The best (and worst) Bollywood films of 2013
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
This was the year of the mega blockbuster in Bollywood. Box-office records were broken in 2013 as more and more audiences thronged into cinemas. It was also the year that Indian cinema celebrated a century of existence, cementing its place as one of the world’s most prolific film industries — one that thrives on its own audiences and talent, without having to borrow from elsewhere.
As for content, it was a mixed year, with an overriding focus on catering to the lowest common denominator to bring in the money. Films such as “Chennai Express” and “Dhoom 3” proved that, backed by a big star, this formula still works like a charm.
Critics, thankfully, don’t have to go by numbers. Here then, are my picks for the year’s best and worst, in no particular order:
Ranbir Kapoor couldn’t resist the temptation to jump onto the Salman Khan-Akshay Kumar bandwagon to do his version of “Dabanng” and “Rowdy Rathore.” Kapoor picked the director of “Dabanng”, Abhinav Kashyap, and even got his parents on board to ensure a casting coup of sorts. The one thing no one, including the studio producing it, noticed, seemed to be that little thing called the script. The film was riddled with the lowest grade of toilet humour, inane dialogue, and a plot so thin that no one could muster up the enthusiasm to act it out. Kapoor delivered his worst performance so far, and proved that “formula films” don’t always work.
A few days before the release of what director Sajid Khan said would be his biggest hit yet, actor Naseeruddin Shah made a rather caustic comment about the movie. Films that shouldn’t have been made in the first place, he said, were being remade now. But Khan was convinced that his re-telling of K Raghavendra Rao’s campy 1983 film of the same name would create box-office records. The exact opposite happened. “Himmatwala” tanked, highlighting a lack of creativity and originality among many of Bollywood’s film-makers. The belief that a film with a retro theme would evoke nostalgia among audiences was misplaced, and instead reminded them of a time when emancipation of women was unheard of, romance meant dancing to a song with a thousand extras gyrating behind you, and where logic had no place at the movies.
How do you take a movie seriously when, for all intents and purposes, the person making it has stopped taking the art seriously? What is worth pondering over though is how Ram Gopal Varma makes it to the worst film lists every year, and still manages to find funding and actors for his films. Trust Varma to make a sequel that is the polar opposite of the first film, and do it with bravado.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
A film about a national sports hero turns out to be more about fake Indo-Pakistan jingoism, proving that Bollywood doesn’t quite get its sports films, except for the odd “Chak De! India”. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra set out to tell the story of Indian athlete Milkha Singh, but ended up telling a long-winded tale of everything but the sport and the sportsman. There is romance, an evil Pakistani, melodrama, tearful monologue, and even frolicking on Australian beaches with nubile teenagers — all depicted in great detail. Bollywood’s desire to “bollywoodise” even the most unglamorous of stories gets in the way.
Prabhu Dheva’s film could well be the distilled version of the above four movies. It embodies the overriding belief in the industry that the purpose of a film is to rake in money — decency and creativity be damned. Item songs, violence, misogynist jibes — all formed a part of the film, and none of it was even mildly entertaining.
Hansal Mehta’s biopic of lawyer Shahid Azmi is that rare Bollywood film that concentrates on the narrative, focusing on telling what is an innately fascinating story. Azmi, who appeared on behalf of many accused in terror cases, was a victim of the system himself, having been arrested and tried under draconian terror laws. He was acquitted, and spent his life fighting for those who had to undergo the same ordeal. Azmi was shot dead in his office in 2010. Rajkumar Yadav (he has changed his name since to Rajkummar Rao) delivers one of the best performances of the year — depicting Azmi’s earnestness, angst and idealism in a way that brings the character to life.
The content in Vikramaditya Motwane’s “Lootera” isn’t its strongest point (the film-maker admitted later that it was a flawed screenplay), but it is to his credit that he makes even a weak story look heart-achingly beautiful. He also extracts an acting performance from Sonakshi Sinha, whom we saw gyrating to item songs and dancing around trees in her other films. In “Lootera” though, Sinha stole the show, and in spite of the rather unconvincing ending, left you feeling for her character as you left the theatre.
Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” was in the news for the wrong reasons. Hailed at several festivals abroad, Batra’s narrative of an unconventional love story touched all the right chords. He drew on several Mumbai stereotypes, but also characters that won’t seem alien to an outsider — the cranky widower and the pensive housewife. Irrfan Khan and Nirmat Kaur deliver performances of a lifetime. Notwithstanding the Oscar snub, “The Lunchbox” was one of the best films to come out of India this year.
Kai Po Che
Abhishek Kapoor’s re-telling of Chetan Bhagat’s “The 3 Mistakes of my Life” proved that if tweaked right, most books which make for insipid reading can be turned into a good film. Kapoor used the backdrop of troubled times in Gujarat to tell the story of three friends and their coming of age. Sushant Singh Rajput gave a breakout performance in his debut, and Rajkummar Rao was his usual stellar self. Amit Trivedi’s music added an extra dimension, and what we had on our hands was a charming film about friendship in troubled times.
Dibakar Banerjee in “Bombay Talkies”
Of the four films that made up “Bombay Talkies”, an anthology released in the centenary year of Indian cinema, Banerjee’s was the one that stood out. Nawazuddin Siddiqui played Purandar, an unemployed man who gets the chance to play out his celluloid dreams, even if for a second, and thus become a hero in his daughter’s eyes. Banerjee tells the story succinctly, and manages to convey the effect of cinema on ordinary lives in a way none of the other three films could. The last shot of the 30 minute film is something that stays with you long after. Banerjee proves that 30 minutes is more than enough to tell a story effectively — a lesson many film-makers who make three hour “masterpieces’ would do well to learn.
(Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay)