Sunday, February 5, 2017

The best Hindi films of 2016

If we’re being honest, 2016 wasn’t a great year for Hindi cinema. Last year, a list of noteworthy films might have stretched to 10, maybe even 15. Pickings were a lot slimmer this time around, though the predominance of mid-budget titles on the list is, perhaps, cause for some cheer. Here are our top eight films that released in theatres this year.

8. Jugni
In another year, Jugni would have placed amongst the also-rans: a modest film, with individuality and charm and some evident flaws. First-time director Shefali Bhushan drew from her own life to tell the story of Vibhavari (Sugandha Garg), a music producer who travels to Punjab to record a local artist, Bibi Saroop (Sadhana Singh), and ends up being fascinated by—and fascinating—her son, a singer named Mastana (Siddhant Behl). The city-dwellers aren’t as well-etched as their small-town counterparts, and the film’s third act, which unfolds in Mumbai, is a bit of a mess, but as long as the film is in rural Punjab, Jugni is a blast, full of salty dialogue, Clinton Cerejo’s crackling Sufi music and a star-making turn from Behl as the motormouth Mastana.

7. Phobia
Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia uses the refractive lens of genre to explore ideas of consent, women’s navigation of urban spaces and the weight of societal judgement—issues tackled much more bluntly in one of the year’s most talked-about films, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. Pink had little time for genre, or frills, or for anything that distracted from the task at hand. Phobia, on the other hand, addresses issues, but at a remove—you could watch it as a straight-ahead horror film and come away satisfied. Not everything adds up, but the psychological grounding of the central character’s agoraphobia is fascinating, and Radhika Apte is compellingly frayed.

6. Dangal
The first hour and a half of Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal is as close to perfect as mainstream Hindi film-making got in 2016. After that, the film’s attempts to keep its lead actor central to the story hamper the narrative, but there’s still plenty to enjoy: juicy comic performances from the young actors and Aamir Khan, observant, witty writing and direction, and some blistering fights. A fitting coda to a year in which Indian women athletes, including a Haryana wrestler, shone at the Olympics.

5. Aligarh
Professor S.R. Siras, dismissed by Aligarh Muslim University after a video of him in bed with a man surfaced, was the public face of a movement, and a most reluctant figurehead. This dichotomy is at the heart of Aligarh, which is at its best when sticking close to the retiring academic. The lopsided scenes in court and in the TV studio cannot compare with the quiet power of the conversations between Siras and Deepu Sebastian, the reporter who becomes his friend. The film derives much of its power from Manoj Bajpayee’s extraordinarily delicate portrayal of Siras, and from Rajkummar Rao’s sympathetic supporting turn.

4. Udta Punjab
The film no one could agree on. Did it go too far, or not far enough? Did you go in expecting Trainspotting and get Traffic, or vice versa? Like Abhishek Chaubey’s previous films, Udta Punjab was profane, eccentric and ramshackle, jaundiced in its view of humanity but also capable of bursts of unexpected warmth. As a look at a society ravaged by drugs, it was harrowing, and the contrasting styles of the film’s lead actors generated its own tension. Controversy seemed to dog the project, from the Central Board of Film Certification asking for an unprecedented number of cuts to reports that the plot was very likely inspired by Ben Elton’s novel High Society.

3. Neerja
If you liked Airlift well enough but felt that the film worked too hard to sanctify its central character, Neerja is the antidote. After a soft-focus opening (necessary, in the larger scheme of things), Ram Madhvani’s film becomes a lean, largely unsentimental Paul Greengrass-like thriller. Sonam Kapoor plays Neerja, a character based on flight purser Neerja Bhanot, whose quick thinking saved the lives of 359 passengers aboard a Pan Am plane stormed by hijackers at Karachi airport on 5 September 1986. As the hijacking unfolds, the film interjects scenes from Neerja’s abusive marriage, which she eventually walked out of. It’s a moving tribute, illuminating not one, but two, moments in an otherwise ordinary life when courage sprang up, unbidden.

2. Waiting
Anu Menon’s film, about a young wife and an old husband whose spouses are comatose in a Kochi hospital, could easily have been soppy or morbid. Instead, it’s funny and sharp, eschewing the high drama of sickness and hospitals and exploring their tedium instead. Naseeruddin Shah’s Shiv has tended to his comatose wife for so long that he has almost turned into an amateur physician himself, to the profound irritation of her actual doctor. Once Kalki Koechlin’s spiky Tara turns up, he becomes a sort of hospital coach for her, while she gets him to loosen up. Life lessons are learnt by all, but Menon’s tart script (co-written with James Ruzicka and Atika Chohan) and low-key directorial style, and a beautifully fractured performance by Koechlin, steer the film clear of TV drama cliché and towards a clear-eyed empathy.

1. Kapoor & Sons (since 1921)
The dysfunctional family drama is a subgenre most commonly associated with American indie cinema. Yet, given the complexity of our family structures, it’s ideally suited for adaptation here. In recent years, various film-makers have responded to it in different ways: Piku, Dil Dhadakne Do, Titli. Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons doesn’t cast the genre in a new light, but it might be the most satisfying exploration, in recent Hindi cinema, of a family held together by duct tape and hope. Long-standing resentments surface and assorted neuroses brush up against each other, but Batra avoids the preciousness of genre staples like Little Miss Sunshine, finding a brittle, bright tone of his own. A wonderful ensemble–Alia Bhatt, Rajat Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Fawad Khan, Sidharth Malhotra, Ratna Pathak Shah—brings it all back home; the scenes where everyone’s yelling at each other are more propulsive and thrilling than anything

While this hasn't been a particularly fruitful year for Hindi cinema, it has yielded moments and characters that'll stick: the collective sigh that greeted Fawad Khan's first scene in Kapoor & Sons; Kumud Mishra's bureaucrat in Airlift; Salman Khan (!) looking disgustedly at his reflection in Sultan; the determination of Swara Bhaskar and Sonam Kapoor, the nervous energy of Radhika Apte and Kalki Koechlin, Alia Bhatt's calm interiority; Nawazuddin Siddiqui crying wolf in Raman Raghav 2.0; "Tum hote kaun ho mere liye kuch bhi karnewale" (Fan); the lyrics to Haanikaarak Bapu; the way Kanika Kapoor sings "Khabardaar rahiyo rahiyo ve"; the 'Purushottam' segment in Island City; Anuritta K Jha screaming at Siddhant Behl in Jugni: "X-ray kar liya tha uss chudail ka"; the humanity in the comedy tracks of Pankaj Tripathi (Nil Battey Sannata) and Rajeev Ravindranathan (Waiting); Jimmy Shergill in Happy Bhag Jayegi, never funnier than when he's not getting the girl.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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