2017 witnessed an unusual number of sequels (Golmaal Again, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Judwaa 2, Baahubali: The Conclusion) and remakes (Hindi Medium, Ittefaq, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), and judging by the box office returns for many of these projects, more chapters will likely be added in the future. As movies everywhere move towards an entertainment-on-demand objective and the yet elusive goal of being able to see any movie or sporting event anywhere at any time—albeit with a price—the movie theater experience must feature a razzmatazz that cannot be replicated easily in a home theater screen. The crossover appeal of Indian players outside of India continued to rise with Priyanka Chopra’s success in Quantico, Ali Faizal in Victoria and Abdul and Deepika Padukone in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Padukone, who will feature in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, also achieved 20 million Twitter followers, the highest for any Asian woman. A short list of noted movies for the year:
SECRET SUPERSTAR. Filmmaker Aamir Khan’s relatively-small budget entry about a teenager (well-played by Zaira Wasim) with hidden musical talents being suppressed by an abusive father resonated well-beyond the reach of the Cinderella-at-the-ball ethos. The success comes from director Advait Chandan not only keeping the camera focused on the teen whose hidden musical talent plays out online after her music videos showing her behind a burqa go viral, but he also shies away from budget-busting glitzy packaging and avoids show-stopping big dance numbers. As if keeping a burqa-clad online identity secret is not challenging, there may be trouble brewing on the home front with the possibility that her father might discover that his daughter is indeed a virtual sensation. Sparingly, and nicely, supported by Khan as a music promoter that the teenager reaches out to for help, Secret Superstar provided terrific and insightful viewing.
HINDI MEDIUM. Saket Choudhary’s notable film, a remake of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee’s Bengali entry Ramdhanu (2014) and also Rajesh Nair’s Malayalam language comedy Salt Mango Tree (2015), with Irfan Khan and Saba Qamar as parents confounded by the cut-throat competition they encounter when enrolling their four-year old—yes, four-year old—into preschool provided a tremendous satire of modernity creeping into the daily lives in India’s growing economy. With a sharp script that indicts both the lack of connections as well as the lack of English language skills in the parents–and not the child–as hindering what would otherwise be reasonable admissions, Hindi Medium worked equally well as both a well-made movie and also an insightful gaze into the evolution of India’s often highly-regimented education system and the “creative” methods for doling out admissions.
SHUBH MANGAL SAAVDHAN. A delightfully ground-breaking story buzzing with fresh approach, K.S. Prasanna’s Hindi language remake of his own Tamil language Kalayana Samayal Sadham (2013) explored the pitfalls that can booby trap budding relationships. Laying bare the premise—he has erectile dysfunction and she does not care—against a backdrop of pending nuptials and also keeping his condition “secret” from the prying ears of their respective extended families who are busy planning the wedding puts to test a nerdy office worker (Ayushmann Khurrana) and his betrothed (Bhumi Pednekar). Confronting the predicament with wry humor, especially the awkward courtship rituals in the early going, discussing the condition and challenging their notion of masculinity in matter-of-fact terms while facing up to how the erectile dysfunction will impact their relationship made a winning entry.
ITTEFAQ. In a recrafting of Yash Chopra’s Rajesh Khanna-Nanda entry Ittefaq (1969), which in turn was a remake of the Hollywood thriller Signpost to Murder (1965), director Abhay Chopra’s (no relation) surprisingly taut nail-biter put a modern spin on the tested motif. A London-based writer (Siddharth Malhotra) on a book-promotion tour in Mumbai flees after being accused of murder and, either wittingly or unwittingly, is found lurking in an upscale apartment owned by his business associate and his wife (Sonakshi Sinha) and where another dead body turns up. Hounded like a dog by a shrewd gumshoe (Akshaye Khanna)—perplexed by which version of events to believe—whether the writer on the run or the meek housewife is telling the truth provides the filmmaker an array of nifty, mind-tricking camera work. Exploiting all three characters-especially Khanna’s cynical detective—with great finesse, Ittefaq thrilled indeed.
QARIB QARIB SINGLE. Newly landed on the uncharted waters of the singles scene, a not-so-struggling poet (Irfan Khan) and a young widow (Parvathi Thiruvoth) meet online on a dating site. Their oil-to-vinegar outlook on everything from phone etiquette, personal space and even the fundamentals of dating surely means that this pseudo-relationship will end up on the rocks. In the seasoned hands of director Tanuja Chandra, however, Qarib Qarib Single lands on a short list of wonderful one-off dating movies along the likes of Kunal Kohli’s Hum Tum (2004), Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2008) and Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). The marvelous script gets into the intricacies of mood and tonal shifts in their outlook as they set out on a far-flung tour of the sub-continent to inexplicably check in on his former girlfriends.
TUMHARI SULU. When Vidya Balan finds her groove- as she does here—she can perform minor miracles inside of her roles. Her suburban Mumbai housewife Sulochana (Sulu), while attentive to her office worker husband (Manav Kohl) and 11 year-old son (Abhishek Sharma), whittles away the day by entering radio contests. Little does she realize that the trip to the radio station to pick up the kitchen gadget she just won may land her a radio jockey gig on a late night call-in show and offer the chance to peek into unopened windows within herself. With Neha Dhupia as Sulu’s radio station boss, Balan turned in a brilliant role filled with confidence. Directed by Suresh Triveni, Balan genuinely looks like she is having fun channeling a sari-clad homemaker who dares dream that she can have it all.
NAAM SHABANA. Shivam Nair’s prequel to the Akshay Kumar hit entry Baby (2015) proved to be the logical stepping stone for Taapsee Pannu’s rise in the wake of her success with both Baby and especially Pink (2016). Tracing the origin story of Shabana Khan (Pannu) and her rise into the ranks of international espionage as a covert agent assigned to track down the terrorist responsible for killing two Indian spies in eastern Europe was handled with incremental, plausible turns. Keeping the action grounded and again enlisting French action choreographer Cyril Raffaelli to elevate martial arts, and not guns, as the weapon of choice made the self-reliant girl-power theme stick even more. Drawing on support from Manoj Bajpai as Khan’s spy agency handler, Denny Denzongpa as the spy network chief, Anupam Kher as a techie nerd and even Kumar for backup action support, there will likely be more entries in this series.
SACHIN: A BILLION DREAMS. Taken as either a docu-biopic or nostalgia trip down sporting glory memories, James Erskine’s staging of the life story of Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar succeeded by not only etching out Tendulkar’s meteoric rise into cricket stratosphere but it also champions parallels between Tendulkar’s rise and the rise of modern India into global business networks under the stewardship of Rajiv Gandhi. An origin story sometimes told by reenacting scenes from Tendulkar’s suburban Mumbai childhood using age-appropriate actors, Erskine’s outline also throws in raw footage of some of Tendulkar’s greatest scoring feats in the international arena. With an A.R. Rahman score and longish interviews with the Tendulkar himself, A Billion Dreams falls somewhere between docu-dramas based on real life sport start and raw-footage stories that help connect the dots.
BAAHUBALI: THE CONCLUSION. S. S. Rajamouli’s bigger-than-big sequel to his bigger-than-most Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) scored a list of box office superlatives unimagined previously. From the 9,000-screen global rollout to becoming the highest grossing movie in India’s domestic box office history (the highest global box office for an Indian movie is Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016)). Thanks to ticket prices of up to $60 on opening weekend, the chart dominoes melted away like candle wax in an incendiary oven. Even though the cutting-edge filmmaking wizardry that ignited the Baahubali feeding frenzy with the first installment in 2015 died down somewhat in the intervening two years, Baahubali: The Conclusion still roared with sizzling thunderbolts and cosmic battle sequences for a landmark theater experience. It lands on this list because Indian cinema has been transformed by the phenomena.
LUCKNOW CENTRAL. Ranjit Tiwari’s prison caper was reportedly based on the true story of a real-life prison band from Lucknow that—as Lucknow Central is—was made up of death row prisoners given the chance to band together behind prison walls. Led by Farhan Akhtar’s musician who is accused of murder on trumped up charges and landing on death row, there is enough going on in between to make the story gel. Wired only into his music, Akhtar’s model prisoner reluctantly befriends four other prisoners (Deepak Dobriyan, Imaanulhaq) under the watchful and vengeful eyes of a cruel prison warden (Ronit Roy) who is overruled by a local politician (Ravi Kishan). Supported by Diana Penty as a social worker who intervenes on behalf of the band for outside connections and a rousing ensemble musical score, Lucknow Central also features the single most remarkable film artifact of the year: Arriving at the all-male prison, Akhtar’s character, along with prison garb, is unceremoniously also handed a pack of condoms.
On to 2018. Happy movie-going!