Last year, India produced more movies (946) than the next two largest country hauls combined (the U.S. was second with 611 entries and Japan third with 310). The numbers were even more staggering for film attendance. India’s mind-boggling 2.9 billion movie tickets sold last year was larger than the next 12 countries totals combined (the U.S. was second with 1.4 billion and Indonesia third with 190 million). And let’s not forget that India still has the biggest movie star in the world, Amitabh Bachchan, who turned 70 this year. Some noteworthy titles of what audiences were going gaga over:
1. GANGS OF WASSEYPUR—Part 1. Anurag Kashyap’s tour de force entry was a superb amalgamation of historical re-telling, excellent camera work and brilliant acting. Set in remote Jharkhand state during the waning days of the Raj when the British were still effectively using railroads to divide and conquer India’s vast interior and spanning five decades, Gangs engulfs a consummate and beautifully brutal action story with train-robbing dacoits who ignite a splendid generational blood feud. Majoj Bajpai, in his finest role since his star-making turn in Ramgopal Varma’s Satya (1997), chews through the pivotal role as a debauching contemporary coal-country warlord. Initially unspooled as a 5 hour epic, Kashyap bowed to marketing pressures and truncated Part 1 down to a multiplex-friendly 2.5 hours. Part II, released almost simultaneously, suffered notably from Bajpai’s absence.
U.S. screenings for Gangs were cut back in the wake of the Colorado mass shooting and the movie’s violence quotient led to “Adult” ratings in several countries while Kuwait and Qatar outright banned it. Future cinema cognizants may someday take it for granted that the action-genre creative trajectory that linked Kurosawa, Peckinpah and Tarantino led straight to Kashyap.
2. AGNEEPATH. Director Karan Malhotra and producer Karan Johar’s remake was a box office juggernaut and an artistic statement as one of the best Hindi movie remakes ever. Rooted in a revenge motif that retraced the same role that Bachchan assailed in Mukul Anand’s1990 entry of the same name, Hrithik Roshan nailed his mark as the son of middle class school teacher biding time as a working class hero. Masking a silent volcano within and estranged from his mother (Zarina Wahab), Roshan’s lead clamors to settle a grudge with Sanjay Dutt’s lowlife crime lord Kancha. With a brilliant channeling of a bomb-obsessed nut job waxing on an island offshore from Mumbai, Dutt’s Kancha was the most original villain since Amrish Puri’s Mogambo from 1987’s Mr. India.
3. KAHAANI. No Hindi movie has ever simultaneously juggled a cutting edge topic (bio-terrorism), smart story telling (double, possibly nefarious, identities), a stunning setting (the expansive human sprawl of Kolkota against an aptly-used backdrop of the massive annual Durga Puja festival), performance dynamics (Vidya Balan all the way) and touches from artists that were and are geniuses in their time (Rabindranath Tagore, Bachchan). And yet Sujoy Ghosh’s spell-binding thriller does exactly that in one tight package that radiates with suspense and energy. The next time a single, pregnant passenger asks for assistance filling out customs paperwork at the airport, be afraid. Be very afraid.
4. VICKI DONOR. Producer John Abraham branching out and small time filmmaker Soojit Sarkar, whose only previous entry was the sensational Yahaan (2005) set amidst the geo-politics of Kashmir, teamed up for both the most original movie and the best movie poster of 2012. Featuring a cast of near-unknowns, Juhi Chaturvedi’s great story finds Vicky (newcomer Ayushmann Khurran) trapped in a deliciously sublimated nightmare of his own waking hours. Being convinced by a fertility clinic operator (Annu Kapoor) of the hard cash that awaits suitable sperm donors—not to mention that Vicky is cajoled into thinking he has “Aryan” blood descended from Alexander the Great—Vicky takes up moonlighting at the clinic on the down and low. Light-hearted and yet surprisingly touching, this romantic comedy was frugal, smart filmmaking at its very best. India submitted Barfi to contend for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Vicky Donor may have been the better choice.
5. ENGLISH VINGLISH.
The big screen return of big star Sridevi was newsworthy in itself. After a 15-year family leave, the diva made her entry as an Indian woman of a certain age struggling to learn English in Manhattan, the welcoming mat for millions of arrivals to America. Helmed by Gauri Shinde, English was a balancing act between Sridevi’s Pune housewife Shashi’s “Indian” identity manifesting against the new sensibilities Shashi finds in New York. Astutely “modern” in its fish-out-of-water take on America and affirming at several levels, including being unusually gay friendly in the mid-town language class that becomes Shashi’s surrogate New World family, English Vinglish proved to be a validating keeper. Sri baby, we missed you!
Juggling between the hills of Darjeeling and the urban airs of Kolkota, Anurag Basu’s highly unusual time-shifting drama was a wonderful treat for non-linear celluloid outlines in the tradition of Ghajini (2008). Bringing together three very different characters, Barfi! explodes with unexpected romantic, comic and familial possibilities. Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and newcomer Ileana D’Cruz form an emotional triangle like few others. A deaf and mute jack-of-all-master-of-none (Kapoor) befriends both an already-betrothed beauty (D’Cruz in an impressive supporting role) and the autistic next door neighbor (Chopra with masterstroke acting chops). Even though the screenplay packs in just way too much in the way of adversities for all three central characters to overcome, Barfi got a huge boost from Pritam Chakroborty devising here the best score of year. From soulful mountain-air ballads to earthy folk numbers, Pritam’s score harkens back to an era when Indian movies had only Indian music. While Barfi passed muster for 2013 Oscar contention from India, the movie’s most lasting impression may well be Pritam’s tunes.
7. PAAN SINGH TOMAR.
Director Tigmanshu (Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster) Dhulia’s action-drama is based on a true life story of an Indian army soldier Paan Singh Tomar who excelled as a track and field star for the Indian army and then returned to his home in rural Madhya Pradesh only to unwittingly turn to banditry. While Phoolan Devi (a.k.a. The Bandit Queen), who also used the notoriously rugged Chambal Valley in Madhya Pradesh as her lair, turned away from a life on the run to become a politician, Paan Singh (played powerfully by Irfaan Khan) did an about-turn by bypassing a promising military career to eventually become an outlaw. Released by super-producer Ronnie Screwvala under his art-house UTV Spotboy label and completed in 2010, Paan Singh Tomar finally received wide release in early 2012. The delayed release did not get in the way of deserved critical acclaim and a decent box office.
8. RAAZ 3-D.
While the (mostly) horror-genre exploiting 3-D technology is relatively new in India, the Bhatt brothers Mahesh and Mukesh (who also directed), after coming up with the scary Haunted (2011), returned with this cheesy and yet surprisingly well-made horror entry. Completing a trilogy that started with Bipasha Basu’s star-making turn in Raaz (2003) and then cashing in again with Raaz—The Mystery Continues (2009), Raaz 3-D turned it up a notch by going for an all-out scare and gore fest. Basu morphs as a successful movie star who, afraid of losing her trophy filmmaker boyfriend (Emraan Hashmi) to an uppity new starlet (Esha Gupta), resorts to black magic. Featuring macabre figures deeply rooted in bedtime anxieties, inter-dimensional ghouls and zombies that resemble mummies on steroids, the movie’s most clever effects are the nasties who cannot be seen with the naked eye and, in reversing the vampire theme, can only be seen through a mirror. Rolled out in partnership with Hollywood heavyweight Fox Star Studio, Raaz 3-D could not get a U.S. release without a rating from MPAA, who promptly slapped Raaz 3-D with an R rating—the first ever for a Hindi language movie.
Madhur Bhandarkar has made a name by zooming in on some first rate movies that empower women in very strong roles (Page 3, Fashion, Chandni Bar). Heroine is not one of them. With Kareena Kapoor as a megastar who learns to fly only to get too close to the sun, Heroine provides a strange voyeuristic catharsis. Bhandarkar forces the audience into a corner to witness the sordid, self-loathing, self-doubting and often self-defeating world of movie stars and their tabloid personas. What makes Heroine stand out is it’s the first time an A-list movie depicts a household name star in a lesbian encounter of the first kind. In a nod to the nonchalant nature of sex for that industry, Heroine has not one but two same-sex scenes. The other scene is an all-male consensual scene where sex is used to extract a favor from a producer. A small kissing step for Kareena Kapoor here is the equivalent of a giant for Bollywood kind.
In the battle for Top Cat currently, while Katrina Kaif may have the bigger box office hits (Ek Tha Tiger, Zandagi Na Milegi Dobara), Kareena Kapoor is more exciting, audacious and risk-taking.
10. EK THA TIGER.
Any movie that makes the box office score with stacks of freshly minted notes that reach across from Havana to Mars should almost automatically ping the movie-weather radar. It is nothing other than, well, bucu bucks that this Yashraj five-continent circus raked in. Roped together, money-maker Salman Khan and honey-maker Katrina Kaif make a cutesy International Couple of Mystery. Yes, there is even a tallish tale about an Indian spy who elopes with a Pakistani spy. They run off to Cuba and, much to Fidel Castro’s chagrin, proceed to make YouTube videos and even more money in exhibition stunts that have them flying off of speeding motorcycles and on to planes about to take off. Because Yash Chopra’s poetry-sprouting last movie Jab Tak Hain Jaan in its promos looked suspiciously like a stand-in for Kabhie Kabhie Part Deux, Tiger may be known as Yash Chopra’s last huge box office hit. Oh, and did we mention that Ek Tha Tiger made a boatload of moolah?
Minor rant: Because of tight print deadlines, some anticipated year end noteworthy titles are not included for consideration in this 2012 roundup. They include Aamir Khan in Reema Kagti’s highly anticipated crime story Talaash, the late Yash Chopra’s swan song Jab Tak Hain Jaan and Milind Ukey’s political corruption drama Dehraadun Diary.
On to 2013. Happy Movie Going!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.