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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. 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