2017 has been a mixed bag for the Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood*. It has been a year in which mainstream filmmakers persistently took the audience’s intellect lightly – and sadly, were rewarded for it at the box office – but it has also been a year in which the exhibition sector gave more space than usual to small independent films that warmed our hearts with their thematic courage and brilliance. My pick of 2017’s best Bollywood films released in theatres is dominated by little indies.
* (For a note about the use of the term Bollywood in this article, and the parameters on which this list is based, scroll to the bottom.)
BEST BOLLYWOOD FILMS:
If Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas were not already familiar faces, it would have been easy to imagine that Ribbon is a reality show about their own lives. So natural is the narrative style and acting in director Rakhee Sandilya’s debut film that it feels like a home video of about half a decade in the lives of its protagonists. This is an acutely observed take on what being together entails through a fly-on-the-wall portrayal of a middle-class, upwardly mobile couple who go from being in a live-in relationship to marriage to parenthood.
Sandilya’s social conscience is evident in the film though she judiciously chooses not to wear it on her sleeve. As new voices go, she is the big find of 2017 and her Ribbon a worthy successor to the middle-of-the-road cinema once epitomised by legends like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee and Sai Paranjpye.
First runner-up: Newton (Hindi with some Gondi dialogues)
Amit V. Masurkar’s Newton distinguishes itself with its clever use of humour in a depressing setting and the multiple political statements it makes on issues Bollywood rarely bothers with. This story of a conscientious government official assigned to election duty in a remote Chhattisgarh forest is that rare Bollywood venture set in tribal India, rarer still because it is not a weepie and is highly entertaining despite its serious subject. Rajkummar Rao as the polling official in the lead delivers a flawless performance as does the underrated Anjali Patil as an educated tribal girl assigned to his team. The scene-stealer of the cast though is Pankaj Tripathi as a cynical local policeman.
Newton is the sort of film that extracts the maximum out of every single shot, every moment, every frame, every spoken word and every silence. It is a work of deceptive simplicity and unpretentious genius.
Second runner-up: Mukti Bhawan
Who would have thought that the story of an old man counting down to his death in the company of his child in the holy city of Varanasi could result in a film that is equal parts laughter and tears? Yet that is what director Shubhashish Bhutiani delivers with the tender warmth of his Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) in which Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain play Daya and Rajiv, a father and son whose perennial squabbles mask their deep affection for each other. If you have known the loss of a parent, this film will certainly speak to you, but even for those who have not experienced that life-altering sorrow, Mukti Bhawan raises questions about mortality and what it means to have a (beloved) parent around even when s/he is convinced that their time is up. The film’s vehicle is Hindu spiritualism, its theme universal.
Through the eyes of cinematographers Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler, we get to see an unexoticised Varanasi, sans touristy sights and sounds. There is a shot towards the end of Mukti Bhawan in which Rajiv’s face crumbles as he struggles to control his emotions. For that moment alone Mukti Bhawan is worth a watch. For its understanding of life, death and the relationships that come in between, it is unmissable.
Third runner-up: Anaarkali of Aarah
Every throbbing song, pulsating tune and exuberant dance move in Anaarkali of Aarah brims with the strength of its heroine, a stage performer in small-town Bihar who fights back when an influential man molests her in full public view. Writer-director Avinash Das’ film gives us an extreme close-up of how patriarchy closes ranks to protect its own, especially when its victim inhabits the margins of society. Das’ achievement is that despite Anaarkali’s overt messaging, it is not preachy and, in fact, is perhaps the most fun, conventionally commercial package among 2017’s best cinematic works, filled with naach-gaana, dialoguebaazi – if you wish to see it as such – and headlined by Swara Bhasker’s superlative performance as the titular character.
The film is brave for being unapologetic about its feminism, in a world more comfortable around women who camouflage their rights-consciousness with populist remarks such as “I am not a feminist, I only believe in equality”, whatever that means. Unlike the no-doubt laudable Pink last year, this time the reins of the battle are completely in the hands of the woman protagonist who tops the films many wolf-whistle-worthy lines with this one she spits out at her attacker: “Randi ho, randi se thhoda kam ho ya biwi ho, aainda marzi poochh kar haath lagaaiyega” (Whether a woman is your wife, a prostitute or one step below a prostitute, in future ask what she wants before you touch her). Seetiyaan, and a big thank you, dear Swara Bhasker and Avinash Das.
5: Tu Hai Mera Sunday
Milind Dhaimade’s Tu Hai Mera Sunday is just the sort of film that we viewers tend to take for granted. It is so casual in its loveliness that it makes great look easy. On the face of it, this is a story about five men who meet every Sunday to play football and get a break, at least in the case of four of them, from their troubled lives. During the course of the film, each of them has a coming-of-age moment and/or a meltdown. Through their journey of self-discovery, Dhaimade provides us with insights into the joys this world can offer if only we would look hard enough or shrug off our lethargy or take a risk. Without any in-your-face old-style “Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai / hum sab hai bhai-bhai” spoonfeeding, he also offers us a microcosm of Mumbai society in this circle of friends, their friends and families. The all-round stellar performances are led by Barun Sobti whose charming Arjun appears to shuffle his feet through his days now that he has opted out of the corporate rat race and Shahana Goswami whose Kavya he instantly bonds with.
Tu Hai Mera Sunday is so sweet that I wanted to give it a big bear hug. Beyond its breezy, light-hearted veneer though, Dhaimade’s film is a telling commentary on Mumbai, a reminder that some fights are worth fighting, others are not and that we must always, always make time to stop and smell the roses.
6: G Kutta Se (Haryanvi and Hindi)
The gut-wrenching G Kutta Se tells intersecting tales of ‘honour killings’ and the hypocrisy that is intrinsic to patriarchy. Writer-director Rahul Dahiya injects full-blown conviction into his treatment of his profoundly disturbing subject. His efforts here are complemented by his talented cast, which includes the ruggedly handsome model-turned-actor Rajveer Singh and the striking Neha Chauhan who was earlier in Love Sex Aur Dhoka. Considering the theme, violence is inescapable, but though Dahiya provides us with no easy escape, he never closes in on the bloodletting merely to titillate.
With its stark reminder of the prejudice and cruelty human beings are capable of in defence of the status quo, G Kutta Se is a soul-crushing cinematic experience.
7: Lipstick Under My Burkha
Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha is one of the most uplifting films on this list, a saga of four women constantly straining at the straightjacket that a patriarchal, misogynistic society at large and their families in particular have saddled them with. Among other themes, Lipstick is one of the very few Hindi films to deal with marital rape, the sexual yearnings of an older woman, the missteps that could result from innocence bred by gender segregation and the burdens men place on themselves in the quest to socially and economically dominate women.
Female bonding films are uncommon in Bollywood, and this one is gloriously, unabashedly female, while taking a sympathetic view of the better men on its canvas. A bouquet of heart-warming performances includes Ratna Pathak Shah’s tragi-comic elderly businessperson, a widow who finds an escape from her humdrum existence in silly Mills & Boon-type fiction and fantasies about a young man she meets. The portrayal of Shah’s character without condescension is one of the many intricate balances this delightful film strikes.
8: Gurgaon (Hindi with Haryanvi)
Haryana has been the setting for a stream of excellent films from Bollywood in recent years. Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon is about the conservatism behind those swish condominiums and malls, and the appearance of liberalism that many of the city’s denizens adopt. It is about a clash of civilisations that results from unthinking urbanisation and the consequent explosions waiting to happen. The film’s on-point cast is top-lined by Pankaj Tripathi who has delivered a parade of marvelous performances in lead and supporting roles in 2017. His Don Corleone-like godfather figure in Vivek Shah’s intentionally darkly lit frames exemplifies the pulls and pushes that conservatism imposes on its own practitioners.
9: Secret Superstar
Actor-producer Aamir Khan’s eye for compelling stories is in evidence once again in writer-director Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar, in which Khan plays a significant supporting role but does not allow attention to waver at any point from the heroines of this enterprise: a teenaged YouTube singing sensation desperate to break free of a violent father and her mother who is willing to take any beatings so long as she can protect her daughter and son from that cruel man. There are no guns and knives on display in their home but the fear he instils in them is not only almost palpable, it is also terrifying for the viewer.
Zaira Wasim, who debuted just last year in Dangal, proves here that she is fully capable of carrying an entire film on her very young shoulders and gets ample support from Meher Vij as her long-suffering mother. Secret Superstar’s ending may seem too optimistic to some, but it goes well with the overall tone of this film, which is about never giving up in the most trying circumstances. Besides, it is the bearer of one of the most life-affirming through unassuming lines spoken in a Hindi film this year: “Sapne dekhna toh basic hota hai. Itna toh sabko allowed hona chahiye” (Dreaming dreams is a basic minimum that should be allowed to everyone).
10: Kadvi Hawa
Climate change is not a distant calamity waiting to happen, it is in the here and now in director Nila Madhab Panda’s film about an agrarian community coping with a long-running drought. While foregrounding a blind old man who over-compensates for his feeling of helplessness in the face of his family’s troubles, it also makes a point about the oppressed becoming oppressors and vice versa in the struggle for survival. Sanjay Mishra, who is usually wasted in bit parts in mindless comedies, delivers an immersive performance as the old chap in question, while Ranvir Shorey, again usually wasted by commercial Bollywood, is in cracking form as an aggressive bank loan recovery officer.
Interestingly enough, despite the dire circumstances, Kadvi Hawa finds space for laughter without being offensive. Through its very human stories, this film is the most startling reminder to come from Hindi cinema of what awaits us if we play too much longer with planet Earth.
A Death In The Gunj (English, Hindi, Bengali)
Footnote: Since every list must have parameters, here are mine. Some people see Bollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood etc as condescending terms since they are derived from the word Hollywood and thus, in their view, imply that our cinema is a derivative of or subordinate to the American film industry.
I can see where they are coming from, but I use these terms for purely practical reasons, in the case of Bollywood, for instance, to denote the Mumbai-based industry that makes films primarily in Hindi. In the interests of being factually accurate, I am not calling this a list of “best Hindi films” since at least one of them is in Haryanvi and another primarily in English.
This is also the reason why I am not including here Milind Rau’s spine-chilling thriller The House Next Door, the Hindi version of the Tamil film Aval. The House Next Door was not a dubbed version of Aval, it was shot in Hindi, but including it on this list would amount to claiming it as a Bollywood film and ignoring the existence of Kollywood (the Chennai-based industry we have nicknamed Kollywood, which makes films primarily in Tamil), no different from the way so many people based in the north are claiming Baahubali as a Bollywood film as if the Telugu industry, a.k.a. Tollywood, from which it emerged is inconsequential.