When asked what his message to the audience is through his films, Kamal Hassan once retorted, “I am not a postman that you will find your message in my film.” But films have always been a reflection of society and its dreams, frustrations and aspirations. The rise of Amitabh Bachchan as the unrivaled superstar is often explained by the growing antagonism in the society in the 70s while the success of Shahrukh man signaled the rise of the urban metrosexual.
So, what did the movies of 2012 say about the society we live in? It seems pointless asking this question when the entire industry is focused on perfecting the 100 crore recipe (Tamil movie remake + slow motion action + punch dialogue + Prabhu deva direction + product placement item song + Salman Khan). Maybe, as we have argued every year, the answer lies in a whole bunch of movies that one has barely even heard about but deserved to be watched.
2012 brought us some good movies. Below are a few chosen ones, in the top 10 list of almost every Indian movie critic worth his salt. Not because they had a message (ask Madhur Bhandarkar) but because they told a compelling story. And in the process, they held a mirror to us as people and our notions and beliefs.
It is interesting to watch the reaction of the liberated, fuck-speaking, urban population who upon the mention of the film, break into a giggle and go “sperm” – like it is an unspeakable concept that they find amusing to engage with. You mention words like infertility and artificial insemination, and there’s an uncomfortable hush in the room and a pedagogical tone to the conversation. While increasingly common, we as a society are still ill-equipped to discuss these topics with ease. The movie takes all of these issues head-on but discusses them with such lightness in tone. Easily my favourite movie of the year, the movie walks the tightrope of filling every second scene with a laugh while never trivializing the issue in question.
The maudlin ending and questions behind the whole premise of conflict (“Was she upset that he donated sperm or because he didn’t tell her? Or is she just jealous given the place and time she is in her life?”) does make the movie less than perfect. But if the spirited performances and the witty lines made this a drawing room conversation, all faults can be forgiven.
I remember telling someone that English Vinglish is not my kind of movie. I am done rooting for the underdog (are we ever!). But I underestimated two things – how much heart is in the movie and how intelligently it is written. Almost every scene takes a stereotype that we have taken for granted and turns it on its head (“How would you live in the USA without knowing English”, asks the American at the consulate; “Just like you don’t know Hindi and live in ours” replies his Indian colleague).
All of us become one of the characters in every good film we watch – we root for the protagonist but we know we don’t have her heart or charm, we aren’t as naïve as the little boy who loves his mother unconditionally, we aren’t the petulant teenage daughter either. Deep down, we know, we are the husband – a man who believes that he’s married a hopeless, country bumpkin that he cannot engage deeply with. He pokes and protects her in turns like one treats one’s favourite soft toy – cute but limited. He is not a villain. He’s just a regular guy who’s taken the stereotype to heart.
At the face of it, Shanghai is about the classical – and often fought battle in India of pro- and anti-development; the story of a nation that is torn between two belief systems – one leaning towards growth and the other towards equity. The film, with its thinly veiled metaphors asking questions often raised about a state that recently re-elected its controversial chief minister, has all the right ingredients to be a message movie. A movie that, in Shyam Benegal’s hands, would have highlighted the impact on the common man because of all the focus on growth. But in the hands of Dibakar Banerjee, it takes a more fatalistic tone – that there are no two positions, no beliefs on what is good for the country. All stories are stories of people seeking what is good for them.
Paan Singh Tomar
The entire nation kept count of the medals – of any metal – that a country of 1.2 billion won in the recently concluded Olympics. But what is a medal that you win for your country worth? Even in today’s times of reality television with celebrity dance shows and an unending ad machine, it might not be worth a lot. But it is sure worth a lot of pride and recognition. Is it? Sitting in front of a police officer and fighting for his rights, Paan Singh Tomar realizes that a medal cannot save his family, his land, his rights or the future of his son. A medal, he learns, is worth zilch.
It is the kind of storyline that you would dismiss to be too sensationalist (army man to international champion to a dacoit, oh please!). Only it happens to be true. Not as an exception but as a sign of how we treat our sportspersons. You cheered for them then. Do you remember the names of the six Indians who won medals in London? Or was it seven? You might google them now, but Paan Singh Tomar reminds us, they might just be in the papers tomorrow. Only it wouldn’t be for their sporting achievements.
And the rest…
We are not talking about all the bad movies not because there aren’t any but because there are so many of them. But among all the drivel that was up on screen, there is one that is the worst among equals. It is about time somebody said it – Yashraj films has consistently been making the most regressive films in the industry. While the skimpily clad, pointless women in Dhoom series are often dismissed as keeping with the times, the illogical, twisted romantic lead characters in all the Aditya Chopra flicks makes you wonder, who ate the man who wrote and directed Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. But nothing – nothing – that we have seen comes close to the atrocity called Ishqzaade. He pisses on her dad’s picture, romances her in a ladies toilet, runs away with her and defiles her for revenge and she has nothing but love for him. I will just let Vigil Idiot do the rest of the talking.
And just as always, the whole industry in this side of the Vindhyas becomes a footnote in an article about cinema in India. While the staple South Indian movie template of larger than life heroes have suddenly become the toast of Bollywood, the industries down south are making more movies based on “stories of the soil” – rustic faces, local dialects, dying art forms, mythological characters and regular urban stories of people who talk like you and me. But these films deserve a post of their own.
And before signing off, here’s a fantastic film synopsis for your reading pleasure.
P.S: The author wishes to acknowledge that Talaash, Kahani, Gangs of Wasseypur and Oh My God were all good movies but were kept out of the scope of this article. Author also believes that while sending Barfi to the Oscars was blasphemous (they know the Chaplin fellow you know!), every frame that the eponymous character is on screen gives us a chance to fall in love with the new leading man in town – all over again.