THE INDIE SOUL OF BOLLYWOOD
Before the onslaught of out-sized holiday blockbusters, it's always quieter in the first half of the year. The first six months of 2011 has been privy to films that aren't usually the kind of fare that our cinema is associated with (and we’ll be back to overblown gaudiness soon enough). After last year's middling mid-year harvest, this year has been a revelation, with some truly worthy efforts, very often by first-time film-makers, who represent a new brat pack of upstarts and rule-changers. Here's a look at the very best of the lot.
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No One Killed Jessica kick-started the year by turning two enduring industry taboos on their heads, that of first week releases being doomed, and that relying solely on female leads (Rani Mukherji and Vidya Balan) was akin to committing box-office harakiri. Instead, Raj Kumar Gupta gave us an atypically crowd-pleasing tale that was oddly formulaic despite being based on true events (the Jessica Lal trial), maybe because he only wanted to deliver a slick thriller with a pop conscience. What he didn’t do was delve into the psyche of everyman criminals like Manu Sharma who come from cloistered political families in which power and coercion are easy bywords. Liberties were taken with actual fact, not least by appearing to catapult both NDTV and its front-woman Barkha Dutt into prime position. However, in the end, his is a film that provides its audience with a kind of collective catharsis, especially in the moving recreation of the candlelight vigil that stirred up the conscience of an entire city, and in an elegiac homage to Jessica Lal performed by debutante Myra Karn in little punctuating flashbacks.
Vidya Balan with Rani Mukherji during the candlelight vigil in No One Killed Jessica
In Dhobi Ghat, first-time director Kiran Rao takes us across air-brushed sea-faces, and along color-saturated city scapes, and through high-rises into a rarefied Bombay of an unlikely sparseness. The unexpected relationships that she tries to flesh out have an exploitative air about them, and at every moment, Rao impinges her ‘outsiderliness’ on the canvas she’s painting, but she does so with as much empathy and warmth as she can muster and before its time is up, Dhobi Ghat does ultimately display the shreds of its city’s heart, marking itself out as a human document of a rare preciousness, not unlike the tapes left behind by a young Muslim girl (played by Kriti Malhotra) in the film, that gently fill in the spaces between the stories giving the film a seamlessness that it otherwise lacks.
Aamir Khan as an introverted painter in Dhobi Ghat
Funnily enough, in Shor in the City, the director tandem of Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K take Rao’s mood-painter—director of photography Tushar Kanti Roy—right to the nerve centres of the city and draws out a completely different Mumbai—frenetic, lawless, rife with contradictions. Here we are hoisted straight into the action, into the streets and bottlenecks that are the clogged arteries of a city that doesn’t ever skip a beat. It would appear that every piece in this puzzle has been culled out of newspaper articles, and although the film very quickly stops trying to make sense of the chaos, this is a ride that’s well worth taking. Another feather in the cap for Balaji Productions, usually known for its chiffon-infested soap operas, and now also for the occasional foray into edgy cinema (like last year’s Love Sex aur Dhokha).
Tushaar Kapoor and his cronies in Shor in the City
Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba rescues the 'children’s film' from the throes of hackneyed melodrama—giving us a disarming little fable that is feel-good but never to a fault. The quaint world of classrooms and school-yards, the politics of lunch-boxes, and the delightful ironies that seem to populate the world of teachers, are brought out effectively in a film that is ultimately an amazing feat of editing by Deepa Bhatia. Bhatia and Gupte splice together the choicest moments from hours and hours of candid footage of children who were part of a drama workshop, and come up with a compelling and polished narrative that still has the heart of the impromptu experience it was.
A delightful bunch: the kids of Stanley ka Dabba
Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan doesn’t quite tap into a kind of existential angst like its thematic predecessor, Anurag Kashyap’s lost film Paanch, being more glitzy than gritty, but as a caper gone horribly wrong, there is a fluidity to the movie-making in display that almost makes it the cinematic event of the year. Where the formula seems to be rearing its head, like in the back stories some characters are afforded, the story-telling is weak. It’s only when the film displays that deliciously elusive streak of devilishness it promises on the blurb, that it really gets into its element. Ultimately, the dissolute bunch at the centre of the action are denied any kind of redemption, nor does the film provide any great insight into the world it seeks to recreate unapologetically and without context. Again, any resemblance to the real-life events it supposedly takes off from is co-incidental and the film owes more of a debt to Western cinema of this genre (like Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave).
Shiv Pandit as the charismatic natural born killer of Shaitan
The special mentions of the year include Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March, which overcomes its linguistic clunkiness and the slightest whiff of pretension, to create a story of deeply moving cadences, as a mother (Deepti Naval) coming to terms with her son’s death in an accident discovers that he was gay. Finally, Luv Ranjan’s Pyaar Ka Punchnama gives us a sultry trio of emotionally manipulative women, who have their men positively pulverized, but instead of coming across as resolutely anti-woman, the film goes on to show that the depiction of women in cinema has now come full circle, and such unsympathetic portrayals are sometimes more authentic than stereotypical. A crackling script by Ranjan and gung-ho performances by the three male leads allows the film to transcend its B-movie credentials and stand tall as a bonafide work of art (and also one of this year’s sleeper hits).
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The best performances of the year feature some of our more seasoned actors playing women grappling with loss. For Juhi Chawla in I Am, it is more than just a physical or material loss, it is the loss of identity. As a Kashmiri Pandit returning to the site of her most harrowing memories, Chawla is stoic and dignified and chips in a well-judged performance in an otherwise lack-lustre film. Deepti Naval is a study in restraint in Memories in March, taking her time to negotiate her character’s grief but ultimately sculpting a performance of breath-taking beauty, and somehow carrying Rituparno Ghosh’s more stilted turn (as her son’s gay lover) with her. Both actors ultimately create a lilting sense of cinematic synergy.
Deepti Naval with Rituparno Ghosh in Memories of March
Vidya Balan is one contemporary actress who never ceases to surprise. In No One Killed Jessica, she takes on the less showy part (leaving the fireworks to co-star Rani Mukherji), but is so remarkably moving that we are immediately given a window into the interior world of a woman who doesn’t get time enough to mourn the cold-blooded murder of her sister, and is instead thrust into the forefront of a battle for justice in which every other person seems to be a conspirator. There is an imperturbable sadness that she holds within herself and Balan keeps it understated and simmering under the surface. Of course, Mukherji (in what is being touted as her ‘comeback’) is all fire and brimstone as the journalist who launches a media offensive that ultimately is instrumental in bringing the murderer of Jessica Lal to book. It’s an archetypal role, the composite of several journalists and Mukherji’s performance almost restores the legacy of the much beleaguered Barkha Dutt (albeit in a contentious manner). It is the only star turn of any import this year.
A star turn by Rani Mukherji in No One Killed Jessica
Another actor honing his nascent star appeal, is Prateik. While he is gauche and whiny in Dum Maaro Dum—in Dhobi Ghat, as the young washer-man Munna, Prateik exudes a charismatic vibe, and a gravitas that sits easily on his young shoulders. There are conflicts that he essays with almost casual indifference, adding volumes to the languorous charm of his character. In Shaitan, Gulshan Devaiya’s character loses steam mid-way and doesn’t quite develop into an iconic anti-hero for the ages, but the actor springs off the blocks in blustering fashion. He gets the chutzpah of his character just right, and there is a flair with which he orchestrates the shenanigans on-screen. Partho Numaan, who plays the eponymous character in Stanley ka Dabba, gets the playfulness down pat, but he also draws us beautifully into the heart-breaking world that Stanley inhabits outside the cheer and din of the classrooms. It is a performance that deserves full marks.
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Amongst memorable supporting turns this year, in Shaitan, Rajeev Khandelwal makes the most of his angry cop role despite being given a backstory that almost seems like an afterthought while Kalki Koechlin is showcased well—beautifully etched in still frames, and woven into the cinematic language of the film she inhabits. In Pyaar Ka Punchnama, Divyendu Sharma makes us root for the underdog even as he sinks further and further into an increasingly pathetic cesspool of thwarted desire, because there is that natural spunkiness that lies underneath that Sharma uses well to make his character sympathetic and identifiable. Like Deepti Naval, Manisha Koirala is fast developing a reputation of being one of the great actresses in exile. In I Am, she simmers with a warmth and luminosity that makes her underwritten part of a Kashmiri woman come alive. It’s a Manisha who is very much redolent of the cinema of her prime like Dil Se or Khamoshi—those expressive eyes still speak volumes, yet now they contain so many more untold stories.
Divyendu Sharma with Ishita Sharma in Pyaar ka Punchnama
Radhika Apte is a revelation in Shor in the City, bringing an idle sensuality to her role of a repressed housewife who gets her husband (Tushaar Kapoor) hooked on to reading the bestsellers that he has been illicitly publishing. Apte makes this unlikely transformation seem entirely plausible with her winningly persuasive bearing; she also sparkles in a short cameo in I Am. Also in Shor in the City, Pitobash Tripathy brings a manic energy to his part of a petty thug who is a bit of a nutcase. It is a stock character of sorts, but Tripathy is like an Energizer bunny on steroids and entertaining as hell. Elsewhere, Deepak Dobriyal has a townie appeal that makes him a shoo-in for parts like the best friend in Anand Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu. His warmth, effusiveness and impeccable comic timing gives him the aura of a leading man in the guise of a bit player. Finally in Stanley Ka Dabba, Divya Jagdale, a well-heeled veteran of the Mumbai stage, gleefully serves up a slice of delectable joie de vivre as a Chemistry teacher with a flair for irony (and no, she doesn’t need to wear a red sari and shimmy in the rain like all those Chemistry teachers who came before her).
If there is one film that belied expectations this year it was Vishal Bharadwaj's misdirected 7 Khoon Maaf, which riffed off from Ruskin Bond's short story but failed to recreate any of its elemental passions. Priyanka Chopra's Susannah did not strike the tiniest chord, because this is an actress who inhabits only the surface of things, but even stalwarts like Naseeruddin Shah and Irrfan Khan faltered. It wasn't a gallant failure... merely an insipid one.
7 Khoon Maaf: the worst of the year?
Selections have been made by all three Impressionists. This article was also featured on Firstpost as Bollywood's Indie Soul...