All Aboard a Ship of Hope

Bollywood made some godawful films,and some middling ones—but it also set sail on new seas

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: December 29, 2013 4:00:31 am

Looking back on the year that was,I find that Bollywood coasted right through on its customary two-steps-forward-three-back shuffle. But I’m still going to call it a glass half full,because 2013 gave me an Indian film that filled me with joy and wonder,and lifted me out of the jaded spirits all long-time film critics lapse into occasionally.

Anand Gandhi’s debut feature Ship of Theseus was my stand-out Indian film of the year. Its structure — three disparate segments that are tied with a leitmotif — was not new. What was striking was the treatment,limning thought and intelligence around important themes — life,the choices we make,and things that matter. A few portions did become excessively talky and stretched,but given the abysmal standard of most of the stuff that theatres are infested with,even the mildly annoying parts were easy to ignore,because the whole was wonderful.

The success of Ship of Theseus showed that there is an audience for a film like this,especially with heavyweight supporters like Kiran Rao and UTV Motion Pictures: on his own,the director would not have been able to release it as big and wide. This collaboration,the first of its kind,gives you hope of a future coming together of such crucial elements in the making and releasing of truly deserving films.

My other three top films of the year are Kai Po Che,Lunchbox and Shahid. The first was based on Chetan Bhagat’s The Three Mistakes of My Life,but director Abhishek Kapoor steered clear of glaring flaws when he crafted his affecting tale of three young people in the aftermath of a natural disaster and a man-made catastrophe in Gujarat. And gave us one of contemporary Bollywood’s best young faces in top form: Raj Kumar Yadav,as one of the three boys,makes this thing sing.

Yadav was as good,if not better in Shahid,in Hansal Mehta’s harrowing account of a real-life lawyer who learns that fighting for the rights of the weak is the right thing to do. If Hindi cinema can make space for films like Shahid,and provide a “dark-skinned” southern star a romcom to romp in (Dhanush in Raanjhana) my glass will never be half empty. And if it also gives me a gorgeous Dibakar Banerjee segment on the life of a struggling actor,and a sharply observed portrait of a crumbling marriage by Karan Johar,both in Bombay Talkies,my cup will sometimes floweth over.

Another favourite was Lunchbox,a savoury first feature by Ritesh Batra,which involved a Mumbai dabba going astray,and a couple of lonely people. Just as Rao became the guardian angel for SOT,Karan Johar helped Lunchbox,starring Irrfan,Nimrit Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui,get the release it deserved. It may not have been India’s official selection to the Oscars,but it is the one film,of all the ones that Bollywood made this year,that will travel the farthest,and forge new audiences in new places,not just stopping at nostalgia-laden NRIs. I liked the film; I loved the performances.

These were the good ’uns. Then there were the middling ones,the ones that occupied that tricky middle space — the could-have-beens. Vikramaditya Motwane’s beautifully shot period piece Lootera had a winsome,painterly quality about it at its best. But the passion that should ignite young love was missing,and in a film that is about that — the thing between a young man and woman — the lack becomes a problem.

Shuddh Desi Romance written by Jaideep Sahni was a romcom that should have sizzled because it started off with a commitment-phobic pair,both compatible and combustible. A girl who could do the bed bit without blinking,but was as leery about shaadi and mandap as the boy? Yeah,baby. But,and this is where this Yashraj film copped out,it didn’t take the premise all the way to a logical end. Pity,because it had some crackling lines,and the girl who has made good on the promise she showed in her first film: if Parineeti Chopra goes on the way she has begun,and stays away from becoming typecast as the “mad-bad-bubbly” girl,she can take the Bolly baton into unchartered territories.

What Hindi cinema needs,and has done for a long time,is a full-blooded,fully-developed love story. Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela,helmed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali came this close to it because he got his Ram and Leela,played by Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh,to burn it up. But the film drowned in noise and guns and bullets,and became much less than it could have. Anand L Rai’s Raanjhana could have gone somewhere if it had known what to do with its let’s-stalk-the-girl-till-she-says-yes thread: the thin line between pursuing and stalking got blurred somewhere,as did the confused second half. What has stayed with me is the terrific Dhanush,who made me believe in despite-all-odds-young-love again.

That leaves the stinkers. When I called R.. Rajkumar the worst film of the year,I was asked if it was “worse than Boss and Besharam’’. Yes,it was,because it had not a single redeeming quality. The common factors in these films (and I would add Himmatwala to this list) is that they were made by big production houses,fronted by big stars,and made strictly and solely with an eye on the box office. They were all also loud,regressive and disturbingly misoginyst: the fact that neither Boss nor Besharam did well is cause for some cheer.

But enough lousy films have made it past the Rs 100 crore mark for it to continue to be the only valid reason to make a film. R.. Rajkumar is Shahid Kapoor’s first hit in a long time. Can we expect him to become all pious and not do these films? No,of course not. Can we expect audiences to shun them? We complain bitterly,and then promptly line up at the box office. Will we see a difference going forward?

Not significantly,because most of our visits to the multiplex continue to be determined by hype and potential box-office figures. Last week’s Dhoom 3 was fashioned to be a huge hit before it even hit the screen. That is maths at work,not merit. The film,which had the mighty Yashraj Films and the most perfectionists of the Khans,Aamir,backing it,was more blah than waah. It is amassing crores like money’s gone out of business,and will probably end up breaking all box-office records. Does this mean those of us who weren’t enamoured by the film are wrong? No,all it means is that the great Indian audience is still unforgivably forgiving of its stars,and will embrace any lick-and-paint job if it gets some naach gaana,rona-dhona and dhishoom dhishoom. Just like always.

Onwards,to 2014.

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