The year India leaves behind was a grim one in so many ways: a year in which travelling with Eid gifts or singing carols became fraught with dangers; when hate attacks on innocents became routine; a year that saw toxic political discourse, a stuttering economy and no jobs for young people.
If there was a silver lining in 2017, it was our popular cinema.
The year 2017 was a year of triumphs for small films in Hindi cinema. I look forward to the end of each year to draw up a list of my favourite films. My list this year was only made of small-budget films, some probably with lesser money than what blockbusters spend on publicity. The protagonists of these films were worlds apart from the wealthy, beautiful NRI protagonists popularised by Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra and cloned by countless others. They were real Indians from the India of small towns, villages and low-end settlements of the metropolises, grappling with lives and dreams and confined by opportunity.
There were also many more comedies in my list than I can recall in the past, reflecting a growing cultural capacity to laugh at ourselves.
Topping my list is Amit Masurkar’s Newton, a significant contemporary morality play disguised as gentle comedy. Another film about a fiercely honest civil servant is Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, made almost 50 years ago which still remains, despite its flaws, one of my favourite Hindi films. Responding to crumbling of the idealism of nation-building in the early years after independence, Satyakam depicts an honest engineer’s fight against a corrupt public system. Newton transforms a similar protagonist into an endearing, funny and yet inspirational figure, determined to conduct a free and fair election against all odds in a tiny tribal hamlet gashed by Maoist insurgency. Newton’s stubborn refusal to succumb to both pervasive cynicism and pragmatism create a winning character who perhaps achieves nothing tangible except the upholding of duty at all costs.
My second choice is another morality tale, but this time of death and filial love – Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut film Mukti Bhawan. The cantankerous patriarch of a modest lower middle-class home creates a storm by announcing that he will shift to Varanasi to await his death on the banks of the Ganga. His middle-aged son feels bound to travel with him. The film develops around the central strand of the unassuming and reluctant son’s selfless sense of love and duty to his stubborn father amidst exasperation and struggles with his own responsibilities, even as his father finds companionship and a renewed relish for life as he awaits his death and salvation. There is unsentimental compassion and ironic laughter in a film that is not so much about death, as a meditation on life and caring.
In another time, an avowedly patriotic film would perhaps have not made it to my list. But in this season of divisive, homogenising and wrathful nationalism, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh comes as a soothing balm. On a modest budget, the lovingly recreated trial of Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Sehgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, three army soldiers of different faiths – Muslim, Hindu and Sikh – in 1945, restores for us the past to speak to the India of today. Dhulia and Pramod Singh’s script is layered and subtle – both politically and morally. Their depiction allows the viewer to possibly disagree with the choice of violence of the soldiers while still admiring their audacious courage and fierce love for freedom. Charged with treason and the killing of deserters, the defence led by lawyer Bhulabhai Desai, with even Jawaharlal Nehru briefly donning his lawyers’ robes, hinged upon the question of whether they were traitors or freedom fighters. The popular support that built up around the country for these three soldiers of different faiths was a powerful antidote to the rising tide of communal hatred. Can it carry the same message to the soaring divisions of the contemporary age?
Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium is a delightful comedy of manners that became a sleeper hit. A tailor from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk rises in his economic station to become a wealthy owner of a sari shop, but he and his wife are still excluded from the ‘posh’ society because he is not fluent in English. They wish for their daughter to escape through these ‘snob’ barriers through her admission to an elite English medium school. For this, they shift to upmarket Vasant Vihar and take etiquette classes to train them for the school interviews, but to no avail as the school managements and their Vasant Vihar neighbours see through their faux social pretentions. In despair, they try to pose as slum residents to benefit from the school quota for disadvantaged children, resulting in a host of predicaments as well as insights. The film highlights how not just class and caste are powerful barriers to social mobility but also fluency in the English language. There are some touching vignettes of the sense of community among people of disadvantage. In the end, the parents’ choice to shift their daughter from the elite private school to a well-run government school strikes a blow for an egalitarian public common school system for all children regardless of the deprivations of their parentage.
Anaarkali of Aarah is a spunky debut film by Avinash Das, a talent to look out for. A feisty single woman makes a living by dancing raunchily to bawdy lyrics for cheering lusty men. But when a policeman gropes her in public, she wages a long gutsy fight for her dignity, unbent even at great personal cost. With a stellar and spirited portrayal by Swara Bhaskar, this feminist film affirms resoundingly the dignity and right of sexual choice of every woman, no less even when she dances for money with sexual innuendos and makes her on sexual choices. Like Pink last year, Anaarkali again reminds us that “no means no”.
I add here one more film, not made in India, but whose soundtrack for a large part is in Hindi, the Australian film Lion. A debut by Garth Davis, the film is drawn from his life. It tracks the story of a boy from a village in Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh who gets lost when he falls asleep on a train that ends up in Kolkata. I have known hundreds of such children who get lost, are abandoned or run away from abusive families at a very young age. The film is beautiful in its realism and compassion, in its depiction of the child’s deprived childhood, the prolonged anguish of his years as a lost boy on the streets and an orphanage in Kolkata, and the agony of his adoptive Australian parents who adopt a second child who is emotionally traumatised. My colleagues have gone on journeys similar to the one portrayed in the film with many street children who long to know who they were and where they belonged. They often succeeded in the way the protagonist of the film does.
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High on my list is Rahul Bose’s Poorna, a sincere film about a teenaged daughter of farm labourers from an impoverished tribal family of Telangana, who went on to become the youngest girl to climb the Mount Everest. She could have become a teenage bride and undernourished young mother like most of her peers had she not been given the chance to study in a government hostel for tribal girls. It is here that an idealistic police officer responsible for tribal welfare in the state administration spots talent in this girl. Her grit in climbing the world’s highest peak cannot but stir everyone who watches the film, and reminds us that real life at times can be more incredible and inspiring than fiction. Bose shoots parts of the film in the tribal village which was Poorna’s home, and captures the sights and sounds of tribal India with an authenticity which is rare in Hindi cinema. I have a special bond with the film because its second lead, S. Mariya, who plays Poorna’s cousin, had to spend many years on the streets. Mariya was recruited to play the part from a residential ‘rainbow home’ that my colleagues run for street children. Her fortitude and resilience could one day be the subject of another film.
We shift to political comedy in Subhash Kapoor’s The State vs. Jolly LL.B 2. What begins as a light-hearted yarn of a lawyer’s assistant trying to build by petty hoax and swindle a career for himself, evolves into a more gritty story of a Muslim man killed by police a day after his marriage, charged to be a terrorist. The lawyer finds his conscience and, with an eccentric but fair-minded judge on his side, succeeds in exposing the communal crime of the police who killed the innocent man in a fake ‘encounter’. You can fault the film for some liberties that it takes in its depiction of the legal process, but the atmosphere of a small-town trial court is engaging and authentic. More importantly, turning the arc light to the targeting of innocent Muslims as terrorists is not something that popular Hindi cinema normally dares, even less in these intensely polarised times. The film’s comic tone is a vehicle for its deeply-felt indictment of the communal bias of India’s criminal justice system. In the first six months since Adityanath took office as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh this year, there has been one ‘encounter’ shooting by police every 12 hours, and majority of people injured and killed in these extra-judicial killings are Muslims. The film, set in Lucknow, robust in both heart and conscience, sadly could not have been more timely.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.