A decade is a long time in cinema. Tastes and levels of acceptability have disproved assumptions of what audiences want and are willing to consume. Of course, there are hysterical fringe elements calling for bans, the latest target being the yawnathon Panipat and empowered Hindutva extremists taking umbrage at any slur on cow/desh bhakti/love jihad, or any new target it is expert at finding. But despite these recurring stumbling blocks, a few Hindi and regional films have managed to push the envelope an inch or so. Has the headlong sprint of the new millennium slowed down to catch its breath, to allow trends to settle into deeper exploration of newer territories? The last time such energy and enthusiasm swept us over was by our own version of the New Wave cinema, or parallel cinema, as it came to be termed by consensus.
The last two decades were definitely not another version of the New Wave. Indie cinema has cunningly infiltrated the established mores of the mainstream and boasts of auteurs and wannabe auteurs that have incorporated familiar tropes and props of storytelling…but with an exciting twist and panache. Many personal voices may not have harmonised into a chorus, but they do sing like a choir. And, they are not entirely preaching to the choir. Films of the decade that have a lasting recall value and not merge into an indistinct mass of slightly hatke films are my picks. Instead of chronology, I tried to group films (Indian) connected by an underlying theme. That made clear, Udaan really took flight as the millennial second decade beckoned. Vikramadiyta Motwane’s affecting debut about angsty teenager Rohan’s (Rajat Barmecha) turbulent homecoming delved into the world of adolescence with empathy. It is a tricky territory hitherto avoided by filmmakers because the terrain is so uncertain and the emotions — often inarticulate — are so volatile that they threaten the hallowed Indian family where the patriarch is in his place and all’s well with the world.
Shlok Sharma’s disturbing and little seen Haraamkhor explores the taboo world of an adolescent girl’s sexuality. 15-year-old Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi, in a demanding role) lets curiosity lead her into a relationship with Shyam, a married school teacher who also runs tuition classes at home. Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shyam oozes sleazy knowingness of an opportunist who encourages a clandestine affair with the willing student and turns into a cowardly murderer when the secret affair is being whispered around. Sandhya’s police inspector father, who is frequently absent, makes her privileged and also gives her more freedom. The father’s liaison with another woman stirs up the simmering sexual pot wafting many carnal flavours: a young boy’s innocent crush that leads to tragedy, Sandhya’s initiation into sex followed by a possessive streak and then fear of a false positive pregnancy. An interesting common factor between Udaan and Haraamkhor is the absence of the mother figure.
Teenage angst in the coils of crushing caste and class hierarchy is the forte of Nagraj Manjule, who exploded on the Marathi screen that was/is already teeming with film-makers who rejuvenated their cinema with authentic stories told with verve and originality. Fandry revived the hard-hitting realism of parallel cinema but infused the story of Jabya (Somnath Awghade), a Dalit boy’s infatuation with an upper-caste girl Shalu with yearning tenderness and brutal satire to give the sucker punch. Fandry, Marathi for pigs, alternates lyricism with the robust bustle of village life; stolen glances and encouraging smiles between the flirtatious Shalu and smitten Jabya juxtaposed with the satirical asides of the village humourist-cum-commentator ensconced in the village square. The film ends with the humiliating spectacle of Jabya and his family running desperately to round up pigs, a gladiator sport for the whole village that wants to teach the Dalit his place. This film practically won every award going, at home and abroad.
Sairat became the biggest blockbuster of Marathi cinema, rightfully so, for its engaging narrative that revolves round the unbelievable chemistry between the lead pair: the shy son of a fisherman Parshya (Akash Thosar) and bold daughter of an upper-caste landlord and politician Aarchi (Rinku Rajguru). They grow into a couple you root for, believable and beguiling. The sturdy supporting cast emerge as credible individuals. Initially, Sairat inveigles you into thinking it is a tribute-cum-take off on the typical trope of young love, complete with songs (filmed with a touch of affectionate parody). The runaway couple, after many economic and emotional travails, finally make a life for themselves and when all sewems to end happily with Archi’s parents accepting the marriage, Manjule delivers the coup d’état: merciless execution of the couple. An eerie silence pervades the scene of carnage and their young son’s cries are swallowed by this chilling silence. An unforgettable indictment of caste hatred, a wasteland drenched in blood after the Mahabharat war combined with the starkness of Greek tragedy. The sanitised Hindi remake is an insult.
Ventilator rounds off my favourite Marathi films of the decade. A dark dramedy that exposes our attitude to the lingering life of a patriarch hooked to a ventilator while the extended clan gathers in the hospital lobby. They go about the banal business of everyday life: fixing up a marriage alliance, anxiety about the coming Ganpati puja, division of family assets, redemption of the prodigal son estranged from the dying father, pride in the family favourite — a nephew who made it big as a Bollywood director — and other grievances minor and major aired without compunction. It is as if the approach of death frees families from expected decorum. Most impressive is the total control over the huge cast by director Rajesh Mapuskar, allowing the play of spontaneity in this sprawling, yet time bound, narrative. The capacity to direct a large cast is amazing, more so when they are non-actors. Raam Reddy’s Kannada film Thithi pulsates with life’s many moods and quirks as we follow the wanderings of a disillusioned Gaddappa when his cussed, loudmouth father dies, soon after completing 100 years on earth. It is a breakthrough film after the heyday of Kannada art cinema. It is praiseworthy that present day film folk offered a bouquet of seven short films (made by different directors and crews) to Puttanna Kanagal who made a mark as a mentor and forerunner of art cinema (according to Girish Karnad) in the 70s and early 80s. His cult classic Ranganayaki about an actress (with strong oedipal undertones) can be ranked among the best Indian films. The seven shorts of Katha Sangama are uneven but interesting, offering different dialects of the language, from Mangalorean to the Marathi-inflected patois of Hubli/Dharwad. The best short is Lachchava about the misadventures of a widow from Hubli who gets lost in Bengaluru. The film’s docu-fiction style makes us care for her and appreciate the city folk who finally locate her son. A heartwarming story that can happen anywhere.
Bengali films are guaranteed to offer something to savour. Srijit Mukherji’s Autograph is a tribute-cum-update of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak. Enough time has gone by to recast the master’s film, which is about a huge star’s interaction with a journalist not awed by him when she interviews him on the Rajdhani — in a narrative where the aspiring filmmaker is as important as the world-weary star. High up among the picks of the decade is Rituparno Ghosh’s searingly honest Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. The troubled journey of a gay choreographer (played by Ghosh himself) as he undergoes surgery to become a woman allows autobiographical reading alongside the metaphor of the de-sexualised warrior princess Chitrangada transforming herself to be a feminine seductress to woo Arjuna. It is dark and disturbing, the most honest portrayal of a transgender’s tragedy in contemporary India. Along with Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, filmed with poignant restraint and Manoj Bajpayee’s masterly performance of a reticent gay man’s harrowing trial, these two films bring the subject of homosexuality out of the closet with empathy and artistry. A minor addition to this nascent genre would be Ananya Kasaravalli’s Kannada film Harikatha Prasanga, which is about a Yakshagana artiste who specialised in female roles is caught in the trauma of fluid gender identity in a censorious society.
Sex has come out of the closet both in romcoms and a festival favourite: Masaan. The film takes a realistic look at what happens to Devi, a girl from a traditional family caught by cops in a hotel room with her cowardly boyfriend. Neeraj Ghaywan’s remarkable debut strips Benares of accumulated exoticism piled on this holy city. Two parallel stories of Devi making a new life and a poignant tale of love across caste barriers end on a note of exquisite lyricism. As for the staple romcom, erectile dysfunction flirts with intelligent humour in Shubh Mangal Savdhan. Or take Dream Girl, where a heterosexual man uses his facility of female impersonation to make a living as the sexy voice on the radio in a small town. The film settles for a comic caper when it could have explored men discovering their feminine side. Ayushmann Khurrana has made the quirky/daring romcom his forte. Bala confronts a balding young man’s masculinity and self-image with more honesty than we expect. Nobody is perfect and must learn to love himself/herself is the overt message. But making his scorned childhood classmate struggle with her dark complexion (the make-up is inconsistent) as an additional message board is redundant. Khurrana’s turn as the pretending- to-be-blind pianist in Sriram Raghavan’s noir thriller Andhadhun complemented by Tabu’s deliciously wicked serial killer take it to the top of the decade (for Indian films). Haider is Vishal Bharadwaj’s best and most politically daring film. How can you forget Newton, the rare political film that hits so many targets — election machinery, Maoistdominated tribal villages — with humour, empathy and pointed satire.
It is a decade dominated by women: Kangana Ranaut’s Queen that enthroned her as the nation’s sweetheart; Vidya Balan the hero of Kahani and South’s sultry sex siren’s rise and fall in The Dirty Picture, the amiable homemaker-turned-sexily purring RJ of Tumhari Sulu; Deepika Padukone as the party girl who doesn’t get the man of Cocktail and the exasperated but caring daughter of a constipated curmudgeon in Piku; Alia Bhatt, the decorous daughter-in-law of the enemy and intrepid spy of Raazi; Bhumi Pednekar who made the small town-yetindependent girl all her own in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, Sand Ki Aankh. And now Tapsee Pannu joins the distinguished band of ace performers who can carry a film exemplified by Pink, Manmarziyan and Badla, a thriller that has more twists than a corkscrew, where she held her own against Amitabh Bachchan. If Pink was the feminist poster for No Means No, it eclipsed Anarkali of Aarah, where Swara Bhasker’s spirited nautanki dancer took on the establishment of the small Bihar town to claim her right to say no. The film has the journalistic flair of a well-crafted and researched story with a forceful punchline. It was also a decade where women film-makers vied for top honours. Meghna Gulzar’s non-jingoistic spy drama Raazi that humanised the enemy re-established her credentials post Talvar. As for Zoya Akhtar, she leaped into a different league altogether with Gully Boy. It is a veritable tour de force of narrative nous that demolished the condescending misconception that women lack spatial imagination and ability to capture it. Gully Boy delivered top class performances, made desi rap come of age and was an ode to the spirit of Bombay. The film did not make the Oscar long list but that doesn’t diminish its importance at home. Another rare crossover success, The Lunch Box , that made food the messenger of love redolent with Mumbai flavours, was not chosen as our Oscar entry.
Hollywood offered familiar pleasures but for me, the challenge posed by the brilliant Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Interstellar (you could read them as companion pieces) was something to savour and unravel its philosophy. Richard Linklater is another favourite. Before Midnight that rounded off the Before…trilogy makes it a modern classic. The couple you had followed in the earlier two are now more mature, parents and their conversation with an older writer is intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying. Linklater’s Boyhood is an epic that his fans had waited for, as he follows the protagonist over years as the actor ages before our eyes. Some might call it self-indulgence but with an auteur like him, it is a conscious choice: like waiting patiently for a fruit to grow from seed. La La Land delightfully reinvents Hollywood’s outworn staple, the musical, to beguile a woke audience who demand contemporary relevance both in theme and style. Selma, a dramatic and deeply moving recreation of Martin Luther King’s historic march to implement the right to vote left you yearning for a person like him to take on Trump’s America.
Now for forbidden pleasures. Though Woody Allen is persona non grata, I can’t erase from my mind Midnight in Paris — a literary fantasy that turns into a feast — and Blue Jasmine, a clinical yet empathetic portrait of a scheming woman’s self-delusion of what the world owes her. What a performance by Cate Blanchett! And what a performance by Dave Johns, an unknown (to Indians), in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. The never-say-die socialist is at his humanistic best in this expose of the underbelly of the welfare state where a tech-unsavvy carpenter has to fight the rigid bureaucracy to get his disability dues. Crotchety old men make for wonderful central characters when the milieu is just right, and the supporting cast builds the drama as is proved by the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, based on an international bestseller of the same name. A retired widower enforcing the rules of the small community is shaken out of his shell by the arrival of a new multi-racial family, with lively children and a pregnant mother, an Iranian, who never takes no for an answer. A genuine old-fashioned charmer. Trust the French to shock you into awe. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is a lesbian love story that has emotional heft and painterly eroticism that doesn’t allow its graphic depiction ever lapse into porn. Like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac that belies its title with the psychological depth of its free-fall narrative. The Korean curiosity, The Handmaiden, is a film in addition to the popularity of K-pop and K-soap, but this period piece is too convoluted with its mix of free-ranging sex (orally narrated, graphically shown, hetero and lesbian), class revenge and elaborate plot. It has the power to intrigue, pondering on missed opportunities of acquiring cult following. Now for the intriguing poser: will there only be an unnees bees ka farak between the end of 2010s and beginning of 2020s?