The fare served up in 2018 proved to be wholesome, sustaining nourishment for jaded palates, satiated with the excess of star-studded formulaic stuff – it left us disappointed and angry for wasting our time and money (Thugs of Hindostan was the prime culprit). Thankfully, it was the year of brave new filmmakers and writers, who rooted our indie cinema in its local soil, and the flowers that bloomed were both exotic and familiar. Contradictions? Yes, but it is contradictions that bring vibrancy and freshness. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but it creates affection for so many things we take for granted, so we never try to rediscover their worth. Badhaai Ho is the culmination of this new trend that began barely five years ago.
And so, I devote my first piece of the new year to films that I had no opportunity to write about, films that we can count among the best of not just 2018, but the decade too. Among the best, count Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun, Mulk, the two Anurag Kashyap stories of love across caste divide and an edgy triangle (Mukkabaaz and Manmarziyaan), Blackmail and honourable mentions to 3 Storeys and 102 Not Out.
Three women offered us delicacies that were sublimely personal and spoke of sensibilities so unique in content and narrative style. Manto is the result of a filmmaker immersing herself in the radical rebel’s life and work, to imbibe the essence of his being – the man, his concerns and creativity. Nandita Das makes seamless transitions from Manto’s life to his celebrated stories, without the artifice of editing it to a different rhythm or subtle shifts of the colour palette. The overall sepia tone evokes nostalgia for a past that is within the memory of a few still alive and yet, there is an urgency in the telling of Manto’s last few years. They are troubled times for a writer committed to the marginalized of society, and aware of the vast churnings that were cataclysmic for two new nations birthed in bloodshed. Manto’s beloved Bombay, where the lowly writer in the industry’s hierarchy is best buddies with the reigning star Shyam, addas at Irani cafes with fellow writers Ismat Chughtai and Krishen Chander, companionable drinking sessions, spontaneous pranks… all these unfold with the unhurried grace of a bud blooming, almost unseen amidst the whirling drama of movie making. Standing by his side is his wife Safia (Rasika Duggal, who makes underplaying an art), no doormat but also intensely loyal.
Das was passionately involved in getting us into Manto’s mind, teeming with urgent stories and an angst-ridden heart pained beyond words (ironical for a storyteller), while she tried to maintain an objective distance to create the ethos that drove him to go to Pakistan. In this chaotic, uncongenial new Lahore, Bombay haunts him like a persistent pain that has seeped into his bones and soul. Faced with yet another obscenity charge in a society that hasn’t embraced him like Bombay’s film world did, his descent into selfdestruction is not glossed over. Das makes us feel his rage, agony and despair. It is now a cliché to say that Nawazuddin Siddiqui gets under the skin of a character. Here, he makes us part of an agonized journey into a private hell, that cinema makes public. Catharsis is not possible for such torment. In a strange but felicitous coincidence, he won the best actor award at the APSA (Asia Pacific Screen Awards ) and Nandita Das was conferred with the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations) prize for this year. These ought to be some salve for the arbitrary loss of screens at home and a few lukewarm reviews.
Meghna Gulzar kept her date with her faithful audience, of making a nuanced film based on real life people and events. Raazi is quieter and more affecting than Talvar, which tried to tell all sides of the ghastly unsolved murder of Arushi and Hemraj. Raazi is family story as much as it is a true, if muted, espionage thriller. At a time when Kashmir is on the boil again, and Kashmiris’ loyalty is under constant doubt, Raazi takes us back to less turbulent times. Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) an 18-year old studying in Delhi is suddenly summoned home to Kashmir, and told to marry the scion of a Pakistani military family. Her father has been a secret agent for India and, faced with imminent death, trains his daughter to infiltrate a highly placed army general’s home as the shy, dutiful bahu.
The director laces Sehmat’s fears of getting caught, as she sets up morse code equipment and makes contact with safe houses and reliable sources, with her emotional involvement in her new home. Meghna Gulzar avoids making stereotyped villains of Pakistani characters. They are welcoming, civilized and sensitive to the needs of the new bride. Vicky Kaushal as the caring husband brings another dimension to the unfolding story. He falls in love with the demure Sehmat, and when the truth hits him, the final agonizing question is: was the relationship of love that blossomed between them real? Or was it all an act on Sehmat’s part? The humaneness of Gulzar’s narrative is that it is not all about “my country is right, no matter what”. The enemy is human, too. In the present climate of hyper, 56-inch chestthumping nationalism, it needs courage to portray the Other with empathy. Alia Bhatt is expectedly exceptional in her understated performance, and the rest of the handpicked cast delivers flawlessly.
The other woman director is strictly non-Bollywood. Rima Das is the one-woman phenomenon (story, screenplay, editing, cinematography, production design) behind the lyrical Village Rockstars, our Oscar entry that did not make the cut. That doesn’t diminish the sincere, subdued passion of Das’ film, set in her native Assamese village. A 10- year old and her dream of finally possessing a guitar to create a band with other boys in the village is doomed, given the hand to mouth existence she and her mother are yoked to. The girl’s spirit is uncrushable, and she infects her band of friends with optimism. It’s easy to jump to conclusions that all village stories set to pastoral rhythms and images are derivative of Pather Panchali. Das brings a contemporary touch to her languidly graceful narrative. There is something in our North East, where rock bands and theatre are aspirational goals, but they are devoid of consumerism. The touch of innocence is beguiling.
Beguiling in a totally different way is Stree, the sleeper hit of the year. It took us so long – we, who are weaned on Vikram Betal tales and Chandamama stories of tantriks and brahmarakshas – to make a spoofy ghost story that spritzes us with comic zest, and lures us with a feminist angle that is not put on. Stree is as desi as desi ghee. Chanderi, a place synonymous with gossamer light pastel silks, is now the home of a female ghost who haunts the town for three days of an annual temple festival. Rajkumarr Rao is hilariously silly as Bicky (the small town patois transformation of ‘Vicky’), the ladies’ tailor – an inspired version of Manish Malhotra, who can assess a woman’s measurements at a glance and zing up in minutes, an ordinary salwar suit, boring lehanga et al with frills and fancy cuts. It takes guts for the director Amar Kaushik to indulge in silliness minus explanations/ apologies/rationalization. The result is a horror comic that tries to subvert age old ideas of a sex-starved and hence dangerous-to-men bhootni, to sympathize with a woman of long ago who was thwarted on her suhag raat. On those three dangerous days, when she appears in the town to lure lone men away, men are safely locked up inside, while women go out at night. The end is fuzzily ambiguous. It is not the expected twist in the tail, but an awkward ending created for a sequel. The five minutes of gyaan, on the suppression of women, by the town’s know-it-all pandit (Pankaj Tripathi spouts punditry with befuddled solemnity) is worth the price of a ticket. When has men’s vulnerability to women been spoofed with such glee in our misogynistic society?
Add Juhi Chaturvedi, the screenplay writer, to this honours list. October is both a heartbreaker and a hauntingly lyrical film. It could not replicate the success of Vicky Donor and Piku, true. For the discerning, October reveals another aspect of the writer-director duo of Chaturvedi and Sujoy Ghosh. Changemakers is a new book, coauthored by Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur, profiling 20 women who have enriched Bollywood in professions as diverse as screenplay writer, director, editor (there are many now) to stunt artiste, script supervisor, gaffer, market maven etc. Juhi Chaturvedi’s profile begins with a description of her ancestral home in Lucknow, set amidst a sprawling garden. The young Juhi used to spread a sheet and shake the bushes to gather falling flowers. She later made them into garlands for puja. She magically creates this scene in October, to suggest the delicate flowering of an unusual relationship. Trained as a visual artist, she weaves together images and memory with painterly grace.
An unexpectedly rambunctious film came from Vishal Bharadwaj. Pataakha loves to pit two warring sisters, who can’t live together nor without each other, against each other with rustic, no holds barred gusto. It rollicks on with unflagging energy, a morality tale on speed. Radhika Madan and Sanya Malhotra as motherless sisters graduate from girlish catfights to snide scheming bahus of the same family – they are as earthy as the buffalo dung in the yard. They could have driven their doting father to an early grave, but he lives on to see their bickering, parting and reconciliation from girlhood to mature matrons. This sisterhood tale is a different take on female bonding and refreshingly non-judgmental.
Kedarnath, the last film I saw before writing this piece, is the proverbial curate’s egg – a well-meaning message mixed with a doomed Hindu-Muslim love story – set in visually splendid locations and passable CGI to simulate the terrible devastation of the deluge in Uttarakhand. Abhishek Kapoor underlines the threat to fragile ecology by rampant building activity. Religion and commerce go hand in hand, as do Muslim porters carrying pious pilgrims up the slopes and steps, chanting Har Har Mahadev with no thought to Koranic injunctions. Predictable, yes, but lit up by the spirited heroine Mukku, the girl who takes the lead in the romance, essayed with spontaneous ease and screen presence by Sara Ali Khan. She has “it”. One could see it even in TV interviews, where she came across as a confident, well-spoken, charmingly modest young woman. Hers is the debut of the year, unlike Jahnvi Kapoor in the travesty of a remake of the Marathi cult film Sairat. She is as fake as the film Dhadak, which waters down the grippingly real love story doomed to tragedy by caste hatred, into a facile, touristy apology of a movie.