2015-An incredibly profitable year at the box office for Hindi movies-can be summed by at least a dozen entries that were significant hits and three movies that combined to smash just about all previous box office records (PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bahubali: The Beginning). As Hindi movies continue to expand their presence into new corners of the globe, the international box office hauls become proportionally larger. Here are some highlights of noteworthy entries:
1. BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN
The definitive pan-sub-continental road movie emerged from the highly unlikely hands of Salman Khan and his SKF Studio. Khan’s screen charisma has never been in doubt. What was lacking in his repertoire was an entry that would string together social, comical, adventure and political elements. The bigger-than-big box office that awaited Khan’s country bumpkin who agrees to take a little lost Pakistani girl-a role nailed by pint-sized newcomer Harshaali Malhotra-back to Pakistan by foot, bike, truck, bus and sometimes even in drag made a splash that could not be avoided.
Director Kabir Khan and Salman Khan use a lightly comic, lightly political and lightly just about everything movie only to top it off with an emotionally electrifying ending that virtually guarantees tears for even the most jaded viewer.
2. BAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING
A new granddaddy of epic costume dramas has finally been anointed. S. S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language original was dubbed into several languages and became the first non-Hindi language Indian movie to pulverize international box office records previously held almost exclusively by Hindi language movies. Propelled by highly evocative posters that borrowed from Hindu mythology and spiced up by star Prabhas’ ample physique both promised and delivered a come-hither look that became a box office and critical sensation. Already the third highest all-time Indian box office champ (behind only PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan), the highly captivating battle scenes featured flying daggers and horseback chivalry that tapped into historical epics from a nearly-forgotten era in Indian filmmaking history. Finally, a spell-bending, state-of-the-art juggernaut worthy of global standards and a movie that fans of Indian movies of all stripes, anywhere could cheer.
Outwardly a road movie that goes way off track, NH10 was a taut fish-out-of-water jolt that touched raw nerve endings in the wake of shocking recent headlines. A professional couple from New Delhi, played by Anushka Sharma (who also produced) and Neil Bhooplam, taking a much-needed vacation by car and ending up having to fend off a cabal of rural road crazies offered nail-biting thrills from the get-go. Even though there is ample violent content here, the real stick-out point is the brilliant exploitation of an unrelenting undercurrent of aggression that soaks the script. Made on a smaller budget, director Navdeep Singh and writer Sudip Sharma’s engrossing story emerged profitable by tapping into everything from the income gaps between New India’s urban elites and disenfranchised rural population to institutional misogyny and the perverse notion of “honor killing”-all under the tight grip of a microcosmic feudal setting.
Lesson learned: Do not cross a widow out for revenge!
4. DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY
Dibakar Banerjee’s big screen treatment of the famed fictional detective created by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay succeeded where Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet couldn’t muscle through.
Against a tumultuous backdrop of WWII intrigue and a fast changing subcontinent on the verge of gaining independence, a rooming house in the Hooghly area of what was then Calcutta becomes the vortex of very strange goings on. Fortunately, the good guys have on their side the sleuth Bakshy (well played by Sushant Sing Rajput) as the city becomes gripped by a vast conspiracy involving land-owning Indian gentry, British overseers and even Japanese spies. Floated by the Yashraj banner-which is already planning a sequel for the budding franchise-Banerjee’s movie showcased a great city with a beautiful retro-feel makeover that gets right the period setting and even sari fashions. Finally, a smartly made, thinking-cap-on movie that was fun all the way.
Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani (Munnabhai) and Aamir Khan’s extraterrestrial comedy-adventure was at heart a satire of mass religion and false prophets. Khan as a, naked-at-first, otherworldly visitor who goes from an unblemished child-like innocent and someone who knows nothing about earthly manners to picking up local habits and gradually falling from (mortal) grace was a marvelous reflection on prejudice and xenophobia. Due to intra-galactic delays, the folks on Pluto just heard that P.K. also now has the biggest all-time box office of any movie from India. While P.K. is not the greatest Hindi movie in recent times, it offered a transformative moment captured in the anti-glow of today’s biggest and darkest headlines-an acknowledgement of a clash of cultures within the human family.
6. DIL DHADAKNE DO
Zoya Akhtar’s seven seas romantic comedy set almost entirely on a cruise ship superbly balanced the wave motion while wringing through wet sordid upper-crust angst to dock into a surprisingly astute and slam dunk fun formula.
Boosted by a huge A-list cast that included Shefali Shetty, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Farhan Akhtar, Rahul Bose and Zarina Wahab-perhaps the greatest roll call since Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)-Dil Dhadakne Do also benefited from capturing lusciously exotic far-flung locales that wisely never supplant the affairs of one-percenter Mehra family helmed by patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor). Even though Dil Dhadakne Do spotlights a top income family feud, future film classes may single out this movie for evidencing the expanding vacation destinations available for India’s booming middle class.
Nishikant Kamat’s tense family drama pivoting from an accidental death was a remake of Jeetu Joseph’s 2014 Malayalam entry of the same name. Remade with remarkably success in altogether a half-dozen other Indian languages, all of which amazingly proved to be box office and critical success, here was a script no one could resist. A middle class family headed by Vijay Salgaonkar (Ajay Devgan) finds their lives turned upside down when their high school age daughter is blackmailed by a classmate. The well-made drama draws from the battle of wits between a tough police investigator (played by Tabu) who is inexplicably allowed to take the lead in chasing down the disappearance of her son as Vijay steadfastly coaches his family through the biggest upheaval in their lives. The existentially-charged ending fails to fully appease just about everyone involved with the viewer then left to decide the outcome on their own.
A familial tug between daughter Piku, played by Deepika Padukone, and her perennially-constipated and aging father Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) takes center stage in this Soojit Sarkar comedic drama. The primary focus is the shifting role of the daughter, a successful Delhi architect, now being the breadwinner for a parent who is becoming increasingly unhinged given his obsession with his constipation. Strongly supported by Irrfan Khan as a taxi driver who unwittingly agrees to take the daughter and the ailing father to Kolkota so they can sell the family home there, the road trip becomes the metaphor for a journey to unplanned destinations. Khan, who had a fantastic year in movies with four releases (Piku, Talvar, Jurassic World and in Aishwarya Rai’s comeback entry Jazbaa) getting a role where he romances Padukone is a terrific uptick and a nuanced change in what a possible male love-interest can or should be in Hindi movies.
Based on a 2008 real-life story about a double-murder near Delhi, Meghna Gulzar’s credible treatment of an account where the “reality” of the narrative gets instantly muddied by inaccurate or incomplete eye witness accounts of key players, Talvar made one pause for contemplation. In a legal system where only one judge has to be convinced on life and death matters and where circumstantial evidence counts every step of the way, the circumstances certainly point to an educated married couple (Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi) who may have killed off their teenage daughter and the family chauffeur. The movie also features Irrfan Khan as a shrewd investigative cop who gets brick-walled by the botched early-arriving local cops that unknowingly tempered with precious evidence. Much like Dhrishyam, the movie had an ending that satisfied few and makes everyone uneasy.
10. PREM RATAN DHAN PAYO
Rajshri Studio and Salman Khan together have intermittently lit up the holiday season box fireworks going back to Khan’s breakout hit Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989. Wholesome and family-viewing appropriate-compared to the intermittently violent NH10-director/script writer Sooraj Barjatiya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo hits the right notes in balancing family-first palace shenanigans and romance. The stunningly opulent song sequence choreography-especially Palak Mucchal’s catchy title tune- is on par with Bahubaali. The last time two Salman Khan entries made any year end shortlist was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister! For naysayers who deny that Hindi movie stars are treated like royalty, consider this. Sonam Kapoor’s personal nutritionist-nutritionist-gets an entry in the credits. Why exclude kindergarten teacher, milkman or mailman? Can’t we just stick to movie making? Puh-leese!
Special salutes: Best soundtrack of the year: “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.” Most anticipated upcoming movie: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani. Worst movie consideration: Mr. X (3D)
On to 2016. Happy movie going!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.