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The 10 best actresses in Hindi cinema, 2014

Take a bow, ladies.

It is truly a thrilling and liberating time to be an (established) actress in Hindi cinema, a time when risks are smiled upon and when roles are pushing various envelopes. The ten women singled out for applause this year have played characters that include a cop, a lesbian, a hostage, a tourist and a boxer — what an amazing range, and those are just the labels. The true magic lay in richly textured and well-etched characters they created.

Here, then, are the ten terrific ladies leading the class of 2014:

BApriyanka1010. Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom

Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom is an abysmal excuse for a film, one of the worst biopics I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, but leading lady Priyanka Chopra worked her derriere off for the part, and it shows. Prosthetic debates aside, Chopra puts in a plucky, emphatic performance as the already-legendary boxer, playing her with a committed bravado.


BAseema99. Seema Pahwa in Ankhon Dekhi

Rajat Kapoor’s slice-of-life fable about a lower-middle-class Delhi family centres around the patriarch caught in introspection and whimsy, but the glue holding the family together is the beleaguered wife and mother, played by Pahwa. Nagging, miserable and often exasperatedly talking to herself, Pahwa nevertheless conjures up a mother character we recognise — and one who, when asked point blank by her increasingly eccentric husband if she thinks he’s going mad, is loving enough (and resigned enough?) to assure him he isn’t.


BAsonam88. Sonam Kapoor in Khubsoorat

Remaking a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was always going to be an uphill task, but director Shashank Ghosh avoided all comparison by turning his update into a glossily Disneyfied confection, with Kapoor as its ideal candified centre. Channelling her inner Emma Stone, Sonam delivers a breezy and energetic performance that is klutzy, refreshingly free of vanity, and full of gif-worthy faces.


BArani77. Rani Mukherji in Mardaani

Rani is scary in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani — and I don’t mean her hefty, unflattering look. Cops are often called tough as nails, but Mukherji exemplifies it with a hardline, no-nonsense performance that provides a spine to an otherwise feeble film. Sure, the film is a showcase for the actress, but when she is this effective — closer to the intensity of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s cop in Kahaani than to the cartoonish bravado of Salman Khan’s cop in Dabanng — that’s not a bad thing at all.


BAdeepika66. Deepika Padukone in Finding Fanny

We’ve always had a problem with actors trying to emote in English, mostly coming off as overdone or badly accented or merely, tragically unnatural. Padukone, however, is stunningly candid in Homi Adajania’s film, serving as narrator and muse and resident stunner but doing it all with a merrily light touch. It’s a strongly believable performance — she’s restrained even when hornily jumping a guy — and this kind of easy candour is rare in our cinema.


BAalia55. Alia Bhatt in Highway

A sheltered girl kidnapped the night before her wedding, Veera Tripathi has no business pluckily falling in love with her dour abductor. And yet she does. She confides in him, sings to him, provokes him, and — atypical even to Stockholm Syndrome — begins to mother him while envisioning a future together. It is all beautiful to look at but decidedly deranged, and Bhatt shines effervescently and credibly in the demandingly odd part.


BAtejaswini44. Tejaswini Kolhapure in Ugly

Shalini Bose doesn’t care. About her ex-husband. About her current husband. About what whiskey is filling her glass. About what the domestic help might think of her outbursts. About how she looks. About how she’ll get through tomorrow. About her daughter. Everything is a burden to this miserable character, and Tejaswini Kolhapure, shrouded in fatigue, ekes out a performance through silences, small but telling gestures and sad, sad eyes. Once upon a time when trying on a red dress for a stranger, those eyes could manage a sporadic sparkle but by now they’ve glazed over. Apathy this absolute has to be this haunting — or so we may only imagine.


BAmadhuri33. Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya

It’s all about the words with Begum Para, be they the words of besotted poets vying to win her beautiful hand, or the strategically-plucked words from handmaidens who know better. Dixit, as the imperious Begum with a mischievous smile, impressively enunciates her finely chosen words with appropriately italic lilts, but — even better — reacts with glorious grace to the words surrounding her, no matter what is said. This is an elegant, un-showy performance made up of precise, subtle tonal shifts, and it is a treat to watch Dixit dazzle like only she can.

Also read: The Madhuri Dixit Interview


BAkangna22. Kangna Ranaut in Queen

In any other year, Ranaut would be champion.

Carrying off Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is no small feat, for the entire film rests definitively on the shoulders of one actress. Ranaut, playing the simple Delhi lass Rani Mehra, excellently — and seemingly effortlessly — captivates us from the start as she hungers for the right selfies and sangeet steps. She comes so close to the audience that we can almost hear her heart break, and we’re curiously perched on her shoulder as she decides to fly solo for her honeymoon.

And then someone tries to pinch her bag. This is the moment that Rani and Ranaut dig their heels in and hold on tight, throwing out hysterics in hyper-real fashion and making sure she’s won us all over, this gritty girl who refuses to fade. Ranaut, who has written her own dialogue in the film, fashions a character with undying spirit and verve — who also, as it happens, is most unlikely to be able to spell verve. Or even say it right.

The way she says “hawwwww,” the thrill she finds in a lassi drinking competition, the infectious twinkle in her widened eyes when telling a “non-veg” joke, her brilliant unselfconsciousness… Nobody enchanted us like Rani, and there’s never been a character like her. As said, in any other year… But sometimes a character we know — or think we know — can be even better.


BAtabu11. Tabu in Haider

She’s all about family. Her husband, a noble doctor, constantly imperils their very existence, and we come across her teaching a classroomful of children to parrot the definition of a perfect home, in perfect unison. Ghazala Meer is Shakespeare’s Gertrude but armed with Indian-mother possessiveness, a woman who rushes onto a cricket field and points a gun at her own head to banish her boy, to keep him from mixing with militants.

Many years later, walking through a field, mother and son discuss that memory strung violently high. He accuses her of bluffing, and it is at this point that Tabu — so far luminous, emotional, inscrutable, all arrows we know well from the formidable quiver of her filmography — smiles a heartbreakingly wry smile, the smile of a mother who knows so much more. And, equally, of a woman who wistfully, earnestly, longingly wishes she didn’t know better.

As lover and as liar, Tabu is sensational in Haider. She screeches, she sobs, she succumbs — all with a miraculous consistency, elaborately crafting one of Hindi cinema’s most memorable characters. It is the kind of performance that reveals more magic with each viewing, one that embeds itself in audience memory and one that, standing as it is boldly left of centre, becomes the heart of the film. And throbs so damn strongly it changes the beats set by the Bard.

In other words, the mother of all performances.


Also read: The life and scenes of Tabu The Fearless


First published Rediff, December 31, 2014

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The 10 best actors in Hindi cinema, 2014

2014 was a great year for our actors, and a lot of them did exceptionally well. Restricting this annual fixture to a list of ten was harder than it is in most years, and the credit for that goes to filmmakers who celebrated underrated actors by giving them meatier roles, those who armed them with sharp lines and characters, and those who pushed established artists out of their comfort zones.

Here, for my money, are the actors who led the class of 2014. Bravo, gentlemen.

BAmanavk1010. Manav Kaul in Citylights

Hansal Mehta’s turgid remake of the exciting Filipino film Metro Manila was a limp, disappointing affair, but Manav Kaul took a supporting role and ran with it, creating a character far more intriguing than in the original film. His Vishnu, a street-smart security guard, is one for the books, and Kaul plays him with a sly, easy believability and significant magnetism.


BApankaj99. Pankaj Kapur in Finding Fanny

The first time we meet Kapur in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny, we see his bare, hairy chest with a drop of sweat running down it. This is a grimy, sultry, lecherous performance, one that borders close to being a caricature — that of an overbearing, pompous artist — and while it certainly appears that he’s pretending his way into a certain lady’s pants, Kapur’s genius lies in the way he is later repulsed by the muse he’s been chasing. It is a moment of hardcore disgust, unfiltered hatred. It might not be obvious throughout the film, but this Don Pedro is indeed all about high art.


BArajkumar88. Rajkumar Rao in Queen

Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl, is by no means a film that has room for a leading man, but Rajkumar Rao does the next best thing (or is it an even better thing?) by playing the perfect foil. He’s excellent as an indefatigable Delhi suitor, carrying more balloons than should be legal, he’s terrific when replying to his fiancee’s Hindi questions evasively and coldly in English, and, later in the film when he realises that the girl is out of his league, his helplessness is quite perfect.


BAnjha77. Narendra Jha in Haider

Most of us walked out of Haider in a state of wonderment, and one of the key questions had nothing to do with crossborder politics or Shakespeare. We had to know who was the tremendous actor playing Haider’s father, a man of such unwavering calm, such striking sobriety. Jha, hitherto seen mostly on television, lays down the firmly real tone for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation, and is the kind of doctor we would all like to know. An inherently thoughtful man, he brings an air of gravitas and grace to everything he says — even to the platitudes. How perfect for the Bard’s words.


BAgirishk66. Girish Kulkarni in Ugly

There are a lot of fine actors in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, but the film reaches a true boil only when — minutes after a man is killed and a girl kidnapped —  Kulkarni’s Inspector Jadhav infuriatingly yet meticulously takes his own time at a police station. It’s a shining performance, that of a cop who can be both commanding as well as sycophantic, and in a film full of characters arguably too dark to be real, it is Kulkarni’s Jadhav who brings in the believability.


BAsanjay55. Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi

It’s always heartening when a powerful yet underutilised actor finally blooms into his own as soon as enough elbow room is made available, and the greatest triumph for director Rajat Kapoor was to let Sanjay Mishra reign over Aankhon Dekhi. His character — who literally believes only in what he can see — is one that could well have been farcical, but Mishra succeeds in creating a poignant, emotionally stirring (and utterly unconventional) hero.


BAaamir44. Aamir Khan in PK

It takes some serious commitment for an actor to go through a long film with his eyes stretched perpetually to lid-ripping point, but that is by no means the only impressive facet to Khan’s fresh-faced performance as an alien giddily eager to explore the Earth. Straitjacketed by that ridiculously wide-eyed expression, he nevertheless manages to convey wonderment, helplessness, epiphanies and loss very effectively indeed. Rajkumar Hirani’s film might have its detractors, but few will contest that Khan is at his best.


BAirrfan33. Irrfan Khan in Haider

The greatest ‘hero’ entry of 2014 belonged to Irrfan as — with the snowy white screen diffused into a long blur — he gradually came into focus, wearing snow-goggles, a limp and armed with the baddest, awesomest bass-line. A fiendishly clever update on Shakespeare, Hamlet’s father’s ghost was transformed into a man with ghost identities, a slithering merchant of motive. He may or may not be worth trusting, but, thanks to Irrfan and his compelling screen presence, is definitely worth following. His character, Roohdar, may well have been called Rockstar.


BAvijayr22. Vijay Raaz in Dedh Ishqiya

Once in a very blue moon, an actor takes a part originally grounded in pantomime — that of the moustachioed villain, in this case — but turns in a performance so disarmingly nuanced that he rises above the label of what he does to the why of it, fascinating us with a character so richly textured that we care about him more than any hero-type.

In Abhishek Chaubey’s delicately crafted and beautifully tongued film, Raaz plays a politician and goon, but with such heart that we may spend the film guessing at his motives. Is his bullying merely bluster because he is expected to be rough? Would he carry on Mexican standoffs forever if his opponents were armed with the right rhymes? Instead of forcibly abducting the begum of his dreams, he kidnaps a portly poet so he can pretend to craft verse, wanting desperately to impress instead of to intimidate.

It all sounds comical (and most of it is splendidly droll) but Raaz brings such wary wistfulness to the part that it becomes impossible to ignore his grand pathos. As I’d mentioned in my review, this is the kind of role that, in an American production, would have been played by great chameleons like Javier Bardem or Christian Bale. And Raaz owns it.


BAkk11. Kay Kay Menon in Haider

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius is a villain. He is a schemer, a cunning uncle, a plotter to the throne and a pretender defiling his brother’s bedchamber with grand designs on his wife. It is a part that has traditionally required powerful theatrical credentials as well as a certain dynamism of character.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider requires even more, demanding that Kay Kay Menon embody all of these vile things — and yet none of them. The adaptation is carefully balanced on a tripwire of deceit, with a lie at its centre, and depending on where you stand, Kay Kay’s Khurram is either dastardly or dashed. As a result, the actor plays everything double-edged, and thus, when, for example, he pleads to his nephew’s better sense and speaks about the need to avenge his missing brother, he could be either sincere or a scoundrel. Or even a mix of both.

It is remarkable how much of this dualist balance Kay Kay brings to the part, leaving everything crucially open to interpretation. He makes the character appear shifty and sly, though — thanks to his ever-evident discomfort — he could as well just be ashamed of himself for coveting his brother’s wife. But that doesn’t mean he engineered his demise. Or does it?

In one of that great film’s most striking departures from the original text, Menon’s Khurram sits as this Hamlet performs his Mousetrap play with the Bismil song, watching with a smile on his face while everyone around him is repelled by Hamlet’s naked audacity. In the play, he’d stormed out of the performance, propelled off-stage by his fury. In the film, he watches, applauds and — even with mud on his face — smiles an indulgent smile. Does he know better than we initially believe? Thanks to the sheer mastery of Kay Kay’s performance, we can only guess.


First published Rediff, December 30, 2014


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My picks for the Mumbai Film Festival

The 16th Mumbai Film Festival starts today, October 14.

The official website gives you everything you need to know, and lets you reserve tickets.

But this here link (RS MAMI Picks), gives you a PDF of the schedule with my must-watch films of the festival — based on things I’ve read, heard and trailers of the films playing — highlighted in unmissably bright yellow. Thus, if you like, follow the yellow brick road. I’ll be there.

(Oh, and I haven’t highlighted Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because it’s a no-brainer. Watch that cinematic marvel as many times as you can.)

Have a great festival, and holler a hello if you see me. (Just not if a movie’s playing.)

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20 reasons Pulp Fiction is better than your favourite film

On 23 May 1994, a film called Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival. Twenty years on, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is hailed as an absolute classic, and is arguably the single most influential film made in the last fifty years. It defied screenwriting rules, courses with wit and originality and is the very opposite of square, daddy-o.

To commemorate twenty years of worship, here are twenty things about Pulp Fiction that make it better than your favourite film, no matter what it may be. The Godfather didn’t have a katana; 400 Blows didn’t discuss a Royale With Cheese; Breathless didn’t have Mrs Mia Wallace; Vertigo didn’t have The Wolf; and Casablanca is sorely lacking in shots of adrenaline.

In appropriately non-chronological order, then, here goes:

1. The scripture-quoting

Preachers do it, bad guys do it, zealots do it, teachers do it, even educated fleas do it — But nobody ever quoth The Bible like Jules Winnfield. Played by Samuel L Jackson, Winnfield chews the angry words with great deliberation before spitting them out with, as he says, furious anger. So memorably impassioned is Jackson’s Biblical spiel that his misquoted version of Ezekiel 25:17 has become bigger than the real thing.

2. The five-dollar milkshake

Five dollars was a lot to pay for a milkshake back in 1994, something even a well-tailored hitman like Vincent Vega (John Travolta) understood  while entertaining his boss’ wife, Mrs Mia Wallace, at her favourite 50s-themed restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. Vega acknowledges the milkshake is pretty good “though I don’t know if its worth five dollars” but when we see Mia, played by Uma Thurman, sip it while looking over at Vincent, we realise Tarantino could have chosen no better beverage to underscore comfortable silences.

3. The Wolf

Like a criminal concierge, The Wolf comes in and takes care of the situation, whatever (and however bloody) the situation may be. He’s in charge, curtand always fast because time, for him, is the most vital factor. Played by Harvey Keitel, he’s an invaluable character with one of the sharpest lines in all of Pulp: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

4. Personality

The two enforcers are at a diner. Vincent offers Jules some bacon. Jules passes on it, saying he doesn’t dig swine, because pigs are filthy animals. Vincent (justifiably) argues in favour of the merits of bacon and pork chops, but Jules isn’t dissuaded.

Jules: Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But… a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

5. Misirlou

Pulp Fiction kicks off with an innocuous conversation that suddenly but assuredly leads to a hold-up. Just when the victims are screamed at, Tarantino cuts to his opening credits, kicking off an inspired musical choice, Dick Dale’s rendition of Misirlou, the ferevishly-plucked surf rock guitar-track setting the stage for the riot of colour and character and carnage Quentin would lay upon us. It was a choice of music so iconic that it resurrected Dale’s career, introducing the veteran to a new, hungrily appreciative audience.

6. The gold watch

Many a film involves a protagonist’s quest for a family heirloom, but things are wholly different with Butch Coolidge’s gold watch, passed on through the men in the family ever since World War I. The line from Coolidge man to Coolidge man is mostly unbroken save for the time Captain Koons, a friend of Butch’s father, stashed the watch up his rectum while the two were prisoners of war. The one and only Christopher Walken plays Koons and delivers the monologue so expertly that — for all its scatological hilarity — it remains touching.

7. The adrenaline

Mrs Mia Wallace, the white-shirted fox eager to powder her nose, mistakes a baggie of heroin she finds in Vincent Vega’s pocket for poorly ground cocaine and gives it a quick snort. Soon, she’s convulsing and Vega’s panicking. He takes her to his dealer, Lance, who — frightened and clueless — reads from a little medical book, following which, in a harrowing (and perfectly shot) moment, Vince and Lance stab her in the chest with an adrenaline shot — a scene filmed in reverse so as not to break Uma Thurman’s breastplate — and she sits up.

8. The Urge Overkill

As audiences, however, the very act of meeting Mrs Mia Wallace might be the most thrilling of all, thanks to the way the foot-fetishising filmmaker shoots her in pieces — back of head, feet, tiptoeing feet, waltzing feet — after her slender hand hits play on a hi-fi and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” comes through the speakers, ours and hers. Except it’s not Diamond’s version but a cover by Urge Overkill, a cover that arguably betters the original.

9. Gourmet coffee and corpses

Our two favourite hitmen are being hosted by the director himself playing Jules’s buddy, Jimmie, who is giving them some gourmet coffee while they figure out what to do with a corpse in a car they’ve driven to Jimmie’s place. Quentin, ever-comfortable mouthing angry profanity, is at his best, furious at the men for bringing a dead man to his house — largely because he needs it up and cleaned before his wife, a nurse called Bonnie, comes back home.

10. The twist and the trophy

On his date with Mrs Mia Wallace, Vincent isn’t keen to dance. As he’d told Jules earlier, he planned to “sit across from her, chew my mouth with my mouth closed, laugh at her f***ing jokes, and that’s it.” Except the boss’s wife isn’t used to hearing a no, and thus do Uma Thurman and John Travolta memorably burn up the dance-floor. And memorable as their twisting to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell is, it’s not enough to win “the world famous Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest,” so while we see them giggling and running into the house, trophy in hand, it’s actually a trophy they’ve stolen from the place — as the radio informs us.

11. Mongoloid

Played by Bruce Willis, Butch Coolidge is a fading boxer who — after having taken money from mob boss Marsellus Wallace to throw a fight — accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. He comes home, shaken, to his lovely girlfriend Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros. Their pillow-talk is wonderfully disjointed, during which she says she’d love to have a pot-belly and he casually calls her mongoloid, then compensating by calling her a beautiful tulip. “Ah, I like that,” says Fabienne softly. “I like tulip. Tulip is much better than mongoloid.”

12. Marvin

In the funniest — and most horrifying — scene of the film, Jules and Vincent are driving along with a hostage, a young boy called Marvin, in the back seat. Vincent’s waving his gun around as he talks, and very suddenly his gun goes off and Marvin’s head splatters all over the car. It’s the most bizarre of accidents, one that leads to a side-splitting conversation between the hitmen arguing about the mess. It’s a singularly disturbing scene, one where Tarantino shows us a truly gruesome moment but masterfully makes sure we laugh instead of care. Scarily good manipulation, that.

13. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny

Sitting in the same diner Pulp Fiction starts and ends with, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) are a couple conversing casually about how liquor stores shouldn’t be robbed anymore. They’re weaselly, fascinating from the minute we first see them, and more than a bit stupid — Pumpkin even calls the waitress “Garçon,” meaning boy in French. And boy, do they pick the wrong day for a robbery.

14. Amsterdam

Vincent has just gotten back from Amsterdam, a country of hash-bars and legal marijuana, and Jules is utterly fascinated by this odd legality and by Europe as a whole — especially when he hears about being served beer in a McDonalds, a quarter-pounder with cheese called a “royale with cheese” in France, and the fact that in Holland they drown french fries in mayonnaise instead of ketchup.

15. “Ketchup.”

Ketchup, in turn, happens to be the one-word punchline for the kindergarden-sized joke Mrs Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega at the end of their eventful night together. It’s a joke from a failed TV pilot she acted in called Fox Force Five. She’s embarrassed to tell it, and they both know it isn’t funny, but in the telling — and coming right after her almost having died — it is a remarkably tender moment, almost achingly romantic.

16. The foot-massage debate.

Just how inappropriate is it to give your boss’s wife a foot massage? A conversation as long and intricate as the unbroken tracking shot following the two men having it, this is a Pulp Fiction centrepiece. Jules and Vincent, on their way to a potentially lethal shootout, discuss the magnitude of the sin, disproportionately violent reactions, technique, foot-massage mastery, until — finally — Vincent says he’s getting tired and could use a massage himself, much to Jules’ ire.

17. The katana

Chased by Marsellus Wallace, Butch lands in a pawnshop where the owner and his friend — a chopper-motorcycle owner named Zed — capture them at gunpoint and decide to make their own, well, entertainment in the basement. A leather-covered ‘gimp’ is released, and Marsellus (played by Ving Rhames) is debased and sodomised. Butch, having freed himself by knocking out the gimp, goes up to the shop and — weighing the considerable options available — picks out a big katana to go save Wallace.

18. The Big Kahuna Burger

All that talk about quarter-pounders is clearly weighing on Jules’ mind when he walks into a room and towers over three young boys, one of whom is eating a burger. It’s from a new Hawaiian burger joint Jules hasn’t tried yet, and — gun in intimidating hand — he asks the “kid,” Brett, if he can try his burger. Jules thoroughly endorses this Big Kahuna burger, lamenting his girlfriend’s vegetarianism — “which pretty much makes me a vegetarian” — with his every casual word scarier and scarier, especially the noisy slurp as he tries Brett’s Sprite, while Samuel L Jackson builds to an unpredictable, brutal crescendo.

19. The briefcase

What is in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, the case Jules and Vincent went to pick up from Brett? The case that made Vincent whistle, casting a glow on his face?  The combination is 666, the number of the beast. Add that to the fact that Marsellus has a band-aid at the back of his skull, leading many obsessive viewers to think Wallace’s soul is in the case. Tarantino’s answer was always that the case was a mere Macguffin, a box with an orange light-bulb in it during filming — but then he’s always been one for hidden meanings.

pulp-quote20. The definition.

The movie opens with a dictionary definition of the word Pulp, printed in white text on a black background, with Tarantino offering a self-referential hint of the events to follow.


First published Rediff, May 23, 2014

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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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“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


“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


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


“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


Filed under Year In Review

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


Filed under Year In Review

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Filed under Year In Review