Best Bollywood Films 2018: When 'small' cinema got big and viewers snubbed conventional industry ‘wisdom’
In 2018, Bollywood production majors backed a bunch of delightful, non-formulaic middle-of-the-road ventures, marketed them well, and ensured that they got pride of place in theatre schedules.
Conventional Hindi film industry ‘wisdom’ dictates that women-led storylines do not lend themselves to box-office blockbusters, that audiences expect female-centric films to be issue-based and grave, and that male-centric films strike gold only when they are flashy, formulaic at least to some extent, larger-than-life and/or headlined by men stars with larger-than-life images.
Conventional Hindi film industry ‘wisdom’ can go take a hike. In 2018, viewers rejected the Bollywood seers’ unadventurous interpretation of what constitutes “small” and “big” cinema by often rejecting hyped-up mega-ventures, routinely embracing quality content without a care for scale, and proving that “small” or “big” lies in the eyes of the beholder.
That’s the difference between this year and last. Most films on my list of Bollywood’s best in 2017 were barely-promoted indies that got limited time and space in movie halls. In 2018, production majors backed a bunch of delightful, non-formulaic middle-of-the-road ventures, marketed them well, and ensured that they got pride of place in theatre schedules. Guess what? Many were hits. (Aside: I use the term Bollywood to denote the Mumbai-based industry that makes films primarily in the Hindi language.)
Here is my pick of the best Bollywood films released in theatres in 2018.
BEST BOLLYWOOD FILMS:
A brilliant screenplay, Alia Bhatt’s flawless performance and Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s best songs since Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) underpinned Meghna Gulzar’s emotionally charged yet restrained India-Pak espionage thriller. Raazi’s sensitive writing brought home the inevitable human cost of all war better than any Hindi film in recent years.
Although the screenplay foregrounded a Kashmiri Muslim teenager’s excruciating sacrifice for the country, it did not tackily tomtom the heroine’s identity nor was it patronising towards the community. In the midst of the high-decibel jingoism pervading her industry, Ms Gulzar opted for minimalist storytelling and achingly beautiful humanity instead.
One of the most compelling games of join the dots ever played on the big screen, Andhadhun was a howdunnit-cum-howtoendit to beat all murder mysteries. Ayushmann Khurrana was fantastic as the artiste who believes a physical challenge enhances an individual’s creativity. As if watching Tabu being deliciously evil was not exciting enough, Andhadhun put the Bollywood spotlight on the piano after a long time.
Sriram Raghavan’s tale of a pianist, blindness and a young wife who wants her elderly husband to launch her as an actor was a hilarious yet thoughtful commentary on fate, amorality and the things guilt drives human beings to do.
Was Shiuli romantically interested in Dan or was she just intrigued by his eccentricity? We will never know, but the what-if kept Dan going through director Shoojit Sircar’s newest collaboration with writer Juhi Chaturvedi that brought out the best in actor Varun Dhawan.
The film’s legacy has been somewhat marred by the team’s disappointing reaction to a charge of plagiarism by an unknown Marathi filmmaker called Sarika Mene (for details, click here.) An analysis of the facts suggests that Chaturvedi and Sircar drew some inspiration from the true story of Mene’s brother reported in the Mumbai media – nothing wrong with that, but a gracious acknowledgement, even if post-release, would have meant something. Truth be told, I struggled with whether I should include October on this list for this very reason.
Be that as it may, it is hard to forget this poignant saga of undefined and indefinable relationships. October was poetry in a motion picture filled with the most lyrical of frames seen in a Hindi film in 2018.
The pall of melancholy enveloping debutant director Dipesh Jain’s Gali Guleiyan a.k.a. In The Shadows is a lasting memory from 2018, and a reminder of how mesmerising sadness can be. Manoj Bajpayee’s performance as a middle-aged man desperate to save a child being abused in his neighbourhood was a highlight of the film as were the strong supporting performances and the smoothness of the narrative stringing together the stories of this troubled adult and that disturbed child in ever-changing, never-changing Old Delhi.
His dismal Manmarziyaan was heavily marketed, but the Anurag Kashyap film that truly deserved to get eyeballs was not. Mukkabaaz featured dazzling performances by Vineet Kumar Singh as a talented boxer bogged down by an apathetic, corrupt establishment, and debutant Zoya Hussain as the spirited woman he falls in love with. Only Kashyap could pack observations about politics in sport, communalism, misogyny, physical disabilities, patriarchy and caste into one film without trivialising anything yet, simultaneously, without seeming overly conscious of each as an ‘issue’ to be dissected. The energy in this bright, well-crafted film about “Uttar Pradesh ka Mike Tyson” is so electric, it could light up a village for a month.
Cyndi Lauper captivated Indian listeners in the 1980s singing Girls just wanna have fun, but it has taken decades for her voice to reach Bollywood. Shashanka Ghosh’s inexorably funny yet ruminative Veere Di Wedding FINALLY drove home the point that a woman-centric film can be as light-hearted as a man-centric venture, adding (unlike most masala flicks toplined by major male stars) that light does not mean assinine. It was the story of four regular women from wealthy and middle-class backgrounds with regular joys, sorrows, insecurities and fears, conformist relatives and nosy neighbours.
A hysterical masturbation scene featuring Swara Bhasker shocked conservatives, no doubt because a woman deriving pleasure from sex remains taboo among such folk as does a public discussion on self-service. It was just one element though in a supremely enjoyable buddy flick that thrived on the chemistry between the female leads Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Shikha Talsania and Bhasker, the unprecedented humour and frankness in conversations between their characters, and the no-holds-barred celebration of womanhood and of life.
Supernatural drama? Folktale? Horror flick? Psychological thriller? There is no telling whether Tumbbad is all the above or none of the above. In a year in which he made big news with Zero, his directorial venture starring Shah Rukh Khan, Aanand L. Rai also co-produced and doggedly promoted this formula-averse adventure helmed by Rahi Anil Barve. The budget was vastly lower than Zero’s, yet Tumbbad was as visually grand as it can get. The film’s strong cast was led by the good-looking but not-seen-on-screen-enough Sohum Shah, who was also its producer.
Atmospheric and chilling, it was one of the most original and rewarding cinematic experiences of the year gone by.
Courage does not always translate into good cinema. In this case, thankfully, it did. Director Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk grabbed Islamophobia by the horns and wrestled the challenging subject with sensitivity and grace. The Rishi Kapoor-Taapsee Pannu-starrer was effective because Sinha chose to make it an entertainer, not a sermon that would have reached only the already converted.
Kapoor can add Mulk to a list of films he can be proud of in this remarkable post-2003 second innings of his career. Solutions are far tougher to arrive at in real life than they were in Sinha’s story, but those harrowing yet ultimately uplifting 140-plus minutes spent with old Murad Ali and his supportive daughter-in-law Aarti were a healing assurance that our fractured world might some day be a better place than it is right now.
9: Badhaai Ho
“Kasht tera hai, final decision bhi tera hi hoga” (You are the one who will go through the trouble that this pregnancy entails, therefore the final decision too will be yours). Who would have guessed that a Bollywood afraid to even mention the word “abortion” in 2016’s Sultan would, in just two years, get to a place where an elderly male character would say these words to his pregnant, elderly wife? Yet that is precisely what Manoj Kaushik told Priyamvada Kaushik in Badhaai Ho this year. Director Amit Ravindernath Sharma cast Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao as the older couple unexpectedly expecting a baby and facing the anger of their grown-up offspring (Ayushmann Khurrana among them) along with the intrusiveness, gossip and contempt of neighbours, relatives and strangers.
Twilight romance, marital happiness, sibling bonds, young love, well-considered redefinitions of conservatism and liberalism can all be found in this heartwarming, rib-tickling, realistic and thoroughly gratifying family drama.
If Tumbbad was eerie and haunting, Stree explored another dimension of horror with its uncommon combination of comedy, social insights and dread. A female ghost attacks men in a town in Madhya Pradesh, leading residents to keep their sons and husbands confined to their houses and driving some men to adopt women’s clothing on their rare outings. A big salaam on behalf of self-respecting, rights-conscious, freedom-loving womankind to writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK for turning on its head the accusatory “What was she wearing? Why was she out of the house / out there / out late?” interrogation that women victims of violence are constantly subjected to. Kudos too to them and director Amar Kaushik for doing this in a film brimming inoffensively with laughter.
With Stree, it is also now officially confirmed that there is nothing Rajkummar Rao cannot do: yes, in addition to everything else, he is an A-grade comedian too.
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