J Hurtado's Top Ten Indian Films Of 2012
As India's film industries celebrate their 100th year, it is only fitting that the country has made its strongest showing on the international film circuit in ages. Following an extremely strong contingent at Cannes and a City to City spotlight on Mumbai at TIFF, India's position in the global film community is stronger than it has ever been, and with good reason.
2011 was something of a flaccid year in terms of Indian filmmaking. Scattered independent success stories and largely unoriginal blockbusters were really all there was to get excited about. However, 2012 has mopped the floor with its predecessor and shown a massive strength that I was not expecting. This year has provided plenty of excellent choices for a top ten list, and in fact I had to scuttle a few really strong films, but I managed.
We have a great mix of independent and big budget features. Everything from conventional masala films executed perfectly to epic crime dramas to non-linear experimental films to science fiction/supernatural action thrillers made the list this year. If you've ever been interested in what India has to offer, there's no better time to jump on board than now. On with the list!
My top film of the year. It is #1 on both of my lists for the year, and with good reason. S.S. Rajamouli's Eega epitomizes the strengths of Indian popular filmmaking in a very demonstrable way. When most people think of Indian action films they think of crazy over the top stunts, but this is some next level stuff.
When Shankar and Rajnikanth delivered what seemed to be the ultimate coup against reason back in 2010 with Enthiran (Robot), the world thought they'd seen the craziest shit ever. Though it didn't get the same kind of release over here, Eega's insanity tops that of Enthiran and manages to create a more coherent emotional story worthy of attention. Did I just say I like Eega more than Enthiran? Maybe I did. The FX are better, the story is more coherent, and Kiccha Sudeep's performance as the villain rivals Superstar Rajnikanth's turn as Chitti 2.0. In a just world Eega would make the same festival rounds that Enthiran did last year, and to even greater success. Let's make it happen programmers!
This year started off strong with my most anticipated film actually turning out to be as good as I expected. Debutante director Karan Malhotra's remake of 1990's commercial flop, Agneepath, was the rare redux that surpasses the original. I saw this film twice theatrically, and it's only trough a hectic review schedule that I haven't been able to manage more viewings. That will soon be corrected. Here's what I said back then:
Agneepath is the rare film that delivers on its promise, which was great to begin with. The scope and spectacle of the film is occasionally awe-inspiring, and never once is it boring. Whether it is setting an assassination attempt within the religious frenzy of Ganesh Chathurti, or an army of transgendered women with machetes attacking a slave sale, they aim high, which is what I like best about Bollywood. If they are going to fail, they are going to do it spectacularly, but Agneepath most certainly does not fail. It aims high and hits its mark.This is a film that the uninitiated Bolly-curious film fan can watch and get into. The film is overwrought and melodramatic, it features several musical numbers choreographed within an inch of their lives, and lead characters who are exponentially more attractive than anyone in their immediate vicinity, but that's what makes it great. Agneepath's success is in Karan Malhotra's conscious decision to embrace the thing that makes Bollywood masala so appealing, the spectacle. It feels as though director Karan Malhotra finally got his hands on the reins for once and aimed for the stars. Well, congratulations, Karan, Agneepath is fantastic.
Ashim Ahluwalia's narrative feature debut, Miss Lovely, is the most brazenly original Indian film of 2012. Jaggedly unnerving and tense beyond all reason, the film recreates the sleazy world of underground skin flicks in late '80s Bombay and the surrounding regions. It's a tough film to pin down, but I did my best with my review for the South Asian Indian Film Festival back in October:
...Ahluwalia's amazing visual sense and fluid narrative storytelling is a beautiful thing to watch unfold. The film isn't strictly plot driven, however, if it were it wouldn't be neatly as interesting as it is. We float back and forth between the adventures of Vicky and Sonu and the film world in which they survive. Miss Lovely is dotted with pitch perfect recreations of some of the sleaziest Hindi creature features of the '80s, the kind that faded into obscurity at the beginning of the '90s, when multiplex culture began to kill the concept of the rural grindhouse. Not only does Vicky feel his grasp on his younger brother slipping away, he also recognizes the fact that the market to which he's dedicated his life is disappearing, and sure enough, twenty years after the film's events take place, the culture is just not the same.
There are some who find the film tedious and its free form narrative frustrating, but Miss Lovely has a lot to offer to the careful and conscientious viewer. Ashim Ahluwalia's film is bold and singular, his vision: clear and concise. His film may not be a simply told story, but Miss Lovely is most definitely among the most challenging and atypical Indian features of the year, and that is almost worth supporting by itself. However, I give it my hearty recommendation, based not upon what it isn't, a cookie cutter romantic tragedy, but upon what it is, an idiosyncratically self-reflexive piece of cinematic art that will leave you drained as you leave the cinema.
Gangs of Wasseypur
I have chosen, for purely selfish reasons, to lump together Anurag Kashyap's two part crime epic into a single entity for the purposes of this list. Not only does the film play better as a single, five-hour feature, it was intended to be shown that way and was really only split up as a concession to get commercial release in India. Everything about Gangs of Wasseypur is epic, from the runtime, to the cast of characters, to the violence, to the mind-blowingly amazing score, and it is for that reason that it is among my favorites of 2012. Here's what I wrote in my DVD review:
...I haven't had the opportunity to see this monster on 35mm, but I can say that I agree with every word of Kurt's review, and those familiar with Indian popular culture will find themselves giggling with glee at the wonderful little drops throughout the film. Gangs of Wasseypur is more than a crime drama, it is a 5 hour encapsulation of the very volatile history of India since the British Raj was ousted in the '40s. Kashyap gives us an entry point into a world that many Indians know exists, but most try to steer clear of. He does it with unbridled panache and an impetuous zest that turns Gangs of Wasseypur from a simple film, to a masterful epic on the scale of those great crime stories Kurt mentioned, and he does so fearlessly.
Valley of Saints
Sundance favorite, Valley of Saints marks my first viewing experience in the Kashmiri language, but it sets a pretty high bar for quality. Far from the bombast of Wasseypur and Agneepath, Valley of Saints is a story of love in a time of war in a place where conflict is a perpetual reality. The film has been picked up for distribution as part of a touring package by the Sundance Film Festival and I'm glad it'll find a wider audience this way. Here's what I wrote for SAIFF:
Valley of Saints is very light on dialogue and relatively light on plot. The film runs only 82 minutes, and yet it still manages to immerse the viewer in the beauty not only of its locales, but also the beauty of stillness that emanates from the lake. This is where the beauty is allowed to emerge on its own, without prodding, without flash, and without pretense. It is in the stillness of Dal Lake, Gulzar, and Asifa that we are able to find beauty in this story of an ugly time. Kashmir, almost in defiance of the danger that surrounds it, is a beautiful place, and Musa Syeed has captured that with remarkable patience and love in a way that will certainly transform the way I think of Kashmir when I hear it mentioned on the news.
The Lotus flower is one of the symbols of beauty and purity in the Eastern religions that dominate Indian spiritual life. Among the properties of the Lotus is the fact that it often originates from mud and from the most dire of environments. The fact that this beautiful flower, which is the symbol of all that is good in the world, comes from the dregs of the lake is the perfect analogy to for this story and the love that bursts forth from the lake in a time of great pain and strife. Musa Syeed and his small cast deserve a lot of credit for turning what could have been a painfully slow film into a transformative experience, making me feel I'm a better human for having watched the movie.
It's been a while since I actually watched Patang, but I recall the emotion so vividly that it is difficult not to give it a spot on my list. A lilting work of drama, Patang explores the universal themes of aging and nostalgia and their power to change people and places into dreams and fantasies. Patang was actually completed a few years back, but it wasn't until 2012 that it received limited release in the US, and that's how I was able to check it out. Here's what I wrote way back then:
[T]he beauty in Patang is in its simplicity. No crazy chase scenes, to big action, no fancy whiz-bang editing or CG, just a story well told. No one is going to mistake this for a documentary, the film is far too graceful to be accidental, however, the film holds sway over the audience by allowing them to feel privy to someone else's traumas that feel eerily familiar. These are the trials and tribulations of families everywhere, and just like in the film, for every long held grudge, there is beauty to be found if one can simply lift one's head above the mire. Or in this case, allow your spirit to fly with the kites and feel the freedom that the present brings.
Good Night | Good Morning
In the grand tradition of the French New Wave, Good Night | Good Morning comes to us from a film critic turned filmmaker. Sudhish Kamath, film writer for major Indian periodical, The Hindu, wrote and directed Good Night | Good Morning and made it all happen with minimal cast and crew. The story of an all night phone call between a pair of potential lovers is short and sweet, but resonant in its depiction of the search for love and the strange turns it sometimes takes. Performed entirely in English, this film deserves to be seen by international audiences, as it rivals any Indie romance out there. Here's a piece of my review:
To some, the idea of a phone call from a near stranger taking on cosmic meaning in the lives of both parties may seem far fetched. However, it is that distance, the impartiality of the callers on both ends that allows the information and emotion to flow so freely. Whatever hangups the callers have, they have no baggage with each other, which opens the lines of communication in a way that just isn't possible with people you know well. They have no reason to lie, no reason to believe that they'll even know each other in 12 or 24 hours, and so no reason not to go for broke, and they do. The result is among the most charming and creative Indian independent films I've seen recently.
The film's two leads carry their roles admirably, with little supporting cast on which to lean. Turiya, played by Manu Narayan, embodies his lovesick character's neurosis and blind faith well. He's able to tap into emotion when necessary without the distraction of visual or editorial trickery, which is impressive. Even more impressive is the performance of Seema Rahmani (Loins of Punjab Presents) as the girl, who's entire performance, save for about 3 minutes, takes place in an empty hotel room with no one to bounce off of. These two actors are required to hold our attention for 90 minutes with no help and manage the task admirably.
I really hate to say this, because I am a fan, but 2012 was a really soft year for Tamil cinema. Starting out with Shankar's shot-for-shot 3 Idiots remake, Nanban, all the way through to Vikram's super disappointing Thaandavam, there just wasn't a whole lot to celebrate in terms of big cinema releases, at least not the ones I saw here in the states. Granted, I didn't see every major release, but the ones for which I was most excited all ended up disappointing me. So here we are, and one of my favorite Indian films of 2012 was actually a film that saw Indian theatrical release in 2011, Vetrimaran's Aadukalam. The version I saw was an unfortunately truncated festival cut, but I loved it nonetheless, here's part of my review from NYIFF 2012:
Vetrimaran's film is a remarkable piece of work. It brings this world, which as I said is so completely foreign to most, into sharp focus, and we are able to relate and sympathize with characters committing what we may see as uncivilized acts. I'm no big fan of cock-fighting, but you bet I was tensely watching the matches (unfortunately marred by some substandard CG) to see the outcome. I understood Pettaikaran's concerns about remaining the guru, it was all he knew, and he had no other currency than his word. I also understood Black's desire to please this man, a father figure for a man with no father, and why he does what he does.
The acting in Aadukalam is quite impressive, especially from Dhanush, who won the National Award in 2011 for his performance. The film is as technically slick as a film can get, but yet it remains rough feeling and immediate, as the animals fight for their lives, both in reality and in CG, and I'm not just talking about the cocks. We really aren't so different from these people in Madurai, the setting may look a bit dustier, but people are people wherever you go, and pride can be a bitch.
The most recent entry on my list is perhaps also the most conventional. Reema Kagti's Talaash is a pretty standard story told remarkably well, and sometimes that's all it takes. Aamir Khan's performance may seem rather one note at the beginning, but the pain he hides soon makes his actions all the more sensible and the crazy story that unfolds around him even more crucial for him to solve. A great cast, including Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Kareena Kapoor, and the ever-present Nawzuddin Siddiqui makes the film very watchable, and Kagti's direction, while a bit loose toward the end, it mostly very effective. Here's a piece of my review from last month:
Apart from being a little bit too long, I find little to fault in Talaash. Sure, they could've used more sense in cutting the finale and ending the film a bit earlier, rather than lingering in the emotion of the scene, but this was one of the areas where Bollywood's deep roots begin to show. It's a minor complaint, and only one I brought up because this review is, admittedly, so overwhelmingly positive. However, none of that diminished my enjoyment of the film in the moment, which is really why I was there.
2012 has been a banner year for Indian cinema, big and small. Last year I was able to find one Indian film that fit my criteria for the end of the year top ten. This year I think I'm going to make an all-Indian top ten parallel to my overall top ten. The good films coming out of India this year are amazing, transformative, adrenaline producing experiences the likes of which I haven't seen in a while, and I'm proud to have been there all along the way to share these successes. Talaash is very likely to make my top ten, heck, probably even my top five of 2012. If you're curious about Indian film, Talaash presents a high standard for the best of what India can do. Seek it out, I'm sure it's playing near you if you just search hard enough.
One of the very first things I posted at ScreenAnarchy was a rumor about director Sujoy Ghosh and actress Vidya Balan getting together to film a Kill Bill remake. Two years later I couldn't he happier than I was wrong. While the pair was, indeed, working on a project that had tenuous thematic links to Kill Bill, it is a very different film, and one of the year's best thrillers in any language. Ghosh's use of the city of Kolkata and the local flavor is absolutely amazing, not to mention the incredible cast of actors and characters he assembled to back up Vidya Balan, who has become India's most respected Female performer over the last couple of years with good reason. I could go on and on about the film, but I already did in a review several months ago, so I'll let me in August help me out:
There have been many conversations about the film online, and the one thing that detractors seem to mention more than anything else is the presence of plot holes at the end of the film. I'm of the opinion that the plot hole argument is used by lazy critics who can't really explain why they don't like a film, or why they weren't engaged. If there are plot holes and you notice them, it's because the action or the story didn't grab you, because if it did, those things wouldn't matter. Kahaani has a whiplash ending (which I'll not spoil for you here), it will have you shaking your head in disbelief, but it works incredibly well in my opinion, and I adored it. I really didn't see it coming, and that made me smile.
Every year when I fill out my top ten lists I attempt to allocate at least one spot to an Indian film, just for the sake of exposure. This year, it's going to be everyone else that will be fighting for a space against the Indians. Kahaani is the third Indian film I've marked on my ever-changing list for the end of the year, along with Agneepath and Eega, and that doesn't even count the independents! This is a wonderful year for India, and Kahaani is a film that deserves YOUR attention. It doesn't have any of the Bollywood conventions that people typically use as excuses for not watching Indian film, so now it's up to you to give it a shot. Needless to say, Kahaani is highly recommended.
Special Mention: Nawazuddin Siddiqui
I'm not sure if you're counting, but of my top ten Indian films of 2012, five (Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely, Patang, Talaash, & Kahaani) feature a certain ubiquitous presence on the Indian film scene, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. No one plays tortured souls like Nawaz, and if he's in a movie, chances are that there is a lot to recommend. According to Wikipedia, Siddiqui has starred in no less than 17 features released in 2012, including several that I really wanted to see but missed, like Paan Singh Tomar (available on Netflix Instant) and Dekh Indian Circus. Not only is he one of the busiest character actors in the country, he also defies convention by being a dark-skinned actor in a light skinned world. It's something that isn't often talked about, but light skin is everywhere in Bollywood, and the fact that Siddiqui has made a name for himself without the help of dozens of layers of makeup or Fair and Lovely skin lightening creme is very impressive. I look forward to everything he's in, and I'm hoping for a big 2013 from Nawaz. Maybe I can wrangle an interview this year, if he can squeeze me into his insane schedule!