(For the list of 2015's top contenders for the Best Film, click here)
So here it is, (oh how I love saying these three words) on popular demand, my list of Best Hindi Films of 2015.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Imagine a sensible film steeped in common-sense messaging sans sermons. Imagine a romantic drama in which the heroine is overweight yet the director views her through a lens that can see beyond her girth. Imagine such a film being light-footed rather than heavy and dull. Imagine that film being made by a production house that is as commercially inclined as they get.
You don’t have to trouble your imagination if you have seen Yash Raj Films’ Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH), writer-director Sharat Katariya’s sweetly low-key film set in the Haridwar of 1995. DLKH is about a boy with low self-esteem and no achievements (Ayushmann Khurrana) who is compelled by his family to marry a smart, feisty, educated girl (Bhumi Pednekar) despite his objections to her plus-sized physique.
Bhumi Pednekar was the find of 2015. Impressive though he was in his debut Hindi film Vicky Donor in 2012, Ayushmann truly arrived as an actor with this one, completely losing his own personality in his character. Together with one of the best supporting casts of the year, the two youngsters delivered an appealing coming-of-age love story far removed from the high decibel levels Bollywood too often resorts to in its bid to attract mass audiences.
Anu Malik’s gentle tunes for DLKH are perfectly suited to the overall tone of the film, none more so than the prettily melodious 'Moh moh ke dhaage'. When lyricist Varun Grover writes “Tu din sa hai, main raat / Aa na dono mill jaayein shaamon ki tarah (You are like the day and I the night / Come, let us meet as they do in the evening)” you could almost read this blossoming love as a metaphor for the increasing melting of boundaries between what is deemed mainstream and art cinema by one of India’s largest film industries.
DLKH is not just enjoyable and well made, it is one of many turning points for Hindi cinema witnessed in 2015.
First Runner-up: Talvar
Recounting a real-life crime in a feature film is never easy. When the case is as recent and as controversial as the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murder, it is a massive challenge.
Director Meghna Gulzar is clearly up to the task in Talvar, a fictionalised, documentary-like feature about the double homicide committed in 2008.
Irrfan Khan headlines the film’s talented cast relating the botched-up probe into one of 21st century India’s most high-profile criminal cases.
Although Talvar narrates various versions of the killings and the investigation from differing viewpoints, painting the parents innocent and guilty by turns, it has its own stance too: that the messed-up Indian criminal justice system can be vindictive towards citizens to cover up its own inadequacies, that the police’s pre-historic social prejudices colour their work, that the financial and cultural chasm separating co-existing socio-economic classes has volcanic implications, and that when it is at its worst, the news media can destroy lives.
Despite its evident position on these issues, Talvar remains firmly focused on facts. In a cinematic landscape now used to Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap’s more dramatic gangster flicks, Meghna’s choice of storytelling style makes this a landmark crime film.
Second Runner-up: Drishyam
If you thought – as I did – that it would not be possible to improve upon director Jeethu Joseph’s Malayalam film Drishyam (2013), you thought wrong. The Hindi retelling by Nishikant Kamat is as suspenseful as the original, yet minor tweaks make it an interesting, thoughtful remake.
This is the story of a crime and its incredible cover-up. The author of that brilliance is a small-time businessman in small-town Goa, protecting his family when their relatively uneventful life takes a dramatic turn. His combatant in the case is the state’s Inspector General of Police (Tabu).
Even given the traditional patriarchal set-up in both films, with the male protagonist as protector-provider and his spouse as stay-at-home mother, the Hindi version still manages to be less socially conformist than the first film. The noticeably lower age difference between the lead couple here (Ajay Devgn and Shriya Saran) in contrast with Mohanlal and Meena in the Malayalam film and the slightly less conservative conversations between them, makes this a nuanced adaptation rather than a carbon copy.
Ajay wisely chose to play the central character as a more stoic fellow than Mohanlal did, thus pre-empting acting comparisons with a stalwart.
None of this, of course, would matter to those who have only seen the Hindi Drishyam, which stands tall even when it stands alone. In the universe of thrillers, this film is uncommon in the way it builds up a sense of urgency despite its unhurried pace. Good and evil are not black and white notions here. And in the end, the mystery lies not in whodunnit (we already know that) but in how – and if – they will get away with it, because it gets us to care.
Third Runner-up: NH10
Anushka Sharma broke new ground by turning producer with NH10. She is not the first, but she is among the few female producers in this country. When the moneybags are almost all men, the male gaze is bound to dominate a nation’s cinema. If more such enterprising women emerge across states, in time more meaty roles for Indian actresses will follow.
This milestone, however, is not what recommends director Navdeep Singh’s NH10. What marks it out cinematically is its grippingly told saga of civilisational clashes between adjacent worlds whose inhabitants are often oblivious to – even disinterested in – each other’s existence.
Anushka in this film plays a city-bred professional living in the city of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi located in Haryana. Tragedy comes visiting when she and her husband (Neil Bhoopalam) stray into rural Haryana. What follows is a petrifying mix of extreme gender biases, caste prejudice and violence.
NH10 is filled with fine actors, but the discovery of the film is Darshan Kumaar’s versatility. In his turn as a murderous villain here, it is hard to spot the soft-spoken husband from 2014’s Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom.
Actress Anushka is already doing well for herself in Bollywood. What a splendid start this is though for producer Anushka.