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:
48. Johnny Gaddar:
46. Om Shanti Om:
45. A Wednesday:
44. Kabul Express:
43. Morning Rage
42. Cheeni Kum
41. Being Cyrus
38. 3 Deewarein
37. Legend of Bhagat Singh
32. Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye
31. Rang De Basanti
29. Hera Pheri
28. Chandni Bar
26. Jaane Tu, Ya Jaane Na
25. Veer Zaara
23. Kal Ho Na Ho
20. My Brother…Nikhil
19. Jab We Met
18. Rock On!
16. Munnabhai MBBS
14. Khosla Ka Ghosla
13. Dev D
12. Chak De India
11. Luck By Chance
10. Taare Zameen Par
8. Black Friday
7. 3 Idiots
6. Lage Raho Munnabhai
2. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
1. Dil Chahta Hai