The year when the world could not get enough of Aishwarya Rai. Rai’s stratospheric interna-tional ride was ignited when the paparazzi zoomed in on the doyenne’s red-sari entry at Cannes in 2003. The wonderful offshoot of that was the renewed international attention on Indian cinema, with Rai being offered the lead role in Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming Bride and Prejudice, a fat paycheck to model DeBeers diamonds, and being voted to have her likeness in wax grace London’s Madame Toussaud’s museum. Meanwhile, an abacus had to be employed to keep track of the many roles Amitabh Bachchan figured in this year. In his 60s, this megastar shows no signs of slowing down. A wrap of 2004 in Indian films.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-1YUVA Even though Mani Ratnam’s ode to modern youth was played by actors who are not so young, this complex drama that floated a clash of filmmaking styles (northern Indian actors playing a southern Indian script), emerged as a class act. Cleverly weaving together three stories in a seamless grander canvas, Yuva was most memorable for Abhishek Bachchan’s morally challenged toughie and would-be underworld hired gun, who attempts to juggle a career in crime with a stormy marriage to an always-questioning Rani Mukherjee.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-3TOUCH OF PINK Iqbal Rashid’s comedy delighted in both its African connection and Indian roots even as it straddled cross-cultural and cross-sexual fences. Set in London, Touch of Pink served up a unique clash of cultures—Indian on Western as well as straight on gay. This portrait of methodical chaos surrounding an unsuspecting mother’s arrival to arrange nuptials of a closeted gay son was at once loud, campy, and introspective. With a superb wit evidenced by Kyle MacLachlan’s turn as a dapper, self-deprecating dandy, Rashid succeeded in showing that even the most crowded closet can prove to be the loneliest of places.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-4HUM TUM A delightfully elevated romantic comedy in the tradition of When Harry Met Sally. Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee turned in carefree performances as globe-trotting boy-girl pals whose paths keep crossing on an unending quest for ideal lives and ideal mates. Sexually frank and unabashedly feminist in outlook, this battle of the sexes draws to a truce only after winding through New York, Amsterdam, Paris, and Delhi. Seldom has 10 years of an inter-sex bonding played out so glidingly and tumultuously. Telegram to Mumbai: make more movies like this!

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-5KYUN! HO GAYA NA … Aishwarya Rai’s labor of love was an intensely emotional romance dripping with old-world charm. Staged with the backdrop of an orphanage run by an eccentric confirmed bachelor (Bachchan at his grumpiest best), the comings and goings of romance between Rai and her lover (played by Vivek Oberoi, whose on-screen chemistry with real-life paramour Rai torches the screen) are fun to watch. Sprinkling it with a surprising cameo or two, director Samir Karnik found a decent balance between comedy and melodrama.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-6DHOOM Moving at breakneck speed, this slick, off-kilter motorcycle flick, nothing short of a locomotive on two wheels and a helmet, resembled The Fast and the Furious only in passing. Dhoom-inspired motorcycle mania got a huge boost after leads Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham, and Uday Chopra admitted to pulling some of their own motocross stunts on screen. Newcomer Pritam Chakraborty nailed a fresh, rambunctious, and foot-stomping soundtrack. The bhangra-hip hop fusing title song, belted out with gusto by the ascendant Sunidhi Chauhan and lip-synched by a vixened-up Esha Deol, easily ranks as the best choreographed song of the year. This high-tech adrenaline rush for anyone with a pulse cashed in a trainload of speeding tickets on its way to a high-grossing box office.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-7MAIN HOON NA Dance master Farah Khan’s filmmaking debut looked and acted like a Karan Johar film, which is not always a bad thing. This Shahrukh Khan vehicle was able to get mileage not only for an engrossing Anu Malik musical score but also for respectable acting debuts from Zayed Khan and Amrita Rao. Even though Sushmita Sen is forced to wear skin-baring saris in high-altitude song sequences opposite Shahrukh Khan, who is covered head-to-toe in winter wear, and plot credibility is stretched thin with Naseerudin Shah as India’s top anti-terrorist cop making a public appearance without any bodyguards, director Khan’s debut was a qualified success.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-8VEER ZAARA A Yash Chopra film is always an event, and this international (India-Pakistan), inter-religious (Shahrukh Khan’s Veer is Sikh, Preity Zinta’s Zaara is Muslim) would be truly groundbreaking had a similar plot not been tested only recently in Sunny Deol’s box-office juggernaut Gadar. Well acted but choppily edited towards the end, Veer Zaara cashed in on support from both Bachchan and Hema Malini as Khan’s surrogate parents (enough already of Bachchan playing Khan’s father-figure). The most pleasant twist Chopra offered was bringing to light a collection of original tunes written by the late Madan Mohan. Sung by, among others, 75-year-old Lata Mangeshkar (Mohan was her favorite maestro), and penned by Javed Akhtar, the slower tunes were a refreshing departure from the up-tempo beats that now rule Hindi scores.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-9LAKSHYA With this watchable military action-romance that hooked up with the Kargil border incident, Farhan Akhtar proved that his earlier Dil Chahta Hai was no fluke. The story of an underachieving goof (Hritik Roshan) who joins the Indian army and comes under the watchful eye of an all-seeing commanding officer (Bachchan) had first-rate action sequences and dance numbers by Roshan. Romantically countered by a television reporter, played by Preity Zinta, who nicely balanced the estranged paramour for much of the film, Lakshya only got sidetracked in the smaller stories involving Om Puri’s high-ranking officer dwelling on pre-retirement jitters.

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-10KHAKEE After the colossus multi-star near-miss China Gate, Rajkumar Santoshi finally silenced his detractors with this chiseled cop-action flick. The story of a band of cops (played by Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, and Tusshar Kapoor) charged with transporting a cunningly ruthless gangster (Ajay Devgan) proved captivating from the get-go. Faced with a dangerous terrorist gang that will do anything to free their leader from captivity, the cops soon realize that they may be the hunted in a drawn-out cat-and-mouse game played out on a rural highway. While Aishwarya Rai and Akshay Kumar heated up a dance track or two, it was Tusshar Kapoor firing a single gunshot—a highly symbolic, highly satisfying act of disobedience as the chase draws to a close— that superbly summed up the film’s at-any-cost, absurdist core. Bravo!

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01c1c45c71a0633ebe04453f6faf69bd-12MUJHSE SHADI KAROGI Ditzy comedies don’t get any ditzier than this light David Dhawan flick featuring a love triangle of sorts. Salman Khan’s knack for comedy proved useful in this role of a lifeguard who overlooks his jinxed dating history and forges ahead in pursuit of an attractive fashion designer played by easy-on-the-eyes Priyanka Chopra. The love story heats up when Akshay Kumar’s playboy literally parachutes his way in. Comically astute and musically savvy (check out Narayan-Yagnik’s “Lal Dupatta”), Mujhse Shadi Karogi also highlighted the scenic Goa coast as both a romantic getaway and international tourist destination. All of this and a sideline involving both cricket and a cameo by cricket demigod Kapil Dev. Who could ask for more?

On to 2005. Happy moviegoing!

Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.

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