1. JODHAA AKBAR
Set during the pinnacle of Mughal power in India, this swashbuckling tale of Emperor Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) and Princess Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai) had tongues wagging and cash-registers overflowing. Director Ashutosh Gowariker’s superlative film maintained surprising historical fidelity while taking on a sumptuous medieval courtly romance and breathtaking epic war-fare. The magnificent A.R. Rahman soundtrack was pure icing. Finally, a modern Hindi film succeeded to be a worthy successor to the 1960s classic Mughal-E-Azam.
2. THE POOL
American filmmaker Chris Smith’s foray to the Indian shore was a definite mile-marker. This deceptively simple tale of a struggling Indian youth’s fascination with a mysterious swimming pool made a convincing splash for itself. Set in lush Goa, newcomer Venkatesh Chavan, along with Nana Patekar as the owner of the storied pool, delivered carefree performances. Lighter than air, The Pool floated sans life jacket.
3. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
British filmmaker Danny Boyle and Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan forged a compelling snapshot of contemporary urban India. British-born lead Dev Patel aced the role of street-hardened man-child Jamal Malik, searching for his long lost girlfriend (Frieda Pinto), who lands a chance to win a jackpot on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Despite the Oscar buzz, be forewarned: Slumdog is not an “Indian” movie by many measures and occasionally fumbles translating speech into English. Despite its flaws, Slumdog bodes well for “fusion” filmmaking. Read the full review.
4. JAANE TU … YA JAANE NA
Abbas Tyrewalla’s well-dressed and well-marketed Gen-Y musical-drama hit all the right chords. From banking on the surprisingly viable newcomer leads, Imran Khan and Genelia D’Souza, as a mis-matched campus boy-girl combo, to a dance-happy A.R. Rahman score Jaane Tu … was an overdue, smart and refreshing film in a season that also inflicted on audiences the rudderless, fast-sinkers Drona andTashan.
5. SINGH IS KINNG
The hit pairing of not only Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif but also Kumar with director Aneez Bazmee (Welcome) converged to make this cross-cultural “ethnic” comedy Hindi cinema’s biggest box office hit of the year, sending Kumar’s stock into the stratosphere. Kumar is now the third most powerful brand in Hindi filmdom—behind only the father-son team of Yash and Aditya Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan. Helped by a hip-hop heavy Pritam music score, and boosted by Snoop Dogg’s appearance on the title track, Kinng also became the biggest selling Hindi album of the year (1.8 million legal copies sold).
6. BACHNA AE HASEENO
To extend Ranbir Kapoor’s heart-throb persona, filmmaker Siddharth Anand reached for this low-key battle of the sexes. An unrepentant with a roving eye getting his comeuppance maybe an old tale, but the combination of Anand’s sleek handling and the oft-sizzling presence of Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Depika Padukone, and Minissha Lambha elevated this romantic comedy. Utilizing stunning European backdrops to chronicle celluloid letters-from-the-lovelorn, Haseeno also extracted mileage from examining the interplay between flirting, courting, and career-making.
7. ROCK ON!!
Abhishek Kapoor’s odyssey into the life of a Delhi-based grunge band was both heartfelt and amazingly sharp. Starting in 1998, four friends from highly divergent and sometimes dysfunctional backgrounds synthesize their passions into forming a music band. A decade later, this fab four reunites for a chance to reclaim lost glory. Superbly acted, especially by Farhan Akhtar as the band’s lead singer and Prachi Desai as his wife, Kapoor’s film was a combustible alignment of outstanding characterization and story-telling, all grounded firmly by the oh-so-rocking Shankar Ehsaan Loy score.
A good thriller is always welcome, especially when it involves Hitchcock-style filmmaking steeped in contemporary politics. Like Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, director Raj Kumar’s suspense drama was a great addition to the list of relatively small-budget movies that leave lasting impression. Newcomer Rajeev Khandelval was cast favorably as an Indian doctor who returns from London to find that Islamist militants have kidnapped his family. Reaching into the not-so-pleasant underbelly of Mumbai’s massive sprawl and using lots of close-ups to sustain tension, Aamir was a winner.
Mainstream Bollywood filmmakers in 2008 treat gay characters exactly the same as Hollywood treated them in the 1960s: they are visible in the background, slightly awkward in the foreground, and occasionally good for a laugh. Set in Miami’s chill-and-let-chill gold coast, director Tarun Mansukhani and co-producer Karan Johar’s Dostana was only a bikini wax, six-pack abs, and a Speedo removed from Doris Day challenging Rock Hudson to a pillow-fight duel, or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis going mega-girly on Marilyn Monroe. This story of two confirmed bachelors (perfectly coiffed Abhishek Bachchan and unmitigated exhibitionist John Abraham) committing their gay-dos to win over their new “roommate” (Priyanka Chopra) proved a worthwhile comedy of all the gay-don’ts that two hetero-males-playing-gay can get into.
Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s well-received film debut was a superb reflection on the heart and soul of Delhi rickshaw driver Amal (Rupinder Nagra), who, unbeknownst to himself, become the unwitting focus of a city wide figurative man-hunt. Both the good guys—Naseedurin Shah’s cranky reclusive billionaire—and bad guys—thieves and murders—are after Amal when fate leads to his being named the beneficiary of the reclusive billionaire’s vast fortune. Similar in feel to Peter Sellers in Being There, Amal triumphs as a monument to those humans whose humanity screams silently simply because they always speak the truth.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.