Category Archives: Year In Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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First published Rediff, December 30, 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

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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.>

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First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Everything about The Oscars, 2014

oscar1In which I collate everything I’ve written about this year’s Academy Awards, and then present you with a singularly weird column.

But we’ll get to that. First, the links:

Previews: Can American Hustle really win Best Picture? | Martin Scorsese and the men who shouldn’t beat him for Best Director. | Will Leonardo DiCaprio break his Oscar jinx for Best Actor? | Will controversy cost Cate Blanchett her Best Actress award? | Will Bradley Cooper score a Best Supporting Actor upset over Jared Leto? | Can even Jennifer Lawrence dethrone Lupito Nyong’o to take Best Supporting Actress?

Oscar omissions 2014: Franco, Rush, and a man named Oscar

My Oscar ballot. (I scored 18/24, better than most years, but clearly I still can’t think like an Academy Member, which, I guess, is reassuring?)

My dream Oscar ballot. Who I thought should win, but some of these people didn’t have a chance in hell. (That said, 12/24, which means it really wasn’t a bad year.)

In memoriam: Peter O’Toole | Philip Seymour Hoffman | Harold Ramis | Roger Ebert

And the Best Acceptance Speech goes to… 

Following this, in a feature wherein I detailed the ten most noteworthy moments from the Academy Awards, I ended up saying most of the things I’d normally say in my annual Oscar column, leaving me with a conundrum. Which is when I decided to look at the Oscars as they stood — the winners, the losers, the ceremony — through the eyes of the nine Best Picture nominees. Here goes:

Oscars 2014: If movies could talk

Here, in nine sections, are nine stories depicting the Awards this year, but each written in the style of the nine Best Picture nominees. (Follow the links in case you aren’t sure which nominated film is being referenced.) Because what better way to celebrate the Oscars than looking through the very eyes of the movies we’ve lauded this year?

One.

He should never have upgraded the teleprompter. Sure, it could now do a lot more, including write jokes itself, albeit a little stilted. It was too easily amused, too eager to laugh at its own feeble gags. But still, the fact that it — she — could now think on its own? Wow. That said, the teleprompter was getting too clever; he suspected she had learned to drink and now, during the Oscar telecast, was a dangerously sloshed scoreboard. She wickedly kept blinking, making almost every single presenter fumble and mix up words, and what she did to that poor boy from Grease was far too mean.

Jimc-1Two.

The old man shuffled toward the auditorium, steady yet half-limping. His lovely daughter told him it was all a scam, that the Academy would never let him win, but the old man pointed to his Cannes trophy for Best Actor and asked her to believe. Damned Academy sweepstakes, she grumbled, deciding to humor her dad one more time — so he could comment on how unfinished the montages looked and sit there while some former-comedian made faces at him.

Three.

Angelina missed her child. She rattled on and on to the nice but uncaring journalist in earshot and he gradually felt her pain as she gazed wistfully at Lupita Nyong’o. She’ll never be able to deal with adopting a kid that good-looking, felt the journalist, but still, look at the old heroine wear the smile. It’s kinda brave. He found himself warming to her, and the two became friends — but hark, there is pleasant news at the end of the night for Angelina after all! Her husband just brought home a bright, golden son.

Four.

Harrison Ford heard the music — the theme music from those movies where he had the whip and the fedora, or was it the movie with the guy in the black mask? — and walked towards the centre of the stage. But just as he started to talk, he lost contact and could feel himself float away. Maybe it was the acid Jim Carrey had slipped him, maybe it was the really, really loud background score; but here he was floating away like Major Tom. Even the girl that hosted the awards was beginning to look like Barbarella to the spaced-out Ford; he decided to quickly read all he could see on the weird, too-fast teleprompter and make a run for it.

Five.

Harvey Weinstein wanted the Oscars, but this didn’t look like his year. The Academy didn’t approve of Harv and his methods to disguise Philomena’s nominations and make them look like wins, but Harvey — who dropped a fair bit of weight to fit into his Oscar suit — wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. He decided no Academy analyst could tell him how low his odds were, and decided to slip $200 into Ellen DeGeneres’ hat. (He also gave her a painting of some flowers, painted by Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)

pizza1Six.

Captain DeGeneres, who hosted shows for a living, thought the Oscars would be just another quick, easy trip. But then she was taken hostage and the instructions appeared clear: no sudden laughs, no good gags, nothing at all that anyone might consider clever. She sighed and awkwardly tried to laugh at Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom — aware of the hostage situation — flashed back rictus grins. Finally, Captain DeGeneres hit upon a plan: she bought everyone a round of pizza.

Seven.

Everyone thought he was Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend or brother. They’d have been more inquisitive about the young man the 23-year-old Oscar-winner came to the ceremony with if she hadn’t done such a masterful job of misdirection. According to his dossier, he was Shia LeBeouf, wearing a new face, and trying to expose the hypocrisy of the Academy. (Honestly, though, he just really wanted to be invited into the selfie.)

oscarwolfEight.

It’s all about the chest-thump, he explained to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio went on a charm offensive, trying to be the nicest, smiliest guy, in his quest to finally win what would be a very well-deserved award. The chest-thumper, on the other hand, kept thumping his chest and banging for more — more, with Mud, more with Dallas Buyers Club, more with The Wolf Of Wall Street and more still with True Detective. The voters didn’t have an option but to be impressed. Always keep chasing, he said when he won, thumping his chest once as DiCaprio watched from the front row.

Nine.

The voter wanted to make a difference. He wanted to reward the smartest, the cleverest, the most original new cinema. But the Academy had tightened its iron-vice around his opinion; they thought a certain way, he was but a cog. He had to conform. He had to give in and applaud movies that are laughed at for being obvious Oscar-bait; he had to stand and play the fiddle while Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha were brutally shunted out. He had no choice but to look at Brad Pitt as if he were the messiah. But all he really wanted was a bar of hope.

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First published Rediff, March 4, 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.

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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.

prateikbabbarinissaqIssaq

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.

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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.

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First published Rediff, January 4, 2013

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