Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ishqiya: Ishq ho gaya!

“Aise Uljhi Nazar Unse Hat-ti Nahin,
Daant Se Reshmi Dor Kat-ti Nahin,
Umr Kabki Baras Ke Safaid Ho Gayi
Kari Badri Jawani Ki Chatti Nahi
Man Lage Dhadkan Bhadne Lagi Hai

Chehre Ki Rangat Udne Lagi Hai
Dar Lagta Hai Tanha Sone Main Ji,
Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji…”

I think these lines (written by the amazing Gulzar) pretty much sum up the entire idea of “Ishqiya”. Those who have seen the movie will probably understand why I say this. As the movie clearly demonstrates, love is messy. Sex is messier. This is especially true when it involves two crooks on the run in Uttar Pradesh (Arshad Warsi and Naseerudin Shah) and an enigmatic widow (Vidya Balan) who knows more than she lets on.

Abhishek Chaubey takes a leaf out of Vishal Bharadwaj’s book in making a movie like “Ishqiya”: daring, bold and powerful. This is by far the most gripping Hindi movie I have seen in many years. Not once does it let your attention waiver. In terms of the story, “Ishqiya” is sharp, intelligent and very funny. Every 10 minutes there is a new twist that forces you to stand up and take notice. It is so spontaneous and fresh that the two hours pass by faster than you realise. It grabs you by the balls and takes you on a merry-go-round trip in the U.P. hinterlands which is striking in its resemblance to the wild West. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that Ishqiya breaks new ground finding a story that will appeal to the populace in the interiors told with a visual style and technique that will sell it well to the urban populace as well. Chaubey really understands rural U.P. and its lawlessness which is clear in his depiction of the same. His contextualization of the story carries the same appeal as Kashyap's "Gulaal". It just enriches the story so much more! The dialogues (penned by Bharadwaj himself) are laced with acid. The movie has some of the most memorable dialogues in recent years. They take you by surprise in a lot of places.

Coming to the characters (and the actors who bring them to life), “Ishqiya” boasts of highly colourful and interesting characters who never cease to amaze. Naseerudin Shah and Arshad Warsi take on the roles of Iftikaar aka Khaalujaan and Babban, two crooks with no morals who steal from their boss and set out on a cross-country run to save their asses. On reaching Gorakhpur, they meet Krishna (Vidya Balan) a recently widowed woman whose husband they knew earlier. Their boss Jijaji (Salman Shahid) catches up with them and asks them to repay the money they stole. However, the money they stole goes missing and together with Krishna, they have a month to cough up the money or get buried six feet under.

What starts out as a conventional heist quickly spirals into a much more complicated situation. There is strong sexual tension between both, Khaalu and Krishna on one hand and Babban and Krishna on the other. As they embark on the plan to recover the money together, there are twists, turns and startling revelations that puts loyalties to test and proves that love makes people do crazy things.

It is heartening to see two actors earn their long-overdue credit, especially when they overshadow a veteran in doing so. Naseeruddin Shah is as always, superb as Khaalu. He is funny, sharp and absolutely lovable as a man in love. However, he is eclipsed by the powerhouse performances of Arshad Warsi and Vidya Balan. Arshad Warsi is tremendous as Babban, the overgrown horny child with no morals. He is uncouth, crass, foulmouthed, street smart and yet, very likable. He finds the balance between the humorous and dark shades of his character with unmatchable finesse. In fact, it is impossible to imagine any other actor pulling off Babban as he does. He has no morals but yet, his camaraderie with Khaalu is the stuff that movie legends are made of. The coordination and synchronisation between the actions of the two actors as the crooks is simply delightful to watch.

However, in my humble opinion, this movie belongs to Vidya Balan. In “Ishqiya” she proved that she is perhaps the boldest mainstream actress since Tabu. She sheds any and all inhibitions for the role and gives the performance of a lifetime. As Krishna, she is raw, powerful and always in control. She oozes sex appeal and puts up a brilliant act when she is flirting with both the characters. Simply the frame of her standing by the door in a red, yellow and green sari with that look on her face cuts an imposing image. There is a depth to her character which you know just by looking at her. She is perfectly cast for the role, one which only Tabu could have done ten years ago. It is simply a delight to watch her grow as an actor in another career-defining role (after “Parineeta”). She is the man in this movie and carries the film on her able shoulders along with Arshad Warsi.

As far as the technique is concerned, the cinematography deserves special mention. The costumes and art work are also superb in their use of colour while maintaining an authentic look throughout. Each frame of film is gorgeous to look at. The background score is brilliant and helps set the tone for several scenes. The music by Vishal Bharadwaj is as always, excellent. It mixes Arab, Sufi, Hindustani together to create a sound that is distinct, unique and yet, reminds you of some of the music of 50s Bollywood. However, what really got me were the lyrics penned by Gulzar who is, in my opinion, the best lyricist Hindi cinema has ever seen. Light, beautiful, mischievous and yet mature, he captures the entire film’s essence in those eight lines I started out with. “Dil Toh Bachcha Hai” is simply the best lyrics that Gulzar has written since “Paani Paani Re” in Maachis 14 years ago. The hesitance, love, fears and insecurities of a man falling irrevocably in love have never been and perhaps, will never be put better in words. In “Ibn-e-Batuta” he gives us an adult version of “Lakdi Ki Kaathi”. In “Ab Mujhe Koi” he puts the longings of a woman beautifully in words and with Rekha Bharadwaj singing it, the song is simply magical. Each song is well placed and the picturisation of “Dil Toh Bachcha Hai” is absolutely amazing.

In “Ishqiya” we see the “Dev D” of 2010. Only, it’s better. Tighter and edgier, it pushes the boundaries of Indian cinema further. In fact, the most heartening thing is the fact that the Censor Board approved it without making any cuts, a most remarkable development in Hindi cinema. The film marks the coming of another talented storyteller in Abhishek Chaubey. It is also an excellent start to a new decade and one which I think I will be writing about even 10 years later as one of the decade’s best. Watching “Ishqiya” reminded me that there is a fine distinction which must be made between class and crass cinema. As a setting, “Ishqiya” is as crass as it gets. However, as cinema, it has as much class as the best of the best, in Bollywood and elsewhere.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara: Discussing the Update

Most people who know me will vouch for the fact that I am not much of a patriot. I am happy to be from the country etc. but I hardly have any of the jingoistic sentiment that many people share. I see too many problems in such a blind love for a national identity and all the implications that has. I am happy being a sceptic while appreciating the culture and history the sub-continent has to offer. It was in this vein that I was infuriated when Zoom decided that an update of an old classic was in order and came up with the most extravagant, wasteful “update” that had none of the warmth, passion and beauty of the original.

The original “Mile Sur Mera Tumhaara” was a part of propaganda geared towards national integration which was released on August 15 1988 (twelve days before I was born). It was telecast several times for many years after. Over time, it achieved the status of a national song like “Saare Jahaan Se Achcha” and “Vande Mataram” next only to the national anthem. It featured some of the finest talents that India had to offer at the time including actors (Shabana, Hema Malini, Waheeda, Amitabh and others), dancers (Mallika Sarabhai), cartoonist (Mario Miranda) and others. Musically, it had Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Kavita Krishnamoorthy, Lata Mangeshkar and many others. However, the important point of the song was the sentiment that as a diverse culture, we all have different tunes which can mix together to make the one tune which is “ours”. A strong message of harmony with representation from diverse states, it has been a landmark in modern Indian cultural history. One may not agree with the patriotism but the message of harmony and unity is universal and undeniable.

Now, I was very excited when I saw the advertisement for the new version, “Phir Mile Sur Mera Tumhaara”. However, when I saw it, my disappointment was immense. I had several issues with the video (directed by Kailash Surendranath who also made the original). First, there is none of the passion or sentiment of national unity that comes across in this update. It seems superfluous, extravagant, overlong and absolutely unnecessary. Second, the first one featured a variety of talented people this country possessed then while here, the barrage of movie stars is almost frustrating. It’s glamorous but hardly representative of the country as a whole. Moreover, actors were used in the original in minimal doses only towards the end or as characters representing the common man (like Om Puri and Deepa Sahi). Third, what I hated the most about this version is that it largely is a celebration of urban India which barely featured in the original. It seems to ignore that a large chunk of Indian population is still in the towns and villages. Fourth, there are these retarded segments in the new one involving Sivamani (no disrespect to his talent per se) and Shiamak Davar (again, same caveat) among others which seem farcical and fake to the core. The only saving graces in the update are Shobhana’s dance and the segment involving Salman Khan (not because of him obviously). Also, the opening images of Amitabh by the Taj Hotel, Mumbai did get to me a little considering I am from the city and the recent history (can’t believe it’s been over a year!) still remains fresh.

Overall, I loved the original a lot. As a kid, it evoked pride in my heart for a country and a firm sense of belonging. As an adult, I still appreciate it for the culture and the sentiments it represents, and the effectiveness with which it does these things. However, the new version is just sad. It feels bloated, overstuffed and hardly representative of the country I thought I knew. Have we really become this superficial and glamorous to fall for such tripe? I sincerely hope not.

Watch the original here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great Musical Moments: "Falling Slowly"

A lot of people I know don’t like musicals: they find the breaking into song and dance too awkward, abrupt, silly and consequently, difficult to digest. Or else, they find them too garish with the gaudy colours and the way in which the production is typically mounted. Therefore, I often find myself defending musicals to death to them as I believe that musicals, in their essence, are simply another form of movies which use music to tell their story. I honestly believe the distinction of musicals as a genre along with “drama” and “comedy” is an oddity as while the latter indicate the broad themes of the film, the former is simply a medium of story telling. It tells nothing about the story itself. Musicals can be black and satirical (“Chicago”), chick and fun (“Mamma Mia”), dark and demonic (“Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), historical and retrospective (“Cabaret”), nostalgic and biographical (“Jersey Boys”), fantastical (“Wicked!”) and so many other things. Just when you think that musicals have been imagined in every way possible, some creative director (a Rob Marshall or a Tim Burton) comes and surprises you and redefine your parameters. One such film was John Carney’s first feature, “Once”.

Now, I saw “Once” at one of the worst points of my life. Nothing was going right and I was trying hard to run away from a lot of things. I was strolling through a DVD shop and I came across the DVD. With nothing better to do and few better choices, I decided to give it a shot. And at one of the lowest points of my life, “Once” made me smile for a long time after it was over.

I firmly believe that “Once” is the best musical of our generation. This is because it redefines the parameters of the musical by using the music as a part of life and something very real and relatable. Consequently, not only works stupendously as a musical but also transcends it and establishes itself as a great movie generally. The story of a street-singer cum vacuum cleaner repair man (Glen Hansard) and the rose selling Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) in 1980s Dublin and the journey they take together in getting a small band together to record the songs they have written and composed is simple, poignant and beautifully bittersweet. He is coming out of a bad relationship and she has a husband who is away doesn’t care for her. While he is good with the compositions and the guitar, she sets those compositions to beautiful lyrics and weaves magic with her piano. They both carry immense baggage but find solace in their music in the most unexpected ways.

Music in “Once” is used in a unique way as they use the songs to tell their stories of pain, sorrow, beauty and hope. Each song has an anecdote to it and the music here is key to understand where these characters are coming from and where they are going. Unlike movies like “Chicago” or “Sweeney Todd” it is hard to imagine “Once” as a non-musical as the music is simply so central to the film. Not one song is forced or unnecessary. Moreover, music is inherent to these characters as well the actors who play them. This is why when they break into song; they never break out of character. Further, there is no multi-million dollar production or garish, loud musical numbers. Instead, the movie has been made on a shoe string budget of $160,000 and the music has elements of folk, rock, contemporary, indie and even jazz to it. It is simple, mellow and for a musical, instantly relatable. Each song is a gem and collectively this is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of this generation.

Now “Once” starts off slow. Glen Hansard’s gruff voice and his occasionally jarring notes make you wonder why you rented this movie. For the first 15 minutes or so, the movie seems too dull, too tiresome. However, there is a moment in the movie where everything falls into place. The movie sneaks up on you, grabs you by the hand and has you hooked for the rest of your time from thereon. That moment is when, in a music shop, the guy and the girl (which is how they have been credited in the film) sit next to a grand piano and he teaches her a song that he has written. The result is the song: “Falling Slowly”.

“Falling Slowly” is beautifully composed and surprises you with the depth beneath its deceptive simplicity. The lyrics are significant as they are about the woman the guy once loved and yet, they are just as applicable to where the girl is coming from. And finally, at some level, it symbolises their story together. It is the beginning of a journey they take as friends, as musicians and eventually, as lovers. However, their love story is in no way conventional. Its treatment is unique and unpredictable. At the same time, I think John Carney, the writer understands love in its purest form better than most other filmmakers. For him love is that which goes beyond one’s own desires and seeks to fulfill the hopes and desires of the other. It is the absolute agony of the longing and yet the sense of fulfilment in the joys of the other. The magic lies in the process and not in the culmination. And “Once” has dollops of magic that way thanks to the way in which, John Carney, the director chooses to execute the story. Using its documentary style, the movie makes us a feel like a part of the proceedings as a silent spectator of the story. The emotions are real, the people even more so and all this is beautifully encapsulated in the moment where the man and the woman sit on that piano and begin their musical relationship together.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Golden Globes, Comedies and (500) Days of Summer

Just one look at the Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture-Musical or Comedy made me want to weep. It’s clearly been an awful year for the comedies when average movies like “It’s Complicated” and “Julie and Julia” are nominated. Even “Nine” comes as a big surprise considering the serious lack of critical acclaim for the film. Nevertheless, I can’t comment much on “Nine” as I haven’t really seen it. However, the cold response it has gotten makes its inclusion fairly surprising.

The Globes’ Best Picture – Musical or Comedy category has almost always featured uniformly excellent films which were either exceptionally loved by the critics or the audiences and in rare cases, both. However, this year’s nominations are woefully bad. In fact, the nominations in the Best Animated Film is far better and made me doubt whether there was any sense in excluding them altogether from the Best Picture category. I mean, if foreign films can be nominated in both categories (like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” at the Oscars), why not animated ones? In fact, “Toy Story 2” and “Beauty and the Beast” have actually won in this category in the past.

Let’s look at each of the movies: “It’s Complicated” by Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”, “The Holiday” and “The Parent Trap”) received largely negative reviews across the board. Despite excellent performances by the always awesome Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, it was, at best, a cute movie that one would forget 15 minutes after leaving the theatre. It severely pales in comparison even to Meyers’ own works like the charming and lovely “Something’s Gotta Give” and the cute and heart-warming “The Holiday”. This is perhaps the most undeserving nomination I have seen in the last 10 years at least. There were several better films which were way better and would make a fitting entry into this category: “Whip It!” which was a kick ass directorial debut from Drew Barrymore; “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” had solid critical consensus and was a much better romantic comedy; However, star power prevailed and a movie like this was nominated.

Julie and Julia” was another comedy directed by Nora Ephron, another director occasionally dishes out charming romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally” (as a writer) when she isn’t doing downright insipid work like “Lucky Numbers” and “Bewitched”. The movie also received a lukewarm response at best and the only thing that went outright in its favour was the delicate and delightful performance of Meryl Streep. Disappointing in many ways, the movie could’ve been a classic had it had a little more charm and a better conclusion. The food looked delicious and Meryl Streep can look fabulous in almost any role. But that is not enough reason to nominate a film! A solid alternate choice would’ve been a movie like “In the Loop”, a biting satire on war poking fun at both, the British and the American. It opened to a strong critical response and was a well made comedy. However, “Julie & Julia” was chosen, an odd choice indeed.

That brings me to the other two nominees of the year. I do believe that the competition is only going to be between “The Hangover” and “(500) Days of Summer”. Now, “The Hangover” is also an odd choice for any awards ceremony (apart from MTV Movie Awards). I have never seen a raunchy comedy being nominated for Best Picture in any major award ceremony. However, it is a welcome oddity unlike the two other nominations above as it recognises that raunchy humour doesn’t necessarily always result in a solid movie. With a solid screenplay and a superb cast, “The Hangover” indeed was one of the better comedies of the year. It had the support of both, the critics as well as the audience, a rarity in the Hollywood awards scene. It is also possibly most likely to win.

However, of these nominees, if there is any movie that, I think, deserves to win the Best Picture – Comedy or Musical this year, it’s without a doubt, “(500) Days of Summer”. The freshest romantic comedy of the decade, it is a little masterpiece from a first-time director. The story of the love of Tom Hansen for Summer is smart, sweet, poignant and beautiful. Any person who has ever really liked someone or been in a relationship will see himself/herself in at least some parts of the film. Also, it is one of those rare romantic comedies that is not a chick flick and manages to stand as a great film generally (like “When Harry Met Sally” or “Juno”). In fact, this is in some ways, more a movie for guys than girls, maybe a first for the genre I think.

As far as technique is concerned, the thing I love the most about this movie is that the director uses a variety of tools to tell the story: there are black and whites, parallel scenes about what was and what could have been, song and dance sequences, movie clips from classics like “The Graduate” and “Star Wars” and so on. However, when you see the movie as a whole, surprisingly, all of these diverse methods and techniques fall in place to form a remarkably solid and consistent whole. The usage of these devices to tell the story does not disturb the narrative of the film at all. In fact, it enriches it. There is not a single unnecessary frame in the film, it is just right. In terms of direction, this is perhaps one of the finest debuts ever. In terms of performances, Joseph Gordon Levitt (who has also been nominated for the Best Actor – Comedy or Musical category) carries the film on his shoulders and as Tom Hansen, he is immediately relatable in the most natural way. He underplays even the most dramatic scenes with such finesse that he is arguably the best actor of his generation (see his other movies like “The Lookout”). Zooey Deschanel is joyous, beautiful and yet, like moonshine, inscrutable and enigmatic. She is perfectly cast as a quirky, attractive but difficult Summer Finn. Her flashbacks are brilliant in setting the tone for her character and her final scene is just perfect. This is a movie that is worth remembering. It stays with you for a long time after it’s over as you sit and reminisce about the things that were.

In the end, barring “The Hangover” and “(500) Days of Summer” this is still the most horrible line up of movies the Globes has ever come up with for the Best Picture – Comedy or Musical category. There were plenty of better candidates out there which I saw. Plus, there were others which I haven’t seen yet but which were received very well by critics (like “World’s Greatest Dad”). Hopefully, they will at least choose the right movie as a winner. Either way, we will know in about 8 hours or so.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Best 50 Films of the Decade: The Final Five

Now this is the final part in the list of what are, according to me the best movies of the decade gone by. What is remarkable to note that 17 of these films were made by first time directors. Around 10 others were other works of these very same directors. Hence, what is most remarkable about the decade is that it has given several new story tellers with their own distinct styles. You have the urban and eclectic works of Farhan Akhtar; the old fashioned, entertaining and enlightening films of Raju Hirani and the highly artistic works of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj all in this one decade. It has been a truly remarkable 10 years for the film industry as it has grown by leaps and bounds and opened up to the world in a big big way. On that note, I give you what I thought were the 5 best films of this decade.

5. Black:

Coming quick in the heels of the much-hyped “Devdas”, “Black” also carried a lot of expectations. The premise was well known and bore similarities to not only “The Miracle Worker” but also Bhansali’s first film “Khamoshi”. However, nothing could have prepared the viewer for the experience that was “Black”. Moody, dark and yet, filled with hope, the film was brilliant in all aspects and featured the four finest performances of the decade. Rani Mukherjee gave her career’s finest performance as Michelle, who is blind and deaf. She sank herself in the character so entirely that it was hard to believe that one was watching one of the most mainstream and glamorous actresses today. Amitabh Bachchan was a revelation. After a career spanning 4 decades, one would expect that there is nothing dramatically new he has to offer. However, in the competent hands of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, he creates Debraj Sahai, the eccentric but genius teacher who works a miracle with Michelle. He makes you love him and hate him. But for the most part, you are simply transfixed watching the veteran actor undergo a giddy reinvention. He is spellbinding and proves yet again why he is not only probably the greatest superstar Bollywood has had but also one of the finest actors ever to grace the silver screen. Further, while one may expect such performances from accomplished actors like these, what really surprises you in the film is the performance of Ayesha Kapoor as the young Michelle McNally. She levels with Amitabh Bachchan every step of the way as she is transformed from an obstinate and unpolished girl to learning to speak her first words igniting a hunger for knowledge that subsequently comes to define her life. One of the most emotionally gut-wrenching scenes is when she learns her first word and her optimistic mother and overbearing father watch in marvel and joy. That brings me to the fourth performance and that is of Shernaz Patel as the mother of Michelle. She had my attention in her very first scene as a new mother who is informed of her newborn’s disability. Throughout the film, she is overshadowed by the above performances but in almost every scene she stands on her own and makes us feel her pain.

At the top of all of this is of course, the dream-weaver Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He creates several poignant and beautiful moments in the film. He dares to take on uncharted paths and breaks taboos in several parts. However, most remarkably, he uses the technical aspects: the art, the cinematography, the lighting and the background score to set the tone of the film and convey the themes of the film better. He is perhaps the finest film maker we have insofar as technical finesse is concerned. His films may often have problems in terms of the screenplay, but the use of technicals is unrivalled. Also, his ability to draw out performances is remarkable. “Black” is perhaps his best work and certainly one of the best this decade, or any other for that matter.

4. Lagaan:
Guts, a flash of genius and a lot of sweat, blood and sinew went into this loose remake of the classic “Naya Daur”. While the basic plotline remained the same, the stroke of genius was to substitute the conflict between man and machine with the clash against the colonists in a game of cricket. A truly inspiring film and technically exceptional (for example, it was one of the first films to be shot in sync sound), “Lagaan” was perhaps the most entertaining film of the decade. A entertaining masala film through and through, it was perhaps the only example of an appropriate selection for the foreign film category at the Oscars from India (others being movies like “Paheli” and “Rang De Basanti” (in the year of movies like “Omkara” and “Lage Raho Munnabhai”)).

The fictional story is set in the village of Champaner where the local villagers led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) contest the British rulers in a game of cricket. If they win, they are exempted from taxation for three years but if they loose, they have to pay triple tax on their produce at a time of famine. There is no prize for guessing who wins. However, the brilliance of the film lies in its script, execution, lush photography and strong performances. The script is undoubtedly the best of all of Gowariker’s works. At a run time of 3.5 hours, it is still tight and well knit. It handles the love story and the social issues with the same finesse as the cricket match. The brilliance of the execution lies in the cricket match where, in a match spread over three days, there is all the excitement, twists and turns to keep the viewer at the edge of his seat. Not once does the movie bore you. It is one of those works that is always entertaining. The art work and photography is exquisite. The film is gorgeous to look at and the colours, the landscape and the high production values all come together for a cinematic experience worthy of the big screen. A.R. Rahman’s grand score for the film lends an additional opulence to the film. Each of his compositions are gems and their picturisation heightens the impact even more.

The performances from the principle actors are excellent. Gracie Singh made a debut of a lifetime here. She can emote well, is extremely pleasant to look at and is a wonderful dancer. Aamir Khan is, as always, perfect in his performance as Bhuvan. He brings out the idealist nature and the intensity of his character really well. Rachel Shelley is perfectly cast as Elizabeth. She is beautiful in the most delicate manner, emotes well and is remarkably good with the Hindi. Paul Blackthorne is viciously diabolical as Captain Andrew Russell, Bhuvan’s nemesis. At the same time, there are some lovely supporting performances by an ensemble cast consisting of Yashpal Sharma, Raghubeer Yadav, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Raj Zutshi and others. The narration by Amitabh Bachchan in his classic baritone lends an added regal elegance to the film.

At the end of the day, in “Lagaan,” Ashutosh Gowariker set himself to a standard even he has not been able to match up to. It is a typical Bollywood film and at the same time, reminiscent of the classic Hollywood epics. It is the film that opened the international market for Indian films in a big way and in many ways, opened up Indian cinema to a truly international audience instead of simply the Indian Diaspora. It’s old fashioned but at the same time, manages to break new grounds. It was commercial and at the same time, aesthetic. It was an epic film that shall never be forgotten.

3. Maqbool:

Vishal Bhardwaj’s masterpiece, when first announced invited a fair amount of scepticism. A music director who had decided to direct movies and shown some promise in his first outing (“Makdee”) had decided to adapt Shakespeare’s classic work “Macbeth”. Moreover, he declared his intention to transpose the story of kings and kingdoms to the Mumbai underworld. Now, one wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be another Satya-esque saga? Over time, the movie began to generate more and more interest due to its casting. Featuring a stunning ensemble cast including Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Punkaj Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, the curiosity increased manifold as a consequence. On its release, it became clear. Bharadwaj had made his very own magnum opus in “Maqbool”.

The story of Macbeth surprisingly fits in beautifully with the underworld. Tabu as Lady Macbeth is in love with Maqbool although she is the mistress of the Abbaji and influences Maqbool to kill Abbaji (Punkaj Kapoor) and usurp his position when her status is threatened. Irrfan Khan is Maqbool who is, Abbaji’s loyal aide who above all, craves power. What starts of as murder triggers a power struggle and Maqbool increasingly finds his life spiralling out of control in this haunting tale of betrayal, guilt and redemption. The Weird Sisters are transposed into two city cops (Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri) who bring a strong element of black satire to the film. As the proverbial witches, they play behind the scenes and in ways, set the stage for the plot to unfold in their role of agents of maintaining “Shakti ka Santulan” (the balance of power).

What is remarkable about the film is that it succeeds in depicting the themes and the internal conflicts so bloody well. The inability of Nimmi and Maqbool to wash the blood of Abbaji off their hands is portrayed in an absolutely brilliant manner. Their rise and fall, their internal turmoil and their insecurity and anguish is simply breathtaking to behold. Bharadwaj is remarkably comfortable in playing with the shades of grey. You start out hating Abbaji and rooting for Nimmi and Maqbool but end up realising that there are no heroes here, only villains. The lyricism and poetry that Bharadwaj manages to find in the bleakest moments is stunning. His master stroke is his interpretation of the Three Witches. Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri are delightfully wicked as the two cops who are the agents of chaos and conflict. They have remarkable control over the characters and they hold all the strings. In balancing power, they trigger change that, in ways, even they cannot foresee. The cosmic, karmic elements of this movie are disturbing and yet, beautiful. The screenplay of Abbas Tyrewala and Vishal Bharadwaj weaves in all of this and more to create some of the haunting scenes in cinematic history.

As regards the performances, this is unarguably the best ensemble performance of this decade. All the actors compliment each other and hold their own in a rare and remarkable fashion. Tabu as Lady Macbeth is simply superb. She embodies the passionate, bewitching, manipulative and selfish Lady Macbeth with such subtlety and delicateness that I was completely floored. Punkaj Kapoor is loathsome as Abbaji. His portrayal of the powerful and disgusting King is so powerful that, as you watch him, you realise you are watching a master at work. Naseer, Om Puri, Piyush Mishra and, of course, Irrfan Khan are each excellent and fit perfectly in their roles.

”Maqbool” is, at the end of the day, a powerful study of human nature, perhaps as powerful as Shakespeare’s original itself. The mixture of the bleak and tragic with the comic and satirical is exceptionally well balanced. The symbolism and the detailing make multiple viewings practically mandatory. As one sifts through the film layer by layer, the true genius of Vishal Bharadwaj is there for all to see.

2. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi:

Movies are an art form. This point has been forgotten by most filmmakers today. However, once in a while a movie like “HKA” comes along and restores my faith. An absolutely rebellious film that makes you think, question, love and hate each and every principle character. I started out with loving the idealistic and fiery Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon). But as layers are peeled off one after the another, I found myself falling for the morally bankrupt and wildly ambitious Vikram (Shiney Ahuja) instead. It is a delight to see the character of Geetha. On the ideological front, she is transformed from a naïve Delhi girl to a revolutionary with ideas and ideals. However, this is very interestingly juxtaposed with her confusion for her feelings towards the two men in her life.

And while this drama is playing out, there is a larger drama being played out in the society which inevitably impacts their tale. In the three principal characters, there is a reversal of Marxism, which, instead of starting from the bottom of the social chain (i.e. Shiney Ahuja) starts from the top (Kay Kay Menon). And therein lie the contradictions, both in the public and private spheres. Their stories of love, idealism and disillusionment are in many ways, metaphorical. My personal favourite scene is when Vikram comes to the house of Siddharth, whose father is a self-proclaimed Marxist and it is hard to imagine a more bourgeoisie household. Cultural performances, ladies wearing the best of pearls, the contradiction is stark. The backdrop of the story is unique as I believe, no real attempt has been made to make sense of the tumultuous time that was the Indian Emergency. This movie delves into it and uses metaphors and symbolism a lot to try and put that time into perspective. It is also one of the few films I realised one really can’t savour fully without knowing the context in detail. But then again, it also makes repeated viewings a very rewarding experience.

Technically, the film is solid. The music of Shantanu Moitra is haunting particularly the qawaali "Mann Yeh Baawra" and the ballad "Baawra Mann". The time period is created with an exceptional eye for detail. The art work, etc help set the realistic tone of the film. The political references are well placed and add to the authentic feel. The performances are exceptional throughout and it is a delight to see actors like Saurabh Shukla and others in cameo roles. Chitrangadha Singh looks ravishing and reminds me (and many others) tremendously of Smita Patil. She is one of the most beautiful actresses in the industry today.

Last words: “Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi” is Sudhir Mishra’s magnum opus. Shiney Ahuja gives his only brilliant performance. It sings the song of independent India with all its unacknowledged blood and sweat. It leaved us a little wiser about where we come from and makes us think about where we are going.

AND FINALLY, (drumroll)

1. Dil Chahta Hai:

It really was difficult to choose between Hazaaron… and this one. Both are imperfect films and both will always have a secure and distinct place in the cultural history of Bollywood. However, I chose “Dil Chahta Hai” for several reasons. First off, it was perhaps the best directorial debut film I have ever seen in Hindi. No first time director has arrived with a bigger bang than Farhan Akhtar. He showed great maturity and depth in the way in which he dealt with the story. The relationships are developed with such care and detail that it is hard to believe it is his first film. The tale of the friendship between Sid, Akash and Sameer is absolutely straight out of life with all its highs and lows. Not for one second does their story require suspension of belief. Even today, as I revisit this movie for the umpteenth time, it still is fresh and unique. In fact, with age, I found myself appreciating and relating to its themes even more, and I know when I say this, I echo the experience of a lot of people from my generation. The bond of friendship has rarely been depicted in a better manner in Bollywood.

In “Dil Chahta Hai”, Farhan Akhtar finds a delicate balance between the new and the old. Not once does the movie seem jarring or the actions out of character. They have been so seamlessly woven into a whole that they fit well like a beautiful quilt. The love stories use copious amounts of Bollywood cliché to surprising success. The final altercation in Shalini’s (Preity Zinta) Mehndhi is straight out of the Hindi movies and reminiscent of classics like DDLJ. However, at the same time, the movie also pushes boundaries in its portrayal of the love of a young man for a much older woman who is an alcoholic. While rejected in a similar fashion as “Lamhe” was nearly 20 years ago, the subject matter was handled with rare maturity and supported with a wonderful performance by Dimple Kapadia and Akshaye Khanna.

Apart from being a great film, there are several other reasons why “Dil Chahta Hai” made it to the top: it is an iconic film that was way ahead of its times and inspired a movement in the film industry in some ways. It, I believe, was a catalyst in realising the gap between the tastes of the urban and everyone else. It was considered too city-oriented for its time. With the advent of the multiplex, today, a number of movies taste commercial success on the strength of their urban appeal alone. However, I doubt that such movies would have had it as easy as they do (relatively) today had it not been for a movie like “DCH. The movie was remarkable in setting the tone for the rest of the decade as many stood in line to imitate or build on the style of Farhan Akhtar. Some succeeded, most did not.

Another unique thing about the film was its look. Urban, stylish and cool, it was unlike anything that had been shown on screen before. The music was fresh and unlike anything that had been done before. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy gave, I think, their best score. Each song was unique and songs like “Dil Chahta Hai”, “Jaane Kyon” and “Who Ladki Hai Kahaan” are popular even today. The filming of the songs was interesting, especially “Who Ladki Hai Kahaan” that parodied the classic styles of Hindi cinema. The special effects were, for the first time to my knowledge, used as a narrative tool rather than mere spectacle. The performances were splendid and the movie almost single-handedly revived the dying career of Saif Ali Khan.

A lot is owed to a film like “Dil Chahta Hai”. Many of the films in this list would have either never been made or never found an audience had it not been for this film.

At a glance:

50. Namastey London:
49. Mithya:
48. Johnny Gaddar:
47. Parzania:
46. Om Shanti Om:
45. A Wednesday:
44. Kabul Express:
43. Morning Rage
42. Cheeni Kum
41. Being Cyrus
40. Parineeta
39. Firaaq
38. 3 Deewarein
37. Legend of Bhagat Singh
36. Makdee
35. Zubeidaa
34. Dor
33. Mughal-e-Azam
32. Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye
31. Rang De Basanti
30. Water
29. Hera Pheri
28. Chandni Bar
27. Gulaal
26. Jaane Tu, Ya Jaane Na
25. Veer Zaara
24. Sarkar
23. Kal Ho Na Ho
22. Swades
21. Kaminey
20. My Brother…Nikhil
19. Jab We Met
18. Rock On!
17. Lakshya
16. Munnabhai MBBS
15. Iqbal
14. Khosla Ka Ghosla
13. Dev D
12. Chak De India
11. Luck By Chance
10. Taare Zameen Par
9. Omkara
8. Black Friday
7. 3 Idiots
6. Lage Raho Munnabhai
5. Black
4. Lagaan
3. Maqbool
2. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
1. Dil Chahta Hai

Friday, January 8, 2010

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part V

As we near the end of this rather long and delayed list, I found myself having more and more to write about movies as we neared the best ones. As a consequence of this, I have had to split the last 10 into two entries due to length. The movies are as follows:

10. Taare Zameen Par: Aamir Khan made his directorial debut with “Taare Zameen Par”, a relatively small film about a child with dyslexia. However, what could have been melodramatic and sappy turned out to be one of the most sensitively made films about kids. That is not, by any stretch of imagination to say that it’s a kids film. It is, on the contrary, a film that must be made mandatory viewings for all adults who have children or come in regular contact with them. Aamir Khan takes the story of Ishan (Darsheel Safary) and through it tells a universal tale that is true of all children. Dyslexia is a tool he uses to explain the alienation that children often face and their need for unrequited love, attention and care. It also is a surprisingly resonant depiction of the challenges and pressures that pre-teens and teenagers face today in terms of academic performance. Nothing is good enough. More is less. And any interest in the arts is considered as a hobby, at best. No one is really interested in knowing what the child wants. Everyone wants robots for kids who get excellent grades, do sports, extra classes and everything under the sun exceptionally. Aamir Khan takes these themes and explores them with a remarkable emotional depth. It’s a beautiful film that rests on two superlative performances: neither of which is Aamir Khan’s. The first is Tisca Chopra. As Ishaan’s mother, she is the embodiment of the motherly love and with one look makes you weep as she is torn between her overbearing husband and her love for her son who she doesn’t understand. After playing small roles throughout the 1990s, Tisca Chopra finally got a role she could sink her teeth in and she springs upon the opportunity. The result is a career defining performance. However, the true show stealer of this movie was none other than the child himself, Darsheel Safary. As Ishaan, he is absolutely perfect, vulnerable, sweet and misunderstood. He emotes amazingly well for a child his age and gives a superb performance as the central character. The usage of special effects in places is wonderful and left me in childlike wonder. Overall, this is one of the most sensitive and big-hearted pictures in recent years. Once again, Aamir Khan proves that big is not always better. A good story and strong performances with the right promotion can carry films better than big budgets any day.

9. Omkara: Vishal Bharadwaj’s third feature film was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic work “Othello”. The tale of kings and kingdoms is transported effectively into the Indian hinterland and power struggles in gun-totting gangs. Vishal Bharadwaj wowed one and all with his first Shakespearean adaptation “Maqbool.” Once again, here, he proved his brilliance as an expert story teller who has all the confidence, style and creativity to do justice to Shakespeare and yet, create something which is distinct, unique and very much original. He proves that even in remakes and adaptations, there is immense scope for ideas and innovation. As far as the main plot is concerned, it reflects the original work not only in word but also in spirit. The tale of Iago’s treachery and Othello’s insecurity is so well transposed into Langda Tyagi’s scheming and Omkara’s manipulation, that one watches spellbound as the saga unfolds. The performances are all excellent. However, the shining star of this film was Saif Ali Khan’s performance as the cold and calculating Langda. He is demonic, vicious and very much human. The unrestrained performance is raw, powerful and easily his best. Vishal Bharadwaj extracts such a wonderful performance that it is hard to believe that this is the same actor who did movies like “Aashiq Awaara”, “Main Khiladi Tu Anari” and “Dil Chahta Hai”. Vishal Bharadwaj proves that “Maqbool” was no fluke. He weaves the web of love, jealousy, deception and betrayal so intricately that one is at a loss for words. His music is also perfectly in sync with the mood of the film ranging from the raunchy “Beedi Jalaile” and the rustic title track to the passionate “Naina” and beautiful “Jag Ja”. Gulzar’s lyrics are gems and compliment the music and the mood of the film in a way that only Gulzar can achieve. In “Omkara”, Vishal Bharadwaj cemented his position as one of the most innovative storytellers whose ability to reinvent classics is unparalleled in Bollywood.

8. Black Friday: Anurag Kashyap’s first movie as a director to actually reach the theatres, “Black Friday” came quietly and yet, created quite a stir. Although it was ready since a few years before its release, it was struck by an injunction from the Bombay High Court as the trial of the accused allegedly involved in the activities depicted in the film was reaching its conclusion after nearly 13 years and the accused believed that the release would prejudice the courts against them. As a result of this, the movie’s release was delayed till after the decision of the courts. I saw the movie on the first weekend of its release and was completely blown away.

The movie is a docu-drama on the Bombay blasts in 1993. It delves into the planning and players behind the carnage in meticulous detail. At the same time, while exploring the micro level in such detail, it places the events within the macro framework of the charged atmosphere that was prevailing in the society in the time. What is remarkable about the movie is its unflinching execution. It took a strongly factual view of the riots that took place in Bombay after the demolition of the Babri Masjid (which was the trigger for the conspiracy that led to the blasts). Instead of taking a normative view (and consequently “balanced view”) of the events the way other movies on the riots like “Bombay” did, Anurag Kashyap has the balls to say what really happened and the extent to which it was a political event in which the minorities were unfairly demonised, targeted and exterminated by the powerful majority. In so doing, his work rises above merely being a factually correct depiction and becomes a political comment on a historical event and in some ways, sets the highly distorted historical record straight. At the same time, he makes a strong comment about the cost at which “justice” was achieved here. The police practices are barbaric and make you rethink what was achieved and whether it was worth the cost it entailed. And he does all this in a quiet and calm manner. Not once does the film seem dramatised or melodramatic. This makes its conclusions all the more chilling. This is a rare feat in Bollywood where most political comments are either based fictitious or hardly well thought out. “Rang De Basanti” is an excellent example of that. What Kashyap achieves here is to make the audience uncomfortable. He makes them squirm, think and take an opinion. That is his greatest achievement.

At the same time, Anurag Kashyap does not ignore the human element of the story. The characters are well drawn out and the performances exceptional. The frustration of Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) in heading the investigations and the transformation of Badshah Khan (Aditya Srivastava) from accused to approver was exceptionally portrayed. Tiger Memon (Pawan Malhotra) is appropriately kept slightly enigmatic as little is known about him apart from his meticulousness in the planning and his hot temper. To have tried to explain anymore would have been conjecturing and taken away from the authenticity of the film. The most chillingly frightening performance is that of Vijay Maurya as Dawood Ibrahim for no other reason but the striking resemblance.

The movie is technically superb. The movie very effectively captured the look and mood of the time period in which the events occur. The background music is perfect and absolutely in sync with the tone of the sequence. The cinematography is exceptional and again, sets the tone in several sequences like the slum chase (which inspired Danny Boyle for the opening sequence in “Slumdog Millionaire”). All in all, Anurag Kashyap’s first feature film opened to a wide audience is gritty, realistic, highly entertaining but most importantly, relevant.

7. 3 Idiots: This was the movie that forced me to delete my post on the best movies of 2009. Although S warned me about this one, I still went ahead with the post without seeing this movie and was forced to eat my words subsequently. However, I have no regrets in eating them. This was, without a doubt, the best film of 2009. In his distinct style, Rajkumar Hirani made us laugh, cry and realise that, at the end of the day, “All Izz Well”. One of the most remarkable films in recent times, it takes a substandard literary work (“Five Point Someone” by Chetan Bhagat), realises its crap and turns it on its head. While FPS was frivolous and celebrated slackers, “3 Idiots” places its characters within the larger context of the problems in the education system today. The overtly competitive and unhealthy work environment and the toll it takes on students are portrayed really well here. It advocated the need to promote interests and hobbies rather than submission to social stereotypes (engineer, doctor etc). It celebrates creativity and innovation over memorising and grades. Although Rajkumar Hirani has a strong tendency to get preachy, it is a forgivable flaw as he gives us movies worth cherishing one after the other.

Apart from these messages, the movie is also a superb celebration of friendship. The relationship between Rancho (Aamir Khan), Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) is instantly relatable, enjoyable and occasionally highly poignant. Although the movie seems to lend more weight to Aamir Khan’s character than the others. However, that is understandable as it chooses to make his character the mouthpiece for the ideas it wants to convey. Also, there is a strong element of truth in the characters of Chatur (Omi) and the diabolical Virus (Boman Irani). They are the embodiment of the unhealthy competition that this film attacks. The performances are excellent throughout. Each actor fits in his/her role extremely well and compliment each other at every stage. It is remarkable how Aamir Khan can look like a guy in his 20s when he is actually well over 40 years old.

The script is absolutely wonderful and finds a delicate balance between the funny, the emotional and the preachy bits. These parts are beautifully woven into a whole and in many ways, Rajkumar Hirani proves that he is perhaps the only filmmaker today who can get away with the audacious and the obnoxious (in re the pregnancy sequence). He either makes it so funny or emotional that you forget how outrageous it is and simply choose to go with the film. The dialogues are gems with Chatur’s speech right at the top. They are natural, poignant and witty in all the right places. This is the biggest strength of the film and of Raju Hirani. He proves time and again that boss, at the end of the day, it is the solidity of the story and script that makes a film great. Do yourself a favour, and go watch this movie. If you have already seen it, see it again. The best end one could have expected from a remarkable decade.

6. Lage Raho Munnabhai: This is perhaps the only worthy sequel ever to come out of Bollywood. It surpassed the original by leaps and bounds and its impact on culture is undeniable. It’s plot was unexpectedly audacious and pulled off with such élan and finesse by Raju Hirani that I was completely floored. In today’s conflict ridden society, he found a unique tool to revisit the morals and principles enunciated by one of the most prolific leaders of modern times: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Munnabhai falls in love with a radio jockey and claims to be an expert on Gandhi. When asked to give a lecture on Gandhi at an old age home, he is forced to read about Gandhi and suddenly finds that he can see Bapu and communicate with him. The remainder of the film is about the conversion of Munnabhai and the impact he has on the people through his propagation of Bapu’s teachings. But how is it that he sees Bapu? Is it his ghost? Or is it something else?

Raju Hirani took giant leaps as a story teller in his second outing. He made a film that Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have been so proud of! In the film, he made us laugh, cry and taught us some valuable life lessons. The script and dialogues are so well penned that despite the obnoxiousness of the plot, Raju Hirani pulls it off almost effortlessly. There are several scenes that leave a remarkable impact. The scene of Jimmy Shergill was one of the most emotionally powerful scenes ever. The simple applications of Gandhi’s principles in today’s world are also remarkable to watch. Sure, Raju Hirani is a preachy sentimentalist. However, that does not take away from the fact that he has something relevant to say and he says it in an entertaining manner. In fact, that is his strength. His work may not be high art but it certainly is inspiring and occasionally, even life-revising. He is an audacious and yet, efficient storyteller and makes you care about his characters.

All the performances in the film are very good. Boman Irani is brilliant as usual as the greedy contractor. Dilip Prabhavalkar is effective as Gandhi. Arshad Warsi is in top form as Circuit once again. Sanjay Dutt is lovable as the uncouth but big hearted Munnabhai. The movie dramatically impacted the view in society of Gandhi and introduced a new term “Gandhigiri” in the local lingo. It also reached out to a global audience as it was the first full length feature film to be screened at the United Nations and was opened to a thunderous reception at the World Cinema section (Tous les Cinemas du Monde) at the 2007 Cannes Festival. It is without a doubt, Hirani’s best and one of the best overall of this decade as well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part IV

20. My Brother Nikhil: AIDS, homosexuality, discrimination and the paranoia associated with the disease in the 1980s, “My Brother Nikhil” really went into an uncharted territory. One of the most promising directorial debuts of the decade, Onir’s film dealt with thorny issues without ever getting preachy or heavy handed. Instead, he opts for the tale of a family which has to deal with these issues as one of their struggles with AIDS. Told from the perspectives of the mother, father, sister and friend, the narrative weaves these perspectives seamlessly into a beautiful, sensitive and coherent whole. It features splendid performances from Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla, Purab Kohli and veteran actors like Victor Banerjee and Lilette Dubey. The theme song “Le Chale” is hauntingly beautiful and resonates for a long time after it’s over. The movie breaks taboos; gives us a moving tale and marks the coming of a competent and fresh storyteller.

19. Jab We Met: A surprisingly funny romantic comedy laced with wit, humour, lovely performances and popular music. Formulaic to the core and yet very fresh, Imtiaz Ali’s first feature film became wildly popular among the youth who flocked to the theatres to watch it. It saw Kareena Kapoor in form after a very long time who so absolutely convinced us as the loud, obnoxious, impulsive Geet that we couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Shahid Kapoor tasted success after a long time and a string of flops. Both their careers got a much needed boost. Pritam gave his last good music score before settling into stereotypes. Imtiaz Ali was seen as the new wonder boy on the block and then gave us the awful “Love Aaj Kal.” Despite multiple viewings, I still find the movie fun and funny. I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon.

18. Rock On!: Before “Rock On”, Abhishek Kapoor made the insufferable “Fight Club: Members Only”. The music was alright and it took more than one hearing to get used to Farhan Akhtar’s voice, an ominous sign for a movie about a rock band. Hence, even though Farhan Akhtar was producing, I was not sure of what to expect from the film. Of course, soon after its release, it was all that was talked about! A classic band movie in every way, the strength of the film was that it held back the melodrama and had a very distinct urban youthful appeal. Farhan Akhtar proved that he can not only work “Magik” behind the camera but also before it. Arjun Rampal gave the performance that potentially resuscitated a dying career. Prachi made a confident debut as the trophy wife and Shahana Goshwami was simply superb as the Goan wife frustrated with the cards life has dealt her. The music caught on in a big way and is loved by many even today. Overall, this was an inspiring, warm-hearted film which did wonders for all the careers involved.

17. Lakshya: Speaking of superlative performances and remarkable character transformations, one cannot forget Farhan Akhtar’s follow up to “Dil Chahta Hai.” A war movie, a coming of age tale, Farhan Akhtar proved with “Lakshya” that he was no one time wonder. Although the film suffered at the box office from a barrage of war and cop movies around the same time, it was critical darling, liked by most and loved by many. What was undeniable, however, was the stunning career best performance of Hrithik Roshan in the film. His transformation from a confused, carefree and kind hearted youth to a brave soldier and leader is as inspiring as it is natural. See him in the scene where his character tells Romi (Preity Zinta) that he has found his lakshya to see how much he is capable of as an actor. The film is exquisitely photographed with a view of the border areas that simultaneously evokes a sense of awe, wonder and is deceptive for the violence it conceals. One of Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy’s last interesting albums (before they started churning the typical love ballds etc.), it featured some mesmerising instrumentals and songs like “Kitni Baatein” and “Main Aisa Kyon Hoon?” Farhan Akhtar demonstrates great dexterity in execution of several sequences. My favourite is the execution of the song “Kitni Baatein” where there are no grand gestures or choreography. In the midst of a bombing of a soldier post, the two lead characters (a soldier and a war correspondent) stuck in a bomb shelter convey so much through their eyes of all that is unsaid between them. A superbly shot sequence, it was a sad, poignant moment which proved that Farhan Akhtar is the most promising storyteller of our generation.

16. Munnabhai MBBS: Now, this was a huge surprise package. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s credibility was considerably doubted after “Kareeb” and “Mission Kashmir.” Rajkumar Hirani was an unknown name. The cast included Sanjay Dutt, Gracie Singh (both hardly bankable) and the relatively unknown Boman Irani (best known in theatre circles for his performance in shows like “I’m Not Bajirao”). The music was also hardly catchy. Consequently, it was no surprise that the movie had a slow start. However, the movie caught the audience completely by surprise. Although loosely inspired by “Patch Adams”, it was a warm-hearted, funny film that had a distinct appeal of its own. The jaadu ki jhappi became wildly popular among the people for a long time. Through strong word of mouth, the movie emerged to be one of the biggest hits of 2003 and even spanned a sequel. Although it was overshadowed by the release of “Kal Ho Na Ho” and “Koi Mil Gaya” in the same year, in retrospect it is certainly a better film with a stronger following. Rajkumar Hirani showed promise in making movies the way Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to: simple, funny and relatable stories woven together into a plot with strong messages. It was a delight to see a film that valued its scripts and dialogues more than anything else. Boman Irani became one of the best character actors in the business practically overnight. Arshad Warsi also enjoyed the spotlight for the first time thanks to his portrayal as the lovably funny Circuit. A landmark film of the decade, it marked the rise of a new kid on the block with a penchant for telling stories that were appealing to one and all and had the style of the classics.

15. Iqbal: Nagesh Kukunoor gave us hard hitting realistic cinema in movies like “3 Deewarein” and “Dor.” However, his finest work was a fairy tale about a deaf and dumb kid with dreams of bowling for the Indian cricket team. “Iqbal” was a superb film in all respects. Featuring a star-making turn from Shreyas Talpade, a splendid performance by Shweta Prasad and some memorable moments from the ever bankable Naseeruddin Shah, Prateeksha Lonkar and Girish Karnad, the film was the dark horse of 2004 that emerged as a winner. While the story is hardly possible in real life, it rests on the strength of emotions and that is where the film scores and how! The story of Iqbal is the story of anyone who was told he couldn’t get what he really wanted and worked against the odds to achieve it. It is inspiring as it is universal. It reminded me often that the strength of a film lies in the execution. No matter how simple or far fetched the story is, if told with conviction and adequate care, can be transformed into a cinematic experience. Kukunoor’s “Iqbal” is proof of that.

14. Khosla ka Ghosla: Ab iske baare mein kya kahe? The most pleasant surprise of the decade, “Khosla ka Ghosla” had one of the best screenplays of the decade. Laced with wit and humour, it was at once laugh out loud funny, satirical and sweet. It featured some fabulous performances by Boman Irani, Vinay Pathak and Anupam Kher. A throwback at the classic comedies of the late 70s like “Chupke Chupke”, “Golmaal” and “Chashme Badoor”, the movie could have been disastrous had it been put in dodgy hands. However, Dibakar Banerjee exercises great restraint when it comes to the humour. He doesn’t go the “Priyadarshan way” by going overboard with the humour. His brand of comedy is very different. He draws subtly funny characters that, at the same time, are believable and straight out of life. He finds the right balance in satire and situational comedy and dishes out, arguably, the most feel-good film of the decade. A cult classic of sorts, this film is one that will age like fine wine. It will be savoured for years to come.

13. Dev D: Now this was one of the biggest gambles in recent times which thankfully, paid off. Anurag Kahyap’s redemption vehicle (after the self-indulgent “No Smoking”) also proved to be his masterpiece. Reinterpreting the classic tale of Devdas, the film was wildly inventive, deliriously manic and bowled me over completely. From the very first scene, I knew I was watching something fresh and path breaking. The movie was bold in its treatment of its female characters and rightly portrayed Devdas as a handsome, charming but ultimately, insecure man incapable of loving anyone but himself; a hypocritical chauvinist drowning himself in self-pity. It showcased some exciting new talent in Mahi Gill and Amit Trivedi (the music director) and was technically impeccable insofar as the camera work was concerned. Abhay Deol cemented his position as the bankable unconventional actor further with his performance here. At the end of the day, despite some flaws, “Dev D” is perhaps the most daring and original film to grace the Indian screens after Sudhir Mishra’s “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.”

12. Chak De India: Ever since Aditya Chopra took control over Yash Raj Films, they have steadily churned out more and more movies each year giving a chance to new and upcoming directors. This has done more harm than good to their image as most of the movies have been disasters at the box office and stripped the production house of the exclusivity it once enjoyed. However, in a year where they gave us the poor “Laaga Chunari Mein Daag”, the weak “Aaja Nachle” and the downright disastrous “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom”, there was one gem that salvaged their reputation (and mostly their balance sheets as well). With “Chak De India”, Shimit Amin (of the critically acclaimed “Ab Tak Chhappan”) made a foray into the dicey and largely uncharted territory of women’s hockey.

Based on the true story of the man who coached the Indian Women’s Hockey Team to victory at the Hockey World Cup, the movie was a surprise in every way. It was more than just a sports movie and took on heavy themes like sexism, regionalism and bias and wove them together so well into the narrative that the result was the best movie of 2007. Shah Rukh Khan gave a solid performance which was a far cry from his usual chocolate boy routine. However, even he was eclipsed by the absolutely stunning performances of all the actors constituting the women’s hockey team. Each of the major players, be it the foul mouthed Haryanvi or the short tempered Punjabi, was convincing and effective. The movie made you care about the characters and consequently, when that last penalty shot is taken, I found myself cheering aloud with the rest of the auditorium. Truly, a remarkable film this one was!

11. Luck By Chance: I know I am in the minority here but this was one of the finest films of not only 2009 but also in recent times. If “Dev D” was like a shot of vodka, “Luck By Chance” was akin to a glass of DRC. A movie about the movies has rarely ever been this good. Zoya Akhtar made a debut of a stature that can only be compared to her brother’s debut vehicle. She got everything right with the film. The best part was the cast. Each actor from the leads to the small roles were picked with a lot of care and it shows! Outstanding performances were given by all the actors, particularly Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia and Farhan Akhtar. What was perhaps most striking about the film was how realistically the themes were explored. Not one part looked like make believe. The cameos were extremely well used and just added to the impact. There were many scenes that really stood out: Rishi Kapoor’s breakdown, Dimple Kapadia’s final scene with Isha Sharvani, the scene between Hrithik and the street kids, and the conversation between Shah Rukh Khan and Farhan Akhtar. The last one particularly rang true considering where Shah Rukh Khan comes from and where he is today. Zoya and Javed Akhtar’s writing was impeccable which looked at the Hindi film industry with great affection and rare understanding, even when poking fun at it. This lends a texture and depth to the movie that makes repeated viewings a rewarding experience (a rarity in Hindi cinema). Overall, “Luck By Chance” is the best movie on Hindi movies and sets the new benchmark against which similar themed movies will be judged in the future.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Beat 50 Films of the Decade: Part III

30. Water: Deepa Mehta’s final work as a part of the elemental trilogy went through the most trouble in order to get made. Originally intended to be made with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das with shooting in Benaras, the film had to be shelved after fanatical Hindus got up in arms about the depiction of the treatment of widows in colonial India. Deepa Mehta was already an eyesore for them thanks to the depiction of a lesbian relationship with mythological tones in “Fire”. As a consequence, the film was shelved only to be revived for a 2007 release with a brand new cast of Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, Manorama and John Abraham. Written by Deepa Mehta and Anurag Kashyap, the movie is fairly conventional for the most part and almost seems coldly mechanical in its approach. Nevertheless, the movie sensitively portrays the plight of child widows in colonial Benaras. The power of imagery is well utilised to drive home the issues the film is depicting. Also, what really lifts the movie to a memorable experience are three performances: first and foremost is the performance of the child actor Sarala as the mischievous child widow Chuiya. She gives a surprisingly powerful and mature performance way beyond her years. Seema Biswas is as always super efficient in her performance. She gives that one grim, sad, hollow look into the horizon which she perfected in “Khamoshi” that gives you goosebumps. Last but not least, Manorama as the matriarch of the home for the widows returns to screen after a hiatus and still retains that wickedness that made her so popular in the 1970s. Finally, it is Deepa Mehta’s choice to depict hope and find the poetry in the grim realities that make this movie one worth remembering the decade gone by.

29. Hera Pheri: The movie did wonders for the careers of all that were involved. But cinematically it did more harm than good. Priyadarshan got reduced from a director showing flair in diverse genres to one who churned out an assembly line of (bad) comedies where one can’t tell one from the other. Akshay Kumar’s career in slapstick comedy also got a boost; as did Suniel Shetty’s. Paresh Rawal got typecast for a while in similar obnoxious (and increasingly unfunny) roles. As a movie, it was a hilarious tale of mistaken identities and it featured a stunning performance from Paresh Rawal and Babubhai. Made on a show string budget, the movie did well at the box office thanks to word of mouth and has gathered a strong following over the years. It is an iconic film of the decade that started a mini-movement of sorts.

28. Chandni Bar: Marking the second innings of Madhur Bhandarkar after the forgotten “Trishakti,” “Chandni Bar” was dark, gritty and depressingly realistic in its depiction of the bar dancers in Bombay. Featuring Tabu in one of her finest performances, her unflinching portrayal of the bar dancer and the bleak storyline made the film a powerful and moving experience. The closing scenes are gut wrenching. While the movie is not for the faint hearted and the pessimistic approach may be too heavy for many others, “Chandni Bar” is a powerful film with something relevant to say about the problem although it may not provide any solutions.

27. Gulaal: 2009 was Anurag Kashyap’s year through and through. “Gulaal” was a typical Shakespearean tale of power, love, betrayal and redemption. Kashyap’s master stroke here was to set it in the context of the Rajputana movement and the student politics in Rajasthan. In so doing, he takes us into a world never explored in Hindi cinema before and provides us some highly memorable characters and moments that, by themselves, make the movie worth gold. He extracts some stunning performances from character actors like Aditya Srivastav, Piyush Mishra, Mahi Gill, Abhimanyu Singh and Kay Kay Menon. The only problem is the fact that the lead actors (Raj Singh Chaudhary who also co-wrote the film, Jesse Randhawa and Ayesha Mohan) are relatively lacklustre. You don’t give two hoots about their fate as they fail to evoke either sympathy or empathy. Nevertheless, the novel idea, gritty screenplay and stunning supporting performances make Gulaal one of the best films of 2009 and a memorable film for the decade.

26. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na: Abbas Tyrewala’s first movie as a director caught the attention of the youth in a big way. Few movies (Maine Pyar Kiya, Rang De Basanti, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and some others) have enjoyed such appeal among the youth. A tale as old as time about friends falling in love, the movie worked because of the witty dialogue, the fresh cast, a zesty musical score and at its heart, an authenticity. The main plot seemed straight out of the life of the urban youth. Genelia had the spunk and Imran Khan was infectiously funny. Prateik Babbar was the surprise package as the dysfunctional brother who knows much more than he lets on. Aamir Khan proved his ability to sell a film to the audience. With no remarkable stars in the film, that it was a blockbuster is a testimony to this. It also proved that a big budget and big stars are really unnecessary for a film to work. A good film promoted in the right manner will find its audience. JTYJN proves that.

25. Veer-Zaara: Yash Chopra’s first directorial work in 10 years was looked forward to with much anticipation. The music was unique as it was the work of the late Madam Mohan. The casting was perfect with SRK, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherjee, Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini in pivotal roles. The result was a conventional tale told with lots of heart and care. It took the Indo-Pak backdrop and chose to highlight the similarities and not the differences. The dialogues were gems penned by Aditya Chopra, particularly the poem in the end. It was the best movie to come of the YRC camp since DDLJ. A classic romance with lovable characters and solid performances, Veer-Zaara was testimony to the master director that Yash Chopra is, especially when it comes to emotions. Despite the copious usage of Punjabi, the message was universal and the romance, epic.

24. Sarkar: Very few directors have had a career graph like Ram Gopal Varma. Oscillating between masterpieces and complete trash, one thing that is interesting about him is that his choice of subject is very unique and often very original as well. This is why when he chose to remake perhaps the most enduring classic of Hollywood, “The Godfather” with Amitabh and Abhishek in the shoes of Brando and Pacino, the curiosity generated was tremendous. When I saw the movie, I realised that the curiosity was hardly unjustified. A highly creative adaptation that while keeping the principal plot line and characters of the original set it in the very volatile regional politics in Bombay (and more generally, the Maharashtra region). The performances were very strong and the look of the film was exceptional. Right from the colour palette to the background score, every aspect of the movie was fresh and perfectly in sync with the cold, dark saga it was telling. RGV’s best work since the epic “Satya”, “Sarkar” was a superb film from a supremely erratic director.

23. Kal Ho Na Ho: One of the most promising directorial debut of the decade was seen in Nikhil Advani’s “Kal Ho Na Ho.” It was a dream debut of sorts with stars like SRK, Preity, Saif in lead roles and an army of good character actors (Reema Laagoo, Sushma Seth and Lilette Dubey). After the heavy handed K3G, Karan Johar was surprisingly in form insofar as writing was concerned here. The dialogues were wonderful in places. The story was simple, the execution sensitive and the film had all the opulence that is typical of Karan Johar films.
No one really cared that they got the medicine all wrong. An emotion-heavy story, the film struck a right note nearly every time be it the depiction of the dysfunctional family or the conclusion of the love triangle. It also pushed boundaries with the gay humour and in Kantaben reflected the traditionalists in India. Unfortunately, Karan Johar followed this with “KANK” and Advani gave us the disappointing “Salaam-e-Ishq” and the downright pathetic “Chandni Chowk to China.”

22. Swades: As a follow-up to “Lagaan”, Ashutosh Gowarikar’s “Swades” came with a lot of baggage and expectations. However, the two movies were as different as chalk and cheese. Admittedly, “Swades” bit off way more than it could chew by taking on basically all major grassroots problems within a 3 hour narrative. However, “Swades” was an excellent film for being largely well thought out, albeit idealistic and preachy. At least, for the sake of preaching, it didn’t send out dangerous ideas like “RDB” did. It dealt with most issues with great care and sensitivity. My favourite scene is when the lead character discusses why India is not the greatest country. The climax was just as riveting and awe-inspiring as that final over in “Lagaan.” Moreover, the movie featured SRK, the actor rather than SRK, the superstar. Instead of playing his usual starry eyed stud, he dared to take on the role of Mohan Bhargava, a man conflicted with the choice of the life he left behind and the life he can live ahead. His transformation from the typical NRI to a socially conscious individual is sensitive and very believable. Despite its length, “Swades” is enlightening cinema, a rarity in today’s world.

21. Kaminey: I have already said a fair bit about the movie here. With a repertoire including Maqbool and Omkara, Bharadwaj had proven himself as a compelling storyteller against all odds. In four movies, he has successfully told two children’s tales (one by Ruskin Bond) and two Shakespeare tales (Macbeth and Othello). With “Kaminey” he made a foray into yet another uncharted territory, conquered it and delivered a daring film that was, at once, Tarantino-esque and a throwback at the classic masala movies of the 70s. He made an actor out of Shahid Kapoor and proved that Priyanka Chopra doesn’t need makeup and glamour to be a bombshell. He reinvented the Hindi movie heroine from one that runs around trees and plays damsel in distress to one that tots a machine gun and can be as foul mouthed as any other guy while still retaining a feminine charm. He gave us a powerful new actor in Amol Gupte and presented Bombay in a whole new light. Last, but not least, the movie was armed with a fresh and wildly inventive soundtrack and some of the most memorable lines in recent years. All in all, “Kaminey” was an excellent film from a master storyteller.