17 January 2016

Bringing out the Bubbly - II

My Mumbai Mirror column for Jan 17, 2016.

Last Monday's column listed 4 of my favourite Indian films from 2015. Here are 6 others to make up my top ten.

Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost -
 The primary premise of Anup Singh's film is a man's desperate desire for a son, and the lengths to which he will go to fulfil it. This memorable plot - about a girl raised as a boy, and what happens when this 'boy' is married off to another girl - shares much with a Vijaydan Detha folktale called 'Dohri Zindagi', which Singh sadly does not credit. But Qissa goes far beyond this, linking the strange, tragic tale of one family with an oblique, haunting vision of the effects of Partition. Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid captures Singh's deliberately dreamlike world of portents and symbols in images of startling beauty. With outstanding turns from Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal and Tilottama Shome, and a stellar Punjabi soundtrack from Madan Gopal Singh, this is one of the year's most unforgettable films. 

NH10 --
 The director-screenwriter team of Navdeep Singh and Sudip Sharma pull off a tremendous feat: creating a nail-biting genre thriller where the horror turns on caste, class and gender dynamics in India today. Anushka Sharma - who also stepped in as co-producer - gives an exhilarating performance as one half of a Gurgaon couple who step out of their upper-middle-class lakshman rekha and find themselves more vulnerable than they could have imagined: as a cop tells Sharma's Meera, where Gurgaon's last mall ends, so does the power of the Constitution. A gruelling but ultimately cathartic cinematic experience, NH10 is unmissable for anyone with an interest in contemporary India. 

Killa - The latest in a growing sub-genre of Marathi cinema which takes a child's-eye view of the world, Avinash Arun's stellar debut is set in a lovely Konkan town dominated by palm-fringed beaches and the ruined fort of the film's title. What Killa does with consummate ease is conjure up both the wonder and the pain that the smallest of experiences can elicit at that age: a gift, a letter, a promise, a visit. It is a coming-of-age narrative full of understated beauty and quietly affecting acting, especially from Archit Deodhar as the eleven year old Chinmay and the always marvellous Amruta Subhash as his mother. 

Hunterrr -- 
Harshvardhan Kulkarni's refreshing debut also draws on the experience of growing up in Maharashtrian small towns, except it's made in Hindi, and allows its young protagonists to be sexual beings. Kulkarni's remembered boyhood world of juvenile pissing contests and morning shows give its rather gray hero Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah, superb) a warmly believable history (though the film does end up with a few too many flashbacks and cinematic sleights of hand). Many slotted Hunterrr as a Masti-type sex comedy, which it is far from. It has its flaws, but it's as hilarious and honest a portrayal as we have of the lustful Indian man we all know. It made me hope that we will soon have a film about the lustful Indian woman we also all know. 

Badlapur --
 Sriram Raghavan's newest noir shares less with his well-loved Johnny Gaddaar than with the almost-a-decade old Ek Haseena Thi. In both Ek Haseena Thi and Badlapur, Raghavan's interest is in the hardening of innocents, and how long people can spend possessed by the idea of vengeance. The other commonality between the two films is the director's continued interest in the experience of prison - as a microcosm of the world at its worst, but also as a refuge from the world. 

But what makes Badlapur really stand out for me as Raghavan's most sophisticated work is how cleverly he subverts our deepest assumptions about good and evil, justice and injustice. And he extracts brilliantly nuanced performances from his actors to this end. Huma Qureishi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui play off each other with such freshness that you can barely remember they have been paired before (in Gangs of Wasseypur 2), while Varun Dhawan's role extends the young actor in several unexpected directions, and yet never stretches him too thin. The minor characters are also a pleasure - I particularly enjoyed watching Ashwini Khalsekar and Radhika Apte. This is deeply satisfying noir - and yet it adds up to much more than the sum of its twists. 

Court -- The courtroom has long been a staple site of Hindi film melodrama, a place where ostensibly legal battles are fought in terms of good and evil. Chaitanya Tamhane, however, follows in the wake of such recent films as Jolly LLB (2013), Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014) and Shahid (2013), which have all pointed to the absurdity of what passes for adjudication in contemporary India. But Jolly LLB and Dekh Tamasha Dekh took the satirical route, while Hansal Mehta's wonderful Shahid - a biopic of the real-life lawyer Shahid Azmi - was searingly realist. Court does something a little more oblique. By taking something that ought to be ridiculous - a folk singer, lok shahir, being charged with abetment to suicide for singing a song - and showing us how the court treats it with perfect seriousness, Court produces an effect more devastating than satire. Tamhane's style - and his entire team, including sound and camera - draws on the documentary filmmaking tradition, producing a superbly crafted fiction that has the observational ring of truth. Judgement is left to us, the viewers. Court announces an indisputably original new voice in Indian filmmaking.

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