Flying kicks, three point landings and stolen kisses. As both budgets and box offices for Hindi movies reach new heights, two trends become strikingly obvious. First, movies that would play well to international audiences are more often than not getting green-lighted. Streamlined scripts and far-flung geographic settings, supported by India’s expanding international trade ties, are helping to expand the market for Hindi movies to the farthest corners of the globe. The other trend is the fondness for story lines taken from real life events—indeed, six of the ten films on this short list are based on real life stories. The convergence of real life and reel life and other movie highlights in a year of Hindi movies.
A real life planned hijacking from the 1980s retold three decades later in Ram Madhvani’s taut thriller was the apex Hindi movie event for 2016. An otherwise on-time PanAm Boeing 747 flight from Bombay to New York via Karachi is stormed on the runway in Karachi and immediately ignites jittery and far-reaching pre-9/11 geo-political shockwaves. The pilots escape and the almost 400 passengers are at the mercy of armed Palestinian terrorists. Everything appears lost—save for the actions of one very brave Indian flight attendant. Sonam Kapoor’s coming of age in the title role Neerja was both convincing and moving. Supported by Shabana Azmi (as Neerja’s mother), Yogendra Tikku (as the father) and Jim Sharbh (as an especially creepy, crazed gun-wielding on-board antagonist-in-chief), the gripping entertainer also tapped into anxieties related to modern travel and the existential fear of death at a moment’s notice.
The rights of the LGBT community in India perfectly correlate to the rising and ebbing fortunes of Indian Constitution’s so-called Section 377, an archaic writ carried over from the British Raj. Hansal Mehta’s ground-breaking Aligarh, based on a true story, unfolds as a 64-year old linguistics professor is entrapped in a consensual sexual tryst with a rickshaw puller. Manoj Bajpayee in the lead superbly channels the professional and personal toll taken on a learned, tortured and ostracized man piecing together shards of an explosively shattered life. Supported by Rajkumar Rao as a rookie reporter struggling to land on his two feet, Aligarh in on par with Brokeback Mountain in chronicling situational alienation faced by older, detached gay men up against a deluge of official and social scorn.
This fictitious urban crime and court procedural having no big names other than Amitabh Bachchan in a supporting role, emerged as the unlikeliest of box office hits of the year. Made on a modest budget, the plight of three carefree young women leading a city-life of budding careers and clubbing runs into a wall. The women (well played by Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang) being accused of attacking their would-be dates on a weekend after-hours outing becomes a legal quagmire worth pausing for. As their well-connected accusers—all young men from moneyed families—make getting a fair trial all but impossible, a retired lawyer (Bachchan, stoically playing a cynic of the legal system) steps in to accept the case. Director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s captivating court-room drama was enhanced by social commentary on just what makes a “victim,” making Pink a lesser vehicle with places to go.
4) Raman Raghav 2.0
Anurag Kashyap, who appeared all but lost after dropping Bombay Velvet in 2014, regained solid footing with this minimalist and yet highly stylish fictionalized psycho story based on the real life serial killer Raman Raghav who terrorized Bombay in the 1960s. In true guerilla-filmmaking credentials, Kashyap’s framework employed actual Mumbai tenements, back streets and deserted alleys—often without permission. In the title role, Nawazuddin Siddique’s turned in a brilliant performance as the babbling, sexually confused, night prowler who may or may not have carried out a series of brutal slayings, including those of some of his relatives. Even the publicity poster was creepy. Thanks to Kashyap and Siddique, yes, that involuntary shiver up the spine was very real.
A decorated navy officer and husband returning home, a lonely wife he returns home to and the dashingly handsome family friend who turns up dead formed a captivating and dramatic triangle inspired by a true Bombay murder mystery from 1959. Akshay Kumar, the reigning box office champion this year, in smart navy dress whites cuts a fetching murder-suspect. As his suffering wife, Ileana D’Cruz is remarkably retrained while Arjan Bajwa’s upper crust family friend, who ends up dead, personifies a seedy philanderer. Staged against the backdrop of high seas intrigue and the race for India to get her first aircraft carrier, filmmaker Tinu Desai’s period piece brought it all together very nicely.
6) Happy Bhaag Jayegi
A runaway bride can end up in the next village, one city over or even the next state. But a runaway bride ending up in Pakistan? Oh, no, she didn’t! Mudassar Aziz’s delightful comedy Happy Bhaag Jayegi attempts reigning in an unhappy bride-to-be, ironically named Happy (Diana Penty)—running away from her big fat Delhi wedding only to end up in Pakistan. The laughs come at the expense of the clash of cultures—and not from any political thumb-nosing. Newcomer Penty gets commendable support from Abhay Deol as the Lahore princeling whose household party Happy crashes. Piyush Mishra— who turned all serious as the bald-headed prosecuting attorney opposing Bachchan in Pink—does scene-stealing numbers here as the Indophobe two-bit Lahore beat-cop forced to travel to India against his wishes.
Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated takeover of Kuwait in 1990 caught the planet by surprise. Trapped in the nightmare of fast moving events on the ground, the fate of some 170,000 Indian migrant workers having to confront possible violence in the hands of advancing Iraqi troops already resorting to rape and pillage over anyone that got in their way became a logistical nightmare of its own.
In Raja Krishna Menon’s smartly staged mass escape story, another fine example of a Hindi film based on real life events, the initial response from the Indian government is indifference. It is up to Akshay Kumar’s Kuwait City businessman Ranjit Katyal to enter the frantic foray, albeit reluctantly, to organize a gigantic multi-pronged, multi-national rescue. The rescue itself is a sharp, even at times hair raising, example of large canvass, onscreen synergy that actually works.
Salman Khan movies of late have him portraying characters that demonstrate— —heaven forbid—humility. Think of the devout simpleton in Bajrangi Bhaijaan who vowed to deliver a lost little girl back to her family in Pakistan. Think of the mixed martial arts champ in Sultan whose protagonist’s inflated ego leads to a career crash and then who must fight to regain his lost mojo. The character moderation, incidentally, has made these two entries the biggest box office hits of Khan’s career. With Ali Abbas Zafar at the helm, Sultan, the biggest box office hit of 2016, balanced the right amount of family time (with Anushka Sharma playing Khan’s onscreen wife) and adrenaline-rush mixed martial arts jousts that are both well-choreographed and entertaining.
9) Udta Punjab
Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab was an effective, eye-popping, vulgar and dark odyssey into opiates abuse in contemporary India. Looking out from within the twisted, unholy South Asian nexus that connects political, law enforcement and pharmaceutical industry corruption on hand and human trafficking and modern slavery on the other hand, calling this a wake-up call would not be an overreach. A fine ensemble cast included Shahid Kapoor as a doped out, potty-mouthed concert rapper, Alia Bhatt as a trafficked migrant worker and Kareena Kapoor as a doctor specializing in substance abuse recovery who moonlights as a gumshoe by teaming up with a cop (Diljit Dosanjh) to unravel a white powder conspiracy.
Tony D’Souza’s loose biopic of Indian cricket great Mohammad Azharuddin, Azhar for short, is set against a backdrop of match-fixing allegations that swept the world of cricket during the last decade. Compared to say, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, the other cricket-connected biopic from this year which re-told a chapter by chapter tracing of its title character with the human aspect thrown in also, Azhar fixating more on the match fixing scandal and its effect on Azhar’s life really perked up the pace and energized the movie. Played by Emraan Hashmi with surprising acuity, Azhar depicts a flawed man more savvy with professional decisions on the pitch then off the pitch. With Nargis Fakhri, Prachi Desai and Lara Dutta in a terrific supporting cast, Azhar was the better cricket-related outing.
Minor rant: Due to tight print deadlines, year end 2016 movies releases that look promising as possible highlights —Aamir Khan fronting director Nitesh Tiwari’s wrestling biopic Dangal, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi with Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt, John Abraham-Sonakshi Sinha in Abhinay Deo’s action-adventure Force 2, Vidya Balan in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2 and Aditya Chopra’s highly anticipated re-entry into directing with Befikre, featuring Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor.
On to 2017. Happy movie going!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.