purpose is to remind viewers of the many traits (guroor, usool etc) that define Rajput pride. Enter Alauddin Khilji, played by Ranveer Singh, Bhansali’s favourite muse. Khilji is an intruder, in their marriage and in India, with evil designs on both. From the time Bhansali introduces him womanizing on the day of his marriage, you know Khilji is unpredictably obnoxious but oddly exciting. Bhansali’s golden boy plays the powerful challenger to Delhi Sultanate with a mixture of gimmicky camp and pappy-show trickster. By turns an object of parody and pity, he stirs up enough dark forces to make Padmaavat his ace. Doubling up as director and music composer, Bhansali uses drama, set design, music, ambience and punchy lines worthy of K Asif to create an unmistakably SLB monument that’s as cinematically enigmatic as it is historically flawed.

Mukti Bhawan (2017)

‘Koshish karne se kaun marta hai’ – Mrs Verma

Mukti Bhawan A still from Mukti Bhawan. (Photo: Red Carpet Moving Pictures)

Given that Shubhashish Bhutiani’s relatively low-budget, no-star Mukti Bhawan is a meditation on ‘death’, you may be surprised to discover it’s so full of life, all of it sharply observed and with a tremendous sense of humour. Bhutiani pits modern India – of ever-ringing phones disturbing the peaceful family meal times, Skype chats in rundown cyber cafes, girls riding scooters – with the traditional India and its set-in-stone values and rituals. The film opens with the ageing Dayanand Kumar (Lalit Behl) declaring that his “time is up”. His dutiful son, the worldly-wise Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is a householder in the Hindu sense of the word. How to leave everything behind to accompany his father on his final journey to salvation? Reluctantly, more out of a sense of duty than love, the son agrees to a trip to Banaras, the holy Hindu city where Daya has chosen to die. The title Mukti Bhawan refers to a busy inn where old souls wander in to die, but as the innkeeper warns trenchantly at the start, “You have a maximum 15 days to die.” “After that?” asks a perplexed Rajiv. ‘Go home!’ Bhutiani has a knack for locating black humour in the most mundane of situations. So you have the inn-keeper brushing away a prying kid in the midst of offering pearls of wisdom about ‘salvation’ or when Rajiv replies with a wry (this might be the film’s funniest line) “Millionaires eat fruits, not sages” to his father’s demands to buy fruits for lunch after the old man is suddenly inspired to follow the diet of a sage. Rajiv’s relationship with dad Daya forms Mukti Bhawan’s emotional core and as the duo bond together (one scene set on the Ganges as Daya shares his wish to be reborn as a kangaroo is emblematic of the kind of humour this film revels in) despite Rajiv’s initial misgivings, the film’s message becomes clear: learn to let go.

Dangal (2016)

‘Mhari choriyan choron se kam hain ke?’ – Mahavir Singh Phogat

dangal box office aamir khan zaira wasim box office A poster of Aamir Khan starrer Dangal. (Photo: Aamir Khan Productions)

Few stars know the importance of ‘melodrama’ and its curious relationship with ‘entertainment’ in the Indian context as Aamir Khan. It’s this ability to successfully straddle the high and low art that has made him a box-office juggernaut. In Dangal, a sports drama inspired by the life of wrestler-coach Mahavir Singh Phogat and his gold-medalist daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, director Nitesh Tiwari knows just as surely as Khan and the rest of the talented cast do that this is an Aamir Khan vehicle all the way. In Rang De Basanti, Khan let other boys step up and save the day. This time, he’s going to power the climax despite the audience rooting wholeheartedly for the girls. The film’s main concern is how Mahavir (Khan), a small-time has-been who lumbers around the akadhas (ring) making life hell for his daughters (the song “Bapu, sehat ke liye tu toh hanikarak hai” is the girls’ fervent plea against daddy’s regime), will whip rookies Geeta (Zaira Wasim, Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar, Sanya Malhotra) into a gold-winning machine. The film begins with Mahavir craving for a male heir, but when his daughters come home after roughing up a local lad, he is quick to spot their hidden pugilistic talent. Like most Khan crowd-pleasers, Dangal is an emotional smack-down that is all too glad to throw in a smattering of social issues (patriarchy, women empowerment, institutional apathy, you name it).

Piku (2015)

‘Kamaal hai, aap har baat ko pet ke saath kaise jodd dete hain?’ – Rana, transport agency owner

piku movie Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan in Piku. (Photo: MSM Motion Pictures)

The last time Amitabh Bachchan played Bhaskar Banerjee was in Anand, an iconic 1971 tragicomedy that signalled the start of his extraordinarily long innings. More than four decades later, Bhaskar returns as a hypochondriac father to millennial Deepika Padukone in this slice of life. Director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi are fans of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s warm and quotidian comedies. In Piku, Bachchan serves as a link from the distant past, a timely reminder that Hrishikesh Mukherjee is long gone, but his influence is very much alive and kicking in new filmmakers. (Khosla Ka Ghosla might work as a nice double bill with Piku). Note the gentle irony: in Anand, Bhaskar was a doctor while Piku’s Bhaskar (or Bhashkor, as the film prefers to call him) is the kind of all-round mad hatter patient who would drive Anand’s serious and shy doctor Bhaskar up the wall. He is unduly obsessed with digestion – as most Bengalis are, apparently. Sircar contrasts the pesky and over-the-top Bhaskar with the quiet and strong-willed reserve of his daughter, Piku (Padukone). This film is about their unlikely bond. In one funny scene, Bhaskar tries to dissuade a young man who might be interested in her by saying, “She isn’t a virgin.” He doesn’t want her to get married and leave him to fend for himself. Piku is about family and parenting (with plenty of potty talk passing off as a typical Bengali brand of humour), but also about care-taking, a subject Sircar and Chaturvedi would revisit some years later in the unsung October (2018). Surprise: Irrfan Khan and Padukone’s unusual chemistry, as the film hurtles into a fun-filled road trip.

Bajirao Mastani (2015)

‘Aap humse hamari zindagi mang lete hum aapko khushi khushi de dete, par aap ne toh humse hamara guroor hi cheen liya’ – Kashibai

bajirao mastani Ranveer Singh in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani. (Express archive photo).

The hero of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani has to prove that he’s worthy of the throne of Peshwa. Aiming at his target, his sharp arrow hits the bull’s eye. The object is not the enemy’s head but a harmless peacock feather. Hidden beneath are mounds of symbolism. In Peshwa Bajirao’s (Ranveer Singh) telling, the peacock is a symbol of Mughal empire, the earth beneath is Indian soil while the fatal arrow belongs to the valiant Marathas. The peacock feather has symbolic resonance for the events to follow, as the much-married Maratha warrior falls for the Muslim Mastani (Deepika Padukone). This is a classic Bhansali contrivance – setting the stage for a star-crossed finale. Every remark and argument in Bajirao Mastani comes barbed with double-edged catharsis. As Mastani reminds Bajirao’s wife Kashibai (a scintillating Priyanka Chopra), “He held my hand but never left yours and forged a bond with me while ensuring yours wasn’t broken.” For Kashibai, this was a curse long in the making. There is a stellar scene at the outset when her widowed friend bearing her husband’s ashes cautions her that, like her, some day she would suffer for love. There you are, the quintessential SLB pining, torment and loss – every character goes through it, for the ‘triangle’ is nothing but a circle of agony and ecstasy.

Court (2014)

‘Tough times are here/We are uprooted from our soil/This era of blindness/Has gouged our eyes’ – Narayan Kamble’s poetry (Sambhaji Bhagat)

Court, National Film Award, 62nd National Film Award, Chaitanya Tamhane, Court is directed by Chaitanya Tamhane. (Photo: Zoo Entertainment Pvt Ltd)

The Indian justice system is famously sluggish. Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut observes the Indian pursuit of justice with cool detachment. The camera follows not just what goes on inside the court but also outside, into the life and mind of the gatekeepers of justice. Social activist and protest singer Narayan Kamble is arrested for the suicide of a sewage worker, who was inspired to take his life after listening to one of Kamble’s rousing folk songs. Much of this understated and spare film takes place in the Mumbai courtroom, as Kamble is summoned for the hearing. One of the most fascinating characters is defense attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) who, though representing the lower-caste Kamble, cannot be more socially removed from him. Privileged and a man of refined taste (a lover of cheese and wine and jazz), how can he truly consider himself a champion of the poor while living such an elite life himself? In comparison, public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) leads a simpler life, embodying middle-class ordinariness that puts her in the same social class as Kamble. Tamhane’s take on law and lawmakers is satirical and empathetic by turns, but the one thing that’s crucial to its success is how observational and objective it reveals itself to be. Well-acted (mostly a novice cast) and thought-provoking, Court is a triumph of naturalism.

The Lunchbox (2013)

‘Kabhi kabhi galat train bhi sahi jagah pohocha deti hai’ – Shaikh

irrfan khan Irrfan Khan in a still from The Lunchbox. (Express archive photo)

‘Lonely souls meet over Indian tiffin tins.’ That’s how The Guardian greeted Ritesh Batra’s festival favourite, starring the shape-shifting Irrfan Khan opposite Nimrat Kaur and an up-and-coming Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan was more creative. “Eat, stray, love,” he summed up. Otherwise known for their efficiency, Mumbai’s storied dabbawala service delivers the steaming hot lunchbox to widower Saajan Fernandes (Khan) instead of its rightful owner, housewife Ila’s (Kaur) husband. The dabbawala’s rare lapse results in one of the most charming love stories you will see in Hindi cinema, a throwback to the simpler aesthetics and unexceptional lifestyle that might make Mumbaikars a tad nostalgic. In an India Today interview, Batra gave some insight into the delivery error, “There are magic realist elements interspersed in the story. The audience can draw their own conclusions, but I don’t think it (delivery error) is a mistake. I feel it is a miracle.” Filmed with the slow-pace of a novel (which allows for nuanced character sketching), The Lunchbox is a masterful showcase of Irrfan Khan’s skills as he attempts to depict the inner life of an everyday office-goer who may have forgotten the meaning of hope, love and life itself. Ila stirs up his dormant emotions, and after a long exchange of clandestine letters tucked inside the lunchbox, the strangers finally muster up the courage to meet. One of the joys of The Lunchbox is the unlikely pairing of Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui but seeing the film, you may not be able to guess the symbolic passing of the torch – neither would an innocent viewer be able to predict Nawaz’s storied rise to stardom. This is a film about poetic, no-fanfare ordinariness, the tedium and thrum of unassuming lives and their longing, the Chhoti Si Baat, Baton Baton Meinand Wagle Ki Duniya of our times.

Ship of Theseus (2013)

‘Hamare har kaam ka prabhav kaal akash par rehte har parmanu pe padhta hai’ – monk Maitreya

Ship of Theseus A still from film Ship of Theseus. (Photo: Recyclewala Films)

When wunderkind Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus came out in 2013, Shekhar Kapur, Sudhir Mishra and Dibakar Banerjee instantly declared themselves as fans. Contemplative and highbrow, Ship of Theseus derives its power from the concepts of philosophy, identity, ethics and religion. For a filmmaker so young (Gandhi was only 33 at the time of its release), it was quite a mouthful. Inspired by Plutarch’s parable that poses the unusual question, ‘If all the ship’s parts are replaced over time, is it really the same ship?’ Ship of Theseus turns the thought experiment into a treatise using organ donation to underline human choice and morality. Unfolding in three parallel plots, the first features a blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) who’s coming to terms with her disability. Next, we meet the affable Jain monk (Neeraj Kabi as Maitreya) who is trapped between reconciling existence and survival with his staunch moral ethics and ideology that threatens his very life. Fighting to lessen ‘suffering’ of any kind, the wise man refuses treatment on the grounds that the medicines have been tested on animals. “What about the violence you’re committing on yourself by not taking medicine,” argues Charvaka, a young lawyer frustrated with Maitreya’s stubborn outlook. From Maitreya’s viewpoint, the answer to the heavy-duty question of ‘the meaning of life’ lies in “enlightenment and eventual liberation from the perpetual suffering of life and death.” The third – and most relatable episode – belongs to stockbroker Navin (Sohum Shah) who, seeking redemption, embarks on a journey all the way to Sweden to help a poor man get his kidney back. All three protagonists, like the fateful ship, have seen their body parts change. But who knows, a bit of their original selves lay buried somewhere in the rubble of their new bodies? Visually sublime, full of intelligent ideas and cerebral arguments and a tribute to cinema as a vessel for thought and philosophy, Ship of Theseus conjures a puzzle about life and existence and its mysteries and meanings. Also watch: Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad (2018) from the Gandhi stable is a visual feast, a Gothic myth come alive.

Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (2005)

‘Which is why I can’t understand you rich kids playing this ‘let’s change the world’ game. While you are looking for a way out I am looking for a way in’ – Vikram

hazaron khawishein Chitrangada Singh and Shiney Ahuja in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. (Express archive photo)

The dreamy-eyed, battle-hardened Sudhir Mishra was championing the ‘indie’ long before the term gained currency. And yet, the silver-haired, charismatically rambling filmmaker has had to fight for relevance almost every decade. Nobody is suggesting that all his films are great – he admits that some are “halki” (lightweight) – but the ones he’s most known for have survived the test of time. These include Dharavi (1991) and the cult Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin (1987) and Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996). By far, Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi is the most accomplished of the lot, a film as intensely personal as political that manages to strike the right note between the anarchy and romance of Mirza Ghalib and the misplaced idealism and emotional violence of Naxalism. Densely-layered and well-enacted, the 1970s Delhi-set Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi chronicles the lives of friends Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon), Vikram (Shiney Ahuja) and Geeta (Chitrangada Singh).

Socialist Siddharth rebels against his privileged background to bring in the revolution. Vikram is probably his opposite – a neglected son of a rich father who wants to get richer. He eventually becomes a powerful fixer in the Delhi circles. More balanced of the two, Geeta is their distraction. In her first outing, Chitrangada Singh bears a striking resemblance to the great Smita Patil making you wonder if Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi was made in the 1980s, with Patil cast opposite Naseer-Om Puri what sort of a film it would have turned into. Wishful thinking!

Meanwhile, Mishra enjoys putting all the empty talks of revolution, social justice, equality and change into his characters’ mouths. In scenes that might resonate more today, he opens the film in a JNU-like setting, where the children of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix are dancing and drinking the nights away even as they raise ‘laal salaams’ and dream of “peace and prosperity,” as the cynical Vikram puts it. Mishra’s wry humour is beautifully embedded into the script. For instance, the scene in which a rich landlord suffering a heart attack agrees to be treated by a lower-caste doctor, an heir apparent who still believes in socialism but cannot throw away the trappings of wealth or when Vikram urinates under the open sky, singing, “If there’s bliss, it is this.” The film is strongly driven by nostalgia. It’s both a paean and elegy to the 1970s’ dream and decadence, “a generation that I adored, also the generation that failed,” Mishra once told Outlook magazine, adding, “Besides, there is also beauty, youth and passion. And when it fades, the idea of love still remains.” No wonder, they call him an ‘incurable romantic.’

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Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

‘Hum cake khaane ke liye kahin bhi jaa sakte hai’ – Sameer

dil chahta hai Akshay Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai. (Express archive photo)

Friendship, road trips, coming-of-age and dysfunctional family are the core of Farhan and Zoya Akhtar’s cinema, and Dil Chahta Hai is their supreme achievement. More than that, the film is really about ‘love’ – and how the protagonists respond to it. Akash (Aamir Khan) is averse to love. “What is all this lovey-dovey stuff?” he asks the bubbly Shalini (Preity Zinta). She walks out on him, shrugging, “You won’t get it.” Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), on the other hand, confuses infatuation with love. More mature of the two, the reserved Sid (Akshaye Khanna) is the only one who truly understands the meaning of love. His love for the much-older Tara (Dimple Kapadia) runs deep, something that his family and friends do not fully comprehend at first. Farhan Akhtar’s launch-pad contains no philosophical musings into the nature of friendship and love, but pulls the right emotional punches. 19 years on, it remains as fresh and funny as ever.

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