Who would have thought that in 2005 Amitabh Bachchan would have more box-office hits than practically any Hindi actor has ever had in one year? Who would have thought that in 2005 no film starring Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, or Salman Khan would be worthy of mention in the year’s top Hindi films? Bachchan’s phenomenal success, a renaissance of what was already a stratospheric career graph, is one for the records books. The future may belong to Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham, and Kay Kay Menon. But for now, Bachchan, the 64-year-old ageless thespian, rules. A recap of the Hindi film highlights of 2005:

f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-11SARKAR The hyped coming-together of the greatest Hindi film star (Bachchan) and one of the best Indian filmmakers (Ram Gopal Varma) was indeed a cause for celebration. Even though packaged as Varma’s ode to The Godfather, this slick offering did much more. Like Mani Ratnam in Nayakan, Varma never once lost sight of the prize—which here was a Mumbai mafia don (Bachchan) sorting out enemies both outside and within his fortress-like urban crime fiefdom. Even though seemingly invincible, Bachchan’s all-powerful titular character proved remarkably vulnerable when it came to reigning in his wayward bad-seed son played by the ascending Kay Kay Menon. Made without any songs, this was Varma’s finest work since 2003’s Bhoot. And to think India’s 2005 submission for Oscar consideration was the very average Paheli. Coming up: Bachchan will morph into the role of the arch-villain Gabbar Singh in Varma’s remake of the larger-than-life Sholay.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-10PARINEETA Delighting in the frothy urbanity of a bursting-at-the-seams Calcutta of the 1960s, this simply told but marvelously staged love story was as much about class difference (she’s poor, he’s not) as it was about newcomer Vidya Balan’s amazing Meena Kumari-like turn as a shy, educated young woman caught in a turbulent emotional tug between two very different men. Along with decent performances by Saif Ali Khan and Sunjay Dutt, this sumptuous period piece also boasted a scintillating musical debut by Shantanu Moitra. Earthy and grounded, Moitra got as much bang for the buck with this score as Ismail Darbar extracted from his debut in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, finishing as the year’s second-best score, behind only the magnificent A.R. Rahman-Ismail Darbar ensemble effort for Subhash Ghai’s Kisna.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-6DANSH What happens when a happily married couple (Kay Kay Menon and Sonali Kulkarni) invite to dinner the husband’s doctor friend (Aditya Srivastava) who rekindles in the wife a long-suppressed memory of horror and sexual torture? Set against the little-known history of alleged atrocities committed by the Indian army against civilians in the remote Indian state of Mizoram in the 1980s, director Kanika Verma’s uncelebrated debut, loosely based on Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, was a powerfully acted, forceful entry that defied conventional plot structure and narrative. Is the dinner guest a sadist with a medical degree or is the housewife lashing out for attention? The fast-rising Menon (Sarkar, Bhopal Express) and the accomplished Kulkarni (Bride & Prejudice, White Rainbow, Mission: Kashmir) may yet prove to be this generation’s equivalent of the incredible Om Puri-Smita Patil match-up from the 1970s. Coming up: Menon will take to the road in the Sony-produced thriller, Highway 203, opposite Perizaad Zohrabian.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-4BUNTY AUR BABLI This shallow crime caper, featuring Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee as career criminals, in addition to having a carefree style and top-notch production values (thanks to producer Yash Raj Films), also sparked interest for roping together Amitabh Bachchan and his son Abhishek Bachchan for the first time. While it was the great chemistry between the Bonnie & Clyde-like leads always staying one step ahead of the law that provided most of the fun, what kept audiences coming back was the oomph-boosting provided by Aishwarya Rai ganging up with both Bachchans to deliver the rousing beer-hall ditty “kajra re.” Coming up: Abhishek Bachchan has signed on to Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kahena.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-8MY BROTHER NIKHIL Director Onir’s well-made entry about ostracism and homophobia faced by those with AIDS in India was truly ground-breaking. The struggle that one gay poz man (played by Sanjay Suri) confronts in the face of ignorance of the disease can be universalized as lesson in mankind’s reaction to everything from ancient plagues to unseen, stealthy modern viruses. Sensitively handling both Nikhil’s life with a male lover as well as attempts by Nikhil’s parents to vocalize their fears of the unknown, this was the first time that an A-list Hindi film overlapped gay characters and AIDS. A future with popular actors nonchalantly getting into characters who happen to be gay suddenly became possible. Coming up: Suri will find himself in two films directed by Rajeev Virani—the American-Indian romance My Bollywood Bride and the thriller The Whisperers.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-12YAHAAN Set on the Indian side of the invisible but heavily-guarded Line of Control in strife-torn Kashmir, director Shoojit Sircar’s sharply contoured love story between a Hindu Indian soldier (Jimmy Shergill) and a local Muslim beauty (Minissha Lamba in an impressive debut) is put to test when Al Qaeda-linked terrorists create havoc by taking hostages at a local mosque. This winning entry wonderfully contrasted an agitated high-country atmosphere inhabited by a people and an army on edge against the stunning beauty of the local terrain. After his successful debut in Parineeta, Shantanu Moitra again earned his keep with this fine score. Coming up: Shergill will return to the border for Shyam Benegal’s drama Chamki.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-5CHOCOLATE Vivek Agnihotri’s strangely titled entry was actually a first-rate thriller in the non-linear narrative tradition pioneered by the likes of The Usual Suspects. More brain food than about food, Chocolate seized the moment by spinning and then re-spinning an ordinary bank-heist into a sensibly devised brain-teasing jigsaw puzzle that came clean only as the camera finally pulled away. Figuring out just who exactly was telling the truth was only half the fun. The other half was watching Anil Kapoor’s Starbucks-guzzling yuppie London lawyer attempting to piece together this mystery. Also aiding the cause was Pritam, whose rocking music debut in Dhoom was a highlight of 2004, returning with a catchy high-energy dance score. Coming up: Kapoor as a soccer coach who confronts religious bigotry amongst his players in Ahmed Khan’s Mazhab: The Religion.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-9PAGE 3 Like the titular fictional gossip column it was derived from, Madhur Bhandarkar’s dishy entry proved to be an amusing, self-mocking social commentary on celebrity culture. A gifted freshman reporter Madhavi (a role nailed by Konkona Sen Sharma) contemplates the value of her hourly press releases on the lives of beautiful people when her own is only with those who struggle to make ends meet. Just when Madhavi thought she had it all sorted out, she stumbles onto a dark conspiracy that implicitly indicts the entire upper crust she relies on to provide fodder for her column. Rich with tongue-in-cheek characterization of the doyens of new money, Bhandarkar’s flirtation with gratuitous voyeurism (especially as the conspiracy unfolds) was rescued by the same mastery over social spin that earlier helped him float his brilliant Chandni Bar. Coming up: Sen Sharma will appear with Naseerudin Shah in Rajat Kapoor’s comedy Mixed Doubles.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-3BLACK Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s captivating twin-character study magnified the plight of down-and-out special-ed teacher (Bachchan) who agrees to draw out a deaf mute young woman (Rani Mukherjee) who has retreated into a self-imposed cocoon since childhood. While the patient’s gut-wrenching, self-flagellating hysterics occasionally got repetitive, Bhansali’s steady hand succeeded in illuminating the double demons of sensory deprivation and physical handicap. Minimalist, especially in comparison to Bhansali’s highly opulent Devdas, Black was that rare film that allowed both the filmmaker and the principal actors to reach deep within themselves to fully display their art. Coming up: Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani will rope together Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, and Rani Mukherjee, with Rekha playing Khan’s mother.

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f34a9b7d53c379aa8013e9dd996a8701-7KAAL A safari adventure set in the tiger-infested jungles of the Himalayan foothills was just the antidote for cranking up the home theater on a dark, stormy night. A blend of cutting-edge science (the National Geographic logo was featured in nearly every scene) with elements of the supernatural combined for an elevated adventure story. Featuring an all-star cast (Ajay Devgan, Vivek Oberoi, John Abraham, Lara Dutta, Eesha Deol) director-writer Sohan Shah’s script followed a group of adventurers, including a tiger expert (Abraham) and a local government official (Oberoi) trying to outwit and outrun a sinister force (Is it a man or an animal?) that wants them dead. With Karan Johar handling the production (even throwing in a Shah Rukh Khan-Malaika freebie video that open the film), what was originally meant to be Devgan’s wife Kajol’s comeback vehicle still handsomely crossed the finish line. Coming up: Devgan will share top billing with Salman Khan in Anees Bazmee’s cross-cultural project London Dreams.

On to 2006. Happy moviegoing!
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.

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