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10 movies better than 12 Years A Slave

Screw the Oscars.

We’ve seen who won and we know why, but 2013 was a year of much greater English-language cinema than the one that picked up the top prize.

The following ten films make for a very eclectic and unlikely list: there are two films starring Olivia Wilde; two films starring Adam Driver, two black-and-white films, and absolutely nothing in 3D.

The ones that almost made the list are gems in their own right — Enough Said, Short Term 12, The Place Beyond The Pines and Afternoon Delight — and I wish I’d watched Spring Breakers a few more times so I could finally decide whether it was great or godawful. It took much pedantic sorting and shuffling (and maybe a couple of tossed coins) to arrive at ten films, but what films they are.

So, I say again, screw the Oscars. Here are the real Best Pictures:

10. Drinking Buddies

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This. This is what all mumblecore should aspire to be. A less obvious but no less incisive look into a couple of relationships as they stumble along being all coupley, Joe Swanberg’s film consists of strikingly relatable dialogue mostly improvised by the great cast — Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston star, and are all great — with the director cannily riffing on their naturally bright, young vibe by dousing the picture itself in melancholia. Slick, very slick, and disarmingly honest.

9. Before Midnight

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Director and writer Richard Linklater reunited with actor-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for this unlikely, unflinching look at what may well be the definitive on-screen relationship for our generation. Before Sunrise sparkled in 1995 and Before Sunset dazzled us in 2004, but this third film brought up questions and ruminations of life and love in a way we never expected (or, indeed, wanted) Celine or Jesse to confront. It is a film that acts as balm, as mirror, as accusation. Heartbreaking, powerful and shouldered by masterfully long chunks of dialogue, it feels more confessional that cinema ought be. In a way, while reminding us that some things stay the same, this film changes everything.

8. The World’s End

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Beer never looked more like liquid gold than in the opening of Edgar Wright’s madcap genre-mashing finale to his Cornetto Trilogy, and that’s just the tip of the, well, the tipple. Simon Pegg — in his best written character to date — plays a swashbuckling saucer rousing his school gang from necktied-apathy to take them on a boozy bender they never finished in their heyday. Wright, shifting gear in loony but scrupulous fashion, throws us right into a whole other kind of film while never losing sight of his first one. The energy, the gags, the way the director and his actors full-throatedly embrace the ludicrousness of it all: The World’s End is a pint of perfection.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen, those cinematic troubadours who croon captivating ballads about people we would normally just point and laugh at, are at it again with this gorgeous film about a folk musician fated to be but a footnote. It is a beautiful film about a depressing, mean man (played superbly by Oscar Isaacs) who naively believes his talent will see him through. It doesn’t, but it does allow him to bob afloat on the choppiest of waters populated by corks like him. And, in true Coen style, many a screwball. Stunningly shot by Bruno Delbonnel, the film wallows in Llewyn Davis’ misery, pausing only to let the brilliant music lift it to another level. Before hurtling it down again. The world, as Davis says, is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people…

<Read the review here.>

6. Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s film might well be an update of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Blue Jasmine is a crueller, sharper and decidedly more devastating tale. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is a delusional neurotic, a woman well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her marriage, with a wheeler-dealer of possibly Belfort-ian proportions, has imploded after many years in denial, and now the Hermes-carrying Jasmine can’t afford cab-fare. Populated by fascinating characters armed with Allen’s typically quotable lines, this perfectly cast film throws up many a moment of absolute unforgettability. Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale all shine, but the film belongs to Blanchett’s Jasmine, for whom the meaning of life truly does involve the consideration of who one has to sleep with (around here) to get a (Stoli) martini (with a twist of lemon).

5. Rush

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The only big-screen spectacular to make it to my list this year, Rush is a rousingly dramatic film that sees director Ron Howard at his very best. The facts — about a mid-70s Formula One rivalry between two drivers that almost killed one of them — are incredible enough without embellishment, and screenwriter Peter Morgan takes what was known and doodles in the margins around it, amping up the off-track thrill. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are terrific as British playboy James Hunt and Austrian genius Niki Lauda, and Howard swings his narrative from one to the other like a violently socked punching bag. Rush ends up riveting, surprising and compelling: one of the best sports films in modern times.

<Read the review here.>

4. Nebraska

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“You need to water these plants,” a girl tells her boyfriend just moments before breaking up with him. “These are plants,” she explains wearily, as if he — a fellow who sells hi-fidelity audio equipment while conceding its all the same nowadays — won’t be able to tell the difference. Meanwhile, the boy’s father, a silently grizzled old loon, is convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. Things are never what they initially seem to be in an Alexander Payne film, and this gorgeous black and white meditation on a father-and-son story tells an alarmingly universal tale of age and utility, of finding something to live for, and of the importance of a mirage. It is a lovely, languorous film, assuredly slow but enlivened by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s frames and by the dialogues, lines that cut instantly, memorably deep. Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as the befuddled but bold father, while Will Forte does valiantly well as the son. Nebraska is a tale of men, who, like classic cars, are built to run forever — until they stop running, that is.

<Read the review here.>

3. The Wolf Of Wall Street

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“Golden words he will pour in your ear, but his lies can’t disguise what you fear,” boomed Shirley Bassey in the title track for Goldfinger, perhaps the greatest James Bond film of them all. A helluva track, for sure, noisily sensual and positively dripping with menace and power — but not quite the track you want played at your wedding. Unless, of course, you want to be the devil.

Leonardo DiCaprio forks his tongue to play Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, and the entire film throbs with a seductive, scary energy. This is an amoral tale about men who can’t spell the word ‘scruples,’ and Scorsese and his fellas dive into it good, getting their hands and souls dirty. It’s a horror story told as a farce — the most effective way to deal with a monster may be to mock him — and while it’s an intoxicatingly stylish movie, one reference to the 1932 horror classic The Freaks is enough to tell us what Marty thinks of these brokers. Even as Leo throws himself into the part with feverish glee, we see him constantly on the edge of implosion.

As we watch this heady timebomb tick, Scorsese and Leo scare us straight. Unlike his character, who’d rather die soon than die sober.

2. Frances Ha

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Can you live inside a movie? If so, can I have a one-way ticket to inhabit Noah Baumbach’s marvellous black-and-white Frances Ha, an instant classic if ever there was one? Baumbach’s film — and his actors Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen — so consummately capture the zeitgeist of a time and place and generation that were we wiped out as a race tomorrow, I’d want this film to be our tremendous-albeit-twee epitaph.

Gerwig plays the “undateable” lead character with a magical openness, as if she were a jam-jar missing a lid, eager to soak up everything from bagels to boys. She careens through New York with klutzy earnestness — or, rather, earnest klutziness — a cross between a Truffaut character and a bull in a china shop. Watching this precocious, cunning, irresistible film is like stumbling upon a burst of glorious jazz with a glass of something imaginatively-coloured in hand. Frances Ha is bottled lightning; glug from it till giddy.

1. Her

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“Choke me with that dead cat.”

It is a rare film that reduces a critic to a sap, and Her turned me into the lead loser in a Cameron Crowe movie. But ‘reduces’ is the wrong word; how about ‘lifts,’ or, better yet considering the film at hand, ‘upgrades’?

My review was admittedly more of a love-letter, but that is, perhaps, apropos for a film about a man who writes other people’s letters. It is a film of savage sincerity and incredible ingenuity, a film that stands above all others by dint of both heart and originality. Spike Jonze’s film is immaculately crafted, flawlessly acted, and looks and sounds beautiful: but those are just, I daresay, its technical specifications.

The magic lies in how Her makes us feel, how it strings us up and strums us into a minor key, how it makes us believe in socially acceptable insanity, how it haunts, and how — during its most enchanting moments — we feel we’re lying on the moon, on a perfect afternoon.

<Read the review here.>

~

First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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The best Hindi films of 2013

Well done, 2013.

It’s been a truly solid year, one where we don’t just have ten movies worth applauding — compared to most years where I have to cobble together lists full of caveats — but, incredibly enough, we now have more films that deserve a special mention.

For me, the films that almost made it to the list were Bombay Talkies, D Day, Kai Po Che and Special 26. They each tick intriguing boxes with novelty and vigour, and would certainly have made the cut in a lesser year. But 2013’s been gracious to the moviegoer.

This has been a tough list to rank, and what stands out for me is the fact that it is studded with genuinely extraordinary directorial debuts, with almost half the films on this list made by first-timers. Our filmi future seems, then, to be in safe hands.

Here, in ascending order, are 2013’s cinematic champions:

10. Fukrey

The best thing in Mrighdeep Singh Lamba’s uproarious comedy is a stray, unnamed character. Encountered outside a gurudwara, this gentleman speaks exclusively in non-sequiturs, resulting in much befuddlement for eternally hapless Lalli, played by Manjot Singh. It is a deceptively simple gag which provides the greatest laugh out loud moment in our movies this year. The film brings us a bunch of spot-on Delhi deadbeats — with names like Hunny and Choocha — and while it eventually turns into a bit of a muddle and criminally ignores the womenfolk, there is much to yuk at in this very spirited production.

mdkm29. Mere Dad Ki Maruti

Aashima Chhiber’s directorial debut lampoons Chandigarh and exploits the stereotypical accents, but does so with genuinely witty dialogue and fine actors who keep it from being just another farce. Ram Kapoor is excellent as the titular dad, bombastic and easily angered, and talented youngsters Saqib Saleem and Prabal Panjabi have a rollicking time hitting each other with rat-a-tat dialogue. It’s a goofy film, sure, but has heart: in one outstanding scene, a bride-to-be dances to an incredibly lewd song at her own sangeet, and while the assembled gathering is suitably shocked, her own mother nods along, mouthing dirty lyrics and counting the much-rehearsed steps, utterly and merrily blinded to all scandalousness.

8. Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns

Few can write as flavourfully as Tigmanshu Dhulia, and the director allows his imagination full rein in this fantastically loopy B-movie. The first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, in trying to pay tribute to an iconic masterpiece, was weighed down by comparisons and tenuous in-jokes; the new film is magnificently unhinged and contains merits all its own. One of which, notably, is a politician who, in his urge to find just the right simile to explain his persona to a journalist, calls himself a “sensitive tomato.” It’s mad awesome stuff, bolstered by a wonderfully fine and nuanced performance from Jimmy Shergill.

7. Ship Of Theseus

Rarely has an Indian independent film shown such scope and ambition, and Anand Gandhi’s directorial debut must be hailed for those very qualities. A visually striking film that perhaps bites off more than it tries to chew — choosing, instead, to spend a great deal of time talking about chewing — Ship Of Theseus is uneven but thought-provoking, a flawed yet, on occasion, genuinely beautiful motion picture. Quite a feat for a first-time director. Singular applause must also be saved for Neeraj Kabi, who, as an ailing monk, presents us with a truly special performance, one that is being lauded for literal starvation but should be equally hailed for its remarkable consistency.

6. Shahid

The story of slain human rights activist Shahid Azmi, Hansal Mehta’s film eschewed the spectacular for the straightforward and punched audiences in the gut the way only realism can. The screenplay asks tough questions, questions we keep out of polite conversation, and delivers a searing verdict with a flourish. Raj Kumar Yadav, in the title role, is superlative in the way he fleshes out the character, in how he makes Shahid a real person and not, as is commonly seen in the Indian biopic, an act of mimicry. Yadav is so subtle, and so self-aware, that there are long stretches in the film — in this snappy, crisply assembled film — where you have trouble believing it is a performance at all. Masterful.

sdr15. Shuddh Desi Romance

The girls wore the pants in Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance. This, despite a leading man who lies for a living, a creature sharp of tongue and possessing significant charm, and yet a character more than glad to fork his neck over to women who look better with reins in hand. Writer Jaideep Sahni, focussing on wedding parties for hire in Western India, introduces us to a quirky world while questioning the very need for marriage as a modern-day institution. It’s a clever film with smashing female characters — one of whom asks for a cold cola instead of bursting into woebegone tears — and all three actors Parineeti Chopra, newcomer Vaani Kapoor (holder of an inscrutably great smile) and Sushant Singh Rajput do Shuddh Desi Romance justice.

4. BA Pass

Hindi cinema is so used to making excuses for female amorality that BA Pass, a genre-faithful noir film with a bonafide femme fatale, comes across as rather revolutionary. A freshly orphaned youngster faces a life of nondescript bleakness, of jeering guardians and a college degree that smacks of non-committal desperation, but finds his world turned on its head by a cougar who doesn’t hide her hunger. Shilpa Shukla’s Sarika is a character unique to our cinema, a ravenous housewife who unapologetically seduces and corrupts and haunts. Based on Mohan Sikka’s Railway Aunty, Ajay Bahl’s directorial debut draws us in from the start with a fine attention to detail — the sort of details usually lost because they’re doodled along the margins — and, because it keeps the noose ruthlessly taut, strangles our preconceived notions quite effectively indeed.

3. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Lunacy rules the roost in Vishal Bhardwaj’s sociopolitical satire, a work of delicious absurdity anchored into greatness by one immaculate performance from our best-ever actor. There lies many a nugget of joy in Bhardwaj’s latest — from the sharply, cannily chosen words to the characters to the sheer whimsy on display across every frame — but much of it is overtaken by Pankaj Kapoor’s Mandola, a fascist who finds Socialism at the bottom of a bottle. This Dr Jekyll and Comrade Hyde routine requires tremendous balance, and Kapoor delivers breathtakingly well. And this while Bhardwaj, paying tribute to Emir Kusturica, goes bonkers in almost Wodehousian vein.

2. Lootera

Vikramaditya Motwane takes O Henry’s most famous short story, The Last Leaf, and treats it fondly, like a fable. The result is an artfully made and immensely lyrical film that comes together with much sophistry. Lootera begins with a father telling his daughter a fairytale, and continues in similar vein, with poetic license tying loose ends with style. The two leads are in sensational form, with Ranveer Singh conjuring up Heathcliff snarls and Sonakshi Sinha essaying her part with grand dignity as well as a sad fragility. It is a film, as I mentioned in my review, that has more than a bit of a nose fetish, and also an adaptation that understands the subject matter and expresses it as dreamily as possible.

lunchbox11. The Lunchbox

I began my review of Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut by singling out my single favourite moment from the film, and yet — while that sequence is gorgeously sublime — ruminating on The Lunchbox throws up more and more magic, every bit as special as the others. What is most impressive about this masterpiece is the restraint constantly shown by Batra and his terrific cast. Here is a grounded, realistic film that unfolds with graceful happenstance, a film that is never showy, yet always sensational. Nimrat Kaur is an actress to marvel at, Nawazuddin Siddiqui endows the narrative with unpredictable energy, Bharati Achrekar isn’t seen but invariably felt, and the one and only Irrfan Khan is frighteningly good. And Bombay — bewildering, beautiful, broken, belief-stretching Bombay — makes all of its romance real.

~

First published Rediff, January 2, 2014

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The worst Hindi films of 2013

himmatwalaIt’s always harder to make a Worst-Of list than one chronicling the best of Hindi cinema, largely because we’re all so spoilt for choice. 

Thumb-rules, therefore, come into play. My basic rule is to pick films that come with certain expectations (as opposed to something that stars Sunny Leone or Shahid Kapoor), to look at films made by directors (or featuring actors) who should know what they’re doing, and to leave small B-grade films out of the mix unless they are, of course, truly ghastly.

Here then, in alphabetical order, are the films that make up the bottom of 2013’s barrel:

Besharam

Ranbir Kapoor, who can’t seem to get enough of mooning us in mediocre movies, strikes again with this film. Not just does Dabanng director Abhinav Kashyap squander Kapoor’s considerable talents, but he unforgivably ropes in Ranbir’s parents and makes them plod through this execrable film. This is bilge.

Chashme Baddoor

The disease called remake-fever has scarcely been more shameless than in David Dhawan’s massacre of Sai Paranjpye’s immortal Chashm-E-Buddoor. That Dhawan takes a modest masterpiece and turns it into trash isn’t surprising, but the true crime lies in the way something so remarkable is turned into something so unbearably generic. Ugh.

Himmatwala

Boasting that this would be the highest grossing film of Ajay Devgn’s career, director Sajid Khan clearly didn’t expect audiences to throw up all over his planned walk to the bank. The first Himmatwala was schlock, and this remake is schlock as if manufactured by a particularly sadistic director who doesn’t know what a scene is. For once, the mandate from audiences and critics was unanimous.

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Manish Tiwary’s offensively bad take on Romeo And Juliet mightn’t normally have made this list, if not for a leading man who provides arguably one of the worst performances of all time. Prateik Babbar is dismal here, so so goddamned awful that anybody you can think of — Uday Chopra, Suniel Shetty, your kid brother who’s never acted — would be a fair bit better.

Ishqk In Paris

A feature-length commercial for producer Preity Zinta to flaunt her dimples, this monstrous vanity project is truly hard to sit through. A man called Prem Raj directs a flimsy film so besotted with its Parisian setting it doesn’t bother to have a storyline, and Zinta is insufferable in the lead.

Krrish 3

Many a bad blockbuster minted money this year, but Krrish 3 stood significantly below even the Chennai Expresses and Dhoom3s of the world with this spectacularly stupid film, a film that — going by the box office receipts — has instantly lowered the collective IQ of our nation’s children by at least 20 points. And then it sold them wristbands, making them (and indeed, all of us) pay to watch the commercial.

Rajdhani Express

It isn’t cricket to poke at a target this soft, but tennis champ Leander Paes talked up his own acting debut far too much, going on to state that he wanted to win Oscars as an actor. Displaying all the thespian bravado of a Wimbledon ticket-stub, Paes is laughably bad in this inexplicable project.

Satya-2-posterSatya 2

Putting a Ram Gopal Varma film in a Worst Of The Year list isn’t sport either these days, but special allowances have to be made for the godfather-of-the-gimmick putting his own credibility on the line by making a sequel to his single-greatest triumph. The question was never one of the new Satya proving worthy of the classic, but the amateurishness on display makes it abundantly clear that this Ram Gopal Varma is nothing but a poor, watered-down Part II of what he once was. The name is the same, but that’s about it.

Satyagraha

Directed by Prakash Jha and featuring an all-star cast — Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn — alongside Jha regulars Manoj Bajpayee and Arjun Rampal, this is a mammoth waste of time. A remarkably patchy and inconsistent film, Satyagraha tries hard to draw Kejriwal/Hazare parallels but does so with all the subtlety of a BJP speech. What a drag.

Zanjeer

Shame on you, Apoorva Lakhia. Shame on you, Priyanka Chopra. Shame on you, Sanjay Dutt. And shame on you, Ram Charan, for trying not just to step into the shoes of Amitabh Bachchan’s most incendiary role but for even attempting to mouth that immortal line about police stations and baap ka ghars. This harebrained, tacky, senseless, woefully acted remake is nothing short of a cinematic crime.

~

First published Rediff, December 31, 2013

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The Best English Films of 2012

10. The Avengers

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9. Safety Not Guaranteed

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8. Looper

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7. Beasts Of The Southern Wild

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6. Argo

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5. “The Late Show” Parts 1-3

Louie : Season 3, Episodes 10, 11, 12

(It doesn’t have to be an actual film to be better than most films.)

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4. Ruby Sparks

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3. Django Unchained

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2. Moonrise Kingdom

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1. The Master

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March 19, 2013 · 1:06 pm

The Best Hindi Films of 2012

It isn’t often that I get to make a top ten list of good films. Most years, there are four or five good Hindi films. Sometimes I add a few more on, with a caveat. 2012, on the other hand, has offered up several shards of cinematic joy, and it is a year that may well prove to be a milestone in modern Hindi cinema. Or so one hopes.

All ten films listed here may not necessarily be perfect (though the ones at the top come dashed close) but each of them gets certain things very right indeed. And are well worth smiling at.

10. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

It’s easy to call Shakun Batra’s directorial debut derivative, and indeed the film does owe quite a debt to Hollywood romantic comedies and the work of Cameron Crowe, but it does show off enough charm to earn its own applause. Imran Khan is better than ever, Kareena Kapoor is effortlessly vivacious, while Ratna Pathak Shah and Ram Kapoor appear to be having quite a blast. It’s snappy, fun and — thanks largely to the sudden way it wraps things up, almost as if the screenwriter were afraid to write the final act — mercifully brief.

luvshuv19. Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

There is quite the surfeit of flavour in Sameer Sharma’s directorial debut, a film that spends a bit too much time on its characters and their earthiness before getting to the actual plot. And yet, despite the lazy indulgence, there is much to warm up to and appreciate here, with a smashing ensemble enjoying feasting on the quirks the screenplay provides. In this film about a forgotten recipe for a famed chicken dish, there’s a wicked twist in terms of the ingredient, and one hopes people experiment with it off-screen as well.

8. Paan Singh Tomar

It’s taken a while to finally reach us, but by golly, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film about the truly unique life and times of the steeplechase runner provided one of the year’s most enthralling stories. Most of us knew precious little about the titular Tomar when the film began, and the incredulity of the story proved impossible to resist. Irrfan Khan, showing up with one of the year’s finest and fiercest performances, makes sure we’re glued throughout.

7. Gangs Of Wasseypur 2

People who liked the first Wasseypur didn’t care as much for the second, and vice versa. What we could all agree upon, though, was that if these two epics were melded into one and edited as brutally as the characters within slaughtered each other, we’d truly have a masterpiece on our hands. That said, , the very fact that a filmmaker like Anurag Kashyap could realise his massively ambitious dream, is a great sign. I liked Part 2 more than Part 1 simply because, knowing what to expect, I could enjoy Kashyap’s dark lunacy without worrying about how it all added up. A heady film with many a magnificent performance.

6. Barfi

Yes, I’ve seen the Youtube clips. Yes, there’s far too much in this film that comes from other films, and I agree it can’t just be explained away as a tribute. That said, Anurag Basu’s Barfi is a film with genuine heart, and even if Basu borrows sentences from other stories to tell his own tale, it nevertheless remains a tale worth telling. Ranbir Kapoor is extraordinary in the title role, Priyanka Chopra tries hard, and in the winsome Ileana D’Cruz we find a debutant who appears more than a pretty face. And the film, while a bit long and, in my view, fundamentally flawed (Barfi’s relationship with the autistic Jhilmil is one of sympathy and should not be mistaken for one of love) does still transport one to a different world. The magic can’t be denied.

omg15. OMG Oh My God

Based on the Australian film The Man Who Sued God, OMG is a dashed clever project to adapt to an Indian setting, what with our multiple gods and godmen just ripe for a big, no-holds-barred sendup. It’s not the best produced of films, but the points it makes — about false idols, promises to gods, donations, etc — are as effective as they are unsubtle. Paresh Rawal grounds the film with a fine everyman performance, but it is producer Akshay Kumar (in a winning turn as Krishna) and Mithun Chakraborty (clearly lampooning a certain limp-wristed religious icon) who steal the show.

4. Vicky Donor

There’s a little something for everyone in Vicky Donor, a romantic comedy that bucks convention and embraces it at the same time. Shoojit Sircar takes a rather brilliant idea, that of the hero as a prolific sperm-machine, and uses it with warm familiarity, making a perhaps-taboo subject instantly and eagerly accepted by a massive chunk of the nation. The film plays through standard Bollywood ideas — like the cross-cultural wedding cliches, for example — with inspired ease, and a routinely good cast (including the two debutants in the lead roles) makes it a film worthy of repeat viewing.

3. Kahaani

A grown-up thriller with many a pleasure secreted between the lines, Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is the kind of film Hindi cinema hasn’t seen for a very, very long time. Lovingly showcasing Calcutta both at its most sublime as well as its most slimy, this often-illogical but beautifully crafted thriller features one of the best female protagonists in recent cinema and characters that remain very hard to forget. Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sashwata Chatterjee all do splendidly well, and Ghosh has promised a sequel. For a change, it’s a sequel we’d actually like to see.

2. English Vinglish

Girl power hit a new high with Gauri Shinde’s directorial debut. The trailers promised us hardly anything save for a Mind Your Language takeoff, but boy, were we surprised. A simple film about a laddoo-making entrepreneur forced to double up as a housewife, this happens also to be a sharp commentary on the way we talk down to those unskilled in English. All Shashi (played fantastically by Sridevi) does through the film is take an English-language course, but Shinde makes sure every little triumph counts like a major one, and the film — sensitively and smartly — emerges immaculately balanced. A perfect film, and possibly the definitive what-to-watch-with-Ma movie for our generation.

1. Shanghai

Bharat Mati Ki… Bharat Mata Ki… 

shanghai1It’s hard not to say Jai to Dibakar Banerjee’s bleak and gruesome take on India’s developmental delusion. Banerjee takes Vassilis Vassilikos’ classic Z, about a very specific real-life Greek assassination, and turns it into an unrooted allegory for our times: the city is not quite Bombay, the politician is not quite Mayawati, and the IAS officer is not quite sure where he stands. At a time when our films are content merely flexing cinematic muscle and showing off what they know, Shanghai is a film that probes, that questions, that unsettles, as important cinema must.

Banerjee is a master filmmaker, one of the most fascinating megaphone-wielders in the country, and each of his four features thus far — Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Love Sex Aur Dhokha and now Shanghai — have reached out and connected on a different level. Shanghai is a film with a dismal, nearly fatalistic worldview, and yet a film that highlights just how vital every last glimmer of hope is, and how much of a difference it makes.

Emraan Hashmi delivers a standout performance, Bengali film icon Prasenjit is perfectly cast, Pitobash Tripathy and Farooque Shaikh are sneakily excellent, Abhay Deol stays impressively in semi-smarmy character and Kalki Koechlin makes the most of one glorious, tempestuous scene. Mikey McCleary makes for a darkly dazzling score, and the murky but brilliant cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis is quite something. The script by Urmi Juvekar and Banerjee himself is a strong one, one that builds up the tension, and Banerjee takes all his flashes of individual brilliance and crams them tightly, claustrophobically together: as if packing TNT into a scary scarlet stick.

Boom.

~

First published Rediff, January 4, 2013

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The Worst Hindi Films of 2012

There are two ways to make a Worst Of The Year list. One is to look at the embarrassing B-grade films, the predictably weak and awful movies that can fight for places in these lists even before they are released. The other is to look at prominent films that carry certain expectations, and how filmmakers who ought to have known better have disappointed.

I’ve traditionally taken the latter route, but this year my Worst Of list is a blend of the big and the banal, the inevitably tacky as well as the fatally flawed. Thing is, a couple of them are so bad they deserve to go cult, and hence can’t be ignored just because nobody’s surprised at their hideousness.

Without further adieu, then, the year’s most horrid Hindi movies:

10. Heroine

Kareena tried hard, but this Madhur Bhandarkar trainwreck was one of the most unbearable films of the year, with all his cliched, feed-the-audience-what-it-knows tropes seeming more tired than ever. The token lesbianism alone, with two drunken girls hooking up and then feeling sickened and ashamed, is reason enough to shun this one.

aiyya9. Aiyya

The most bewildering film of the year, Aiyya sees a caricatured larger-than-life protagonist overshadowed by even more larger than life protagonists. The result is a screechingly annoying film, an inexplicably shrill and stupid film. Rani Mukherji valiantly tries to exert her lovability but it only serves in dredging up repressed memories of her dressed as a young Sikh batsman. Shudder.

8. Jism 2

Only in India, ladies and gentlemen, only in India. Only in India can a pornstar make money by keeping her clothes on. Only in India does a film touted to be the year’s sexiest turn out to be such a damp squib. And only in India can said porn-woman outperform the two ‘actors’ alongside her in the film.

7. Players

On paper, the idea of Abbas-Mastan, our most hardened genre filmmakers, officially taking a remake of The Italian Job doesn’t sound like that bad an idea. Until, that is, they decide to make the classic Italian Job and the Mark Wahlberg remake, and puree them together in an atrocious smoothie, giving us a pair of conjoined heist films, each awful. And whoever okayed that cast? Bizarre.

6. Tezz

You could be forgotten for thinking there are two Priyadarshans. One, the thoughtful and often meditative South Indian filmmaker who churns out emotive art-house fare. Two, the head honcho of the harebrained, the man with movies that hinge critically on both slapstick and actual slaps, falling dhotis and an invariably Benny Hill style run-along climax. Neither man, as the achingly boring Tezz proves, can direct a thriller.

5. Ghost

Granted, it seems like a bit of a cop-out to pick a sub-B-grade film for a list like this, since expectations for a release like this were non-existent. And yet I must single out Ghost — a film the Indian censor board apparently considered “the most violent in the history of Hindi cinema” — for its intolerable tedium, for being a horror thriller than never scares and barely thrills, and for making a valiant stab at the so-awful-its-unmissable genre. At one point there is creepy crucifiction, even. All in the name of tawdry gimmick. This is one all masochists should watch, ideally as a drinking game.

sonofsardaar4. Son Of Sardaar

It’s becoming harder and harder to justify watching an Ajay Devgn movie. They are all increasingly inane, increasingly star-worshipping, and increasingly dumb — a formula that somehow seems to work for Devgn, despite himself being a reasonably solid actor capable of far more than what he does. I refuse to watch Bol Bachchan, but Son Of Sardaar seems to me the most monstrous and unforgivably braindead of Devgn’s films thus far. “But he did Omkara” now feels a lame and rather dated defence.

3. Teri Meri Kahani

Red And White Bravery Awards need to be handed out to producers who continue to finance films featuring many shades of Priyanka Chopra. She’s pretty decent when in a normal, singular role, but more than one PC never ever works. And yet we continue to be struck by films featuring her in multiple avatars, laying it on as thick as the director allows. Kunal Kohli’s film is a terribly hacky bore, but it is Chopra who must be looked on — quite literally — as the repeat offender.

2. Dangerous Ishq

Karisma Kapoor. In 3D. Past-life regression never felt like this much of a “what were we thinking?” hangover — as in, what were we thinking when we watched movies like this, back in the worst of the 80s? Or what were we thinking when we made women like this film’s leading lady, making her comeback after ages, a star? Tackiest film of the year, no question.

1. Ishaqzaade

The year’s biggest culprit, the abominably regressive Ishaqzaade was decried by a horrified friend on Twitter as “a rapey romance.” Habib Faisal’s (finely crafted and mostly well performed) film typifies the most irresponsible kind of our cinema.

ishaqzaadeThe film creates a genuinely spunky heroine, then has the ‘hero’ coerce her into marriage and consensual sex before doing an about-face, and then humiliating her by telling the world he ‘took’ her virginity. The girl justifiably sets out to kill the man who wronged her, only to then be bound and gagged by his mother, and told that she’d be better off marrying him instead. Which the hero grudgingly accepts, scowling like he’s being made to eat green vegetables. He then takes her to a brothel, and ties her up again while golden-hearted prostitutes wonder why she’s so angry.

What happens to this captive girl? Ah, she falls in love with the boy, because under all his ruggedness, he is a nice guy after all. (In sum: Yes, Romeo did trick me into sleeping with him, but at least he looks good in stubble, that jawaan chhokra. Aww.)

Faisal defended the film lamely saying that’s how things happen in various parts of the country, but the way his film continued to exult in its hero’s neanderthal mindset, celebrating him like he was blameless and naive, and essentially charming, showed clearly what side the director was on. Tying a woman up till she submits isn’t what we should even momentarily call love, and sending that message out to easily misled masses looking to cinema for role models is an absolute shame. At a time when we are finally, belatedly, definitely looking at ourselves and questioning the sexism in our society, it is films like this that need to be beaten down.

Disgraceful.

~

First published Rediff, January 1, 2013

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Hindi cinema’s best actors of 2012

2012 has been a very, very solid year for actors. We’ve had some sensational ensembles, and many films underscored by standout performances. And yet, ironically enough, this is a list with only eight men, testimony to just how stunning one particular actor has been this year. And even he’s been bettered.

Thank you, gentlemen. For creating and inhabiting characters we won’t forget.

adil110. Adil Hussain, English Vinglish

It’s easy to play a character like a jerk, but Hussain makes sure his character — that of Sridevi’s husband — never knows how badly he’s behaving. To him it’s okay teasing a wife with a recurring joke, or hugging a colleague. He’s being innocently callous, insensitive as well as indignant. It’s what makes his character a real person, one who needs to be cut down to size and yet one who picks out a good saree.

9. Ayushmann Khurana, Vicky Donor

Khurana plays a lout in this film: completely full of himself, rough around the edges, insouciant to the point of being obnoxious, and generally good for nothing. Well, unless you look closer and realise he’s also the first Indian leading man to give out pedicures. Khurana creates a Vicky who is jagged on the outside, swaggering around like his world needs him to, while unmistakably tender and well-meaning. His easy charm goes a long way, and he gets further applause for singing his own songs.

8. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Talaash

The script structure of Talaash goes awry with Siddiqui. He plays Tehmur, a limping two-bit hustler. He’s a throwaway character, a mere sidekick, but so compelling is this amazing performer that he takes over the film, his track emerging the most genuine and most impassioned — even though it’s meant merely as a distraction. Siddiqui perfectly creates a creature of the gutters, one raised on ridicule and lovelessness, and one who thus longs only for love. His eyes do the talking, sure, but that one chase sequence where he bolts through Bombay crowds, still limping, may well be the film’s highest point.

rajeshsharma17. Rajesh Sharma, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

One of my favourite actors in current cinema, Sharma lights up whatever screen he appears in. But rarely does he get to play this unhinged a character. This one is a wonderfully whimsical wastrel who pretends to be insane just so he can get out of doing the chores. Sharma plays madcap with glorious elan, making even flatter lines work with consistently killer dialogue delivery and immaculate timing. Super, super fun.

6. Abhay Deol, Shanghai

Showy theatrical grandstanding is often mistaken for good acting, and it takes a lot for a leading man in this country to give up the vanity and go deeply internal. Deol plays a stuffed shirt in Shanghai, a conflicted bureaucrat who seems utterly apathetic to the murky world around him. Handed a simple assignment merely so he can shove it under the rug, he discovers there is a certain basic honesty, a schoolboy morality perhaps, ingrained within him. He can’t take it lying down. It’s a deliberate, constantly solid performance.

5. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Gangs Of Wasseypur

Rarely does an actor get a film that steps back and lets him do his thing. And considering he’s the hypertalented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, his thing is very special indeed. With all the rawness of Pacino in Scarface, he starts out intense and keeps it constantly on the boil. We first meet his Bachchan-obsessed Faisal as a doped out wastrel, and can’t help but be awestruck by his fearsome growth into a truly driven mob overlord. Who cries when scolded by a pretty girl. Spectacular.

4. Irrfan Khan, Paan Singh Tomar

With legs of greased-up lightning and a perpetually intriguing personality, Irrfan’s Paan Singh Tomar runs havoc as a character because you have no clue where he’ll sprint next. It’s a searingly honest performance, one that has an actor do so much more than act. Khan’s commitment to the biopic comes through in every frame, and even when the film isn’t working, he’s galloping away, making us gape. Making it impossible to look away.

3. Ranbir Kapoor, Barfi

The finest mainstream leading man we’ve had for decades — or perhaps even ever — Kapoor’s constant and impressive reinvention continues with a film where his effervescence conquers all, from skepticism to disability to violence to, most importantly, silence. Sunnily enthralling and irrepressible, he plays it with a smile. Mostly. Because when Barfi isn’t smiling, he’s busy breaking our collective heart. It’s an anguished, soulful, authentic performance, and balancing it with goofy humour makes it an artistic triumph.

nawaz12. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kahaani

He was striking in Talaash, Wasseypur might well mark the yardstick by which he’s forever measured, but I firmly believe Kahaani was the ace of Nawaz’s pack this year. There isn’t a single false or indulged note, it’s all prime. Playing a brutal, boorish Intelligence Agent, he brings an interminable ferocity to the role. The unceasing harshness, the cigarette smoke, the constantly threatening aura. The result: an authentically unpredictable character who scares you. In a year where the big three are nowhere to be found on lists like this, it is then Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Khan who deserves to take a bow.

1. Emraan Hashmi, Shanghai

Gobsmacked. Watching Hashmi in Shanghai is an abrupt revelation, like being slapped in the face only to finally see clearer. His character sounds straightforward, a videographer (with more than a passing interest in porn) who chances on a conspiracy and wants to help out, but Emraan plays him nuanced and authentic and, eventually, tormented. It’s a bravura performance, and here’s what I’d said about it in my review:

He occasionally shoots porn — this is off-camera, we see him ask his subjects to clear up and hear the hurried sounds of straps and zippers — and later, when the film’s heroine is about to sit on his bed, he instinctively barks that she sit somewhere else, because the bed’s dirty. It’s a throwaway grunt but Hashmi nails it — just like he nails highly energetic pelvic thrusts in a streetdance, one where he keeps biting his tongue, faux-scandalised by the words of the song. It’s one of the best performances from one of our leading men in quite some time, and in one chilling pre-climactic moment, when sitting on the floor and confounded by the situation, his plaintive wail is fittingly reminiscent of the late great Ravi Baswani’s angst in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s darkest minute. Bravo.

Incredibly well done, then, Mr Hashmi. Yours is the year’s finest, bravest and most consistent performance. Congratulations are indeed in order.

Now.. Feed us more?

~

First published Rediff, December 25, 2012

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Hindi cinema’s best actresses of 2012

It’s been yet another mixed bag of a year for Hindi cinema, with some fine performances mired in poor films, and some fine films marred by weak actors at their centres. As actresses go, however, it’s been a pretty good year, boasting of some very fine performances from some very talented women. Two come from the same film, and one even pops up twice.

Here, then, is the class of 2012. Give the ladies a hand.

actresses1rani10. Rani Mukherji, Talaash

One of the few things Reema Kagti got truly right in Talaash was the casting, and while the characters may all have been one-note, the actors portraying them fleshed them out into real people. Rani Mukherji, as a grieving mother who has lost her child, was achingly vulnerable and believably devastated. The film didn’t offer her enough, but what little Rani found, she shone in.

9. Kalki Koechlin, Shanghai

Koechlin got the short end of the stick in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, a political thriller offering more meat to its male actors and leaving her with a rather annoying character. And yet despite being coiled exasperatingly tight throughout the film, she’s rewarded with a glorious outburst near the end of the film, a helplessly violent expression of impotent rage. Armed with a dinner plate and fury, she’s astoundingly good.

8. Ileana D’Cruz, Barfi

Winsome, naive and with enough natural charm to make bicycling boys lose their heads, D’Cruz won us over as surely as she did her film’s leading man. Mushy, moment-laden romance is an obvious screen confection, and it takes something special for a new girl to make her part memorable. This pretty one brought genuine, credible sweetness to the table, and made us believe in, and root for, Barfi’s love.

7. Kareena Kapoor, Heroine

Undoubtedly the weakest film on this list, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine does nonetheless feature a pretty striking performance from its, well, heroine. Kareena Kapoor is handed a part that has everything, and she takes on this extreme, showreel-y character head on, showing us her powers to cry, to soar, to emote and to scheme. She does brilliantly enough to almost salvage the film, but some things are beyond the power of actors.

actresses2pc6. Parineeti Chopra, Ishaqzaade

It’s been impressive to watch young Chopra steadily grow as a performer, and even though Habib Faisal’s film is ridiculously, regressively cruel to its heroine, Chopra makes sure her Zoya works, constantly. Starting off as a plucky girl brimming with underage enthusiasm and bonafide bloodlust, she manages also to swoon with the helplessness that defines her age. A true firecracker, this.

5. Kareena Kapoor, Talaash

My absolute favourite thing about Talaash is Kareena Kapoor, the actress mouthing lines belonging to cinema (mostly bad cinema) from several decades ago, and yet doing so with a lovely lilt in her voice, enveloping herself with an air of not taking things too seriously — which contrasts her perfectly with the film’s somber hero, Aamir Khan. As I mentioned in my review, she plays her part lightly, mockingly, like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. And it is this buoyant sense of play that keeps the film afloat.

4. Dolly Ahluwalia, Vicky Donor

Shoojit Sircar’s oft-hilarious filmabout a young sperm donor wouldn’t have been half the joy it is without Ahluwalia as his mother. Playing a delightfully original character, a Punjabi beauty-parlour owner with a sharp tongue and a fondness for the daily tipple, Ahluwalia is amazing in the film, be it when sparring with her mother-in-law, chiding her son or holding on to him because he is all she has in the world. It’s a warm, tender portrayal of an impossible character that seems all too real.

3. Vidya Balan, Kahaani

One has to applaud Balan for taking risks. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani sees Balan waddle heavily around the city of Calcutta, her belly pregnant to near-exploding levels, as she sweatily negotiates Bengal’s unrelenting sultriness. It is a character unlike any in our cinema, and Balan plays her Vidya Bagchi with nuanced perfection, shifting uncomfortably through a film that cares little for her character’s convenience. Most of the battle is won when a mystery makes us empathise with its protagonist, and thanks to Vidya Balan, we always care.

actresses3richa2. Richa Chaddha, Gangs Of Wasseypur

In a film packed with crazy characters stuffed to the gills with quirks and an ensemble throbbing with authentic, theatrical intensity, it takes some significant magic to stand out. Chaddha does so almost effortlessly in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur, right from its uneven Part One where she violently lambasts the menfolk around her till she gets into a position of control, and the madder Part Two, where she, as matriarch, controls the show. It is a stunner of a performance, one that sets up Chaddha — who was so thrilling in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye a few years ago — as an actress with a tremendous amount to offer.

1. Sridevi, English Vinglish

What. A. Return.

I’ve never been the hugest Sridevi fan, growing up decidedly on the Madhuri side of the fence, but this wondrous performance deserves massive, massive applause. Gauri Shinde’s terrific English Vinglish casts the once larger-than-life Sri as a mousy housewife struggling to establish her own identity, and the actress is superb as she deals with bratty children, a smug husband and, of course, the English language, without a grasp of which she is made to feel most inadequate.

It’s a great character, one revelling in audience sympathy, and Sri plays it deftly and tenderly. Her Shashi is flawless, sure, but Sri makes her an irresistible underdog who must be cheered on. There is magic in the way she is spurred on by the minor victories — like learning to negotiate a NYC subway turnstile — and magic also in how believable she keeps things. This is a simple film where things are credible, never melodramatic, and Sridevi — in a range of well-picked cotton sarees — always judges the tone right. It’s the sort of performance younger actresses, including the ones on this list, should learn from. Hats off, Ma’am.

~

First published Rediff, December 21, 2012

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Sentury: The Top Hundred Hindi Films

After 99 Mirror columns, Raja Sen marks his ton by listing the hundred greatest films in the hundred years of Hindi cinema.

 

Click on the image to view the list full-size.

Please debate and disagree with inclusions and omissions in the comments section, but for every film you want to add, do suggest which one to toss out.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, June 20, 2012

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The Best Hindi Films of 2011

In which I tell you what I liked.

It’s been a sloppy year. The Hindi cinema of 2011 has been markedly short of ambition. Most of our brightest filmmaking talents were missing in action, and the majority of this year’s debutants were content to steer clear of the unexplored. Well short of plot and pluck, our biggest hits relied on literal hero-worship and formulae, while our indies, at best, were harmless diversions.

Here, then, are the exceptions. The films that made up the class of 2011 — presented here in ascending, countdown order — and the valiant also-rans that missed the cut due to flaws too hard to overlook.

The Almosts: Delhi Belly gave us uproarious laughs, Vijay Raaz in phenomenal form, and an actual twisty little plot, but I wish it was as true to itself in English as it was in Hindi. Pyaar Ka Punchnama had crackling camaraderie between the leads, a star turn by Divyendu Sharma, but lost all edge when it spent the last half hour crying into its beer. Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster begged for actresses who could even halfway match the terrific leading men. Mujhse Fraandship Karoge impressively avoided mush, but also, sadly, originality. And if only Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap had something (anything!) more to offer than Bachchan having a blast.

#4: Shor In The City: A muddily elegiac ode to Bombay, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK gave us disparate stories brought together by the maddest of cities, and shoved enough heart and sweat into that overdone synopsis to deliver a living, breathing film. Featuring a thrillingly unusual ensemble cast and well-etched characters, not just did Shor have 2011′s most rousing climax, but also –  in a scene where a barely-literate book pirate discovers his wife went to college, and she almost spoils The Alchemist for him –  one of the year’s tenderest, truest moments.

#3: The Dirty Picture: All about the girl, this. Milan Luthria’s shamelessly commercial film wades through over-written dialogue and a predictable narrative, yet stays constantly engaging thanks to unflagging pace, a won’t-stop-winking turn by Naseeruddin Shah and, most of all, a heroine you care about. Vidya Balan plays Silk with unapologetic fervor, making her not just an object of titillation but a real, self-aware woman who knows how best to win with the cards in her hand. It’s a strikingly bold, frequently brilliant performance, and the fact that this is a massive hit — in a year of Readys and Singhams — is heartening news for the Hindi film heroine.

#2: Rockstar: She’s getting married. ‘I have something to ask you,’ he says. ‘I’ll tell the truth,’ she warns. ‘So go on, who’s scared,’ he nudges. ‘Yes,’ she says. Imtiaz Ali’s intoxicating take on Heer-Ranjha has little to do with rock, but, aided by the director’s incisive dialogue and Irshad Kamil’s devastating lyrics, is a heady romantic brew not for the entirely jaded. Ranbir Kapoor, playing a causeless rebel with his head in self-created clouds, shows why he’s the best leading man in the country today, while AR Rahman drops our jaws yet again.

#1: Stanley Ka Dabba: A modest masterpiece is the hardest kind to make, and Amole Gupte’s directorial debut took us back in time just by ringing really, spectacularly true. Romanticising the tiffinbox, this movie about a boy drinking gallons of water and his gluttonous schoolteacher came to us from a knee-high point of view, amplifying the good-versus-evil stakes to those of a spaghetti western. Gupte’s son Partho led a smashing cast of spirited young ‘uns, while the director himself stunned as the mooching muchhad. Made on the smallest of budgets, this movie, shot on what looks like a still camera, proved as natural as the daylight it was filmed in. Magical.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, December 28, 2011

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