Best Hindi Films of 2016: A year of courage, risk-taking stars and defying convention
Critics who venture to publish Best Films lists ought to be given Z-category security on the social media. The scale of arguments, anger and even abuse such lists elicit often surpasses passions aroused by discussions on political ideology, faith and India’s majority religion, cricket.
Well, never mind. Good cinema is worth living and dying for, so here is my pick of the best Hindi feature films released in theatres in 2016.
BEST HINDI FILMS
Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921)
Simple, layered and beautiful – that’s director Shakun Batra’s film about a dysfunctional Punjabi family in scenic Coonoor. The conflict between the brothers played by Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan had all the ingredients for a conventional Bollywood potboiler – love, hate, tears, anger, jealousy – but Batra hit the bull’s eye by opting for a low-key storytelling style. Veteran Rishi Kapoor added another feather to his cap playing the boys’ spirited, randy granddaddy. Batra also went where no Bollywood director has gone before, casting a glamorous mainstream star as a homosexual in an out-and-out mainstream film sans gay jokes and caricatures. Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is a heart-achingly moving, brave, gentle film on family secrets, infidelity, homophobia and the pain we unwittingly cause the people we love.
A biopic on Neerja Bhanot, the Pan Am flight purser who died saving passengers on board a hijacked plane in 1986, was a film crying out to be made for 30 years. The wait was worth it for director Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, the tale of an ordinary woman who displayed extraordinary courage on one unusual day at work. Sonam Kapoor’s controlled, career-defining performance effectively transitioned her from glamour girl with acting potential to actress.
2016 has been a year of solid roles for seniors. The first-rate supporting cast in this film was headlined by Shabana Azmi playing Neerja’s mother, whose speech at a commemorative function for her daughter could reduce a hard-nosed adult critic to a sobbing baby. Reality is often more powerful than fiction, and Madhvani’s genius lay in knowing that when you recount a story of drama in real life, you do not need to artificially melodramatise your film.
Who would have thought that agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces – could be used as a tool to deliver social commentary? The answer to that “who” is director Pavan Kirpalani, his co-writers Arun Sukumar and Pooja Ladha Surti. Phobia delivered all the chills you might expect of a conventional spooky movie while also wordlessly providing remarkable insights into mental illness, sexual violence and the human imagination. Radhika Apte was flawless in the central role of a woman who develops severe psychological problems after she is assaulted in a taxi one day. Kirpalani is clearly a man who considers time precious. As he played mind games with the viewer, he made every millisecond, every word flashed on screen, every glance, every casually placed object count in the plot of this gasp-inducing scare-athon. Phobia is one of the best thrillers ever to emerge from the Hindi film industry.
Apart from the title, producer-director Anurag Kashyap’s astounding thesis on the many manifestations of evil has nothing to do with Raman Raghav, the infamous serial killer from 1960s Mumbai. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vicky Kaushal were impeccable as two men from vastly different social strata whose primary motivation for the murders they commit is their appetite for violence. Their acting was as spine-chilling as their crimes, and the nonchalance with which they kill is enough to freeze a normal person’s veins.
On its release, Raman Raghav 2.0 was unfortunately overshadowed by the previous week’s din surrounding the Censor Board’s response to Udta Punjab. Kashyap, who produced Udta Punjab, was perhaps too busy firefighting for that film to adequately promote this one. Sad, because Raman Raghav 2.0 merited a larger audience than it garnered.
Few Hindi filmmakers have studied violence as closely as Kashyap. Raman Raghav 2.0 is a terrifying reminder that in a world where most human beings are neither black nor white, there do exist some individuals with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Pure, unadulterated evil makes for shudder-worthily brilliant cinema.
Someone finally had the good sense to give Swara Bhaskar a lead role in a worthwhile film. She played a hard-working single mother in first-time director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata. As if the choice of central character and artist were not unusual enough for Bollywood, the woman in question was a housemaid in Agra desperate to plant an iota of ambition in her daughter. The film’s USP was its charming realism and understated narrative style. Bhaskar repaid the faith placed in her with conviction. The A-grade supporting performances included a stand-out turn by Pankaj Tripathi as an eccentric Mathematics teacher.
The title Nil Battey Sannata literally translates into “zero divided by absolute silence”, a metaphor in numbers for the heroine’s fear of what her daughter’s existence could amount to if she does not work hard. This is one of the most uplifting films of 2016.
Kahaani 2 cornered all the attention, but the Sujoy Ghosh venture that deserved more media coverage and larger crowds was the less heralded Te3n. Ghosh did not direct, he produced this film directed by Ribhu Dasgupta, the story of an old man determined to find the person responsible for his granddaughter’s death. Again, Pink got all the attention, but it was Te3n that gave us an Amitabh Bachchan in full flow, unconstrained by any awareness of his stardom. An atmospheric Kolkata, a non-stereotypical portrayal of the city and its people, a stirring and suspenseful tale, supporting performances by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ghosh’s favourite heroine Vidya Balan completed the compelling mix.
7: Island City
Vinay Pathak as a robotic employee in a large corporation, Amruta Subhash who must fake sorrow over her despotic husband’s possible death, Tannishtha Chatterjee as a daughter accepting the arrogant groom with whom her parents have fixed her up because she believes she is not good enough for anyone else – these three stories make up Ruchika Oberoi’s debut feature about loneliness in a teeming metropolis, humans resigned to their fate, those who follow rules and norms without question, and the joyous hope occasionally offered when fate intervenes. The themes are universal, the stories specific to Mumbai.
Funny and insightful, comical and sad, Island City marked the arrival of an important new voice in Indian cinema, rightfully earning Oberoi a Best Debut Director Award at 2015’s Venice Film Festival before its brief sojourn in Indian theatres.
Aamir Khan dissolving himself in a role is not news any more. Still, with director Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal – based on the true story of Haryana-based wrestling coach Mahavir Singh Phogat – the star has surpassed most things he has done in his career so far. Tiwari, who earlier made Bhoothnath Returns and co-directed Chillar Party, clearly has a knack for getting the best out of the very young and veterans, as evidenced by his filmography. His latest work stands out not just for Aamir’s performance, but also for the four sprightly youngsters playing the younger and older versions of Phogat’s international gold-medal winning daughters Geeta and Babita: Fatima Sana Shaikh, Zaira Wasim, Sanya Malhotra and Suhani Bhatnagar.
Phogat’s dreams for his girls and the girls’ dreams for themselves after their initial resistance particularly stand out in a state notorious for its poor attitude to women. Dangal goes slightly off-track post-interval, but remains arresting all the same for its unwavering advocacy of winning in sports and its nuanced take on women’s liberation.
A patriarchal feminist is a contradiction in terms yet that is what Phogat is. Dangal acquaints us with this confusing paradox in an evolving society without glossing over the male protagonist’s continuing conservatism. This December release has provided a truly happy ending to what has already been a good year for Hindi cinema.
What a pleasure to watch Shah Rukh Khan shrug off every quirk his admirers have drooled over for 27 years and sink his teeth into a role. A double role actually, which made Fan a double delight. The film may have somewhat lost its way in the second half, but to writer-director Maneesh Sharma (and later in the year to Dear Zindagi’s helmswoman Gauri Shinde) goes the credit for reminding us that SRK is an actor as much as he is a star. To SRK goes the credit for risking a film bereft of commercial Bollywood staples, that too with a story underlining the dangers of obsessive fandom while most celebrities either stay silent or tacitly encourage the phenomenon. Imagine a movie star NOT pandering to his fans. Imagine a director convincing him to do so. This too happened in 2016.
You know it has been a good year when you make a list of your favourite films and struggle to keep it to just 10. Tough call, but in this final slot I am going with writer-director Anu Menon’s Waiting. A hospital’s intensive care unit is a challenging setting for any film, yet Menon made it work in this story of two people with contrasting personalities and backgrounds who meet during the inexorable wait for the recovery of a comatose relative. Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin played well off each other, while their characters confronted some of life’s toughest questions on the right time to let go of someone you love. Despite the grim subject, Menon gave Waiting her trademark light touch that was evident in her first film London Paris New York. She drew from her own life for this, her second film, leaving us anxious for the third.
Dhanak: Nagesh Kukunoor’s heartwarming road movie about faith and hope, starring two dazzling new child artistes Hetal Gada and Krrish Chhabria.
Pink: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s unapologetically feminist film (produced by Shoojit Sircar) in which a legend belted out the words “no means no”, a line that sexual predators in India rarely hear.
Also in the reckoning:
Karan Johar’s hostage video
I know I started out saying this is a list of Hindi feature films released in theatres this year, but grant me some leeway for this parting shot. This one is not a feature, but a short. It is neither fiction, nor a documentary. It is not in Hindi although it is from Bollywood. And it did not release in theatres, it was telecast across TV channels. Still, producer-director Karan Johar’s “of course I will not engage with talent from the neighbouring country” response to protests against the presence of a Pakistani actor in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) must rank as one of the most discussed works to emerge from the industry.
Why did Johar choose that particular low lighting, that colour scheme and that bare setting? The only thing missing from the picture was a masked figure holding a gun to his head. Perhaps we were supposed to imagine just such a person in the background. It is almost as if the filmmaker was mocking his tormentors even while he seemed to bow before them in abject surrender.
History is replete with examples of artists who wove hidden messages into their paintings, pottery, sculptures, songs and writings. Johar of course has not confirmed that he was cocking a snook at the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and others who threatened to stop the release of ADHM even while beseeching them to let the film be, but as I look back at this depressing moment for cinema and for freedom of expression in India, I console myself with the amusing thought that this indeed was his intention.