The lousy vanity vehicles were the big hits,but the good films were some of the best you would have seen.
Is it possible to see,at rough count,around 300 films in 365 days and still have to pause when you are asked that inevitable question: so which were your best/worst films of the year? I dread Decembers for this FAQ,which makes me go,well,um,let me think. But its safe to say that Two Thousand Eleven has left me in a state of elevated despair,and I will explain the contradiction like so: the bad films were as terrible as they have ever been,maybe worse,because throwing good money after an awful product was at a height. But,and heres where it makes me feel better,some of the good ones were amongst the best I have seen.
The lousy ones were lousy in the ways they have always been. Bloated vanity vehicles,built around their male stars,forcing their female stars to be as incidental as story and sense. Scripts,plots,characters,all pointless. Because the audiences will come anyway. And they did. All the films which maxed out on these parameters,topping my list with Ready and Thank You,got them streaming in. Just below these two are Bodyguard and Singham,both of which colorised the original Southern versions with North Indian patois,and made their stars work a little harder to lower the general idiocy quotient a little. But not by much. Because that would ruin the whole purpose of the films,wouldnt it?
The other big budget,big star,baaad movie was Ra.One. I am putting this in a category by itself because of its astounding special effects,of a quality we havent seen in an Indian film. No,not even in Rajinis Robot. But what intrigued me is the discrimination that the audiences showed in Salman bad and Shah Rukh bad: the Salman fan proved that his loyalty had nothing to do with what he was watching,because Bhai is now bigger than his films; the SRK fan,on the other hand,was stopping to assess her idol. Don 2 is still out in theatres as we speak,but there is very little doubt that 2011 hasnt been quite the year that this Khan hoped for. If Ra.One was supremely silly,Don 2 is grindingly empty.
A sentence I read in a Tigmanshu Dhulia interview some months back seems to me to be the abiding force behind most of these films. Dhulias Saheb,Biwi Aur Gangster pulled the director out from that place where lurk the indie-spirited,luckless filmmakers who have tremendous skills but are forced to create junk because there is no money or appetite for adventure any more. Saheb,Biwi Aur Gangster had great atmosphere,sultry women going for slutty,some nice lines,but came off as fake,as a film that had been made from the outside in.
And then I chanced upon the Dhulia comment on how the film came about: the title came first,then the location,then the script. Reading it several times over didnt change it to the reverse. What was Dhulia thinking? Or was this backasswards diktat from his financial backers? Then it came to me. If Dhulia had made the film with the same ferocious authenticity he displayed in his brilliant first film,Haasil,his Saheb,Biwi Aur Gangster wouldnt have become a talking point at urban soirees,and he wouldnt be getting interviewed in mainstream publications.
Does it matter if good directors like Dhulia construct their films on someone elses creative terms because thats what gets them in? As long as he,and others like him,are still out there,there is some hope. Because the bulk of the box office,year on year,is a handmaiden to the big-budget tentpoles which are not even trying. Because there are two Bollywoods. One belongs to super-starry excesses,and their cohorts,whose sole concern is to stoke egos and bottomlines. The other is right at the other end,where endless struggle exists. Where there is story,but no stars. Where there are promises,and heartbreak. Where there is a will,but no way.
One of the better films that came out of Bollywood this year that you wouldnt have seen is called Bubble Gum. Made by first-timer Sanjivan Lal,it told the tale of two brothers,one who has speech-hearing impairment,and the other who is challenged in ways that normal siblings usually are. Jealous of the attention the other gets,irritable because of pubescent aches and pains,swamped by first love feelings. Delzad Hiravali,who played the impaired youngster,nailed it because he is one in real life. The other,Sohail Lakhani,was an equal star,because he felt like a querulous teen you and I have been. Their friends,and foes,who gather around in the colony compound (the film is set in the 80s,in a middle-class Jamshedpur housing society),are delightful precisely because they feel like real young people,not designer automatons.
Bubble Gum had some amount of narrative drabness and rough edges,but it was also a film that felt true. It came and went without fanfare,because it didnt have the backing of a major studio,but it was a minor miracle that it got released in the first place. And though Stanley Ka Dabba,Amole Guptes film on a likeable lad who is not like the others he is in class with,had more visibility because Gupte was lucky to find a sympathetic producer,it was still a film that needed a push. It had more polish than Bubble Gum,but it was also sad and sharp,not qualities usually to be found in Bollywood films that feature young people.
In fact,if there is one thread that you can pick from the cinema of 2011,it is its engagement with the whole coming-of-age phenomenon. The boys in Pyaar Ka Punchnama are in their own coming-of-age zone,where the chief object of lust is not stamps (Bubble Gum),mummy-cooked tiffin (Stanley Ka Dabba),but girls,girls,girls. It is a bromance,minus apology plus dollops of very funny invective. And it talks to us. As do the boys-who-will-at-some-point-be-men from Delhi Belly,the effluents emerging from both of whose ends,made us chuckle and wince at the same time. Though the smells and the sights became all too much after a point,these were the films that were bright and vivid this year.
Coming of age has been in marvellous evidence in other parts of the world,too. One of my favourite films of the genre in 2010 was British Submarine,which featured a socially inept young fellow struggling with rules that govern teen passion and bullying and staying alive. Most of which were what Rohan had to deal with as he navigates gingerly through the minefield that young adulthood can be,in Udaan,one of last years bests. Keeping the flag waving this year is the American indie film Terri,about a boy who is so overweight he can only wear pyjamas to school,who gets taken up by a principal who likes to gather damaged strays,and whose complex relationship with the sexed up girl in school leads him in and out of temptation.
The best parts of the heavily anointed Tree Of Life which I liked,not loved,deal with childhood,and growing up. You are once little,and then one day you become big,whether you are boy,or dinosaur. As you watch these magnificently shot portions,starring boy and father twinned in cosmic rage,you know the meaning of age. And how it comes.