Hindi cinema has entered an exciting new phase, leaving big blockbuster films far behind.
This article was first published by The Wire on 31st December, 2018
This was an exciting year for Hindi cinema. Self-assured scripts were written on subjects and films made in ways that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. There was the subversion of genres: horror cinema mocking patriarchy, magic realism in a morality tale, a patriotic film in which the most sympathetic character is a Pakistani and a comedy celebrating middle-aged romance and sex. We watched political cinema asserting the rage of the margins, the intimate exploration of grief and the recalling of Partition in order to speak to the present times.
For me, the best film of the year was Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk. India has never been as divided since after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi as it is today – its Muslim residents forced to live with stigma and fear, subjected to permissive hate speech and the ever-looming threat of hate violence. Large segments of the political establishment, the media, civil society and even cinema, literature and the arts, have chosen to remain silent about the predicament of India’s Muslims in these years of the triumph of Hindutva politics.
In these times, Mulk was a politically and morally significant intimation of empathy with India’s Muslims in their hour of dread and despair. Meryl Streep in her celebrated speech while receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes in January 2017, spoke memorably of cinema as empathy. What makes it an even more special token of empathy and solidarity was that everyone who created the film was not Muslim: the film was both written and directed by Sinha, and its main actors were Rishi Kapoor, Taapsee Pannu, Manoj Pahwa, Ashutosh Rana and Rajat Kapoor.
Rishi Kapoor in what I believe is his life’s best performance, lives his role of a Muslim patriarch Murad Ali who is tormented when his love for his country is doubted after his nephew Shahid becomes a terrorist, and his bumbling and gentle brother Bilal is jailed on charges of deliberately harbouring a terrorist. He speaks some of the film’s best lines. ‘How can I prove my love for my country?’ he asks. ‘Love is felt, it is not exhibited’. Or ‘Who are you to invite me to live in this country? I am not a guest here. This is my country’. Or again, ‘In 1947, Muslims were asked to choose between their religion and their country. The Muslims who lived on in India chose their country’.
‘I cried when Shahid became a terrorist’, she writes. ‘I cried at the bewilderment of Shahid’s family who had no idea he had been indoctrinated into terrorism…I cried at every humiliation that Bilal was subjected to. I lived it with him because today one hears of many Muslim men who are arrested on mere suspicion and kept in jail for ages as under trials while their innocence or guilt is established. Proof, not prejudice, should be the reason for arrest and incarceration…I cried when I saw the words “Go to Pakistan,” written on the walls of Shahid’s house. Today, I understand what bigotry is. I encounter it often, some subtle some not so subtle…I cried when Murad Ali had to prove his patriotism and love for his mulk. I love my country and shouldn’t have to prove it, just as others of a different faith don’t need to prove their patriotism’.
For similar reasons, I felt close to Nandita Das’s labour of love Manto, which sensitively recreated the agony and loss of the last years of one of the sub-continent’s best-loved fiction writers of the 20th century, Saadat Hasan Manto. She evocatively recreates for us the story of a tempestuous moment of our collective recent history, in order to speak to the tumult of the present in many different ways.
Manto, a non-practicing Muslim, could not imagine living away from his beloved Bombay. Yet, he left for Pakistan when he encountered prejudice and hatred against Muslims in India after Partition. Even today, one of India’s finest actors Naseeruddin Shah is advised to live in Pakistan when he speaks gently of his fears for the country that he loves. Manto wrote during those anguished years some of the most redolent and haunting stories about Partition, yet he was tried for obscenity in his stories.
Today, independent writers like him are more likely to be tried for sedition. However, they continue to write, as Manto continued to write, and in this way illuminated his times for us to make sense of the past, the present and indeed the future. And who cannot be affected by his slippage into the melancholy of despair, into dark alleyways of the mind from which it became harder and harder for him to return.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto (2018)
There have been few films that have so sensitively and acutely chronicled loss and grief, as also caring and healing, as Shoojit Sircar’s October. The tone of the entire film is muted, the tenor meditative, the writing (by Juhi Chaturvedi) observant and empathetic, the acting understated and the visuals poetic and haunting.
The story is unusual and compelling. It tells of a brash and brattish hotel management intern, inexplicably drawn into the care of a fellow-intern who is not even a close friend, let alone a lover, after she slips into a coma following a fall. Bedside care of the comatose patient becomes the fulcrum of his life, his obsession, overshadowing his ambitions, his banter, his friendships, even his bonds with his mother. As over the months, her life slowly slips away, the film maps how the young man and the girl’s mother cope with sorrow, and in the end find the spaces to heal.
Pa. Ranjith’s subaltern Rajinikanth starrer Kaala is as loud and exuberant as October is quiet. But it figures in my list because this is a rare overtly political Hindi-Tamil film, which energetically celebrates the assertion of oppressed peoples. The story is of a group of migrants from Tamil Nadu in a slum in Dharavi, Mumbai, who fight their uprootment by a crooked politician-builder, led by an endearingly human Kaala (Rajinikanth who plays his age), losing a cricket match to slum children, and cheerfully bullied by his spirited wife.
Rajinikanth in Kaala (2018)
The highly stylised closing sequence encapsulates the layered politics of the film. It depicts a crowd of cheering Dharavi residents bathed consecutively in a series of colours. First black: Kaala says black is the colour of labour; but it is also the colour of the Dravidian movement. Then red, the emblem of labour struggles. This is followed by blue, the tint of Dalit politics.
The villain, always dressed in sparkling white, is depicted as a Hindutva rabble-rouser. In another subversive reversal, it is the villain who is identified as Ram, and his challenger from the margins Kaala is Ravana, with ten heads. He thinks with all these heads at once to outsmart his wily adversary. Even after he dies, he will return, in many forms, in many colours. Tamil film masala is skillfully stirred and mixed to cook up a potboiler that rejoices in the struggles of India’s margins. In this way, this film too is for the ages.
And, finally, in my top-five list is a singular film of magic realism, of a kind that has never been attempted in Hindi cinema – Tumbbad, by debutants Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad. It is a haunting and lyrical fable, a morality tale about the corrosive and destructive influence of greed. It begins in the second decade of the twentieth century, and follows two generations of sons who seek an elusive treasure, risking being turned into monstrous creatures. The period is recreated flawlessly, and the cinematography is spectacular, as it lingers on the incessant rain that the village is cursed with, the ever-changing overcast skies, and the mysterious and menacing underground which stores the treasure.
There could have been many more films, almost equally compelling, on my list, among the splendid treat of movies that Hindi cinema placed on offer this year. These include Badhaai Ho, directed by Amit Ravindernath Sharma, an endearing comedy about a family embarrassed when a middle-aged couple with a son in his twenties becomes pregnant; a tender even if simplistic film about an impoverished young man finding his self-respect by establishing a small garment factory, in Sharat Kataria’s Sui Dhaaga; two back-to-back unexpected small-town romances by Anurag Kashyap, Mukkabaaz and Manmarziyaan with affecting and believable characters, films surprisingly free from the director’s trademark preoccupation with the darkest aspects of human nature; Meghna Gulzar’s low-key patriotic Raazi which engagingly humanises people on both sides of the border; and above all that delightfully subversive ghost comedy which mischievously turns on its head patriarchy, Amar Kaushik’s Stree, featuring a female ghost who terrorises the men of a small town of Madhya Pradesh, making them disappear leaving behind only their clothes.
Big blockbuster films tended to fall behind – in both audience support and critical appreciation – these mostly smaller-budget films, all of which also did encouraging business. Brimming with talent and ideas, subverting every rule – of the industry as much as of the conservative social order – with new directors, writers, cinematographers, Hindi cinema has entered an exciting new phase. There is so little to cheer about in public life these days in India. I at least am able to look forward to visiting the cinema every few weeks. This is something I am grateful for.