1. DEVDAS Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s masterful retelling of an Indian classic easily jumped to the front of the pack. Compared to Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra formulaic outlines that end happily-ever-after, Bhansali’s film was a stylish act of rebellion against convention. The loose love triangle set in Calcutta of the 1930s was an eye-opening parable on the decline of the nobility in pre-Independence India. From the breathtaking period costumes—one dance outfit Madhuri Dixit wears weighed 70 pounds—to Ismail Darbar’s awesome soundtrack, Devdas was not only a hit in India but an absolute blockbuster outside of India in the wake of hype generated by the standing ovation that greeted the film’s screening at Cannes. The film’s prized artifacts—think Aishwarya Rai gracing an electric blue celestial sari in a publicity poster—even ended up as a hot commodity on eBay.
2.MONSOON WEDDING Mira Nair’s beautifully textured molding of the intricacies and the inherent contradictions of modern Indian life—which, as Nair sees it, has more facets than a twirling disco mirror ball—was a class act on it’s own. Hordes of non-Indians caught this as their very first Indian film experience and the result was a near-unanimous applause for the story of a hastily arranged wedding (aren’t all Indian weddings arranged hastily?) set in New Delhi. Alternatively serious and hilariously funny and set at a
fashionable bungalow owned by Naseerudin Shah’s father of the bride, Monsoon Wedding was a superb serio-comic tale of Indian style upstairs-downstairs goings-on that won us over with the downstairs story of a middle-class wedding planner’s efforts to win over a kitchen maid.
3.RAAZ Vikram Bhatt became a hot director with the success of both the hilarious “Awaara Paagal Deewana” and the horror entry, Raaz , the year’s first significant box office hit. No B-movie has commanded this much box office credibility since Jai Santoshi Maa , the 1975’s religio-cult blockbuster that ignited an urban legend about a lethal curse that haunted the filmmakers. Cashing in on star-making turns from new stud-muffin Dino Morea and thick-lipped Bipasha Basu, who play an estranged married couple that returns to an old hillside bungalow only to discover the place already occupied by an invisible and sinister presence, the story’s regurgitation of Indian and American horror-genre standard bearers proved to be nothing short of an extended goose bump ride.
4. COMPANY Ram Gopal Varma has shown the same ferocious devotion to the criminal-thriller that Hitchcock gave to the suspense-thriller. And Varma continues to improve. The violent tale of an underworld gang that implodes into two even more violent factions was made of the stuff that nicely put to test Ajay Devgan as a cool Mafioso middleman, hunky newcomer
Vivek Oberoi as restless underling and Manisha Koirala personifying feline sassiness as keeper of Devgan’s inner sanctum. While Varma’s detractors continue to zero in on a filmography that outwardly glorifies violence, Varma’s ability to carve out sharp, agitated characters remains unparalleled. Don’t expect family fare, but do expect a lusty R.D. Burmanesque musical score by Vishal Bharadwaj.
5. AANKHEN Starting with an ingenious premise—a disgruntled former banker (Bachchan) recruits three blind men to rob his former employer and then claim the perfect alibi—Aankhen is loaded with crafty plot twists and elevated performances. What better testosterone rush than having two hunky former male-supermodels Akshay Kumar and Arjun Rampal play blind? But beware: guns are fired and perfectly likable characters are killed off unceremoniously. These weaknesses, however, are countered by Bachchan’s against-type delivery of a tainted middle-aged anti-hero. Toss in Paresh Rawal’s timely comic zingers and the result is good, dirty fun.
6. KABHI KHUSHI KABHIE GHAM Indian cinema has not witnessed pure eye-candy of this magnitude or star power of this wattage since, well, never. Bringing together a cast made up of Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Kajol,
Kareena Kapoor, and Jaya Bachchan thrown together as pieces of an upper-crust family drama jigsaw puzzle proved to be not as difficult as it would sound. Despite capturing the star chemistry—especially Khan and Kajol—and having Jatin-Lalit jingle the right musical score, the most non-formulaic trick Johar could manage was having Khan appear in a see-through shirt (not as appealing as it sounds) and once again having a male lead—yawn—Rahul. Johar has our permission to break new ground any time.
7. HUMRAAZ Filmmaker duo Abbas-Mastan, who had success at roping Bobby Deol into decent romantic thrillers (Ajanabee, Soldier ), hit paydirt again with a romantic triangle that bursts with unrelentingly nervous sexual energy. A pop band made up of two would-be lovers (Akshaye Khanna, Amisha Patel) is invited to perform on a luxury boat owned by a would-be recluse (Bobby Deol) who takes more than a fancy to his female guest-singer. Khanna, after a strong turn in Dil Chahta Hai and Deewangee , impresses again while Patel turns a career-page by getting into a delicously ambiguous role. Sharp on direction, cleverly scripted and visually appealing, Humraaz also delivers an ear-worthy musical score by newcomer Himesh Reshammiya. Adding to his excellent “Kya Dil Ne Kaha” score earlier in the year, Reshammiya is sure to go places.
8. CHHAL An extremely worthy down-market companion toCompany, Hansal Mehta’s small-time entry features no front-line name recognition and has “only” playback singer KK in the lead. That, however, takes nothing away from a fast-paced narrative and a superb script that weaves the plot in a disjointed, almost reverse fashion not unlike Hollywood entry Memento . Dedicated cop Inspector Karan (KK) goes undercover to infiltrate an underworld crime family headed by seemingly caring father (Vallabh Vyas) and his
repugnantly amoral son (Prashant Narayan). Karan’s mission gets muddied when the father takes an interest in promoting Karan, the son attaches himself to Karan and Karan violates orders by sharing vibes with the family’s daughter (Jaya Seal). The black-and- white and color footage cleverly distinguish one series of events from another, a ploy that has it’s own internal logic. Be patient and reward yourself at guessing how all the strange pieces fit together.
9. DEEWANGEE Director Anees Bazmee’s desi remake of Hollywood entry “Primal Fear” is strong argument in favor of continuing improvements seen in desi thrillers of late. A budding songwriter (Ajay Devgan) is accused of brutally murdering a film tycoon who allegedly stole the writer’s material. The singing star (Urmila Matondkar) that the accused is secretly in love with engages a hotshot public defendant (Akshaye Khanna) to defend her song-writing friend. Before the mess is sorted out, Bazmee takes us on a whirlwind tour of a psychotic mind that may harbor a split personality and a lawyer who for a terrifying reason begins to second-guess his own better judgment.
10. THE LEGEND OF BHAGAT SINGH The runaway success of the patriotic-themed Gadar in 2001 resulted in three biopics that celebrated famed Indian Independence champion and martyr Bhagat Singh. When the dust settled, only the Rajkumar Santoshi-directed entry starring Ajay Devgan was left standing. Better constructed, more intense and shorter than the other two entries, “TLOBS” followed Singh from a robust Punjabi childhood to his fateful college years where repeated run-ins with two diametrically opposed forces on campus instill in the young patriot an intellectual appreciation for both secular liberty and a rabid hatred for British tyranny. Devgan’s channeling of Singh, as an alert-yet-uncaring man about to be hanged, was one of the year’s best performances.
On to 2003. Happy movie going!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.