One of the largest and most prolific movie industries in the world has had one of its most tumultuous years in recent memory. India’s Bollywood, as the Hindi film sector is popularly referred to, has dealt with it all in the past 12 months.
There was a political controversy with the historical epic Padmavati with its release deferred after fringe Hindutva groups protested its alleged distortion of history.
There was also an unprecedented number of big-budget films crashing at the box office, bruising many egos and denting several careers. Of course, we are at the precipice of a narrative that has been unfolding for the past few years.
Bollywood is often talked about as a film movement, a style of movie-making that blends seemingly disparate genre elements into one palatable paste garnished with songs and action sequences. This is all presented with a cheerful lack of subtlety over three wholesome hours.
Every year, this definition rings false a little louder. Films are shorter, often closer to the two-hour mark, and songs are fewer, if not completely absent in a number of movies.
Many cinema productions attempted to be different in 2017 even as they straddled the template. Yet this half-and-half approach may have proved to be their undoing.
We saw big-budget ambition and altruistic originality in Rangoon and Jagga Jasoos. The former, a World War II-era love triangle, was helmed by Vishal Bhardwaj. The latter, an action-adventure-musical directed by Anurag Basu, was peppered with references to Satyajit Ray and Tintin.
Both films had some of the year’s best cinematic moments. Still, they were fatally flawed and lost a ton of money at the box office. Megastars such as Salman Khan and Aamir Khan went against conventions and expectations in Tubelight and Secret Superstar respectively.
Shah Rukh Khan offered two versions of himself: the bloodthirsty bootlegger of Raees and the 40-something man-child creep of Jab Harry Met Sejal. Neither worked, and the latter emerged, perhaps, as the most ridiculed film of the year for its tone-deaf writing and characterization.
There was also the Telugu-Tamil bilingual fantasy epic, Bahubali 2: The Conclusion. It received largely glowing reviews, praising its vision, scale and execution. It also became the biggest Indian film in history, and its dubbed Hindi version was the highest-grossing Hindi film this year by a wide margin.
This was not to say that mediocrity was not celebrated in 2017. Franchise films, such as Golmaal Again, Judwaa 2, and the just-released Tiger Zinda Hai, garnered wide releases and had the cash registers ringing, even if the reviews were less than glowing.
But what sets this year apart was the emergence of new voices that tried to tell new stories. Often they had new faces and not all of them came together.
As for Hindi cinema ‘small big films’, such as Hindi Medium, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Tumhari Sulu and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, worked well. They simply approached social realism through the escapism of Bollywood and the presence of well-known actors.
Many smaller films that barely registered on the average moviegoer’s radar introduced us to new directorial voices. Milind Dhaimade’s breezy ode to Mumbai, Tu Hai Mera Sunday, almost lost control of its roving narrative but had real heart and a unique voice.
Rahul Bose’s biopic Poorna was undeniably sincere but flawed, while Avinash Das’s Anaarkali Of Aarah, about a singing star from Bihar squaring off against her well-connected sexual predator, benefited from a powerful storyline and top-class performances. Again, the execution left much to be desired.
Rakhee Shandilya’s Ribbon was also an interesting, fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of two urban, upper middle class yuppies navigating marriage and parenthood. Another social study was Sunaina Bhatnagar’s Dear Maya. It marked actress Manisha Koirala’s comeback and had interesting insights into the lives of lonely women.
A mention must also go to Sandeep Mohan’s Shreelancer, which takes us on a journey with a young freelance writer who, like many of us, struggles to deal with life.
A further talking point was the release of two documentaries which could not have been more different. The first, Sachin: A Billion Dreams, directed by James Erskine, played out like a fan’s tribute. It showed us more of the highs than lows in Sachin Tendulkar’s illustrious career.
For those unfamiliar with sport, Tendulkar, who was known as the “Little Master”, is recognized as India’s greatest cricketer. Unfortunately, there were some cringeworthy moments in the film from the real Tendulkar.
The other documentary, An Insignificant Man, directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, captured the headiness of the Aam Aadmi Party’s early days. It gave unprecedented access to leader Arvind Kejriwal’s transformation from rank outsider to formidable maverick. Even so, it did not shy away from showing the infighting and disagreements within the AAP and was cut without the party’s approval.
At this point, it is worth remembering that there were movies that truly shone, buoyed by bravura performances. Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, a harrowing drama about a young man locked without food or water in an empty Mumbai high-rise, owes everything to Rajkummar Rao’s singular commitment to the role.
Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan was astonishingly mature for a 26-year-old. But it probably would not have been such a critical success without the real father and son dynamics of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain.
A Death In The Gunj, Konkona Sensharma’s fine directorial debut, also introduced us to the full repertoire of young Vikrant Massey, backed by a competent ensemble.
In the wonderful Newton, writers Amit Masurkar and Mayank Tewari showed us that political comedy does not have to be loud and derivative. It was subtle and astute in its observations while giving actors such as Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, and Anjali Patil enough to chew on.
Looking back, 2017 was a year when India’s movie industry did not quite pull it off. But let us hope next year will be even better.