Retrospective: Bollywood and more (2010-2019)

I re-structured this piece multiple times, thinking about ways to wrap my opinions on a myriad movie-related things. I started with Hindi only, but while compiling the ‘best’ list, I realized that most of the movies I loved were non-Hindi. But the ‘other-than-best’ lists, trends and benchmarks are still ‘Hindi’, because that is the only film industry I can claim any right to give unsolicited opinions about.

‘Bhai ka pickchur’

Whatever you want to think about the quality of Hindi movies this decade, one thing you cannot argue upon is Salman’s resurgence as the new super-star. He was always a star, but Dabangg (closely on the heels of Wanted) skyrocketed his value at box office. On his tv show Big Boss, while looking back at his career, he noted that how audience took him from Salman to Sallu to finally the Bhai we know of now.  His movies became event movies. His most hated movies of this decade – Jai Ho, Tubelight and Race 3 – also managed to cruise past 1 crore footfalls. We can all argue about the dull and generic quality of his films throughout this decade, but I wanted to make sure that his super-stardom of this decade is noted. Personally, Jai Ho was my favorite Salman movie, especially for being the most quintessential ‘Salman’ movie, with the extension of his off-screen ‘being human’ persona along with the ‘maar-dhaad-kapda-faad’ action he started with Wanted. And the Suneil Shetty-bringing-a-war-tank-on-the-road moment was the absurdity his movies came to be known for.

‘Dialogue-baazi’

Along with the rise of Salman, dialogue-baazi also made a grand re-entrance with Milan Lutharia’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. The punch-lines started gaining prominence with Dabang, Rowdy Rathore and Dirty Picture. But the most memorable manifestation of this has to be Singham. The sheer repeat-value Singham has is unimaginable. At family/friend gatherings, Singham has become the common denominator for entertainment. Personally, I’m not too big on the dialogue-baazi part unless it is done with some economy. The way Rajat Arora and Milan Lutharia has abused it, I think it’s on the way out.

Beta (β) is cool as ever’

Macho heroes do drive the box-office, but the appeal of beta males is on the rise, especially in the urban/small-town multiplex audience. In a way it started with Saif in Dil Chahta Hai, but it really caught up steam at the fag end of the last decade with Ranbir Kapoor’s turn as the quintessential urban boy in Wake up Sid, head over heels for an elder woman who transforms him into a responsible ‘man’. Though the decade started with Farhan Akhtar in Karthik Calling Karthik playing the under confident lead, it was Imran Khan who made this role his own with Break Ke Baad and Ek Main Aur Ek Tu. Ranbir later reclaimed it with Tamasha and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Tamasha especially very skillfully explores this gender dynamic (The woman falls for an alpha, but then finds out that he is nothing of that sorts). But the most beta (β)award of the decade can be shared by Ayushman in Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu (and Returns).

Woke cinephilia’

All this talk about alpha-beta might have already triggered the ‘woke’ junta. Which brings me to the birth of a whole new level of Hindi film discourse through the lens of progressive politics (read ‘political correctness’). The surprise hit of 2011 ‘Pyaar Ka Punchnama’ made sure that ‘misogyny’ officially entered the hindi film criticism vocab. It was followed by Habib Faisal’s provocative Ishaqzaade in 2012, when Raja Sen showed disdain for the way the heroine ‘was shown her place’. But the watershed moment was Cocktail (also in 2012), when the hero choses a docile and homely woman over the flamboyant and independent one. Woke cinephiles stood up and took objection. The movie was called regressive. The dam had been opened. All reviews and even retrospectives now had an extra layer of progressive values. In this charged atmosphere, came Raanjhna. It made all cinephiles look back at stalking in Hindi cinema. Poor David Dhawan too felt the pressure when Judwa 2 released. All reviews ensured to condemn the butt-slapping hero. But all this pales in comparison to the reception of Kabir Singh. People outraged over and over again. Personally it was an exciting time to read arguments, counters, counter-counters and so on. At one point it became literally political. Kabir Singh became a stand-in for BJP.  If you are supporting Kabir Singh you might be a ‘sanghi’, if you are against, you might be a ‘libtard’. It was a crazy time and a perfect way to bookend this decade.

(Hindi) So Bad it’s Good

This genre is a dying one now. With evolving sensibilities, it’s become impossible to make an outright bad movie that is entertaining. 90s was peak with tons of B-grade stuff with A-list actors like Dharmendra, Mithun, Jackie, Shakti, Gulshan. The 2000s had some classics like Wafaa and Himesh’s films. This decade it was Abbas Mustan (previous A-Listers) who managed to create some hilarious bad films like Players, Race 2 and Machine. The best of the lot being Machine, a launch pad for their (I mean one of theirs’) son Mustafa. True to their reputation they come up with a bizarre anti-hero story (I guess trying to replicate Baazigar success), with plenty of incredulous and hilarious moments. The best moment being in the climax when the justification of the movie’s title is explained by the lead hero – “I don’t have any emotions, I’m just a Machine”.

Special mention: Prince – It’s Showtime, Genius (Anil ‘Gadar’ Sharma’s putramoh)

(Hindi) Unpopular favorites

Many times throughout this decade, I would read abysmal reviews of movies, but would end up liking them (one of them is on my final top 10). For instance, Kill Dill. I know its not a great one, but it was so much fun. It had my favorite Ranveer Singh performance. The genuine innocence and casualness he brings in the performance reminded me of the khans from early 90s. Complete lack of preciousness. Another example, Break Ke Baad, a wonderful pitch-perfect love story with honest gender-dynamics. But the reviews almost trashed it as another ‘I Hate Luv Storys’. But the most surprising one was Akira. This remake of Mouna Guru (Tamil), was a supremely crafted action-drama-thriller with some great scenes and rousing moments. I was stumped by the complete indifference shown by both critics and audience alike.

Special mention: Rahasya (Manish Gupta)

(Hindi) Great movies.. almost!

There are couple of movies which are otherwise perfect, but due to some fundamental disagreements with the approach, I cannot honestly hail them as the best.

Mukkabaaz – What’s not to like in this cracker of a film by Anurag Kashyap. Well.. Vineet Singh writes a Rocky and Anurag converts it into a politically charged and an almost art-house boxing film. Mukkabaaz fails to rise above the politics of the region the movie is set it, unlike Rocky which soared to celebrate human triumph. There are many glimpses of the crowd-pleasing rouser this film could have been. But all the dramatic stand-offs and seeti-maar moments are either muted or rushed past by Kashyap. The need was a lean and mean boxing epic, but what we got was a boxing drama overstuffed with politics. And I cannot forgive him for it, because Vineet Singh, was on his way to become a STAR.

Talvar – This one is unlike any other Hindi movie we’ve seen. A hard-core procedural, enveloping the viewer with information and unraveling the mystery with great precision. But the entire approach to the movie is extremely biased. It doesn’t take an inquiring approach but rather sets out to prove a theory, which I concede it successfully does in a rather intriguing and enjoyable way. By the end of it viewer feels satisfied and in a way superior to all the incompetent people in the system who botched up the case. Thinking back, it just doesn’t feel right.

Decade’s Best

Before I dive into my all India decade’s best, let me just remind you that different people seek different things from their movies. We value different aspects of movies. The aspect I value most is scale and visceral impact. Its not just the big sweeping landscapes or multi-location narrative that gives scale. It can be achieved in variety of ways like stakes (both existential and emotional), narrative over a long period of time or even sweeping character arcs. I always end up picking an epic narrative over an intimate cracker. Movies which reward a theater viewing with a packed audience. I recognize this inherent flaw, and therefore will start with a precursor list of absolute stunning movies but either felt short in scale or didn’t affect me as viscerally as my top 12. But they deserve every right to be called the decade’s best!

Honorable mentions

Ishqiya/Dedh Ishqiya – This double whammy from Abhishek Chaubey is truly original hindi movie-making. I had completely missed the bus with Ishqiya back in 2010, but as I slowly understood the structure and started viewing it from Krishna’s (Vidya Balan) point-of-view, I couldn’t stop raving about it. The follow-up Dedh Ishqiya might not be as dramatically potent, but is a much more delightful movie set in an environment of Nawabs, Begums and Mushairas, romanticizing and spoofing the royalty in equal measure.

Udaan – This story of a teenager set in a motherless household with a father who is more of a bully than a disciplinarian is an extremely visceral experience. It is as much a prison escape movie as a coming-of-age one.

Ugly – Anurag Kashyap’s most focused movie since Black Friday, without his usual indulgences. It is a taut thriller with knockout performances by Ronit Roy and Rahul Bhat

Harishchandrachi factory/Elizabeth Ekadashi – The first one might be my favorite biopic ever. Paresh Mokashi makes a potential idolatry epic into a minor vignette about a cozy family on an adventure. On very similar lines, his follow-up is another joyous adventure with kids teaming up to save a bicycle. Both these films overflow with tremendous goodness in people, which I think is very valuable in the cynical times we live in.

Sundarapandian/Vetrivel – There is something about the craft of these two Tamil village based potboilers. The screenplay and specially the editing is so precise, creating a rhythm unlike any other movie. I wonder if Sasikumar ghost-directs these movies, because both these movies are made by different directors, but still carry the same energy and rhythm.

Dharma Durai/Rekka/Sethupathi – In a way this decade belongs to Mr. Vijay Sethupati, rising from a two-bit appearance in Naan Mahan Alla to the main villain in Sundarapandian and finally becoming a legit leading star (that too with a moniker ‘Makkal Selvan’) in Vikram Vedha. With equal measure indie, rural, a-list, mass movies under his belt, he is discreet as well as prolific. The 3 movies that I selected might raise many eyebrows, but each one is a classically well-made B-movie with Vijay Sethupati adding legitimacy. Where Dharma Durai is the typical rural drama with drunkards and suicides, Rekka is the typical small-town action-drama with goons behind the leading lady, and Sethupati being the most respected of the lot set in a city about cops and gangsters. He is effortlessly relatable in all these 3 milieu. But still the way he breaks into a drunkard dance at a funeral in Dharma Durai remains a clincher for me.

Andhadhun (Sriram Raghavan, 2019) – It does take its basic idea from a short film, but still deserves all the accolades. Especially the first act knocks it out of the park. I still remember sitting through the entire piano-dead-body-disposal scene agape with amazement. The movie takes a darker turn in second half subverting expectations, but it slowly lose its steam as it ventures into black comedy territory. Nonetheless, Sriram Raghavan’s best since Johnny Gaddar.

Here we go….

And here comes my best of the best from 2010-2019. They are mostly listed randomly, except the last one which is closer to my heart than any other movie.

Simha – The film I’ve watched the most (thanks to my wife who loves it too) this decade is Simha. It’s a film that doesn’t need subtitles. Each scene and dialogue is underlined with crazy visual kinetics, making sure it resonates in your body. The over-the-top violence, which is equated with God meting out punishment, is grandly entertaining. And all this is carried by Natasimha Nandamuri Balakrishna’s thundering on-screen avatar. My love for Balayya is difficult to articulate. It goes beyond the so-bad-its-good element. His dancing, overacting, action and angry outbursts, all add up to a unique experience. Josh Hurtado’s letterboxd review of Jai Simha articulates this perfectly. The captain of the ship Boyapati, a true auteur, is the campy version of Rajamouli. He recently took his shtick to crazy extremes in Vinaya Vidheya Rama where the villain is decapitated and his flying head is nabbed by vultures in mid-air.

Natarang – We’ve seen a lot of bright and cheerful follow-your-passion stories, but this one gets to the reality of it, exploring the consequences when a village pehlwan decides to leave his wife and kid to follow his art, also sacrificing his muscular masculinity on the way. Heartbreaking yet rousing. Ajay Atul’s score captures the soul perfectly.

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa – In a way I hate Gautham Menon, mostly because he celebrates banal adolescent fantasies of falling in love, mostly at first sight. But most of the times, it cuts a bit too close for me, to ignore him. The joy I get watching his lead pair fall in love is almost too embarrassing to accept. Here he does make a very interesting love story mainly driven by this almost mythical character Jesse who starts out as an opaque placeholder for the guy to idolize and worship, but then slowly revealed to be a girl-next-door with daddy issues. It is largely the AR Rahman soundtrack that justifies this movie as decade’s best.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns – Kanagan Ranaut’s superstar turn in this movie about confused identities is one for the ages. She makes Datto the hero among two confused souls who resent each other but still can’t leave each other. It’s a full-blooded hindi pickchur with seeti-maar scenes and songs. My thoughts here.

Aurangzeb – Another movie with a double role. Another true hindi pickchur, this time with 70s tropes like ‘good’ gangster, imandaar cop, naajayaz aulad, twins separated at birth et al. It’s an expertly crafted action thriller with killer performances from Rishi Kapoor, Sikander Kher and Prithviraj.

Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2 – Apart from the explosive first 30 mins of Part 1 in the mining fields of Dhanbad, Part 1 left me generally cold with its wandering narrative.  It just felt like a setup for the explosive Part 2, where Nawaz becomes the vengeful Michael Corleone. But for whatever reason, part 2 delivered the bang that was promised, an epic revenge drama spanning over multiple generations. Anurag Kashyap outdoes himself with great use of songs in action set pieces, notably the chase sequence set to ‘Chhi Chha Ledar’ and a desperate escape set to ‘Moora’.

Arjun Reddy – Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s unabashed, untethered and unpretentious exploration of an alpha male’s journey from sublime to destruction to redemption is probably the most debated movie of the decade. General audience loved it, cinephiles were polarized. My thoughts here.

Sairat – Nagraj Manjule gives us a typical Indian love story which encompasses all aspects from heavenly infatuation to societal resistance to elopement to married couple squabbles to finally honor killing. In process he delivers a visceral epic which did shake my general apathy towards ground reality. My thoughts here.

Angamaley Diaries – It is a sensory experience like no other. The sight, the sound, the food. It overloads the viewer with these elements each designed to just leave you with an effect, an impression, coherency be damned. And then for the finale, it decides to just pause and take in all the chaos in a single 12 min immersive and a thrilling take.

Visaranai – A powerful rebuke of the middle-class convenient morality.  Unflinchingly explores the moral landscape of a city. Each one is culpable. None of us is holier than thou.

Jigarthanda/Iraivi – Though vastly different, it both explores how audience sympathy can be precisely shifted around to drive home a larger point. Jigarthanda sees a mafia boss earning grace after suffering terrible humiliation, while a wannabe director turns into a movie mafia after a success. Iraivi on the other hand was best described by Baradwaj Rangan – “ is an unusual feminist film, in the sense that it’s seen entirely through the prism of sympathetic male characters”

Bahubali: The Conclusion – Cinema for the big screen. Epic in every sense. Rajamouli creates his own mythological world and delivers a rousing tale of jealously, betrayal and loyalty in true Telugu hyper-real fashion. Not surprisingly it was the most watched Hindi movie since Gadar, and probably the most watched Indian movie ever. Genuine blockbuster cinema!

and by a mile at least, the best of the decade for me is ….

96 – A thrilling tale of unfulfilled love with nothing but grace from start to finish. The soul-stirring music elevates the movie to dizzying heights. Intimate yet epic!

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