The best theatrical release of 2016 wasn’t even in Hindi. Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi -language Sairat was a classic star-crossed romance that packed in every mainstream trick in the book, only to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet in the end.
Compared to Sairat, Hindi filmmakers struggled to tell compelling stories that worked from the first frame to the last. The year offered slim pickings without enough meat on them to qualify as all-round treats. Several titles just about qualified for the best-of list, some were above-average performers, while others settled for the bottom of the class.
Pink, directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and allegedly ghost directed by producer Shoojit Sircar, mined intellectually engaging drama out of a potentially unfriendly subject: a courtroom debate about sexual assault and the nature of consent. When a woman refuses a man’s advances after agreeing to have a drink with him, does “no mean no” or is she stringing him along, as women are suspected to do?
The pluses include Ritesh Shah’s muscular writing and the superb performances by the three women who are dragged to court to defend themselves (Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang) and their doughty defence lawyer (Amitabh Bachchan). The minuses were the bouts of preachiness and the suggestion that women need mansplaining to be taken seriously. Yet, Pink was easily one of the most engaging films in a year without too many of them.
Dysfunctional families have long replaced cloyingly happy clans, and at first glance, it appeared that Kapoor & Sons was yet another version of the new normal in Bollywood. But Kapoor & Sons was more than just a chronicle of a family struggling to keep it together. It had incisive writing and lovely performances (especially from Fawad Khan and Rajat Kapoor). There were shortcomings: the movie opened cans of worms but didn’t always resolve the issues that came wriggling out (sibling rivalry, homosexuality) and there were nods to cutesiness (Rishi Kapoor’s bon vivant grandfather). But if there was a worthy successor to Monsoon Wedding, it was this portrait of the unavoidable messiness of family life.
The year was packed with biopics (Azhar, MS Dhoni The Untold Story), but one of the most compelling accounts of heroism was found in an unlikely place. Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh brought to the screen the real-life persecution of homosexual professor Ramchandra Siras, who was forcibly outed in a sting operation in 2010. Journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao) manages to interview the deeply private professor (Manoj Bajpayee), and the film came alive in the interactions between the shy victim and the curious outsider. A superbly performed two-hander, with Rao proving his gargantuan talent with every new project.
It didn’t do anything at the box office, but Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhag Jaayegi was a lovely screwball comedy about restless bride-to-be Happy (Diana Penty) who flees her nuptials, only to land up in the care of a Pakistani political heir in Lahore. The attempts of the gallant heir (played beautifully by Abhay Deol) to unite Happy with her dreamy boyfriend (Ali Fazal) landed just before tensions broke out between India and Pakistan following the attack on an Army camp in Srinagar in September. Aziz effortlessly kept the good humour and the Indo-Pak bonhomie flowing and extracted a delightful performance out of Jimmy Shergill. The movie might just have hit the target if Aziz had cast a female lead who did more than pull faces.
Among the above-average dramas that rounded out the year was Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, the foolproof and emotion-laden biopic of Mahavir Singh Phogat, who proved to the world that his daughters are equal to men on the wrestling mat. By comparison, Ali Abbas Zafar’s wrestling drama Sultan was a far second, but at the very least, the movie showed greater realism and less manipulation than the average Salman Khan starrer.
The January release Airlift, like Sultan and Dangal later in the year, was a drama in which stardom was deployed to convey the trials of ordinary mortals. Raja Menon’s third feature reduced the rescue of Indians trapped in Kuwait after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the county in 1990 to the heroism of a single individual. The largest civilian evacuation in history was actually the result of coordinated efforts by the Ministry of External Affairs, Indian businessmen in Kuwait, and Air India and the Indian Air Force, and there is a better movie than Airlift waiting to be made about Indian team work actually paying off for once.
Despite the star worship, Airlift had other merits: a screenplay filled with tension and tautness, a measured turn by Akshay Kumar, and a reminder that Bollywood is going beyond standard-issue romances and family dramas.
In the vein of Airlift was Neerja, Ram Madhvani’s second feature about the incredibly brave Pan-Am airhostess Neerja Bhanot, who was killed by terrorists during a plane hijack in 1986. The predictable but deftly narrated account featured Sonam Kapoor in her career-best performance, alongside estimable turns by Shabana Azmi as Neerja’s mother and Jim Sarbh as a deliciously menacing terrorist straight out of a 1990s Hollywood hijack film.
Nil Battey Sannata was another tale of female heroism, this time fictional. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut feaurre had its feel-good moments and share of contrivances, but its heart was absolutely in the right place. The story of a maid (Swara Bhaskar) who tries to improve her daughter’s poor performance in mathematics by enrolling in her class as a pupil was pure hankie-bait. Bhaskar put her heart in the role, but teenage actress Ria Shukla gave her a tough contest as the stubborn and self-centred teenager who doesn’t want to study any more.
The small but growing band of female directors welcomed Ruchika Oberoi, who made an impressive debut with Island City, a triptych of stories about the soul-crushing march of technology in the already crushed city of Mumbai. Oberoi’s command over storytelling makes her a director to watch for, and Sylvester Fonseca’s cinematography beautifully captures Mumbai’s various urban spaces, from a corporate farm to a working-class chawl.
One of the year’s surprises was Aditya Chopra’s Befikre. Running in the opposite direction from Chopra’s deeply conservative films, including his blockbuster debut Dilwale Dulhani Le Jayenge, Befikre was a soufflé-light romcom about a bickering couple in Paris who meet, mate, part and are reunited. The welcome lack of inhibition between the leads (the excuse: when in Paris, do as the Parisians do), post-card views of France, admirable cinematography (by Kaname Onoyama), and easy banter (the dialogue was co-written by the talented Sharat Katariya) marked Befikre as a perfectly serviceable romance.
The year had its usual share of disappointments and duds. We have reached the stage when we can assess a film’s prospects by its trailer alone, and the release that does not conform to expectations created by promotional material is rare.
The fate of such films as Fitoor, Azhar, Sarbjit , Mirzya and Baar Baar Dekho were sealed from the earliest set of released images. Fitoor was actually a goner the moment when director Abhishek Kapoor decided to cast Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif in the lead roles and add Tabu to the cast. Tabu was typically good, but she had no competition whatsoever from her frozen-faced leads.
Despite Emraan Hashmi’s exertions, the Mohammed Azharuddin biopic Azhar was a wasted effort. Sarbjit benefitted from a lovely performance by the hard-working Randeep Hooda, but he was betrayed by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya was a mystery. It was neither envisaged epic romance nor contemporary retelling of the Mirza-Sahiban epic, and yet another instance of throwing good money after bad. Ashutosh Gowariker delivered the period piece Mohenjo Daro, which was forgotten faster than a history lesson. Baar Baar Dekho continues to evade comprehension.
Romances littered the landscape in 2016 – we counted numerous hopeful productions with the words love, ishq and pyar in the title, including Direct Ishq, Love Shhuda, Luv U Alia, Beiimaan Love, Ishq Click, Dil Toh Deewana Hai, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Ishq Junoon and, if we are being generous, MSG The Warrior Lion Heart. The best love story? We told you already about Sairaat.
There were sequels too, including the non-starters Raaz Reboot and Tum Bin 2. The hugely expendable Rock On 2 continued filmmaker Farhan Akhtar’s attempt to hardsell himself as a singing star. Ajay Devgn sweated in ice-laden Bulgaria to embellish his brooding stud-lover-saviour image in Shivaay, but except for a few nicely choreographed action sequences, the movie disappeared faster than snow in the first rays of the sun.
Some critical duds made tonnes of money too. The success of such films as Dishoom, Rustom and Shivaay proves that pedestrian films with halfway interesting plots, catchy tunes and star power can convince audiences to reach for their wallets. Some filmmakers worked hard in 2016; others had it easy.