Thursday, January 21, 2016

The incomplete guide to Bollywood in 2015

Had written this year-end wrap-up piece for Mint Lounge. 

Instead of adding another best-of or worst-of list to the hundreds already out there, we decided to come up with our own categories. The idea was to identify, along with some larger trends, the smaller moments—a song, a line—that remained stuck in our heads long after we left the theatre.

Best casting against type
While Deepti Naval is too gifted an actor to be limited to a type, it’s safe to say no one associates her with “cold-blooded villain”. Which is why the moment in NH10 when it dawns on everyone that her character supports her son’s honour killing tendencies is the unkindest cut—both for Anushka Sharma’s character and the audience, who might have seen Naval and expected some respite.

Bizarre but effective lyric of the year
This one’s a tie. The first is "Banno tera swagger laage sexy", from Tanu Weds Manu Returns—a brilliantly kooky variation on the traditional "Banno Re Banno" wedding standard. The other is the play on words from Tamasha’s "Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai", rendered almost unintelligible by Mika’s enthusiastic delivery: "Pyaar ki lau mein itni jal gayi/ ki loo mein jaana mushkil hai".

Best put-down
Even by his standards, this was a great year for Salman Khan. First, he shocked everyone by appearing in a film that was halfway decent, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which grossed over Rs 600 crore worldwide, a figure that made his other release of the year, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, look like a middling success (it made Rs 200 crore in India). There was also the small matter of his being acquitted in the hit-and-run case that had dogged him for 13 years. Given his godfather-like image in Bollywood and the almost fanatical support he commands across the nation, it felt just a little subversive (and immensely satisfying) when, at one point in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui shut a burqa-clad Khan up with a casual “Tu phir boli, begum?”

Most memorable minor character
You could take Sadhyaji, played by Pankaj Tripathy, out of Masaan without altering the story in any significant way. But it isn’t always the characters vital to the plot that stick in one’s mind. Some of my favourite scenes involve this musical voiced, talkative railway teller, whose fondness for Richa Chadha’s character is touchingly transparent. He also has two of the film’s best lines: the one about the number of trains coming and going from Banaras, and his response to Chadha asking if he lives alone: “I live with my father. He lives alone.” A confusing second passes before he clarifies that his father is alone during the day.

Best shakha-baiting
In a year of bitter religious divide, faith turned up surprisingly often onscreen. Dum Laga Ke Haisha was one such instance, providing a few rare moments of sweetness and wit. The film’s conception of a Haridwar shakha as a club for self-improvement-obsessed, archaic-phrase-spouting, shorts-wearing misfits is incisive but not mean-spirited. So straight-faced was the skewering that there were, for once, no protests from any of the usual suspects.

Most imaginatively choreographed number
Even as the traditional stop-everything-and-marvel number seems to be in decline (the exception being Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films), directors are finding new ways to frame, choreograph and integrate their musical sequences. In "Dhadaam Dhadaam", Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma convey all the pathos that’s missing from the rest of Bombay Velvet. "Gallan Goodiyan" from Dil Dhadakne Do is a one-take that’s all the more impressive for looking so riotous. "Lip to Lip", from Katti Batti, is a live action/stop motion dream. But the most audacious is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’s "Jaanam", in which director Dibakar Banerjee keeps his protagonist in the foreground while moving an immaculate recreation of 1940s Calcutta around behind him.

Best procedural scene
The direction, by Meghna Gulzar, is taut, and the cast, down to the most minor player, is superb, but it’s the writing that marks Talvar out as special. Vishal Bhardwaj’s script is as incisive, cynical and darkly funny as an episode of The Wire. All these qualities are evident in the long scene at the end when the two investigating teams are presenting their competing theories about the murder of Shruti Tandon. The atmosphere should be charged and serious, but instead, the cops seem as concerned with cracking wise about each other’s work as they are about the case they’re building. It ends, as do most things Bhardwaj, with poetry, as the officer hearing both versions invokes a line from a song in Gumrah: “Woh afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin/ Usse ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achchha” (That story that cannot be brought to a logical end may as well be ended on a good note), a quotation that can only be seen as savagely ironic.

Overripe dialogue of the year
Though the villain in Gabbar is Back yelling “I am a brand!” was pretty special, this line from Hamari Adhuri Kahani has it beat. When Emraan Hashmi’s hotelier first comes across Vidya Balan’s florist in the film, instead of saying “Hello” or “Nice weather” or even “Do you like my shoes?”, he comes up with “Beautiful. Inke liye toh main mar bhi sakta hoon.” He’s talking about the flowers she’s arranging, but the film takes him at his word, and he meets his end in a suspiciously CGI-looking field.

Character you hate yourself for caring about
Though it was one of the year’s best, Titli was unremittingly bleak. The film wouldn’t have had quite the same impact without Ranvir Shorey’s searing turn as Titli’s elder brother. Vikram is full of impulses—most of them violent—which keep bubbling to the surface in ways that seem to cause him some pain and others around him a great deal of it. Whether he’s yelling at a delivery guy while also trying to have a conversation with his estranged wife and young daughter, or bursting into tears in the middle of beating Titli up, Vikram is completely unpredictable, reprehensible and fascinating.

Soundtrack most likely to endure
AR Rahman came up with two great tracks and a bunch of decent ones for TamashaDetective Byomkesh Bakshy suggested a bold new direction—of the compiled, rather than composed, soundtrack. Masaan had the terrific, folksy "Tu Kisi Rail Si" and "Mann Kasturi Re"—strong contenders for song of the year. But the album of 2015 was undoubtedly Bombay Velvet. Amit Trivedi compositions fused the jazz background of its female lead with the 1960s Bombay high society setting. With intelligent nods to the music of OP Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan, and with typically witty lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, these are numbers that are likely to sound fresh and exciting decades later.

Best instances of Censor Board looking out for our moral health
Under Pahlaj Nihalani, the new Censor Board (actually the Central Board of Film Certification) took it upon themselves from preventing our collective modesties from being outraged. An internal memo with 27 prohibited swear words— ‘bastard’ etc. —was leaked. (They have since claimed to have put this on hold.) NH10 was released with nine cuts out of an initially suggested 30. Fifty Shades of Grey was banned altogether; Spectre’s kisses were deemed too inflammatory for an Indian audience and were removed. ‘Lunch’ was censored in Angry Indian Goddesses. But the unkindest cut was muting the word ‘lesbian’ in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, an indication, if ever there was one, of the blinkered, medieval mindset of those in charge of our film certification.

Addendum: My top 11 Indian films released in theatres in 2015
Kakka Muttai
Bajirao Mastani
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy
Dum Laga Ke Haisha

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