(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express.)
There is a scene in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab when the star-crossed characters Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) and The Girl With No Name (Alia Bhatt) cross paths for the first time. Their lives are a mess at the moment and they are both trying to escape. Chaubey situates this scene inside a dilapidated structure. It is all ruins around the two eating them up from all sides and that is where they take shelter and start talking. A complete opposite of meet-cute leads to a special bond that drives the rest of the film. As the din of accusations regarding Udta Punjab’s alleged “inspiration” from Ben Elton’s novel High Society died down almost as soon as they went up, one can only wonder if they followed Jim Jarmusch’s Rule #5 (paraphrased) – “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere. Authenticity is invaluable, originality is nonexistent.” The sour taste of that information notwithstanding, Udta Punjab will remain one of the best films of 2016 for moments such as these.
Looking back, Hindi cinema in 2016 can also be situated among those ruins. More than a fair share of forgettable films with a handful of gems rising up from the cracks. If you know where to look. The year began with a spate of well realized to excellent directors’ films. Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift with one of Akshay Kumar’s underrated performances, Sudha Kongara’s Saala Khadoos that lost something in translation and Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, a film so claustrophobic that you finally began to see Sonam Kapoor the performer. A few weeks later, a veteran performer lifted an already strong film with his entirely original quirks and body language – Manoj Bajpayee as Ramchandra Siras in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh.
Talking of Ramchandra Siras and Neerja Bhanot, it was the year of biopics and films “inspired by true events”. Azhar would qualify as the most revisionist and embarrassing biopic ever made in any part of the world while the very intriguing and landmark Nanavati case found better calling in Bombay Velvet’s song Sylvia than in the botched up Rustom. MS Dhoni – The Untold Story was the hagiography everyone expected but a freakishly entertaining one nonetheless, bolstered by a splendid turn from Sushant Singh Rajput who carried the bat. Aamir Khan was back for his beloved Christmas season with a biopic on the Phogat sisters and Mahavir Singh Phogat in Dangal, that’s setting box office on fire as I type this. A thoroughly engaging film from Nitesh Tiwari with some good ideas in telling a true story loses its way by focusing too much on the father and a forced one note antagonist. That wasn’t the only wrestling film released for a festival week though. There was Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan signaling Eid in 2016 that arrived with a bountiful of heart and a Salman Khan by the bellyful. That’s twice in a row that Khan has managed to somewhat wow his fan base as well as the critics, and the box office as always – to put it mildly – was charitable towards him.
Anurag Kashyap made a film about the dichotomy of terrible people seemingly on either side of the law. Not his best work but far from his worst. Terrible people and how they treat women was a subject of its own in 2016. There were two films that couldn’t treat their very similar subject more differently. There was Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia that dealt with the aftermath of sexual harassment not by way of plot but by way of mood and atmosphere that made for not only a great horror film but one of the best films of 2016. Not to mention the performance of the year from Radhika Apte. The one that dealt with the same subject by way of plot and sermon was Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. It wasn’t great filmmaking but if it could make you nod along for everything it says then everyone wins.
Was it a great year for films on relationships? Karan Johar showed that he has come a long way with some matured writing and direction in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil while Aditya Chopra – in whose debut we saw a boyish Johar – showed with Befikre that he has only deteriorated over his four films. There was Anu Menon’s Waiting, standing tall on lines bordering slice of life, and Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin playing off each other. There were terrible unnecessary sequels from Force 2 to Housefull 3 and an assembly line of Sunny Leone films that could all compete for the worst of 2016.
For the second time, it took Shakun Batra to show Bollywood how to capture the minutiae of strained relationships and the constant push and pull involved in keeping a family together against all odds. Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) might as well be the very best of 2016 with a stellar cast to its credit. The mainstream space did have its fair share of experimentation, most memorable one being Shah Rukh Khan’s bold examination of self, stardom and the fan in Maneesh Sharma’s Fan. While Salman is on his own trip, it is Aamir Khan who is regarded as the Khan who pushes boundaries with his choice of subjects and films. But scratch the surface or perform an autopsy on the package, Aamir Khan’s simplistic politics and safe investments reveal themselves. Even as Dangal is wrongly celebrated for feminism, it is worth noting that less than a decade ago, Shimit Amin and Jaideep Sahni – along with Shah Rukh Khan – gave the more complex, truly feminist sports film in Chak De India. This year, Shah Rukh Khan, after forgettable years of forgettable films, bared himself in Fan, a feat worth remembering and celebrating – for what can be scarier as an artist than putting oneself in front of the mirror. Fan or the unexpected virtue of stardom has everything to make it an unexpected choice for the film of the year.