From Aligarh to Udta Punjab, Hindi cinema this past year has explored unusual themes of homosexuality, drug abuse and patriarchy that not too long ago were unthinkable in mainstream cinema.
In a singularly sombre year for the Indian people, Hindi cinema offered some bright sparks in 2016. Some thoughtful, creative and inventive films with unusual themes and real people, were on offer.
The true star of this year was the scriptwriter. If Hindi cinema today is several notches above that of a decade and a half ago, it is because now scripts explore ideas and backdrops that were earlier unthinkable in mainstream cinema.
For many decades since the 1970s, the peasant and the working class protagonist had disappeared from popular Hindi cinema. Whereas, the wealthy, groomed, glamorous and often NRI characters and glitzy, mostly foreign locales, are still the mainstay.
Several successful films today are after many years returning to the long-forgotten countryside and to real homes and work-places of vigorous and interesting subaltern characters.
This year, two films about the earthy rural sport of wrestling set in pastoral Haryana were winners, precisely because the rural environment in which they were located was engaging and believable. There was also a harrowing portrayal of the pervasive drug obsession in rural Punjab that again rang true. Two of the most attractive films of the year were small films about children in the deserts of Rajasthan and about a single mother who works as a domestic help and her stubborn dreams for her rebellious teenaged child.
2016 was also the year of the biopic in Hindi cinema. There were a large number of films that drew from real life characters and incidents. We saw persuasive and absorbing fictionalised recreations of a young air hostess who saved the lives of hostages in an airplane in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, the audacious rescue of nearly two lakh Indians stranded in the strife-torn Kuwait by a businessman after the US attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, another version of the sensational 1950s murder by naval officer Rustom Nanavati of his wife’s lover, the early struggles of India’s much-admired cricket hero Mahendra Singh Dhoni in Neeraj Pandey’s film M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat’s fierce battle against the patriarchy of rural Haryana to groom his two daughters to triumph in what was seen to be a quintessentially male game of wrestling in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal.
Pre-eminent among the year’s biopics, and for me the best film of 2016, was the gentle, understated and ineffably tragic Aligarh directed by Hansal Mehta. The film reconstructs the public humiliation of a lonely homosexual professor in Aligarh Muslim University, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, after his relations with a rickshaw puller of the city were exposed by two men who raided his bedroom. The film is shown through the eyes of a young journalist who develops a deep bond with the professor while investigating his story. The persecuted aging teacher played masterfully by Manoj Bajpayee, emerges as a person of muted dignity. The film is minimalist, subtle and low-key, and yet builds into a devastating testimony of the wages of bigotry.
Prejudice is the driving theme in another powerful film, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. It explores the patriarchal attitude towards young and single working women who refuse to abide by the traditional conventional restraints of attire, male company and public drinking. The predicament of the three women depicted with a raw immediacy is harrowing because it is so frighteningly real.
What unfolds in the film could happen to you, to people you know, befriend and love on any evening and in any city. The terrifying persisting intimidation and the malicious shaming in court make the aftermath of rape an on-going nightmare for the three women. A riveting narrative is skilfully spun by the debutant director using the format of a thriller and courtroom drama until the last scene that plays out when the credits roll.
Interestingly, Ritesh Shah’s script also creates three older men who are the allies of these women – their landlord who resists intimidation by their rapists, the fair-minded judge and their depressive lawyer resoundingly affirms that men must understand that when a woman says no, it means no.
Some feminists complain why the young women are ultimately saved by men in the film? I feel that it is the women protagonists who overcome the prejudices because of their spirit, solidarity and courage and that the fight against patriarchy is as much the responsibility of men as it is the women.
Another dark film that makes it into my list of the best films of 2016 is Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab. It is that rare sort of film that anticipates rather than follows the headlines. For two decades, the entrapment of an entire generation of young men in drugs and the criminal-politician-police nexus that facilitates and nurtures the pervasive drug-trade was the open secret of Punjab. In the Punjab assembly election campaign, drug addiction and crime have emerged as probably the most important concerns for the electorate. Across the state, we are hearing people complain, “We lost one generation to militancy, and a second to drugs. We cannot afford now to lose a third.”
Sudip Sharma and Abhishek Chaubey’s script is brave enough to unflinchingly depict the ways drugs have eaten into, corroded and collapsed the moral centre of Punjab’s society and wrecked so many of its homes. One of the most affecting sequences of the film is one in which two young brothers who are in jail without any remorse boast about how they killed their mother because she refused to give them money to buy drugs. Equally traumatic is the wrenching predicament of the young Bihari migrant woman who is forced into drugs and sexual slavery. Censors had wanted to make 89 deletions in the film. The court consented only to one – the climatic sequence in which the cocaine-abusing singer urinates on his audience in his ultimate public humiliation. I wish this sequence was retained, as this was a necessary part of the film’s mission to strip drug-use from its last veneer of faux-glamour.
The other two films in my top five list are low-budget sunshine films which display a very different lightness of touch. I particularly loved another debutant woman director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata. This story – which she wrote along with Neeraj Singh, Pranjal Choudhary and Nitesh Tiwari – of a single mother, a domestic help and her relationship with her rebellious teenaged daughter, is universal in many ways and is yet wonderfully grounded in the specific realities of their contexts of a single woman-led household in an urban slum.
Swara Bhaskar skilfully transforms herself into her part of an urban domestic help who slaves in her various menial jobs and dreams doggedly of a better life for her daughter, a familiar figure in many middle-class homes but one whose inner world we barely know, understand or care about. The government school, the site where much of the story unfolds, also rings true, as do the teenage girl’s struggles with mathematics, with her teachers, with ambition and with her mother’s burdensome dreams for her. We showed the film to the teenaged girls who are in our care, many of who have homeless mothers who beg on the streets, and they loved the film. They laughed and cried alternately, identifying closely with the adolescent skirmishes depicted in the film.
The last film in my list is Dhanak, written and directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. This charming little feature is a glowing road-film about the adventures of a spirited 12-year-old girl from a remote village in Rajasthan, about her impish blind younger brother and all the people she meets along the way. She runs away from home with her brother, convinced that her hero film actor Shah Rukh Khan would help him get back his eyesight. She must reach a town where the celebrated actor is scheduled to shoot a film. The film is in the same genre as many Iranian films about children, and speaks like them to audiences of every age from every culture of universal truths, of the strength and power of both love and resolve.
In these ways, in a year in which the Indian people were embroiled year-long in bitter disputations about sedition, cow slaughter and nationalism and then assaulted by the year-end tsunami of demonetisation, the film theater was a small refuge, of intelligent, reflective, combative, sometimes dark and sometimes iridescent cinema. For this at least one can cheer.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.