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A recap of the best films of the year proves that a completely focused Bachchan can and does still rule the marquee. Big titles waiting in the wings: J.P. Dutta’s LoC, Rajkumar Santoshi’s Bachchan-starrer police drama Khakhee, and Shah Rukh Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho.
The fascinating Nagesh Kukunoor (Hyderabad Blues) finally and permanently discards the mantle of amateurism that limited his earlier works and graduates into the elite fraternity of gifted filmmakers simply bound to make bigger waves. Kukunoor’s handling of a jolting account of three death-row prisoners granted a final chance at mortal redemption is nothing short of awe-inspiring. With a modest budget Kukunoor once again champions a less-is-more underdog story about underdog characters and comes up with a winner.
Sudhir Mishra, who earlier made the underrated urban thriller Is Raat Ki Subaah Nahin, returns with a minor miracle in a thriller that infuses elements of Hitchcock (camera angles), classic Bengali black-and-white dramas (use of the magnificent Howrah Bridge as a stunning backdrop) and even Hong Kong cinema (bar scenes with dancing girls). Anil Kapoor is brilliant as Avinash, who arrives in Calcutta looking for a mysterious contact. The plot spirals into a storm of gangland intrigue where practically everyone hides a secret and where Avinash increasingly feels like the prey in a hunt. Featuring Manisha Koirala and Rani Mukherjee, Calcutta Mail is one sleek ride.
Who’d have thought that Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini–who appeared in megahits Sholay and Trishul, but not opposite each other–would wait three decades to deliver their best film together? In the hands of veteran filmmaker B.R. Chopra (Naya Daur) the deeply satisfying tale of a well-to-do banker (Bachchan) and his devoted wife (Hema Malini) who delegate their golden years’ living arrangements to bickering offspring only to end up being forced to live separately is a remarkable study in graceful aging. Supported by Paresh Rawal’s café owner who doubles as Bachchan’s surrogate brother and Anand Raj Anand’s foot-stomping soundtrack, Baghban is a redolent, three-hanky tearjerker.
KOI MIL GAYA
Rakesh and Hrithik Roshan’s boy-meets-space alien sci-fi fantasy broke new grounds even as it was breaking box office records. Using state-of-the-art special effects stagecraft that elicit many oohs and aahs, Koi Mil Gaya made a plausible case for South Asia’s first celluloid inter-species contact without abandoning the core values that guarantee mass-appeal in Hindi cinema—catchy music and romance (courtesy of Preity Zinta’s presence) underlined by generous doses of humor. The younger Roshan credibly breaks out of his matinee idol shell to serve up an emotionally challenged young man with the mind of an 11-year-old. Koi Mil Gaya proves that Hrithik is no one-hit wonder.
Suspense genre master Ramgopal Varma’s entry into full-throttle horror is a deft descent into supernatural anarchy. Boasting a high spine-tingling quota, the film was nicely shouldered by Ajay Devgan and Urmila Matondkar, who play a power couple that puts down on a haunted Mumbai high-rise. Boosted by Nana Patekar as a self-deprecating cop and Rekha as a clairvoyant called in to exorcise the premises, Bhoot delivers fair and square. The dead, as it turns out, do have grievances that needs to be aired.
Salman Khan’s bad boy rap sheet will get no reprieve from this tale of obsessive love. Casting Khan as Radhe Mohan, a bad-haired, often shirtless campus bully who turns a college campus into a personal fiefdom, director Satish Kaushik’s taut film yo-yos between Radhe’s sometimes hilarious overgrown delinquent antics and the psycho-sexual love that takes root when Radhe becomes obsessed with a shy freshman (newcomer Bhoomika Chawla, a ringer for Bhagyashree, Khan’s co-star from his first blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya). While a lurking threat of violence beneath the surface gives the film a sharp edge, ultimately it’s Khan’s off-center performance that makes the film gel.
MR & MRS IYER
Respected Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen’s poignant drama pushes the right buttons and steps on the right toes. A routine bus trip from the remote hilly terrain of northern Bengal to Calcutta brings together a passenger manifesto that slices through a fascinating array of Indian socio-economic strata. The heavily symbolic bus journey is interrupted violently when a bloodthirsty fundamentalist Hindu mob attacks the bus. Sen’s handling of the most pivotal scenes in the film—a Jew’s bitterly felt betrayal of a Muslim and a delivery of a farewell gift—are showstoppers. Mr and Mrs Iyer nicely adds a feather to Sen’s cap.
Honey Irani’s maiden directorial venture was an unusual drama that examined medical ethics while putting to test both a father-son bond and a nicely packaged romantic triangle loosely based on the 1963 Meena Kumari hit Dil Ek Mandir. The father-son (played by Bachchan and Anil Kapoor) familial tug wonderfully complements the romantic triangle (involving Kapoor, Gracy Singh and Preity Zinta). Irani scores a coup of sorts by being the first woman to ever direct Bachchan, who appears completely as ease as a patriarchal doctor struggling financially to keep his remote clinic open. Irani’s sensitive handling of the medical ethics story combined with Zinta’s sassy portrayal of a rich girl out to buy herself a husband made for satisfying viewing.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
Desi-British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s
delightfully feel-good girl-powered flick appeals to both international festivalgoers and American soccer moms alike. The latter, incidentally, loaded the Mia Hamm wannabe troops into minivans to catch a Beckham matinee. As case in point about the Indianization of Britain, the story of two British girls competing for both a top dog spot on their all-girl soccer team and the team’s hunky captain, tosses together a cultural potpourri of Britain’s bhangra generation youth and traditional fish-and-chips common folk. The sizable crossover appeal of Beckham—which, for many U.S. audiences was the first they ever even heard of the film’s namesake, British soccer megastar David Beckham—exceeded the similar crossover appeal of Monsoon Wedding a year earlier.
The joy of Hindi films is that what can start out as an upstart trucker film—as Chalte Chalte does—can end up as an elevated domestic drama—as Chalte Chalte also does. This story of a truck driver (Shah Rukh Khan), who ends up
marrying his accidental passenger (Rani Mukherjee), delicately examines the marital fractures that surface soon after the honeymoon is over. Featuring good performances by both leads and a decent musical score, a nuanced script wonderfully etches out the frayed edges that can test both newlyweds and committed long-term relationships alike.
On to 2004. Happy moviegoing!
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.