The Best Bollywood Films Of 2016: Part 1
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The iconic opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily be used to describe the state of the Hindi film industry in 2016. While 2015 offered us a surprisingly generous slate of entertaining and profound films, 2016 was considerably less consistent, with releases running the gamut from truly pathbreaking to mind-numbingly offensive. And now, with studios rolling back their film production divisions or closing up shop altogether, it will be interesting to see how Bollywood restructures itself in the future, and what kind of films will be made as a result of that. In that sense, 2016 was a year of transition, one that will be far more memorable than most of the films it managed to produce.
In light of all this, it wasn’t difficult for me to choose my favourite films of the year. While we all had to wade through some pretty murky waters, so to speak, in order to find the few cinematic gems that 2016 had to offer (raise your hand if you felt personally victimized by Great Grand Masti!), the duds made the genuinely interesting films shine even brighter, with artistry coming from some truly surprising corners of the industry.
What can I say about this year in film? Above all else, it makes me truly excited to see what 2017 will bring.
If you had told me two years ago that one day soon, the most impressive female performance of the year would come from Sonam Kapoor, I wouldn’t have believed you. Sure, she’s always had moxie and a significant amount of onscreen charm, but when it was announced that she would be portraying slain air hostess and national hero Neerja Bhanot onscreen, many of us were understandably skeptical. I’m happy to say that she proved us all wrong, giving an understated and riveting performance that never once felt melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. While Shabana Azmi, playing Neerja’s mother, certainly did her part in adding to the film’s emotional quotient, the narrative mainly rested on Sonam’s shoulders. And I’m proud to say that she, along with director Ram Madhvani, delivered a fitting tribute to Neerja Bhanot’s courage and sacrifice.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil
2016 saw Karan Johar finally reach maturation as a director. For a man who made a career on candy floss cinema, somehow managing to make even the most dire subjects like infidelity and Islamophobia feel romanticized, it was quite a surprise to see Karan Johar of all people unapologetically portray the ugly, selfish side of love. ADHM is certainly a divisive film, with two lead characters who often behave detestably, but it is also a film that’s true to human nature in a way we rarely get to see in mainstream Bollywood. Ranbir gives a truly magnificent performance as a man-child in love with a girl who can never reciprocate his feelings, and even when the narrative makes us hate his character, we still see a bit of our own pain and self-serving inclinations in his internal struggle. ADHM must also be applauded for giving us the comeback that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan deserves. She sets the screen on fire as Saba, one of Bollywood’s first truly sexually liberated female characters, and she just about steals the film out from under its two leads. While ADHM is almost derailed by its dreadfully contrived final act, the ending doesn’t quite manage to unravel the goodwill built up by the rest of the film’s narrative. Karan Johar still has a lot to learn as a filmmaker, but with this movie, we finally get a glimpse of a director deserving of his place in cinematic history.
Kapoor & Sons
As Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Director Shakun Batra tackles this notion, exploring the delicate relationships between husband and wife, older brother and elder brother, and parents and their children in this poignant family drama. Rishi Kapoor dons prosthetic makeup to play the lusty grandfather, heart and soul of a middle class Indian family plagued by infidelity, sibling rivalry, and hidden sexuality. Ratna Pathak is terrific as the long-suffering wife and mother trying to preserve her family and her own sanity. But it is Fawad Khan who leaves the biggest impression as the favored elder son whose carefully curated world comes crashing down when his mother discovers he is gay. The scenes between Ratna and Fawad are heartbreaking, realistic, and above all, vitally important in a society where homosexuality is still criminalized. Kapoor & Sons is an excellent drama that also happens to serve as a catalyst for some much-needed conversations among cinema-goers, and that alone earns it a spot on this list.
Udta Punjab is one of those rare “message” films that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with its own self-righteousness. Taking a cue from movies like Traffic, Crash, and Gangs of Wasseypur, Udta Punjab explores the rampant drug abuse in the state of Punjab from multiple points of view: that of a corrupt cop, a strung out musician, a doctor, and a migrant farmworker who finds herself in the grips of a drug lord. As the film progresses, the stories converge, taking advantage of its talented ensemble cast (Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, and Diljit Dosanjh) to effectively and sympathetically depict the causes and the aftermath of the Punjabi drug culture. We come away from the film with a bittersweet feeling, knowing that while a few cockroaches have been stamped out, a hundred others are huddled up to take their place, and the youth of Punjab are left to suffer the consequences. It is an important film, but one that never sacrifices the entertainment quotient of the story to stew in its own importance.
Box office is not always a measure of excellence, as proven by Fitoor, Abhishek Kapoor’s modern day adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The love the director has for his subject matter can be seen in every single frame of Fitoor, and the use of imagery in unraveling the narrative is nothing short of breathtaking. In Kapoor’s version of the story, Pip and Estella become Noor and Firdaus, portrayed effectively by Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif. But the real standout was Tabu as Begum Hazrat, the Indian Miss Havisham who moves from stoic to impassioned to unravelled with admirable ease. Admittedly, Kapoor left out some of the novel’s most interesting aspects--its brutality, its psychological violence, its focus on classism--in favor of a love story that was too “Bollywoodized” for its own good. But it remained a satisfying tribute to fans of the novel, and was able to hold its own as a standalone romantic saga that was visually and narratively unique from anything else we saw this year.
Honorable mention: Sometimes a film stumbles in its construction, but wins the audience over with its intentions. Pink, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu and directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, is one such film. As a courtroom drama that tackles the subject of sexual assault and a woman’s right to resist with violence, it often feels unnecessarily preachy, with long, drawn out speeches by Mr. Bachchan that test your patience and your attention span. But the content of the speeches are of the utmost importance, and while Pink occasionally breaks one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking by telling the audience what it wants them to know instead of showing them, the message the film sends is one that society so desperately needs to hear that any narrative hiccups can and should be overlooked. Pink makes clear that no matter the situation, no matter who the victim is or what they’ve done in the past, no indeed means no. And if the film needs to spell that out for the audience in order for them to fully understand it, so be it. It’s a message worth sending, by any means necessary.