Even though Hrithik Roshan long ago proved his mettle at playing underdogs with disabilities (Koi Mil Gaya, Krrish), Guzaarish, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s soaring drama, takes Roshan to a new level, literally. Roshan’s quadriplegic former magician Ethan Mascarenhas contemplates mortality while untangling unresolved feelings for his devoted, silenty-suffering, and very married nurse Sofia (Aishwarya Rai). Set in Goa, the movie even goes as far as giving Ethan a Christ-like persona (the hair, flashbacks to a stage trick where Ethan rises and is suspended in midair above a stupefied audience). Bhansali’s fondness for dark interiors that foreshadow gloom, a gimmick that paid off in Black and Khamoshi: The Musical) prove again his mastery over desi Gothic. With a great soundtrack, courtesy of filmmaker Bhansali himself, the immensely successful previous pairings of Roshan opposite Rai (Dhoom 2 and Jodhaa Akbar) was substantiated again to be an extremely appealing proposition.
2. Peepli [Live]
Freshmen filmmakers Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, with support from producer Aamir Khan, transformed this unpretentious entry into a chronicle of the collision between two emerging Indias—one country forging ahead into the new century without glancing backwards, and the other a sometimes-stumbling agrarian behemoth that threatens to leave behind those who don’t make the income cut. The result is a bawdy black comedy featuring a cast of relative unknowns who gelled together wonderfully. The topic of farmer suicides gets dragged into sharp focus after one family decides to put out one of their own for suicide in order to collect a tidy sum in government assistance for the surviving family members. The race to film the event live by every possible media crew imaginable would be preposterous if it only weren’t so plausible. Bravo to Rizvi and Farooqui for doing so well with their very first film. Speaking of Khan’s current can-do-anything standing in Hindi films and near universal name recognition, be sure to buy tickets for an upcoming event where Khan will walk on water without props.
3. Rakht Charitra
Ramgopal Varma’s congenitally violent re-tracing of real-life events from South Indian regional politics proved to be an incredibly powerful movie. Seldom has this much protracted gore been channeled into one Indian film. Varma’s film, very loosely based on the life of gangster-turned-politican Paritala Ravi (played very well by Vivek Oberoi, with good support from Shatrughan Sinha as the legendary actor/politician N.T. Rama Rao), raised eyebrows in some circles. There were threats of a boycott against theaters screening the film. The first installment was released in October. By press time, the second installment of this two-part work had not been released. No matter, the filmmaker behind such audacious underworld forays as Satya and Sarkar proved again that by focusing on only directing, and leaving the production responsibilities to others, minor celluloid miracles can still happen. Warning: Prepare yourself. Rakht is extremely graphic and highly unsettling.
In a year of sensational directing debuts, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan inexplicably failed to ping on the movie-going radar—which is a downright shame. Motwane’s stunning directorial arrival, with this fantastic movie, became India’s official entry to Cannes for 2010. Watching 21-year old newcomer Rajat Bharmecha dissolve under the skin of the agitated 17-year old Rohan with jaw-dropping precision was a remarkable feat. Kicked out of boarding school where he has spent most of his life, Rohan returns home to live with a cold distant father (Ronit Roy aces his role as Daddy Dearest) and a younger step-brother Rohan never knew of. Using the heavily industrial eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur as a hard-driving backdrop also proved an apt metaphor for the mechanical motions that Rohan’s father insists his two boys live by, often by force. Like Francois Truffault’s 1959 opus The 400 Blows, Udaan also silently celebrates the unbreakable bond between childhood friends while creating a tender, lump-in-your-throat reaffirmation of the universal sanctity of childhood.
5. Karthik Calling Karthik
In yet another commendable debut, Vijay Lalwani directing the underrated Farhan Akhtar was a cause célèbre indeed. The best thrillers, especially techie thrillers, convolute the most ubiquitous gadgets or the most mundane phobias into well-etched life or death psychological scenarios. Lalwani offers up Akhtar in the title role as a painfully average Mumbai office worker who, almost on a whim, buys a new phone for his home. The arrival of the new phone soon takes a macabre turn as Karthik starts getting mysterious phone calls from someone sounding just like, well, Karthik himself. Utilizing simple camera work, Lalwani milks maximum suspense from each ominous call Karthik gets. Accessorized by a repetitive motions that make up Karthik’s daily routine—a flashing neon street sign that blinks at what seems like precisely timed intervals, the daily teasing Karthik is subjected to in the office—Lalwani succeeds in drawing the viewer into ever smaller concentric circles that make up Karthik’s relentless claustrophobia. Karthik was a call well worth taking.
Prakash Jha’s movies put to task topical, sometimes political themes. His 2003 entry Apaharan dwelled on institutionalized political kidnappings in Bihar. With Rajneeti, Jha invoked the time-tested outline of the Hindu epic Mahabharata to devise a politically-charged contemporary drama. With an all-star cast featuring Ajay Devgn, Nana Patekar, Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, Rajneeti was not without its detractors. Indian censors initially refused to grant a screening license on grounds that Kaif’s role as a widow resembled the life of current Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi too closely. Undeterred, Jha went ahead with the release after making minor edits. Even though the story is too messy to sort out all at once, the best news is the acting by Devgn and Kaif. Concluding with a drawn out, nihilistic ending that remains true to the story’s source material, Jha’s work took in huge box office hauls just about everywhere it was screened.
Director Priyadarshan intelligently packages a crime thriller plotline that borrows liberally from contemporary headlines about so-called “honor killings.” While the root premise follows the 1988 Hollywood entry Mississippi Burning, Aakrosh translates well into an Indian context, especially by focusing on the specter of lingering feudalism in parts of rural India. Smartly filmed in the former Portugese colony of Diu off of the Gujarat coast, in addition to providing a first rate good-cop/bad-cop playoff between the two male leads (played by Ajay Devgn and Akshaye Khanna), Aakrosh also ropes in one of the vilest villains in recent film memory. Paresh Rawal, as the head village constable Ajatashatru, is an unmitigated bigot with sharp derogatory verbal barbs that perfectly caricature both religious and caste-based prejudices. Like a ready-to-strike snake who sneaks under the lowest of rodent-control fences, he outsmarts almost every trap set for him. Even with a borrowed thematic outline, this re-dressing works as it was meant to.
Tongue-in-cheek about every stereotype about policemen in rural India(down to the Ray Ban sunglasses), this Salman Khan vehicle kept punching away. Co-starring newcomer Sonakshi Sinha (the daughter of veteran actor Shatrughan Sinha), Dabangg unleashed a series of shrewdly and sometimes crudely staged cops-and-robbers chases, on foot and sometimes on rooftops, all shouldered by Salman Khan’s latent comical talents. The popular Dabangg soundtrack, offering up tunes by Sajid-Wajid and Lalit Pandit, also exemplified the strong resurgence of Sufi influences in cinematic music. Sinha stands her own ground opposite Salman Khan, with decent help from both Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia. With a nearly $50 million worldwide gross, Dabangg became the second highest Hindi language movie of all time, behind only the 2009 release 3 Idiots. Lest this highly successful formula for box-office alchemy gets lost in the shuffle, Dabangg 2 is already in the works.
9. Jhootha Hi Sahi
After the highly successful Dostana, which will soon have a Dostana 2 progeny, John Abraham has the distinction of being a heartthrob for both straight and gay audiences. Even without a drop-trouser moment, Abraham has the gay-friendly bromance thing down to a science. Though not as overtly gay-centric as Dostana, Jhootha Hi Sahi is an approachable romantic comedy. Abraham plays Siddharth, a spectacled, sweater-wearing bookseller in London, whose uninteresting romantic life gets a freakish turn when his cell phone number inadvertently gets crossed with a suicide hot line number. Siddharth’s friends form a free-spirited band of Gen-X hatchlings that includes characters from India, Pakistan, and even Japan. Refreshingly, the script does not shy away from tossing in all-male couplings from the romantic goings on. With the casting of Pakhi as the female lead, director Abbas Tyrewalla’s film became the rare big budget Hindi movie where the female lead is also the story writer. Zooming in on London in a playful party mood and one or two catchy tunes from an A.R. Rahman score, Jhootha Hi Sahi may serve well at your next party event.
Appreciable retakes of classics are always a welcome sight. Co-produced by veteran actor Anil Kapoor, Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha has daughter Sonam Kapoor in the title role of a story that re-traces Jane Austen’s Emma. Under the watchful gaze of her well-meaning neighbor (Abhay Deol), and undeterred by her dismally low success rate, 20-something New Delhi spinster Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) embodies a ditzy New Delhi matchmaking socialite who is so busy matching everyone else up and parading around in expensive threads that she utterly misses overtures from her own would-be paramour—and she would not be the first single gal to search high and low while overlooking the handsome stranger right under her nose.
Happy Movie-Going in 2011!
(Editor’s Note: Two movies releasing in December could have made it to the above list: Lagaan Director Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se, a movie based on the Chittagong uprising of 1930, and Farah Khan’s action comedy Tees Mar Khan.)