If there was one word to describe 2017 so far at the movies, it would be – underwhelming.
For all the talk over the last few years of Bollywood undergoing a period of transition, gravitating toward more ‘content-driven’ cinema, this year has been pretty poor with far too little standing out and only a small handful of films warranting some form of memorable discussion
What’s clear from the releases thus far is that there’s certainly no lack of promise and intriguing concepts being approached. There seems to be a very conscious effort from the mainstream to expand and diversify in terms of the kinds of stories being told and while this is heartening to see, unfortunately for the most part that’s all it seems to be – promise and potential.
To put things in perspective, by this point last year (which was itself a lacklustre year for Hindi cinema) we had already had Neerja, Kapoor and Sons, Udta Punjab and Airlift, each of which was significant and game-changing in its own right. Still, all has not been a loss for the year with some gems emerging from the crowd and standing a class apart.
Before diving into the various hits and misses to date, we must address the giant CGI elephant in the room – this is the year of Baahubali, the one thing we can be sure of that will make 2017 a year to be remembered. Granted it is not a Bollywood film (which is itself very heartening), but it will no doubt deeply impact all facets of Indian cinema going forward.
The gargantuan achievement of visionary S S Rajamouli’s game-changing epic is not just that it vastly outdid the first film, but also, beyond all talk of scale, action and visual effects, it was entirely rooted in story, narrative and some truly unforgettable characters which left all the flashy technical achievements almost as an afterthought. Baahubali is an unforgettable experience and enough to make an entire year of disappointing movies worthwhile and simply one of the most iconic films of the decade.
Regarding what hasn’t worked, while our filmmakers appear to be diving at interesting concepts, they don’t seem to be taking the time to nurture and fully flesh out their stories. Unsurprisingly, the biggest disappointments thus far were among the year’s most anticipated films.
The much-awaited Anushka Sharma-produced Phillauri was the on the most unexpected disappointments given it appeared to have all the right elements, only to fall flat. The film offered an intriguing concept with the kind of offbeat comedy which is dispiritingly rare, however, fell through due to a half-baked story, resulting in a ghost-centered comedy which just floated by forgettably.
While both offered a lot to their credit, Rahul Dholakia‘s Raees and Vishal Bhardwaj‘s Rangoon didn’t live up to expectation and were severely let down by their capable filmmakers diluting their vision by trying to pander to a mainstream audience. Raees could have been a memorable gangster drama had it not been limited by the need to glorify its superstar, resulting in a surprisingly dull and ineffective ride, SRK’s crackling chemistry with Nawazuddin Siddiqui notwithstanding. Rangoon boasted of some strong performances and notably well-realised characters and did soar in true Bhardwaj beauty in moments but equally had some ridiculous sequences. That terrible climax CGI bridge scene will go down in the history books for all the wrong reasons.
Alternatively, there were those films which offered a lot to enjoy and fall for only to get lost and derail in a mishmash of social messaging of which both Noor and Hindi Medium are victims. Saket Chaudhary‘s Hindi Medium offered some winning and poignant class commentary only to get entirely lost in itself. Baby-spinoff Naam Shabaana was equally an overlong mess which sorely suffered from missing Neeraj Pandey‘s restrained touch.
In the ‘why was this even made?!’ category, which had you wondering how exactly these films were okayed by so many talented people before release, there was Dinesh Vijan‘s Raabta and Bumpy’s Bank Chor. Vijan is a respectable producer behind some great films and why he chose a concept and premise which belonged in 80’s and accepted such hammy performances for his directorial debut is beyond me. The baffling and pointless Bank Chor is no less. How this flat ‘comedy’ came about from the innovative and hilarious folks at Y-Films is a mystery.
Special mention of the almost-watchable Behen Hogi Teri which was sincere in its approach to an interesting idea but stretched it well beyond breaking point. Still, there was much to admire in the performances of its lead pair in Rajkummar Rao and Shruti Hassan.
The year began with Akshay Kumar’s annual safe bet with Jolly LLB2. While it didn’t have the impact of Airlift or Baby, it was still a sweet, sincere outing which for the most part managed to relive the magic of its predecessor.
Sanjay Gupta threw a surprisingly competent curve ball with Kaabil, which was a far more satisfying watch and unlikely victor against the Raees mammoth. The film wasn’t without its serious flaws but was a big leg up on what we’ve come to expect from films of its kind and made for quite the riveting ride and a much-needed win for Hrithik Roshan.
In other surprises, there was Shashank Khaitan‘s truly wonderful Badrinath Ki Dulhania. I was among those who had dismissed what I believed to be another unnecessary sequel only to be pleasantly proved wrong. The film explored the issue of toxic masculinity and the confining place of women in society and impressively used the mainstream machinery to address many pressing issues with honesty. The film boasted of winning performances, particularly from Alia Bhatt and was far more layered than most appreciated it for.
In terms of the smaller gems which stole the show, Vikramaditya Motwane’s tense survival thriller Trapped, shot almost entirely in a confined apartment proved to be an unmissable edge of your seat thriller. The film was a triumph in performance from Rajkummar Rao who singlehandedly carried the film and constantly had you on edge with baited breath. Konkona Sen Sharm’s directorial debut in the heartbreakingly beautiful in A Death In The Gunj was a poignant ensemble family drama which boasted of strong performances all round but none as moving as the endlessly sincere as Vikrant Massey as Shuttu, the soft-spoken lead character who entirely stole your heart.
In the ‘best film no one saw’ space, there was Avinash Das‘ Anarkali Of Aarah which explored issues of consent in an entirely different setting to last year’s Pink. With a powerhouse performance from the vastly underrated Swara Bhaskar as a raunchy dancer who is mistreated by a local politician (played fantastically by Sanjay Mishra) and refuses to sit quietly and tolerate it.
By way of self-assured, unassuming films that flew under the radar but proved to be so much more than expected, Akshay Roy‘s Meri Pyaari Bindu offered a moving, melancholic journey, which didn’t get its due. The year has also seen a surprising lack of biopics thus far, considering they were the winning trend of last year. All we’ve had is Rahul Bose’ Poorna which certainly had its heart in the right place but was overly simplistic and lacked heft not to mention a self-indulging choice by Bose casting himself in a role he was plain ill-suited for.
Finally, we come to Kabir Khan‘s Tubelight. The film failed to land as intended and Kabir Khan couldn’t re-muster the magic of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and that goes without question, which should technically make this an addition to the list preceding this one. However, I’m one of the few who was pleasantly struck by the film in just how it entirely subverted the Salman Khan myth. If you had told me a year ago that Khan would be in a performance-driven film, where he was frequently abused in a character who didn’t have even an inkling of machismo and a minimalist storyline, I might not have believed you and just for that Tubelight is an experience I’m still reeling from and weirdly grateful for.
Due Apologies to Shubhashish Bhutiani‘s much-raved about Mukti Bhawan which I wasn’t able to see.
That rounds up our look at the poor start to cinema 2017. While the second half certainly looks to pack a bigger punch, lets hope its enough to redeems 2017 and make it a memorable year at the movies.