Monday, 10 September 2012

The best of 2000s Bollywood

The 2000s saw the emergence of a generation of young filmmakers who, empowered by the arrival of a more discerning audience, found takers for a different and more intelligent cinema than had been the norm hitherto. There was no shortage of inane, mindless movies in that decade. Yet, amidst that thrash, Bollywood dished out several movies from a wide variety of genres that desere to be remembered as classics, out of which I have named just 12. This is my tribute to that era.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001): No discussion on Hindi cinema from the 2000s can ever be complete without a reference to Farhan Akhtar's 2001 classic. Dil Chahta Hai is the coming of age story of three young men Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) and Siddharth (Akshay Khanna) in the years immediately after they leave college and come to terms with the realities of the wider world.

DCH, as the movie is popularly known, was in many ways a pathbreaking film in terms of its restrained and highly realistic performances, its portrayal of the bonding between men in their late teens/ early 20s and its highly realistic depiction of characters. Steering clear of tired cliches which were the stock of Hindi movies in the preceding decades, the movie was the predecessor that paved the way for the urbane films that have become commonplace in recent years. Perhaps the most radical departure from tradition was one of the protagonists falling in love with a woman old enough to be his mother- unthinkable until then.

The very depiction of the coming of age of the generation that was born in the late 70s/ early 80s, DCH is easily one of the most popular movies from its era.

Gangaajal (2003): Gangaajal traces the journey of Superintendent of Police Amit Kumar (Ajay Devgan), newly posted to Tezpur district in Bihar. An honest and committed officer, Amit is shocked by the brazen corruption and extortionate methods of the police in his district and sets out to reform the policemen there, only to realise that the roots of the problems lie much deeper. This Prakash Jha film is the tale of an honest man who maintains his integrity and dignity despite battling impossible odds.

Inspired by the Bhagalpur blindings in 1980, Gangajal was a gritty and unsparing protrayal of life in provincial Bihar. I doubt if there have been too many movies which painted such an authentic portrait of 90s/ turn of the century Bihar. Nearly a decade after its release Gangaajal remains one of my favourite political films.

Paanch (2003): Paanch is the story of a group of youngsters in their 20s living a useless and hedonistic existence, who are out to enjoy an easy life without having to work for it. Their lives taken an unexpected turn when a harmless prank intended to provide a shortcut to easy money inadvertantly sends them sliding down a vicious spiral of murder and betrayal.

Paanch brilliantly explored the themes of alienation, greed and ambitions of youngsters in a metropolitan city. Inspired by the Joshi-Abhyankar murders, Paanch was a film noir with  morally bankrupt characters whose actions are motivated by pure greed, a bleak outlook and an unexpected, downbeat ending.

Its a shame that a movie that was revolutionary for its time lies unreleased to this day due to objections from the censor board. Given the kind of violence and profanities used in movies these days, its hard to understand why Paanch still remains stuck in the cans. Despite the passage of a decade since it was filmed, the movie still remains impactful and relevant. A copy of the movie is available on youtube.

Swades (2004): Like the two preceding entries, Swades too is a film inspired by a real life story. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, Swades narrates the journey of a non resident Indian Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), who comes to India in search of his nanny, whom he has not met or spoken to since several years now. Mohan traces her to an obscure village called Charanpur. His brush with the shocking realities of rural India during the course of his stay in the village leaves Mohan deeply shaken up, impelling him to quit his job and return to India where he believes he can make a difference.

Swades was a unprecedented in terms of its treatment of the subject of patriotism. Steering clear of age old cliches, director Ashutosh Gowariker brings the viewer face to face with the harsh realities of rural India without getting over dramatic or spilling over into melodrama. Most importantly, Gowariker managed to stay clear of the crass jingoism that passes for patriotism in Indian movies.

Eight years after its release, Swades is far more relevant today than it was in its own time with thousands of non-resident Indians returning home from the west. It is to my knowledge the only Indian movie to take up the topic of reverse brain drain (a term that did not even exist in 2004). Despite limited success at the box office, Swades remains an iconic film in popular culture.

Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005): Although completed in 2003, Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi saw the light of day in 2005. Its a movie that would have remained just as relevant in 2050. Set in the backdrop of 70s India, this Sudhir Mishra magnum opus traces the journey of its protagonists from the time they pass out of college in 1969 to the late 70s, by which time youthful idealism crumbles in the face of brutal reality.

Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon) is an idealistic youngster drawn towards maoist philosophy, who dreams of being the catalyst  of a social revolution that will see the downtrodden overthrow their oppressors and claim their rightful place in society. Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) is deeply in love with Siddharth, a sentiment which is reciprocated by the later. Unfortunately, his commitment to the revolutionary cause outweighs his love for Geeta. Vikram Malhotra (Shiney Ahuja), a college mate loves Geeta but finds the sentiment unrecquited. Vikram uses

I would have no hesitation in describing Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi as an epic film, which showcases the ideals and aspirations of its protagonists in a period when India was undergoing a massive socio-political transformation. The rise of naxalism, the institutionalism of corruption and the Emergency are superbly interwoven into the narrative, affecting the lives of the protagonists. In many ways, this movie is the story of the generation that was born in the late 40s/ early 50s.

I daresay Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi is a movie that will be remembered long long after its contemporaries will have faded away from memory. Watch it if you want to understand the evolution of north Indian society in the 70s.

Rang De Basanti (2006): Rang De Basanti, or RDB as it popularly referred to is well and truly the story of the awakening of a generation. A British documentary maker who is descended from McKinley, the jailer at Lahore when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged, arrives in India to make a documentary on the legendary revolutionaries using material from her grandfather's diary. Her brush with contemporary India leaves her shocked as she comes across a cynical and apathetic generation that has long come to accept corruption and mediocrity as a way of life and given up all hopes of things ever changing.

The protagonists, a group of youngsters in their 20s, are rudely jolted out of their easy life when corruption claims the life of a dear friend Ajay (R. Madhavan), an air force pilot, who dies in an air crash which happened due to the use of defective parts in his MiG fighter jet. Taking inspiration from Bhagat Singh and co, the protagonists assasinate the defence minister and make a public broadcast of it by taking over a radio station on gun point, before they meet the same fate as their heroes.

Factual inaccuracies apart, Rang De Basanti was one of the most hardhitting movies to have explored the cynicism and decadance of contemporary India. Brilliantly juxtapositioning the stories of Bhagat Singh and company with that of their present day counterparts, RDB truly awakened a generation. Exaggerated and unrealistic as the ending was, it nonetheless anticipated the mass movement against corruption half a decade later.

Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006): Just a few months after RDB came Rajkumar Hirani's follow up to his debut film Munnabhai MBBS, itself a classic. Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi reprised the roles of Munna and Circuit in this movie, which was not a sequel to Hirani's 2003 comedy.

Munnabhai falls in love with RJ Jahnavi (Vidya Balan) but lies to her about his real profession when they first meet. Jahnavi, who is living with her aged grandfather in their beach front house unexpectedly finds herself on the wrong side of the law when an unscrupulous builder Lucky Singh (Boman Irani) sets out to grab their property. Munna, who has delusions of meeting Mahatma Gandhi, sets out to get back Jahnavi's house using Gandhigiri.

Lage Raho is a movie that makes you laugh out loud, occasionally moistens the eye but ultimately, is a celebration of all that is good in human nature. In his now trademark style, Rajkumar Hirani highlighted several problems plaguing contemporary society such as neglect of aging parents, corruption, dishonesty and blind faith, without ever compromising on entertainment.

Lage Raho Munnabhai was easily the most influential movie of its era, explaining Gandhian values and their relevance to contemporary audiences in simple terms without ever getting preachy. Without exaggeration, Lage Raho revived the ideas and memories of a legend India had sadly forgotten.

Johnny Gaddar (2007): Sriram Raghavan's Asphalt Jungle inspired film noir must stand out as easily one of the finest thrillers in the history of Hindi cinema.

Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh on debut), the youngest member of a group of seemingly honest businessmen who carry out unspecified illegal activities behind the scenes, is in love with the wife of one of the senior group members. Desperate to raise quick money so that they can escape abroad to an easy life, Vikram hits upon a plan to double cross his partners and pocket the entire proceeds of a shady deal. The attempt at double cross goes horribly wrong, triggering of a chain of unintended consequences as Vikram sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of crime.

Johnny Gaddar was unprecedented in terms of its treatment of the subject, making the viewer privy to a fact none of the other actors in the drama are aware of. Importantly, it avoids spoonfeeding the audience, leaving much to the viewer's imagination. What makes Johnny Gaddar truly unique is the manner in which it inverts all cliches, making the normally decent Vikram the villain of the piece, while his morally bankrupt partners become innocent victims of his vicious machinations.

Johnny Gaddar can legitimately be described a film noir in terms of the use of lighting effects, plot devices and the downbeat ending. It hard to remember a more intelligent thriller to have emerged from the Hindi film industry.

Manorama Six Feet Under (2007): This movies is perhaps the least known movie in this list. The unconventionally titled MSFU Abhay Deol starrer marked the directorial debut of ad film maker Navdeep Singh. Loosely inspired by Roman Polanski's 1974 classic Chinatown (acknowledged in the course of the movie), Manorama Six Feet Under was a noir whodunit.

The protagonist Satyaveer Randhawa (Abhay Deol) is a junior engineer in the public works department based in a little known provincial town called Lakhot. An unsuccessful writer in his spare time, Satyaveer is approached by the wife of the local MLA to spy on her husband whom she suspects of being disloyal to her, only to discover after completing his assignment is completed, that she is not whom she claims to be. Satyaveer decided to investigate into the matter when his client dies in mysterious circumstances, only to discover that in Lakhot, nothing is what it seems.

Manorama  Six Feet under is one of the most bleak films noir I have ever seen. Its a world where nearly everyone has a dark secret, characters are without exception morally ambiguous, the poor and the weak are destined to be crushed by the weak and powerful. Liberally borrowing from Chinatown, MSFU is nonetheless a very Indian movie, superbly portraying life in a provincial city.

Manorama Six Feet Under is a slow paced, multi-layered movie that is meant more for connoisseurs of cinema. Nearly every frame in the movie can be analysed and discussed for days. Having viewed it six times so far, I can testify that I have developed a better appreciation of the movie with each viewing. There exists an official copy of this movie here on youtube.

A Wednesday (2008): What do you do as Commissioner of Police for Mumbai if you are asked to release deadly terrorists within a few hours, failing which hundreds of innocent people will lose their lives in a series of blasts? That's the dilemma confronting top cop Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher), when an unknown man (Naseeruddin Shah) calls him up one not so fine morning, demanding the release of four deadly terrorists in return for information on the location of bombs.

A Wednesday was a taut, engaging thriller, brilliantly scripted and even better enacted by its ensemble cast. Anupam Kher was brilliant and highly credible as the beleaguered Commissioner, as were Jimmy Shergill and Aamir Bashir in their respective roles as police officers to whom the mission is entrusted. But the star of the show was veteran Naseeruddin Shah as the unknown caller, who conjured up a performance he can be proud of for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, there is little else I can tell you about the movie without letting out a spoiler or two. Suffice it to say that the pace of the movie and the twist ending made it easily one of the best movies of the decade. Unlike most of the movies in this list, A Wednesday was a critical as well as commercial success.

Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! (2008): Dibakar Bannerjee's black comedy was a fitting follow up to his debut effort Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), which I was sorely tempted to include in this list. Narrated in flashback, this Abhay Deol starrer covers the life story of the eponymous character from his childhood to the point where he is arrested for carrying out a series of daring robberies.

Lucky (Abhay Deol) is a young man who commits a series of daring robberies using his courage, confidence and raw wits. Lucky is motivated not so much by greed, as the desire to climb the social ladder. Along the way, he makes friends, falls in love and experiences humanity as well as treachery.

Its hard to describe a multi-layered movie like Oye Lucky. Despite its light tone, its actually a black comedy. Its one of the most scathing indictments of society that I've ever seen. At the end of it, the criminal Lucky emerges the good man while the seemingly normal and respectable people he comes in contact with turn out to be anything but. Watch this movie for incredible performances by Abhay Deol and veteran Paresh Rawal.

Gulaal (2009): Concluding our list is Anurag Kashyap's political thriller Gulaal, which was stuck in the cans for several years. As in the case of his other release from the decade, Black Friday (which I was sorely tempted to include in this list), it proved worth the wait.

Gulaal is the journey of a young man Dilip Singh (Raj Singh Chaudhary), who arrives in the fictional town of Rajpur to study law in the local university. Dilip shares his room with a young man called Rananjay (Abhimanyu Singh), a fellow student, and the only legitimate heir of the ex-ruler of the region. The two young men, whose temperaments are at opposite ends of the spectrum, forge an unusual friendship. Owing to association with Rananjay, Dilip finds himself trapped in the vicious machinations of local politics with Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon) on the one hand, who dreams of forming a breakaway state called Rajputana, and Karan Singh (Aditya Srivastav) on the other. The illegitimate son of the ex-ruler (and as such, a half brother of Rananjay), Karan covets a position at the head of the Rajputana movement purely for the sake of gaining legitimacy in society.

Dilip, who reluctantly agrees to contest for the role of General Secretary, finds himself inadvertantly trapped in the cross hairs between the deadly games being played out by Dukey Bana and Karan. He neither realises nor understands their sinister machinations, with tragic consequences.

Inspired by the song 'yeh duniya' from Guru Dutt's 1957 classic Pyaasa, Gulaal explores the themes of powerplays, quest for legitimacy, injustice and stagnation of society. Its a bleak world in which morality is a rare commodity and there exists no place for the good and the weak. Its a multilayered movie that can be analysed for days. Its a shame that such a magnificent piece of cinema tanked at the box office.

This is but a short list of outstanding movies from the 2000s, some known and some unknown, but all of which deserved to be remembered for ages to come. I would like to make a quick mention of Company (2002),  Haasil (2003), Teen Deewarein (2003), Sehar (2005), Dor (2006), Omkara (2006), Anwar (2007), Black Friday (2007) and Mithya (2007), all of which were inspired works that deserve an honorary mention here. If those movies did not make their way to this list, its only because I made a series of random picks.

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