The Best Bollywood Films Of 2016: Part 2
I struggled with my list of five favorite Hindi films this year just as I did last year. In 2015, I was daunted by the the sheer quantity of excellent Bollywood movies. I debated, more than once, my decision to leave Tamasha and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! off. I yelled at myself for not having watched Masaan, Talvar, and NH10 in time for my deadline. I wondered if Tanu Weds Manu Returns merited re-evaluation.
This year, I have the opposite problem. I have love (or at least respect) for all of my top five this year, obviously. But I feel a little deflated that there haven’t been more Bollywood films I was crazy about in 2016 and that I’m not as passionate about some of this year’s favorites as I was about last year’s. (I’ve watched Piku, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Bajirao Mastani, and Dil Dhadakne Do multiple times by now, and made full-throated recommendations of Badlapur and Margarita With A Straw to several people.)
But just like last year, the films I’ve picked feature strong, unapologetic female protagonists. They are set in specific, detailed milieus that feel fresh and atypical. All of them put me through an emotional wringer, and none of them are conventional narratives capped by convenient happy endings. Here’s hoping there’s many more like them next year and that 2017 makes a stronger showing, overall, than 2016 did.
This is one of the best films I’ve watched this year in any language. Aligarh is the story of a Marathi professor (played with almost unbearably tender diffidence and sadness by Manoj Bajpai) who is persecuted for his sexuality and eventually dies under mysterious circumstances soon after the homophobic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is repealed by the Delhi High Court. It could have been a rote snatched-from-the headlines film, but Hansal Mehta makes something elliptical, elegiac, and romantic out of fact and conjecture. Aligarh works both as a chiaroscuro portrait of one tragic life and as a stern indictment of institutionalized injustice.
Also based on real-life tragedy, Neerja was the most cathartic watch for me in a year in which I struggled greatly with finding hope and inspiration as the world seemed to be going even more precipitately to shit. This is a solid, unshowy movie that keeps you invested in its narrative of heroism in the face of terror with its marriage of high-Bollywood emotional beats and intelligently low-key filmmaking. As the young flight purser who was killed while trying to steer terrified passengers on a hijacked plane to safety, Sonam Kapoor employs her endearingly raw-edged girlishness and her plucky girl-next-door quality in service of a fully realized, unforgettable performance. She is a revelation.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil
I’ve written at length about this one here, but Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, perhaps the year’s most divisive Bollywood release, is a sharp, thorny, deliciously indulgent film made by a director who’s finally figured out how to navigate his preoccupation with beauty, love and loneliness on-screen with self-assurance and fearlessness. The last half-hour is a narrative letdown, but we have not one but two complex and interesting female characters (played just right by Anushka Sharma and a divine Aishwarya Rai) who make up for the disappointments of the film’s closing chapter. Also, Lisa Haydon’s comic turn is one for the ages.
Pawan Kripalani made Ragini MMS, which does not prepare you for the cunning work he does here. Phobia takes a host of exhausted horror movie tropes and animates them with fresh terror, because it knows exactly how to dig right past the dermis of its girl-trapped-in-haunted-house narrative. Misogyny is the monster under the bed in Phobia. The film is precise and unsparing in its portrayal of how every day can easily turn into a horror movie for women, given that they may not only be potentially subjected to sexual violence but also to trivialization of said violence, of their agency, and of their mental health. Radhika Apte, intuitive, funny, and magnetic, has to be seen to be believed; hers is the one of the great performances in cinema this year. Also, as my friend astutely pointed out, Phobia did Arrival’s twist first and did it better.
Like its title, Parched can be a little too on-the-nose, but it is a feat that this film manages to be so funny and entertaining while covering a host of Big Issues (fertility, domestic violence, child marriage, financial emancipation for rural women, and so on). And it is absolutely lovely in its exploration of female friendship, a wondrous, merciful, complicated thing as played by the three leads (Tannishta Chatterjee, Radhika Apte, and Surveen Chawla, all terrific).
Honorable Mention: Kapoor & Sons, perhaps the first mainstream, widely-seen Hindi film to feature a sympathetic gay protagonist (played by Fawad Khan in what ought to have been a star-making turn; we all know what ended up happening instead). The writers pile on the improbable melodramatic contrivances a little too high as the film hits its climax, but it is, for the most part, a wry, gentle take on family and its mingled pleasures and cruelties.