In an unusual turn of events—unplanned, no doubt—2014 proved to be an especially strong year for better Hindi movies dominated by strong central female characters. While the biggest box office hits of the year featured male actors (Happy New Year, Kick, Bang Bang, and Holiday: A Solder is Never Off Duty), none of them passed critical muster for this list. With international film houses—most notably Viacom and Disney—increasingly turning to India to agree to either make or market Hindi movies to vast Hindi movies audiences across the globe, the profile for Hindi movies just keeps being raised higher and higher.
While Hindi release dates are still primarily keyed in with Indian national or religious holidays in mind, perhaps someday the release dates with be synched with noted dates on the international calendar, such as Memorial Day or Labor Day.
1. HAIDER. If the sacred principle of all art is to reflect on the human condition—warts and all—then Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, exceeds that lofty goal by several furlongs. A monumental tragedy set in Kashmir against an Islamist insurgency, Shahid Kapoor as Haider, Tabu as his estranged mother and Kay Kay Menon as Haider’s uncle reprise a classic Oedipal-shaded love triangle without missing as much as a beat. Bharadwaj gets right all the highlights of the Bard’s play—including double-crossing constables, foreshadowing events, spies and ghosts. Supported by a beautiful Bharadwaj-Gulzar musical score, hauntingly evokes the unpleasant reality of killings—both political and pedestrian—that penetrate a perennially uneasy truce over this picturesque yet troubled vista, Haider left the competition behind. Bharadwaj bags the best movie experience and best music score.
2. QUEEN. Kangana Ranaut’s desi-girl-gone-wild in the Eurozone was a comedy home run from the get go. Ranaut’s “Rani” character is a memorable underdog—an awkward, uncertain geek from Delhi with uncertain footing—who goes on a goofy misadventure after being jilted on her wedding day. By bringing into the fold an equally eclectic cast that did absolute wonders, this Vikas Bahl’s entry walked away with well-deserved kudos. Yes, heartbreaks are unpleasant business. Rather than crying and prolonging the heartache, Rani goes on an eventful European vacation. Few Hindi movies of late have so successfully aligned this much script originality, original humor and plain old fun. We are still covering up our giggles at how Rani unknowingly mishandles (or is it manhandles?) an adult toy in an Amsterdam sex parlor. Girlfriend, they did not just show that in a Hindi movie, did they?
Even though this Nitin Kakkar 2012 black comedy won the best Hindi language movie National Award— India’s most prestigious film prize—it did not get a wide release until 2014. No reason to worry because every minute was worth the wait. Braving nothing short of a mini-détente through Islamist border-runners mismanaging a cross-border kidnapping that goes badly and hilariously awry, Kakkar’s movie succeeded by simply being as tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating as possible. It turns out that Pakistani peeps are just as movie-crazy as Indian peeps—go figure! In celebrating the power of cinema to break down a seemingly impervious sub-continental Cold War firewall straddling two would-be mortal enemy countries, this rare true satire worked despite having not a single household name in front of or behind the camera. Kakkar’s bare-bones entry was pure joy.
Rani Mukerji’s focused rage as a New Delhi cop who investigates the disappearance of a street urchin and stumbles onto a sex trafficking network is exciting uncharted territory for the normally squeaky-clean Yashraj label story lines. Mukerji is a tough cop on a deadly mission. Filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar and Gopi Puthran’s script drive all roads back to a battle of wits between the mature (and strong) female copper and the diabolical Gen Y-age (and cunning) male human trafficking mastermind (played to perverse perfection by new newcomer Tahir Bhasin). The staging turns on ageism, sexism and the anonymity of new social media connectivity stacked up against the sheer bravado of old school brawn. Even though Sarkar and company can’t resist resorting to vigilantism just as going gets really good, it does not detract from this first rate crime thriller.
5. MARY KOM.
Omung Kumar’s no-nonsense etching of the life of Indian box champion Mary Kom, played here with ferocious bloody-glove precision by Priyanka Chopra, emerged as a critical success and sleeper box office hit. Kumar’s movie and Chopra’s presence go the distance to finesse the outline of Kom’s story from a peasant remote northeastern Indian frontier upbringing to being selected as flag carrier for India’s Olympic team. The well-made biopic, or even biopics generally, are a rarity in Hindi movies. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2010) with Irrfan Khan and Rakeysh Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) with Farhan Akhtar were rare entries. The smaller scale entry also featured a very decent Shashi-Shivam music score. After tapping into these huge critical and respectable box office goldmines, here’s hoping that script writers finally decide that India’s sporting legends are not all from the world of cricket.
Imtiaz Ali, who earlier came up with Jab We Met (2008), returned with another sensational road movie with much deeper pathos and a higher human toll. Thrusting forward the fast-rising Alia Bhatt as a rich princess who gets kidnapped on her wedding day by an unwitting down-and-out robber wonderfully played by Randip Hooda, Ali transforms the kidnapper’s journey as nothing short of a map of the emotional luggage tormenting both central players and which, remarkably, has little to with the kidnapping itself. Adding to Ali’s ability to zero in on strong female leads, there is also a bittersweet sidebar about a sex abuse victim who gets to confront their victimizer. Drawing on close ups to capture the claustrophobia that the kidnap victim experiences initially—camera work that even the viewer’s eyes beg to eventually ease up from—and support from a fine cast, Ali cleverly rattles up figurative skeletons old and new that leave us almost breathless by the time it all ends.
7. DEDH ISHQIYA. Producer Vishal Bharadwaj and director Abhishek Chaubey turn up the bawdiness factor several notches in this sequel to their wonderfully quirky Ishqiya (2010). Bringing back Naseerudin Shah and Arshad Warsi as bumbling no-good ruffians who scope out a rich widow, played by Madhuri Dixit, who, it turns out, it setting up a delightful trap of sorts of her own. In this school for scoundrels, there is no shortage of downwardly mobile characters that all take on airs of self-importance and are only out to con each other. Adding to the ensemble cast, there is also Huma Qureishi as Dixit’s maid-in-waiting and Vijay Raaz as an opportunist suitor with eyes on the rich widow. Along with sumptuous pseudo-courtly rituals filled with quaint poetry, the script also added a gay love story in a strikingly non-judgmental tone. When the dust settles, it turns out that women can be just as notable dirty rotten scoundrels as men.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1980 comedy by the same name and staring Rekha got a Disney 2014 makeover in what is substantially a Disney fairy tale for Indian shores. In somewhat of a reversal of the Hello Dolly–type story, Shashanka Ghosh’s romantic comedy gets right the on-again off-again tussle between a goofy physical therapist (Sonam Kapoor) hired by a new-India royal family that has a dashingly handsome prince (Fawad Khan) who is already engaged. The clash of values—the stuffy formality of palace life injected with the therapist’s anything goes upper middle class ways—is staged entertainingly. While musically lacking, the surprisingly spry chemistry between Kapoor and Khan (a Lahore-based actor who also fronts for Pakistani pop group Entity Paradigm) is counter-anchored by Kiron Kher and Ratna Pathak tearing through as two especially domineering movie mom tarts from recent memory.
9. THE SHAUKEENS.Abhishek Sharma, who earlier turned in the coming-to-America comedy Tere Bin Laden (2010), offered up the equally insightful The Shaukeens, an offbeat entry that traces three 60-something lovelorn Delhi buddies (Annu Kapoor, Piyush Mishra and Anupam Kher) who take a vacation in Mauritius in hopes of finding romance on the tropical island. Their plans get completely off-kilter when all three of them fall for the owner of the villa they are renting (played by Lisa Haydon, who also featured as Kangana Ranaut’s Euro BFF in Queen). Filmed on lush and beautiful island with endless beaches, also thrown into the mix was Akshay Kumar who plays a caricature of his real self. While Sharma’s movie was not as ground-breaking as Basu Chatterjee’s original 1982 comedy of the same name with Ashok Kumar, Mithun Chakraborty and Rati Agnihotri, Sharma’s film offered sufficient laughs while providing pause for the relationship struggles that some older men in India’s rigid social structure must cope with.
10. HASEE TOH PHASEE.Well done romantic comedies never go out of style. Cashing in on the popularity of rising stars Sidharth Malholtra and especially Parineeti Chopra, director Vinil Matthew did a nice job of cooking up what is essentially a twist on Ali Zafar’s 2011 hit Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Struggling in his business, Nikhil (Malhotra) plans to marry Karishma (Adah Sharma) and runs into complications when Karishma’s sister Meeta (Chopra), Nikhil’s old flame, re-enters the picture. In a refreshing twist on how female characters are drawn, Chopra’s Meeta is a Ph.D. engineer with awkward social graces and a criminal past (she stole money from her own dad!) Producer Karan Johar turned this smartly made entry into a modest box office hit, validating both Malhotra and Chopra’s abilities to bring in audiences. It doesn’t matter that Chopra is now typecast into romantic comedies, as long as the movies are fun to watch, we don’t mind at all.
Desi Turkey Award: Farah Khan-Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year! Synoptic: Like a three-hour Fourth of July fireworks show without the Fourth of July. Abhishek Bachchan drop trou not enough to salvage this colossal bore. Suggestion: Re-release as 20-minute video featuring only Depeeka Padukone song-and-dances. Verdict: Still three hours we’ll never get back.
On to 2015. Happy movie watching!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.