Using top stars intelligently can result in films that make you think.
Stills from Darlings, An Action Hero, RK/Rkay and Vikram Vedha. Collage: The Wire
The relationship between Bollywood filmmakers and their audiences looks less like the one between artists and patrons and more like the one between rulers and subjects. Film after film, year after year, has revealed their condescension towards the audience. Their stories mollycoddle us as if we’ve marshmallows for brains; the superstars regurgitate the same old shtick, expecting nothing but blind adulation; many blockbusters don’t even try. Bollywood has pulled this scam for long because its audiences haven’t fought back hard – or enough – locked in a relationship that can only be described as Stockholm Syndrome at 24 frames per second.
But something remarkable happened this year. The subjects made the rulers panic. Stuck in their homes over the last two years – exposed to excellent regional and international films and web series – the audiences realised the power they had all along: to choose. Or snub. Just read this list: Jayeshbhai Jordaar, Dhaakad, Shamshera, Samrat Prithviraj, Raksha Bandhan, Laal Singh Chaddha, Liger, Goodbye, Ram Setu, Cirkus – all big films, all box-office disasters.
Only five Hindi movies – including the state-endorsed The Kashmir Files and the mega-budgeted Brahmāstra – managed to enter the ‘Rs 100 crore club’. But even those films had enough detractors. Drishyam 2, which earned over Rs 200 crore, was the remake of a Malayalam hit. Bollywood audiences haven’t shown such sustained resistance in a long, long time. Will it last? I doubt it (though I hope it does). The year-end, however, is a good time to remind ourselves that lotuses do bloom in the Bollywood mud, comprising directors that respect their audiences and craft, producing movies that delight, question, and challenge us. Here are my favourites Hindi movies from this year.
10) Dobaara: While watching most films, we’re subconsciously unknotting the question: What is this film about? But Anurag Kashyap’s latest, inspired by the script of the Spanish thriller Mirage, jolts us to consider: What is this film about? Pivoted on three different timelines – each featuring the same vital scene (a child, a TV, a choice) – the thriller powers ahead with relentless pace, arresting disorientations, and unbound intrigue. Forever lunging ahead of the audience, Dobaara’s arrow-minded approach doesn’t dampen but heightens intrigue, making the audience invested participants.
But what’s most surprising – and wonderful – about the movie is what it’s about. Unlike its mind-bending tone, it hides in its core a very different piece: a quiet film, a warm film, a shy film. A deep contemplation on the powers of second chance and destiny, a long slow wait for a comforting world, and mutating saviours and survivors, Dobaara stings your head but caresses your heart.
9) Jhund: When was the last time you saw a character played by Amitabh Bachchan amble in a decrepit gully, looking lost, where an old woman confuses him further, asking, “Maal [weed]?” Or a superstar folding hands in front of a B.R. Ambedkar statue? Nagraj Manjule uses Bachchan’s star wattage to tell a compelling – and a long-due – story of leaping class and caste walls, conquering numerous life-like obstacles, and rewriting a pre-destined story to include the self-determination chapter.
A sharp spin on the traditional sports drama – centred on an endearing bond between a football coach (Bachchan) and a dozen Dalit boys (all debutants) – Jhund showers an empathetic light on the ‘hidden’ world: It sees the wayward Dalit boys, who steal and fight and smoke up, not as criminals but victims; depicts their unending struggles to not win but participate; dismantles the misleading perception that considers marginalised people uncouth and unclean – and questions the very meaning of a ‘nation’ where countless citizens struggle for basic dignity.
8) Gehraiyaan: If the two main characters of Shakun Batra’s drama, Alisha (Deepika Padukone) and Zain (Sidhant Chaturvedi), had written their memoirs, they could have settled for the same title: Past Imperfect, Present Discontinuous. Because their fractured pasts – featuring dead mothers, dead promises, dead ends – have reduced them to Ferris wheel personifications: Whether they sink or soar, make mistakes or amends, their past traumas don’t let them move ahead. Both Zain and Alisha are constantly sucked into the very shadows they crave to escape – repeating the mistakes of their parents – compelled to weaponise their self-preservation.
A romantic drama filtered through a dysfunctional family’s lens, Batra ‘gets’ the modern Indian romance. It’s evident in the way his characters negotiate desire, guilt, and confusion; vacillate from lust to love to cruelty; use coping mechanisms shaped by class, gender, and history. Equally important, Gehraiyaan’s visual language carries a memorable seductive whiff – a rarity for Hindi cinema – that convinces us why its characters find it so hard to break the spell; why they keep returning for another hit; and why that hit, mirroring their brittle and disoriented selves, feels inherently inadequate.
7) Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon: Anamika Haksar’s drama demands attention both for what it features and what it doesn’t. It depicts Old Delhi’s cramped bylanes and majestic monuments, explores the dreams of “pick pockets, domestic workers, loaders, and street vendors”, paying a warm and (absurdly) funny tribute to the place’s syncretism, contradictions, and working-class spirit. It, however, does not have the markers of a conventional story or curated ‘beauty’ – or filtered reality comforting its target audience – making it an egalitarian and challenging joyride.
Much like its central character Old Delhi, Haksar’s film is a heady overloaded concoction: unexpected animation, determined rebellion, dreams as revenge, dreams of revenge, biting humour, enjoyable cons – and much more. Its soul almost feels journalistic – Haksar interviewed many locals during her research and weaved their answers into the movie – and its themes ever-pertinent, especially during the Hindutva onslaught. An excellent exemplification of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, it contains a line that lives inside my head. Towards the end, the pickpocket protagonist is asked, “What will you do if you get Aladdin ka Chirag?” He replies, “Main phaila dunga [I’ll spread it].”
6) Jalsa: A conscientious journalist, Maya (Vidya Balan), her long-time cook, Ruksana (Shefali Shah), and a horrifying accident – Maya’s car running over Ruksana’s daughter. Director Suresh Triveni uses this inciting incident, not as a springboard for a simple thriller – will Maya get caught? – but a complex drama that interrogates the dominant perceptions furthered by mainstream Bollywood: rich, virtuous; poor, criminal; and the crime and the punishment malleable, hinged on the perpetrator and victim’s class.
Jalsa isn’t the kind of movie that relies on charged confrontations, flowing monologues, or a shocking reveal. Because this isn’t an ‘outward’ drama – providing adrenaline rush, entertaining and making us comfortable – but inwards, questioning the characters’ (and the audiences’) latent beliefs and assumptions, showing the vast chasm between intent and actions, crime and consequence. It largely remains restrained and muted, even in its final moments – culminating in the best Hindi film climax this year – where the implication screams: Swap your world with mine, even for half a day, and live each second like an hour.
5) Doctor G: ‘Nice’ Indian men, who prefer propriety over vulnerability, are often fond of two lies in a romantic context: They say the first one (“you’re not like other girls”) and internalise the second (“I’m progressive unlike <insert a flawed man, whether famous or regular, real or fictional>”). The latter produces a subtle tension common to many Hindi dramas: the director seems unaware that her hero is, in fact, a villain. Not Anubhuti Kashyap. Because her directorial debut, Doctor G, presents an ostensibly liberal doctor, Uday (Ayushmann Khurrana), who, we soon find out, is anything but liberal.
An entertaining comedy, it spreads a wide net of social commentary: gender-segregated professions, traditional masculinity as a prison, education reinforcing social hierarchy, the charms of personal reinvention – and, subverting a common Bollywood trope, the idea that a hero and a heroine can just be friends. Even as the film exposes Uday’s hypocrisies, it remains fair to him, producing a nuanced portrait of an urban educated man who must learn to listen.
4) Vikram Vedha: Three questions, three stories – each drenched in a moral conundrum – that prod us to consider an old question that never gets old: Who is good, and who is evil, the cop (Saif Ali Khan) or the gangster (Hrithik Roshan)? Remaking their 2017 Tamil drama, directors Gayathri-Pushkar unleash the dizzying and dazzling powers of masala moviemaking. A thriller telling a dense and intriguing story, tripping on quirks, dripping with style.
Topped by Roshan’s unceasing brilliance – a charming, effortless, and bewitching performance – that elicits a thrill so pure, so charged, so ravenous that it alone makes for a complete, satisfying film. But Vikram Vedha is of course much more. A truly Indian movie, it adapts the Vikram Betal fable with verve and dynamism. It teases, surprises, shocks, resisting the temptation to explain or moralise, showing that commercial cinema and smart filmmaking aren’t mutually exclusive, scaling an elusive peak: entertaining and respecting the audience.
3) Darlings: Badru (Alia Bhatt) doesn’t want the world for herself. Because her husband, Hamza (Vijay Raaz), is her world. A homemaker, she envisions a simple and content life with him. Every night, Badru waits for Hamza to come home; every night, he staggers in drunk. Badru cooks for him; he slaps her. He apologises the next morning. This process repeats like a callous code: nights, a drunk Hamza, bone-chilling abuse; mornings, a remorseful Hamza, tender apology. Badru pleads with and coaxes him to stop drinking: He agrees, then reneges on his promise, and then, more alcohol, more violence, no more apology.
But around the halfway mark, Badru – and consequently this film – changes, believing Hamza will not change. Jasmeet Reen’s Darlings explores domestic abuse in exacting detail, but it’s sharp enough to understand what makes the survivors stay: the inability to distinguish abuse from love. It’s also assured enough to juggle multiple tones – sorrow, despair, hope; vengeance, thrill, comedy — complementing a pair that complements each other: Bhatt and Shefali Shah (who, so deserving of her dream run, features in three films on this list). Unsparing and empathetic, it’s a drama whose essence finds an endearing expression in Badru’s unique linguistic maximalism: “respects”.
2) An Action Hero: A Bollywood actor, Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana), faces a crushing possibility after a hit-and-run case: that he, like many regular people, will have to face the consequences of his action. But he’s a star – an action hero – so he does what he wants and gets what he hopes: an easy escape to London. After him, however, is Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), a local politician whose brother died in the accident – and TV anchors as murderous as the villain.
But nearly nothing can prepare you for what follows. Because every time you expect the film to go right, it turns left, as if mocking anticipation. What emerges over its crisp 130 minutes runtime – springing surprises right till the end – is a complicated commentary on stardom, media, and stars. It’s darker than it appears; it’s deeper than it admits. When Bollywood films look at the industry, they usually do it via excessive nostalgia, indulgence and self-congratulation. But Anirudh Iyer’s movie probes the heady mindset of people who play life in a ‘cheat code’ mode – regular rules don’t apply to them – and, in true cinematic fashion, they always get one more chance to perfect the shot, justifying their image, their story, their destiny: unfettered invincibility.
1) RK/RKay: A character, Mahboob Alam (Rajat Kapoor), disappears from the rushes and the negative of a film made by filmmaker RK (Kapoor). But this already nutty premise – producing delicious comedy – does a keg stand when Mahboob returns… in real life. And unlike his last avatar, this Mahboob doesn’t want to die in the climax but live: a character wants to be a person.
Kapoor’s film is so well written, so impeccably performed, that it accomplishes a rare feat: Its scenes function as themes. RK wants to be Mahboob – gentle, funny, romantic – but when he encounters his suppressed version in real life, the director hates him with a ferocity that resembles self-loathing.
This unique tussle between a writer and his character produces a spellbinding effect, unspooling compelling themes: the multiplicity of identity, the oxymoronic free will, the porous walls between the real and fictional, the artistic ownership, the tyrannical control, and the portrait of a writer so defeated that even his character bullies him. But despite its cerebral preoccupations, RK/RKay is a romantic film – deep in love with the idea of a writer, a director, a creator – which masterfully depicts the liberations and suffocations of storytelling itself.