Let’s get this out of the way first: Thank you for the gratifying rush of questions in response to my Best Indian Films list published earlier this month. The most common of the lot was, “When will you give us your Best Hindi / Telugu / Tamil / Malayalam Films?”
A separate list for each language industry, in a nation that produces a couple of thousand films a year, is humanly impossible to do for a single journalist. This is why critics have areas of expertise, just as political reporters have beats. I will certainly give you a compilation though from the industry that has been my field of focus for years now, Hindi. So here it is, (oh how I love saying these three words) on popular demand, my list of Best Hindi Films 2015.
BEST HINDI FILM:
Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Imagine a sensible film steeped in common-sense messaging sans sermons. Imagine a romantic drama in which the heroine is overweight yet the director views her through a lens that can see beyond her girth. Imagine such a film being light-footed rather than heavy and dull. Imagine that film being made by a production house that is as commercially inclined as they get.
You don’t have to trouble your imagination if you have seen Yash Raj Films’ Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH), writer-director Sharat Katariya’s sweetly low-key film set in the Haridwar of 1995. DLKH is about a boy with low self-esteem and no achievements (Ayushmann Khurrana) who is compelled by his family to marry a smart, feisty, educated girl (Bhumi Pednekar) despite his objections to her plus-sized physique.
Bhumi was the find of 2015. Impressive though he was in his debut Hindi film Vicky Donor in 2012, Ayushmann truly arrived as an actor with this one, completely losing his own personality in his character. Together with one of the best supporting casts of the year, the two youngsters delivered an appealing coming-of-age love story far removed from the high decibel levels Bollywood too often resorts to in its bid to attract mass audiences.
Anu Malik’s gentle tunes for DLKH are perfectly suited to the overall tone of the film, none more so than the prettily melodious Moh moh ke dhaage. When lyricist Varun Grover writes “Tu din sa hai, main raat / Aa na dono mill jaayein shaamon ki tarah (You are like the day and I the night / Come, let us meet as they do in the evening)” you could almost read this blossoming love as a metaphor for the increasing melting of boundaries between what is deemed mainstream and art cinema by one of India’s largest film industries.
DLKH is not just enjoyable and well made, it is one of many turning points for Hindi cinema witnessed in 2015.
(For the original review of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, click here)
Recounting a real-life crime in a feature film is never easy. When the case is as recent and as controversial as the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murder, it is a massive challenge.
Director Meghna Gulzar is clearly up to the task in Talvar, a fictionalised, documentary-like feature about the double homicide committed in 2008.
Irrfan Khan headlines the film’s talented cast relating the botched-up probe into one of 21st century India’s most high-profile criminal cases.
Although Talvar narrates various versions of the killings and the investigation from differing viewpoints, painting the parents innocent and guilty by turns, it has its own stance too: that the messed-up Indian criminal justice system can be vindictive towards citizens to cover up its own inadequacies, that the police’s pre-historic social prejudices colour their work, that the financial and cultural chasm separating co-existing socio-economic classes has volcanic implications, and that when it is at its worst, the news media can destroy lives.
Despite its evident position on these issues, Talvar remains firmly focused on facts. In a cinematic landscape now used to Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap’s more dramatic gangster flicks, Meghna’s choice of storytelling style makes this a landmark crime film.
If you thought – as I did – that it would not be possible to improve upon director Jeethu Joseph’s Malayalam film Drishyam (2013), you thought wrong. The Hindi retelling by Nishikant Kamat is as suspenseful as the original, yet minor tweaks make it an interesting, thoughtful remake.
This is the story of a crime and its incredible cover-up. The author of that brilliance is a small-time businessman in small-town Goa, protecting his family when their relatively uneventful life takes a dramatic turn. His combatant in the case is the state’s Inspector General of Police (Tabu).
Even given the traditional patriarchal set-up in both films, with the male protagonist as protector-provider and his spouse as stay-at-home mother, the Hindi version still manages to be less socially conformist than the first film. The noticeably lower age difference between the lead couple here (Ajay Devgn and Shriya Saran) in contrast with Mohanlal and Meena in the Malayalam film and the slightly less conservative conversations between them, makes this a nuanced adaptation rather than a carbon copy.
Ajay wisely chose to play the central character as a more stoic fellow than Mohanlal did, thus pre-empting acting comparisons with a stalwart.
None of this, of course, would matter to those who have only seen the Hindi Drishyam, which stands tall even when it stands alone. In the universe of thrillers, this film is uncommon in the way it builds up a sense of urgency despite its unhurried pace. Good and evil are not black and white notions here. And in the end, the mystery lies not in whodunnit (we already know that) but in how – and if – they will get away with it, because it gets us to care.
(For the original review of Drishyam, click here)
Anushka Sharma broke new ground by turning producer with NH10. She is not the first, but she is among the few female producers in this country. When the moneybags are almost all men, the male gaze is bound to dominate a nation’s cinema. If more such enterprising women emerge across states, in time more meaty roles for Indian actresses will follow.
This milestone, however, is not what recommends director Navdeep Singh’s NH10. What marks it out cinematically is its grippingly told saga of civilisational clashes between adjacent worlds whose inhabitants are often oblivious to – even disinterested in – each other’s existence.
Anushka in this film plays a city-bred professional living in the city of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi located in Haryana. Tragedy comes visiting when she and her husband (Neil Bhoopalam) stray into rural Haryana. What follows is a petrifying mix of extreme gender biases, caste prejudice and violence.
NH10 is filled with fine actors, but the discovery of the film is Darshan Kumaar’s versatility. In his turn as a murderous villain here, it is hard to spot the soft-spoken husband from 2014’s Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom.
Actress Anushka is already doing well for herself in Bollywood. What a splendid start this is though for producer Anushka.
(For the original review of NH10, click here)
Who in Bollywood would choose as their film’s hero a physically and behaviourally constipated old man?
Answer: director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi who earlier teamed up for Vicky Donor, a film with sperms and semen as its focal point yet – wonder of wonders! – not a single ewww-worthy joke.
Piku brings together Deepika Padukone playing a short-tempered entrepreneur from whose name the film draws its title, Amitabh Bachchan as her crotchety septuagenarian father with tummy troubles, and Irrfan Khan as Rana Chaudhary, a taxi company owner who finds himself thrown between them on an unplanned road trip.
Toilet humour is a dominant element in the film, yet it does not veer towards being a juvenile crapfest of the kind you might expect from Hollywood’s Farrelly brothers or Bollywood’s Team Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum. This in itself is an achievement. Even more commendable is the manner in which the comedic stream – unrelenting, unpredictable and hilarious – takes nothing away from the family and friendships around which Piku revolves.
The starting block of the story is Piku’s relationship with her testy Baba, but what envelopes later reels in warmth and tenderness is the developing, as-yet-undefined bond between the young lady and the older Rana. Who knew electricity could flow between Deepika and Irrfan? It does.
If you must visit a stereotype, do it the Shoojit-and-Juhi way, laughing with the Bengalis through the Big B’s Bhaskor Banerjee, rather than at them as most habitual community cliché users do.
The unexpected bonus here is Moushumi Chatterjee playing Piku’s maternal aunt. The pretty veteran was a firebrand in 2013’s Bengali film Goynar Baksho. Is she choosing to act less or is male-obsessed Indian cinema not offering her enough worthwhile parts?
For this and so much else, bless you Piku!
(For the original review of Piku, click here)
If half a film could be featured on a list, then debutant Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan might have been my No. 1. Vicky Kaushal’s brilliant turn as an educated, professionally ambitious boy from a traditionally low-caste family, in love with a poetry-loving upper-caste girl played to charming effect by Shweta Tripathi is affecting in ways that no words can explain.
The direction of this portion of the film is assured, the writing (by Varun Grover) impeccable, the acting perfect. Apologies for sounding dramatic, but whenever I think of those two innocent, ill-fated lovers, I sigh and my heart breaks into a million pieces, only to heal itself with the memory of Vicky’s smile.
This boy is God’s gift to womankind and to acting.
Less engaging is the other half of Masaan featuring Richa Chadha and Sanjay Mishra as a troubled father and daughter. Individually they’re powerful characters, together though their relationship lacks something in its execution. Still, her strength, her sexual experimentation, the authorities’ response to it, her spirit that refuses to be subdued even through a traumatic phase and her determination to escape her suffocating environs are compelling to say the least.
Most moving though is the film’s spotlight on clandestine relationships and this excruciating question: how do you mourn the loss of your beloved when no one else they love knows you were together or is likely to think you had a right to be?
There goes my wretched heart again.
(For the original review of Masaan, click here)
This one too is a directorial debut. If Masaan is muted and poignant, Kanu Behl’s deceptively titled Titli (meaning: butterfly) is distressing and in places, difficult to watch.
This is a story of a violence-prone, car-jacking threesome of brothers and their instinctive bonding. The youngest (Shashank Arora) – named Titli because his late mother had been hoping for a daughter when he was born – is planning his escape from the nest when his elder siblings (Ranvir Shorey and Amit Sial) get him married to tie him down. The new woman (Shivani Raghuvanshi) in their so far all-male home comes armed with a fiery disposition and a secret.
Despite the appearance of a boys’ club, Titli is a stinging, unspoken condemnation of patriarchy. Ranvir delivers a career-best performance and Shivani is simply superb.
The detailing in the depiction of Delhi – her sociology and geography – is commendable.
Interestingly, Kanu’s co-writer on Titli is Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s director Sharat Katariya. What a dream year it must be in which you can showcase your versatility with two vastly contrasting films within a span of just a few months. Equally a cause for celebration is that Yash Raj Films co-produced Titli, an unusual project for a studio closely identified with flying chiffons, acres of tulip and mustard fields, spotlessly made up women and immaculately turned out men.
These developments and the emergence of distinctive new voices like Neeraj and Kanu could well be reason enough for history books some day to single out 2015 as a watershed year for Hindi cinema.
(For the original review of Titli, click here)
8: Margarita With A Straw
Hindi films centred around persons with disabilities have too often concentrated on the disability rather than the person. Margarita With A Straw is different. Shonali Bose’s film stars Kalki Koechlin delivering a remarkable performance as a woman whose cerebral palsy does not define her. Able backing comes from the ever-dependable Revathy playing her Aai.
Laila Kapoor is talented, sociable, sexually adventurous and wheelchair bound. Who would have predicted that such a woman could ever be the heroine of a cheery Hindi-English film from a once-formula-driven industry? In the not-too-distant past, she would in all likelihood have been placed in a dismal or melodramatic, high-strung film. This is not that kind of venture.
For the most part, Margarita… is realistic in its portrayal of Laila’s physical constraints even while remaining positive at all times. Is the sunshine too much? Just occasionally it does seem so, but in a cinematic scenario that more often than not appears to assume that those with physical challenges must lead all-round depressing lives, optimism makes for a pleasant change.
(For the original review of Margarita With A Straw, click here)
9: Dil Dhadakne Do
It is weird that Anil Kapoor has received Best Supporting Actor noms in this awards season, because Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD) is one of those rare Hindi films with an ensemble cast. Clearly Bollywood award givers have not evolved as far as the industry has.
Anil in DDD plays business tycoon Kamal Mehra who is determined to keep up the appearance of a happy marriage with his wife Neelam (Shefali Shah). He bullies his son (Ranveer Singh) over his career inclinations while failing to recognise the evident entrepreneurial talents of his daughter (Priyanka Chopra) who, as it happens, is stuck in a loveless marriage. High drama occurs on the high seas when the Mehras take off on a cruise to celebrate Kamal and Neelam’s wedding anniversary in the company of their high-society ‘friends’.
The allure of DDD lies in its honesty about families. Nobody is as perfect as Sooraj Barjatya’s clans suggest. Kamal is an adulterer whose hypocrisy is exposed by his children. The easy route to the portrayal of Neelam would have been to excuse her as a helpless victim. Instead the storyteller refuses to accept her pretence that she did not know of or could have done nothing about her husband’s affairs.
The highlight of the film though is the brother-sister bond. It is a measure of Priyanka and Ranveer’s considerable acting talents and the quality writers they are working with that they could switch from playing such believably close siblings to the sexual chemistry between their characters in Bajirao Mastani within the same year.
DDD is highly entertaining and makes several points that mainstream Bollywood would usually not dare to make: that most human beings are flawed, some flaws are worth forgiving but some are not, most families are flawed, some are worth fighting to preserve while some are not. Take that, Mr Barjatya.
(For the original review of Dil Dhadakne Do, click here)
10: Bajrangi Bhaijaan
In a national context where “religious sentiments” are more prone to getting “hurt” with each passing day, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is one of the most cleverly handled films on communal amity you will ever see. Director Kabir Khan pulls at every conceivable heart string with his story of a Pakistani Muslim child called Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) who encounters the Hanuman bhakt Bajrangi (Salman Khan) when she gets lost in India. Bajrangi is a man with a golden heart yet many prejudices derived from his background, but that tiny girl could melt a glacier. And she does.
His efforts to return her to her family across the border coupled with the intrinsic commentary about India-Pakistan and inter-religious harmony, could be seen as an enterprise in courage in a country that just months earlier was battling fundamentalists’ demands for a ban on PK and threats of violence. The film soldiered on anyway, getting an entire nation to fall in love with a Pakistani tot and getting Bajrangi – a committed vegetarian and a devout Hindu from a family affiliated to the Sangh Parivar – to sing and dance to a song with lyrics that go “Thodi biryani bukhari / Thodi phir nalli nihari / Le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye (Bring on some biryani / Bring on some meat preparations / Never mind my religious restrictions today)”.
Salman is his usual self in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a star aware of his charisma. There is more to Harshaali than her irresistible cuteness – the kid can act. She is a scene stealer along with a man who walks on to the screen half way through the story and walks away with the film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
I confess the play-it-safe ending almost ruined the film for me, being such a contrast to the refusal to mince words even while avoiding treading on touchy toes until that point. Yet in the denouement, perhaps to assuage the feelings of those Sangh members and acolytes who were offended by PK, the film has the Muslim child yelling out the words “Jai Shri Ram” repeatedly whereas a reformed Bajrangi merely makes a gesture towards Allah hafiz but stops short of saying the words. Ah well, sadly, such is life. We cannot blame artists alone for being overly cautious when we have repeatedly failed to protect them from the wrath of communal goons.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is intelligent, sensitive and fun.
(For the original review of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, click here)
A Version Of This Article Was Published In Two Parts On Firstpost on January 18 & 19, 2016:
Related article: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s Best Indian Films 2015
(1) Dum Laga Ke Haisha poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dum_Laga_Ke_Haisha
(2) Talvar poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talvar_(film)
(3) Drishyam poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drishyam_(2015_film)
(4) NH10 poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NH10
Piku poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piku
(6) Masaan poster: https://www.facebook.com/MasaanTheFilm
(7) Titli poster: Yashraj Films
(8) Margarita With A Straw poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarita_With_A_Straw
(9) Dil Dhadakne Do poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dil_Dhadakne_Do
(10) Bajrangi Bhaijaan poster: https://www.facebook.com/BBThisEid