17 January 2016

Bringing out the Bubbly - I

My Mumbai Mirror column on Jan 11, 2016:

2015 was a pretty good year for Indian cinema. Our columnist tots up some of the films that made it so.

Having taken a break for the last week of last year and the first week of this one, I thought I might escape the list-making frenzy that usually grips columnists like me around this time. But even on holiday, I had so many people asking me for recommendations— friends, relatives, even strangers who'd just learnt what I do — that I have succumbed.

So, without further ado, here's the first of my two-part column on my top picks of 2015's film releases. In no particular order:

Dum Laga Ke Haisha -- Sharat Kataria's second feature (after 10 ML Love, his frothy adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream to a bustling shaadi ka ghar) is a small-town family drama of the sort that's on its way to becoming a new Bollywood cliche. But Dum Laga Ke Haisha departs from previous such films in two remarkable ways: one, it's set in 1995, and two, the heroine is a fat girl. 

The first is done superbly: Kataria's surefooted grasp of his milieu is strengthened by Meenal Agarwal's wonderful production design and Anu Malik's nostalgia-inducing music, leading us by the hand into this remembered world of shopkeepers, shakhas and cassette players. The second aspect ends up being less satisfying: debutant Bhumi Pednekar impresses as the cheerful, unselfconscious Sandhya, but the film, like Ayushmann Khurana's Prem Prakash, seems unable to see beyond her size.

Also, Kataria is a little too influenced by mentor Rajat Kapur's marvellous Aankhon Dekhi, often channelling the public bickering and tearful squabbles of that film, and even re-casting prime players like Seema Pahwa and Sanjay Mishra. Despite these issues, though, Dum Laga Ke Haisha remains among the year's most charming films.

Titli -- Kataria also helped debut director Kanu Behl write this rather more alternative family drama. Set in the depressingly anonymous galis of a not quite up-and-coming Delhi ("past the Mother Dairy, behind the nala", says Titli, when asked where he lives), Behl's film is a searing indictment of our familial pieties. As I wrote when the film released in October, "This is the great Indian family turned inside out, revealing not just the ugly seams but the stuffing."

Titli turns violence into something banal - but also unmasks the banality of lower middle class life as its own kind of violence. Behl draws astounding performances from his actors: Shashank Arora as the eponymous Titli, Shivani Raghuvanshi as his reluctant but defiant bride Neelu, Kanu's own father Lalit Behl as Titli's father, and most chilling of all, Ranvir Shorey as Titli's elder brother, a man caught in a web of brutality and despair. A tautly edited portrait of class and criminality, Titli captures the claustrophobia of a society in which dreams seem attainable only for the very few. Behl is a director to watch out for.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns -- Director Anand L. Rai made a lot of people very happy with his return to the repartee-filled world of the Kanpur mohalla, in which the infamous Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranut) had once caused such a stir by choosing the America-returned sweet but boring doctor (Madhavan) over her dashing beau Raja Awasthi (Jimmy Sheirgill). But what really made TWMR sparkle was Rai's decision to inject into this milieu that old Hindi movie staple: a double role. Ranaut topped her own return as the attractive but irresponsible Tanu with a newly minted persona as Datto, a heartmeltingly youthful Haryanvi hockey player who plays no games in real life.

TWMR had many other highlights —fhe return of Deepak Dobriyal, possibly the funniest actor now working in Hindi cinema, as Manu's ridiculous friend Pappi; Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub as the shaatir Rampuria tenant easily reeled in by Tanu's charms; and of course, Sheirgill as the updated Awasthi, having gained a moochh and lost some of his fire, but still able to make his loutish UP man exterior speak of inner depths with the flash of an eye. But the real hero of the film is Himanshu Sharma's script, marrying old-school Hindi movie tropes to a sharply contemporary wit, creating a film that will likely be watched many times over by its fans.

Masaan -- Neeraj Ghaywan's film announces another of the debut filmmakers who made 2015 such a special year for Indian cinema. Set in present-day Banaras, Varun Grover's script weaves together the lives of several people dealing with distressing circumstances into a moving melange. A young woman eager to embark on her sexual adulthood is dealt a nasty blow by a venal hypocritical system; an old man finds himself preying on a child's talents to salvage his own situation; a young man finds unlikely happiness only to have it snatched from him. Most people who watched Masaan found themselves swept up, and moved by its very real struggles. But there have been those who have taken issue with its many coincidences. To me, it seems that the reason Masaan works so well is that it melds a closely observed realist eye with the sort of emotionally satisfying arc that has long given Hindi films their special flavour.

Note: This list is heavily tilted towards cinema in Hindi, with only a couple of exceptions. 

[The rest of my Best of 2015 list appears in the next post]

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