There is greater realism in Hindi cinema than before, and greater demands are being made of the lovelies who dominate the screens. You know things are changing when even marquee names like Salman Khan are playing characters instead of versions of themselves.
The year’s releases threw up several enduring images: Shah Rukh Khan chasing his shadow in Fan; Aamir Khan crossing his hands over his chest in grim determination in Dangal; Fawad Khan grinning as women swooned over him in Kapoor & Sons; Alia Bhatt clutching a hockey stick in Udta Punjab; Nawazuddin Siddiqui channelling Pran by cupping his fingers over his eyes in Raman Raghav 2.0; Radhika Apte and Tannishtha Chatterjee exploring a tender moment of female solidarity in Parched.
Alia Bhatt is on her way to becoming a bona fide star, if she isn’t one already. The preternaturally gifted actress sheds her rawness and tendency to loudly act out emotions with every new film. She was convincing as a farm labourer who gets embroiled in the drug trade in Udta Punjab, sashayed through the gorgeous girl next door role in Kapoor & Sons, and made heartbreak look easy in the over-scripted Dear Zindagi.
Bhatt is miles ahead of her peers (notably the work-in-progress Shraddha Kapoor), and has youth, spontaneity, sound professional advice and the film industry’s adoration on her side. We can never imagine her in a historical or a hardcore genre production, but if a script demands an intelligent and soulful female character, Bhatt is the best bet among the current crop.
The year passed without a single Deepika Padukone release, while Priyanka Chopra earned more plaudits in America than in India and did herself no favours as a tough female cop in Jai Gangaajal. Kareena Kapoor easily lorded over Arjun Kapoor in the one-note Ki & Ka as an employed woman saddled with a husband who doesn’t want to work. Vidya Balan played the doughty middle-class heroine yet again with polish in Kahaani 2, while Sonam Kapoor threw a surprise in Neerja through a role designed to overcome her dramatic imperfections.
Aishwarya Rai worked far too hard to crash the Best Actress category with an overwrought performance in the biopic Sarbjit, but she was far lovelier as the Urdu poet who hooks up with a younger man in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Very few Indian actresses can play women of mystery, and the still-gorgeous Rai is one of them.
One of 2016’s most memorable performances was by Kirti Kulhari in Pink, the legal drama about sexual assault and consent. Kalki Koechlin matched wits with Naseeruddin Shah in Waiting, while Radhika Apte proved that she is heroine material in the horror film Phobia and the ensemble feminist drama Parched. Will Bollywood dare to cast the not-so-white Apte in a leading role, as Tamil director Pa Ranjith did in Kabali? It is time.
Sport-based films and biopics gave unknown young women a chance to throw a few punches in 2016. Ritika Singh was superb as a talented young pugilist who is trained by a maverick coach in Saala Khadoos. Dangal saw lovely turns by Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar.
In a year marked by strong female performances, Katrina Kaif struggled to make herself count. Her shortcomings were on brutal display in the twin misfires Fitoor and Baar Baar Dekho, and her position as eye candy is being fast overtaken by Jacqueline Fernandez. Kaif has Jagga Jasoos opposite her rumoured ex-boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor in 2017, but the shadows over her career are only getting longer.
The King Khans dominated the conversation in 2016, but there was room for others to shine too. Salman (Sultan) and Aamir (Dangal) had blockbuster years befitting their megastar status. In Dangal, Aamir Khan delivered one of his career’s most polished performances as the Father of All Fathers, pushing his daughters to break stereotypes about gender and wrestling and win glory for India.
The most interesting of the Khans remained Shah Rukh Khan, who easily earned the Comeback Kid title. Fan, in which he played the double role of a movie star and his deranged devotee, didn’t quite pan out as expected. The movie bit off more than it could chew, but at least it had Khan in a space that didn’t require him to throw his arms wide open or dimple furiously.
Khan also featured in an extended cameo in Dear Zindagi, in which his careworn charm matched Alia Bhatt’s youthful insouciance. Khan’s sizable female following went goggle-eyed over his age-befitting facial fuzz, and the seasoned romantic hero proved that he could shed the mannerisms and tics that have made him the target of satire.
But none of the Khans had as fulfilling a year as Akshay Kumar. The dependable, super-fit and likable leading man kicked off the year in style with Airlift, lifted the box office with the madcap ensemble comedy Housefull 3, and managed to make a mediocre crime thriller like Rustom work. Kumar also had one of the year’s best cameos in Dishoom, in which he played a campy playboy who helps a mismatched pair of police officers track a kidnapper only after he has examined the goods.
The year also belonged to another veteran who shows no signs of fading away, much to the chagrin of his peers and his actor son. Filmmakers have found a novel way to extend Amitabh Bachchan’s 1970s Angry Young Man image and re-imagine him as an Angry Old Man. After playing the noble patriarch with the erect back and the authoritative baritone for years, Bachchan appeared in 2016 as a crumpled, crushed senior citizen who retained the desire to deliver justice. In Wazir, Te3n, and Pink, Bachchan played iterations of a Harry Brown type of aging urban vigilante.
Among the other stars, Shahid Kapoor proved to be the ace in the pack in Udta Punjab. Alia Bhatt won most of the plaudits for Abhishek Chaubey’s movie, but Kapoor’s rapper Tommy’s rock star antics and love of cocaine gave the movie much-needed manic energy and humour.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s studious performance was among the highlights of the biopic-turned-hagiography MS Dhoni The Untold Story. Rajput poured his heart into the role of the former Indian cricket team captain, and it showed in every scene.
One of the least mannered and most memorable performances was by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raman Raghav 2.0. Playing a psychopath all too convincingly in an otherwise pedestrian film, Siddiqui established yet again that he is among the most exciting actors of his generation. He also appeared as an underdog who masters golf in Freaky Ali, but it is his shenanigans in Raman Raghav 2.0 that will stand the test of time.
Sidharth Malhotra proved that he is Dharma Productions’ go-to-man for roles that require an actor to stand around looking winsome, boyish and a bit lost. It’s debatable whether Malhotra has a career outside Dharma, but he fits snugly within the universe of the banner’s films. He was perfectly cast in Kapoor & Sons, and managed to survive the mess that was Baar Baar Dekho.
Kapoor & Sons was stolen by the only Khan who mattered in 2016. Men and women alike bid farewell to the Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, whose deep eyes and slow-burn sex appeal are matched by impressive acting abilities. A frivolous reading of the ban on Pakistani artists in 2016 is that somebody in the industry wanted to kill Fawad Khan’s career really badly. Bollywood heroes can heave a sigh of relief, while fans can go back to trawling YouTube or the Dawn website for updates on his acting and singing assignments.
The industry’s favourite Kapoor had a respectable year. Recovering from under-performing films and tabloid scrutiny after an alleged break-up with Katrina Kaif, Ranbir Kapoor was the soul of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. He has played the role of the permanent resident of Heartbreak Hotel before, but why not when he does it so well?
Melancholy comes easily to the brooding Kapoor, and it was left to Ranveer Singh to remind us that men can have fun too. Singh pushed his body to the forefront of his performance in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ramleela (2013), and he was called upon to do a repeat in Befikre. If Kapoor was the dark heart of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Singh was the sunny core of Befikire, happily exposing his body and some of his soul for the romcom and even letting himself become the subject of memes by wearing very small Playboy briefs and dropping them for a scene. He is having fun, and it is infectious.
Numerous second-generation star kids continued to enjoy the fruits of nepotism and entitlement, reminding audiences that as long as you have a famous surname and a half-way photogenic face, you will be ushered into the Bollywood club without any questions asked. Exhibit A: Harshvardhan Kapoor, whose much-vaunted talent remains hidden behind moody posturing. The Mirzya debacle had the potential to derail the career of Anil Kapoor’s son even before it took off, but Bollywood has a way of rescuing its own.
The more hard-working star son was the unpretentious Tiger Shroff, who is threatening to put stunt doubles out of business. He is unlikely to win in the Best Actor category in the conceivable future, but he certainly puts on a fabulous Bruce Lee impersonation. Shroff’s martial arts skills, which are enhanced by multiple camera angles, slow motion and replays, boosted Baaghi considerably and even made the horribly tacky A Flying Jatt tolerable. Just don’t give Tiger Shroff too much dialogue, let those sharp facial muscles be, and he will do just fine.