Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Multiplex Decade: The Best of Bollywood (2000-2009)

It's hard to narrow down a decade into one list, but it's also a great way of looking back at how radically Bollywood changed in the last ten years. As multiplexes opened (and flourished) across the country, re-invigorating the "experience" of movie-watching, new filmmakers began to realize the potential of a new kind of cinema. The seeds had been sown in the late nineties, when Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues proved that urban viewers were ready for a new wave (sure, films like English August came earlier, but Hyderabad Blues was the one that showed that this brand of movies had real commercial viability). The ease of access to cinema from around the world influenced new filmmakers in the best of ways -- they were willing to break out of the Bollywood formula that had survived for decades.

In many ways, this second new wave was very different from the "parallel cinema" new wave that began in the eighties. This time, there were no parallel movements; instead, everything seemed to converge -- art house directors were willing to work with big stars, and mainstream actors and directors were experimenting with new subjects and pushing the boundaries of what can be defined as mainstream. These changes resulted in what is perhaps the best and most varied set of films any Bollywood decade has ever produced. We may not have completely returned to the golden age of Indian cinema when filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were establishing their own cinematic language, but thanks to the current crop of filmmakers (who've drawn inspiration not only from these icons, but also from modern filmmakers ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Wong-Kar Wai), we're almost there.

The following list is not an objective list of the best films made in the 2000s. I don't know if it's possible to make such a list. The reaction to art is, after all, subjective; and the effect of one film is never exactly the same on two viewers. This is, therefore, a list of my "personal favorites", a chronicle of a decade in which I changed both as a person and a film-viewer. It was tough to pick ten films; I love most of the films that missed out almost as much as the ones that made the final list.

The honorable mentions, in alphabetical, order: Asoka, Black Friday, Chandni Bar, Dor, Gulaal, Hera Pheri, Kaminey, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Life in a... Metro, Mithya, Monsoon Wedding, Naach, No Smoking, Omkara, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Parzania, Rang De Basanti, Socha Na Tha, Swades, Taare Zameen Par

10. Company
(Ram Gopal Varma, 2002)

It's difficult to remember a time when Ram Gopal Varma was among the best directors in the country, but this film is a reminder that no one could make it like Ramu in the good old days. Satya may be the better film, but this is his magnum opus: a sprawling, exhaustive underworld saga where Varma juggles characters and scenes with the kind of finesse rarely seen in cinema at the time (or since). Even minor members get to play fully realized characters in this stupendous cast but Ajay Devgan towers above the rest with a magnetic performance. Varma's recent output isn't all bad, but he hasn't been able to find his groove since Company, and Bollywood cinema is all the lesser for it. 

9. Black
(Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2005)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's brand of artistic melodrama has been ridiculed for a long time, but there are few directors who can claim to possess the same understanding of cinema's sensory experience as Bhansali. Black's heavily-stylized aesthetics aren't for everyone. You will often hear people complaining about elements of this film being excessively over the top: Amitabh Bachchan's performace, the background score, the almost completely black production design and costumes; but they're missing the point. Bhansali's films are essentially filmed operas, and the notes in this particular symphony are always in sync and never less than perfect.

8. Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na
(Abbas Tyrewala, 2008)

Of all the films on this list, Jaane Tu is probably the least important -- it's not about overcoming disabilities, history-defining events or the mysterious people of the Mumbai underworld -- but that's also what's so great about it: It's about people like you and me, about the process of growing up, something all of us are familiar with. At its core lies an uncommonly observant screenplay; Abbas Tyrewala lays out all the cards on the table right at the start: Best friends falling in love! Fight! Airport Climax! And part of the fun is how this screenplay spins each of these "masala" movie cliches into something completely fresh and entertaining. Tyrewala details even minor characters in this story with the kind of care rarely seen in Bollywood screenplays -- this beautiful texturing results not only in real, complex characterizations, but also brings out memorable performances from the most unexpected places (Pratik Babbar, Sugandha Garg). Years from now when people think of films that best encapsulated the current generation, Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na will have few contenders for a place on the list. 

7. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
(Aparna Sen, 2002)

As a country, we're defined by our diversity. Having grown up in a certain environment, it's difficult to come to terms with the other religions, castes, cultures, and sub-cultures that exist within our country. This is one of the many things that Aparna Sen is trying to tell us through this story in which a conservative, Hindu Brahmin from Tamil Nadu must come to terms with the fact that the passenger sitting next to her in a bus to Chennai is a Muslim man. Sen is never judgmental as she brings out the prejudices of the film's characters, and she is wise to keep the focus on the central couple's journey. It's as romantic as the best of love stories, without so much as a kiss shared between the two. More than anything else, this film will be remembered as our introduction to Konkona Sen Sharma --  this was the starting point for the incomparable resume she has built in the multiplex era -- and it remains her best performance to date.

6. Luck By Chance
(Zoya Akhtar, 2009)

Luck By Chance is essentially an inside joke and everyone involved with the film is in on this joke, especially the stars who make cameo appearances in the film. Not surprisingly, the joke was lost on the (few) people who went to watch this film while it was in theaters. Zoya Akhtar's film feels nothing like a debut -- her screenplay and direction reveal more nuances with every viewing (being an industry kid obviously helped) and she beautifully captures the insecurities of those who make it in the industry (Hrithik Roshan, playing superstar Zafar Khan, a stand-in for you-know-who) as well as those who don't (Arjun Mathur, delivering the film's most heartfelt performance). This is a film full of beautifully observed moments: In one unforgettable scene, Karan Johar appears at a party and discusses with Zafar how outsiders make it in the film world; as Hrithik turns to look at the star he unknowingly helped create (a million thoughts running through his head), the look on his face and the music that swells in the background never fail to send a chill down my spine.

5. Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India
(Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2001)

Too much has already been said about this film for me to add anything new. The fact that it ended up on the Oscar nomination list takes the focus away from the real backstory, the effort that went behind bringing this film to the screen. No producer was ready to back this seemingly outlandish concept because of the sheer number of rules that this film was breaking at the time. Despite its international success (if you can call the Oscar nomination that), this is a film for an Indian audience -- it's impossible to forget the electric atmosphere in cinema halls across the country where this movie played, eliciting the kind of reactions and celebrations seen only seen during live matches in cricket stadiums.

4. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
(Sudhir Mishra, 2005)

The title of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi comes from a Mirza Ghalib ghazal:
हज़ारों ख़्वाहिशें ऐसी की हर ख़्वाहिश पे दम निकले
बहुत निकले मेरे अरमान लेकिन फिर भी कम निकले 
("A thousand desires worth dying for, So many fulfilled and yet they seem to be so few")

There isn't a much better way to describe this astonishing film about three people trying to find their place in the most horrifying political era this country has ever seen. It may be one of the most important works of our time, a film that needed to be made to give voice to the generation that lived and struggled through those times. This isn't a film as much as a rich novel -- we may never completely understand what it felt like being part of a revolution at the time or agree with the choices these characters make, but thanks to Mishra's writing and the brilliant actors, we understand why these characters head down the paths they choose. You will find it difficult to forget the way Chitrangada Singh's face reflects the entire gamut of emotions this character feels through the course of this story. That she didn't do any substantial work after this film remains one of the great tragedies of our time. 

3. Maqbool
(Vishal Bhardwaj, 2004)

Makdee was an accomplished debut, but Maqbool is the film that heralded the arrival of one of contemporary Hindi cinema's best directors: Vishal Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj transports Shakespeare's Macbeth to Mumbai's gritty underworld with stellar results; the three witches turning into two corrupt cops (played brilliantly by Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) is this screenplay's master stroke. The underworld portrayed in this film carries no hint of romanticism seen in many other gangster films: this is a dark, corrupt, brutal world and the violence is often sudden and abrupt. Plus: This film is an acting textbook, featuring career best work from a menacing Pankaj Kapur and Tabu, who turns the Lady Macbeth role on its head, adding layers of emotion and vulnerability to one of the most ruthless and ambitious female characters in history.

2. Dil Chahta Hai
(Farhan Akhtar, 2001)

Film critic extraordinaire Baradwaj Rangan notes in his Best of the Decade list: "2001 was Aamir Khan’s annus mirabilis. If Lagaan was the sixer that landed on the Oscar stage, as Best Foreign Film nominee, Farhan Akhtar’s debut earned itself a worthier distinction. It birthed the über-cool multiplex cinema as we know it today. But historical distinction apart, it was also one hell of an entertaining ride."

That sums it up rather well. 2001 was a watershed year for Aamir Khan -- Lagaan may be the consensus choice for the decade's best film (and it's hard to argue with that) but this was the film that influenced and shaped new age mainstream cinema as we know it today. Few films have made such an impact, but even fewer have been this enjoyable.

1. Dev D
(Anurag Kashyap, 2009)

I could think of no better film to symbolize the changing face of Indian cinema in this decade than Dev D -- no other director in the industry today shares Anurag Kashyap's uncompromising artistic vision and this is his masterpiece, a dizzying, subversive take on one of Indian literature's most well-known stories. It's easy to see the influences: Wong Kar-Wai, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky; but Kashyap distills these film-making styles into a cinematic language of his own. The dazzling cinematography and editing are an integral part of this film, but it's the music that outshines every other contribution here. Songs have always been an integral part of Bollywood cinema, but never before have they been used within the fabric of the narrative as in the case of Dev D. Each of the 18 (!) tracks in this epic soundtrack find a place in the film, and Kashyap uses them to add texture and mood to the images on screen. He doesn't make it easy to follow the emotional arc of this story, but for those who manage to look beyond the intoxicating exterior and follow the maze, there is a bruised and beating heart at the center of this tale. Once the surface shock begins to wear off, Dev D will take its rightful place as a landmark in the history of Indian cinema.


  1. i loved every bit of ur writing .. keep it going, as i said u earlier, and i will by abide my statement .. our choices will never match.. ur top 10's.. i dont know y but i like Hirani's kindaa screen magic, saying it simple and with deep impact.. movie shud b something- which shud refresh ur mood- thought provoking.. once u c that.. each frame gotta stick to ur mind..

  2. Lagaan and DCH definetly gonna make in my list.. rest bool ja..

  3. @Ravi: I love Lage Raho, it almost made it in. I think I tend to go for more complexity in characters and films, but Lage Raho is definitely a gem. I'm on the fence as far as Munnabhai and especially 3 Idiots are concerned (you know that!). Though I would definitely love to hear what your choices would be.

  4. OK dude, thanks for the new task for this coming Month, let me go flash back and research - to come up with my choice of movies that had huge impact on my life something kindaa life time feeling.. i hope there is no linguistic barrier - i will include Hindi English Hinglish chinese korean telugu tamil Bhojpuri and kannada.... keep some vacant space for guest writers..

  5. Divya: I cant believe you have Jane Tu on the list but not a masterpiece like Omkara...I'm just stunned...

  6. @Divya: Omkara is in the honorable mentions. I have no excuses for not including it except that maybe I liked ten films better than it. It's probably #11.

    I think Jaane Tu is extremely underrated, and I underrated it myself when I first saw it, but I've noticed new details every time I watch the movie -- I have no hesitation in saying that it's one of the best screenplays in recent years, the characters (mostly the supporting ones) have been drawn beautifully.

    Having said that, I can see why Jaane Tu would seem out of place here. And I tried to say that in the write-up but I guess I didn't get the point across too well there.

    PS: I sorta had a feeling you'd call me out on the Jaane Tu inclusion :)

  7. I guess different folks, different strokes. Except for Pratik Babbar no other supporting character was worth even mentioning. I cannot forget the fat one who looks like he is their uncle more than a same-aged friend. Genelia cannot act as much as even my big toe nail can. The nly thing worth remembering from that movie was Pratik and the songs. Wasted Naseeruddin and Ratna, disgusting Khan brother cameos and so many things...I can just go on and on. But it's ok. Like I said, different folks, different strokes.

  8. Oops that was me, Divya

  9. Divya: Here are my 10
    10) Company
    9) Lagaan
    8) Dev D
    7) Hazaaron Khwaeeishein
    6) DCH
    5) Omkara
    4) Monsoon Wedding
    3) Maqbool
    2) RDB
    1) TZP

  10. Dude- What do you think about 'Rock On' for honorable mention?

  11. @Diu: 6 of those films match on our lists -- YAY! I think Rang De Basanti is electric in many ways (that's the only word I could think of to describe the amazing film-making) but I have issues with the ending, which I think is far too irresponsible. That's the film's only flaw, but to me its a substantial one. On a pure film-making level though, it's up there with the best.

    @Mangesh: I loved Rock On when I first saw it, but I've seen it again a couple of times and it didn't hold up well on repeat viewings. It's a very good film, but I think it lacks depth -- or rather, there was nothing new to be discovered in the second viewing. I don't know if that should be a criteria for judging films but it does make a difference on a subconscious level, I guess.

  12. White guy from New Mexico USA says: what about the films of Sriram Raghavan? I think they (all two of them) are killer films!

  13. @hugoBLISS: I completely forgot about Johnny Gaddar. Should add it to honorable mentions. I love Raghavan's pulp-y style (though I must admit I'm quite surprised he has fans in New Mexico!).

  14. This is a good list even though any list of this type is bound to be criticized.

    A couple of thoughts

    Jaane tu... & Luck by Chance were possible only because of the success of Dil Chahta Hai and the urban, hip cinema it spawned. Similarly, Dev D owes its success to Maqbool, Omkaara and Hazaron.

    Swades would probably make my Top 5. Gowarikar succeeded in getting SRK's most sincere performance in decades while touching upong social issues like brain-drain, rural development & the caste system.

    Honorable mentions to Kaho Na Pyaar Hai for doing what Bollywood does best and Johnny Gaddar and Ek Hasina Thi for true-blue masala thriller entertainment

    @ddk :-)

  15. Thanks for stopping by, Shantanu. I agree with most of what you said -- Swades is a beautiful film and it would've been up there in the top ten for me if I didn't have issues with the length and the editing. It's easily SRK's best performance to date -- and the only one where he seemed to be playing out of his comfort zone, to brilliant results.

    As for Kaho Na Pyaar Hai - never really liked it, not even as a Bollywood masala product. Though I think it's significant for being one of the last films of its kind -- for better or for worse, that old-school Bollywood masala style seems to be a dying art now.

  16. would agree every bit of this list.. Bang on target about RGV was at his best with Company.

  17. My list would definitely have Johnny Gaddaar, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, and Manorama 6 feet under (which can be an honorable mention). I am glad you dug out Monsoon Wedding, that brilliantly flawed masterpiece! And Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi! Waah!

    My Maqbool review is
    IMHO, One of the best hindi films made. Ever.

    Dev D affected me very personally and very deeply. A collection of my outpourings on Dev D are here

  18. Also, there is a reason why I am very dissatisfied with my writing on Maqbool. Figured out why when I was writing about Ishqiya

  19. Doing a top 10 list for a single year can be such a tough job, doing for the entire decade is a minefield !!
    I am not sure I myself can condense the best hindi movies of the decade into just 10, but even then I wouldnt agree with most of your top 10

    Jaane Tu just doesnt have enough in it to make it to a best of the decade list - best of the year maybe, but not decade. (And have you watched Socha Na Tha - the original ?)

    And I am one of those who never understood Luck By Chance - sure the internal jokes were there, and the scene you have have described is the highpoint of the movie - but I just dont find the movie anything more than good.

    Thanks for reminding me about Mr & Mrs Iyer though - it definitely deserves the top 10 place.

  20. @Dr. Gonzo: Some fab writing on your blog! Especially love the Dev D pieces.

    @Pradosh: I do love Socha Na Tha (it's in the honorable mentions before this list). I understand that Jaane Tu is a very personal pick here and it's unlikely to end up on anyone else's "Best of the Decade" list. But such idiosyncrasies are what make "personal" lists fun for me. Films can connect with us in many ways and it's always interesting to find the ones that appealed to you more than they did to other people.

    I would certainly love to know what films you'd place on such a list! I know it's tough to single out just a few films from the decade (I'm working on a similar list for International cinema and it's driving me nuts).