SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 23 DECEMBER, 2017
The Year Ends: The Highs and The Lows in Bollywood
“Out-of-the-box” has its day
For the purpose of this article, one would tend to back the term “Bollywood” rather than “Hindi” while trying to explore the hits and misses in Bollywood cinema over 2017. “Hits” and “Misses” too, are rather dicey terms when it comes to listing the names of films that have or have not made it to the box office.
The box office is not necessarily the precise indicator of a good film or a bad or indifferent film, So, this critic decided to pick out the better films on the basis of their excellence in qualitative terms through self-defined indicators such as the out-of-the-box quality of the plot/subject/story, the treatment, approach and style and the geographical setting rather than in quantitative terms which excludes the box office business a given film has made.
A few films like Secret Superstar and Toilet Ek Prem Katha were both box office hits and had solid storylines with well-fleshed-out characters that evolved into a fine blend of entertainment and social agency, if not message. Toilet – Ek Prem Katha is a satirical comedy that backs the governmental campaigns to improve sanitation conditions, with an emphasis on the eradication of open defecation focussing on women in rural areas. It amassed a massive collection at the box office coffers. Toilet is based on the story of Anita Narre from Madhya Pradesh who refused to go back to her husband Shivram's home because the home lacked a toilet.
Secret Superstar is a wonderful entertainer from in which the ‘entertainment’ comes at a price -turning a story of struggle and a mother-daughter bonding strengthened by domestic violence into a modern day fairy tale or rather, a post-modern fairy tale that enmeshes the narrative with every item of melodrama one can imagine. It is “entertainment” in the truest sense of the term that has cleverly incorporated several social agendas into the script authored by debutant director Advait Chandan with domestic violence playing the main role for a major part of the film.
Not-so-big banner films, most of them directed by debutant directors or relatively young filmmakers turned out to be sleeper hits – films that catch on slowly over a few weeks – have been very popular with all strata of audience. Newton, for instance, is one of the best examples of this trend of shooting a film in a very unglamorous backdrop, with lesser known stars who are great actors, and excellent technical support. Newton, the character and the film, reflect ugly and unknown truths that do not raise questions, but point out to some answers that are more shocking than surprising. The film offers the audience a glimpse into the truths of the general “elections” in the world’s largest “democracy.”
The film has been almost entirely shot in the Dandakaranya forests in Chhatisgarh, notorious for the dreaded Maoists / Naxalites of the region also known as part of India’s “Red Corridor.” These are areas populated mainly by adivasis who are victims of the greatest poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation in modern India. Enriched by brilliant performances and outstanding cinematography, Newton is perhaps the best film to hit the screen in 2017.
One surprise package in the name and style of A Death in the Ganj marked the directorial debut of Konkona Sen. Shot entirely in McCluskieganj, A Death in the Ganj is a psychological thriller that involves ordinary people like us, soaked in and enjoying a Westernised way of life, where the women smoke and drink and dance away with their men; where the identity of the ‘victim’ if one can call the person that, is the pivot of suspense the story revolves around.
The film rides on a strongly character-driven story with the script shifting from one character and his/her relationship to the next to zero in on a slightly diffident, eager-to-please Shutu, a young man who tags along with the family for a brief “holiday.” A Death in the Ganj is lyrical in its portrayal of a small town distanced from the madding crowds, yet it conveys a palpable sense of imminence. It involves a constant sense of motion – emotional, psychological and at times, even physical that follows the track towards the unavoidable tragedy in the end.
Anarkali of Arrah directed by Avinash Das turned out to be a real surprise with Swara Bhaskar in the leading role in this entirely woman-dominated script showing the versatility she is capable of. Anaarkali of Arrah is different. In most films and television serials featuring similar dance performances as a small insertion at village shows, including news clips, the girls usually dance to famous Hindi song numbers. In this film, Anaarkali dances with tantalising movements not only to live music, but also to songs composed, set to tune and rehearsed exclusively for such programmes. She sings quite well and her dances are more titillating than aesthetic because that is the band’s prime motive. What happens when the V.C of a local university (Sanjay Mishra) takes a fancy to her and she does not respond to his hints, suggestions and then direct demands, makes for the rest of the story.
Trapped, directed by Vikarmaditya Motwane, belongs to the survival genre of films, a relatively unexplored idea in cinema that relates to stories of people physically challenged to overcome blocks in the way of what could be certain death created by natural or manmade calamities, or, circumstantial situations. The commercial risks in such productions are not very high if the film is technically brilliant. But when there is just a single individual physically facing a no-exit situation for no fault of his or anyone else’s, the stakes are really very high.
Trapped falls within this category, and some more….. Trust Vikramaditya Motwane who made the very off-beat Udaan (2010) followed by that soft, subtle and touching love story Lootera (2013) to take a big leap into the survival genre film that not only takes up a rare genre but also has all the stakes loaded against the possibility of a disaster at the box office.
Rahul Bose’s Poorna unspools the story of Malavath Poorn,a a little girl who had to sweep the compound of the school she went to because (a) she was Dalit and (b) her father could not pay the fees. Her older cousin, Priya (S. Mariya), a gritty girl, eggs Poorna to get on with her life instead of getting trapped in an early marriage. Poorna (Aditi Inamdar), who shifts to a social welfare school, is discovered by IPS officer Pravin Kumar (Rahul Bose) who has quit the Service to look after the Social Welfare Department. On a chance rock-climbing course, Poorna’s talent for mountaineering comes to the fore and everyone backs her to try and climb Mt. Everest.
Poorna is very informative and educational without being too much in the face. We learn things about rock climbing and mountaineering including technical terms like rappelling, bouldering, etc. besides being informed about the health consequences at high altitudes with diminished oxygen. The film subtly underlines other issues such as child marriage and its tragic impact on child-bearing coupled with lack of nutrition of the pregnant girl, corruption in schools for the poor and high incidence of drop-outs leading to closure of many of these schools. “Sometimes, we make choices, sometimes, choices make us” says Pravin Kumar in one climactic scene. That one sentence sums up the message of the film.
Lipstick Under My Burkha produced by Prakash Jha and directed by Alankrita Srivastava is a powerful political statement on how women can strategically use two extremely polarised items of women’s use - the lipstick and the burkha to express and articulate their undiluted sexual desires, irrespective of caste, class, age, community, faith and social status. Therefore, the CBFC dictated by the powers-that-be at the centre were really scared of what impact this film would have on the audience in general and females of all ages in particular.
This film openly and without embarrassment explores not only the woman’s sexuality but also the ingenuous and devious ways women invent to try and fulfil their sexual and other desires clandestinely, using the veil to their advantage and the lipstick for their satisfaction in a way they like to and not because they are forced to.
Ashwini Iyer Tiwari who amazed us with her debut feature Neel Battey Sannata last year, brings one more subtle feminist statement in Bareilly Ki Barfi, said to be the first Bollywood film to have been shot entirely in Bareilly. We now have a gutsy director who is versatile, ready to experiment with the mainstream and the off-mainstream and also make a powerful political statement about girls and women not given the choice to live life their own way.
Bareilly Ki Barfi shows leading ladies as aggressive, smart and bold to try and lead life and make love on their own terms, belying, almost counterpointing the ‘cute and shy’ myth of the small town girl once and for all. The feminist statement is so subtle, that if you do not follow the naughty but open pranks of Bitty, her parents included, you might miss them completely.
Some well-meaning films with a solid cast and crew such as Lucknow Central bit the dust. Hindi Medium that dealt with the obsession of parents to get their kids admitted to high-funda English medium schools came a cropper because of its absurd premise of the lead pair, desperate but rich parents, rent a chawl in a slum to avail of the benefit of admission in the slum reservation category. A melodrama overload and a highly dramatized climax destroyed the message the film aimed to perpetuate. Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya has been a big hit at the box office but this critic did not like it at all.
Piyasree Dasgupta in The Huffington Post (10/03/2017) goes hammer and tongs to attack this film which, in her opinion, celebrates stalking and harassment as if it was just fine. And everyone is clapping and cheering! Opening with the oft-repeated story of a gym-built young man falling for the girl at a wedding as she dances, the film goes all the way to show how determined this boy is to get the girl, he does everything possible for the girl never ever to agree to marry him. But she does! That is how ‘romantic’ the film is!
The “low” of the year however, include some films that became big box office grosser but sadly reflected the decaying morality of the protagonist in the films. These two films are the much-discussed-and-debated Raees from the Shah Rukh Khan stable and Kaabil with Hritwik Roshan as a blind man who can do everything including killing people smoothly and efficiently.While the former is an unabashed and almost embarrassing celebration of diabolic killing acts like smuggling and wholesale business in spurious liquor, the latter justifies the cold-blooded, carefully planned killing of those responsible for his wife’s death and rape by the blind hero who uses his blindness as a weapon for this revenge.
Big banner films like Baadshaho, Begum Jaan, Chef, Rangoon, Naam Shabana, Bhoomi, Haseena, Half Girlfriend and Daddy did not go down well with the masses and one fails to understand why or how this happened. In 2017 moving into 2018, we have and will continue to be flooded with biopics on mafia personalities produced by big banners, directed by biggie directors with big-time actors fleshing out the lead roles of the mafia hero/heroine. Among them is Daddy based on the life of Arun Gawli, king of his mafia gang in Mumbai who then turned politician.
Shraddha Kapoor who has so far played the sweet-grl-in-love-next-door, turned a new page in the title role of Haseena Parkar. Haseena is the sister of Dawood Ibrahim and Kapoor was said to have worked very hard to bring alive the harsh, sharp and fiercely aggressive persona of Haseena on screen. But the film flopped and the critics panned it for the bad acting by Kapoor. The tail-ender film Tumhari Sullu, on a housewife with kids taking on a profession that leads to a revelation of a different dimension of her personality is a hit in some regions but has not done well in others.
The question that arises in the midst of these anti-social films that make a mockery of values our parents taught us on honesty, ethics and industry is – is this moral decay reflective of the moral decay in the world we live in today? Or, does the real world derive both inspiration and justification for violating the principles of good over evil which remains the same across time, place, culture, history and language” Murder is always evil never mind what motivates you to take the life of another human being. Stealing, smuggling, inflicting violence and torture and earning one’s livelihood through devious, illegal and illicit means have always been considered immoral while living a good, simple and honest life has always been perpetuated as the ideal way of living.