Independent cinema came to the rescue of what was an indifferent year for the Hindi film industry. Not box-office wise, of course. A horde of southern remakes lead by Chennai Express, followed by Hollywood aspirants Krrish 3 and Dhoom 3, fulfilled their dates with destiny. Each trumped the former when it came to raking in the moolah. But none of these blockbuster films gave any indication of breaking the formula, and moving the industry forward, in form or content. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? The exceptions were luminous performances by two mainstream stars, and a streak of incredible music albums that put the music director in the spotlight for virtually every major production.
The success of The Lunchbox and Ship of Theseus were the bright spots then, showing both the audience and the box office that good cinema can also translate to good business. Will we look back at them as a new beginning, or will they be lost in the stubborn mediocrity of Bollywood? Only time will tell. For now, onto our picks for the best of 2013.
With contributions from @krnx, @karanbali, @saumilaria, and @reelreptile.
ABCD – Anybody Can Dance
When a film’s a about dancing, the choreography is all that matters. And Remo d’Souza does not disappoint. The role of a choreographer in a Bollywood production goes well beyond showing the actor the steps. They have absolute control over the situation including blocking, editing, production design, even where the camera goes. All of this d’Souza does wonderfully: when it comes to a chase across a slum; Prabhudeva defying human speed and flexibility in long, uncut takes in a dance-off; or the epic final performance; you’re in good hands while watching ABCD.
Go Goa Gone
Not that one should get into what an authentic zombie looks like, but Go Goa Gone’s Bolly bona fide zombies are spot-on with almost Hollywood-like make-up.
Madras Café illustrates just how much a well-done sound design can add to a film. From choosing every specific little sound effect to its final mix in Dolby Atmos, the film effectively puts its viewer right into the centre of the action especially in the war zone sequences thus heightening the impact of the film.
The editing of the film, while without being in your face, creates a seamless narrative flow, beautifully maintaining the overall gentle rhythm and pace of its story with some excellent transitions between scenes and locations.
Lootera – Aditya Kanwar
Lootera aspires for artistic glory and the overwhelming reason you may choose to watch this film, lies in the technical departments. Aditya Kanwar’s art direction is no exception. What startling recreation of post-independence Bengal! What incredible attention to detail! A period film dripping with authenticity. So rare in Bollywood. Director Vikramaditya Motwane has taken more than a cue from Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who he’s assisted for over half a decade, and has drawn from his sense of aesthetic in Lootera.
BA Pass – Ajay Bahl
The only film to have a solid camera arc that ties in with the story, BA Pass is our pick in the cinematography department. A dark noir, Ajay Bahl captures Delhi beautifully with unhurried camera movements and remarkable lighting. Paharganj by neon adds to the mood, weighing down on protagonist, Mukesh, like a gathering storm that that corners him from all sides. Brief scenes in the sunshine come as a relief from the murky depths of a landscape that’s Mukesh’s hell.
Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani – Pritam
Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. Pritam is back in top form with Ayan Mukerji’s second coming after ‘Wake Up Sid’- not that he was ever out of form. Once again, he has given us – if not arguably the best – easily the music album with maximum variety. From the latest Holi earworm, the energy-soaked ‘Balam Pichkari’ to the journeyman lyrics of another Ranbir-Mohit collaboration ‘Ilahi’, from the lilting Farooque Sheikh-reminder ‘Kabira’ to the foot tapping shaadi-topper ‘Dilli Waali Girlfriend’, Pritam has collaborated with Amitabh Bhattacharya to prove one thing: his understanding of the required crests and troughs of Bollywood commercial storytelling is second to none. Much credit must be given to young Ayan, who has managed to slip in these foot-tapping trailblazers in a manner that makes yet-another-Ranbir-coming-of-age film much better than it is. The album made the cut over the crooning Mohit Suri epic ‘Aashiqui2’ (easily the most popular album of 2013) and the quirkiness of Nautanki Saala in the list.
Supporting Actor – Male
As the monk caught between his ideology and possibility his impending death, Kabi gives perhaps the finest act of the year. His clear-headedness comes through with his delivery and body language. Simply put, flawless in terms of performance, the film also highlights the actor’s commitment to his craft as he braved ill-health and serious side effects to his body to shed 17 kilos over just 4 months to get his skeletal look right for the film.
Supporting Actor – Female
Ram Leela – Supriya Pathak
This was not an easy category to choose from; Divya Dutta’s nuanced portrayal of Milkha’s elder sister in BMB remained a favorite until November, along with Konkana’s spine-chilling witch act from Ek Thi Daayan and Aida Elkashef as the experimental photographer from SoT. But eventually, it was veteran actress Supriya Pathak that stole the honours for her intimidating turn as (Godmother) Dhankor Baa in SLB’s Gujarat-based Romeo and Juliet adaptation Ram Leela. Despite all the flaws and storytelling inconsistencies, Ram Leela’s actors were in top form; and Pathak led the charge with a fantastic appropriately over-the-top portrayal of the no-nonsense gun-totting pan-chewing chieftain of the Suneras clan in the village of Ranjaar. She displayed immense authority, effectively playing the mandatory ‘male’ villain with much aplomb. Her solid command over the local dialect stood out the most, while the others- especially the leads- often slipped back into orthodox Hindi devoid of Rabaari roots during dramatic moments. The role almost felt tailor-backed despite the shocking off-the-path script-explosion in the second half, thanks to Pathak’s exquisite aura and body language. Over-the-top isn’t easy to pull off successfully these days, especially when the canvas is SLB on a scale of 1 to 10; but Pathak has created a character for the ages. She is and will remain Dhankor Baa.
Ship of Theseus – Anand Gandhi
The three intricately woven stories of the blind photographer, the ailing monk and the resourceful stockbroker form the backbone of new-age screenwriting 101 for Indian cinema in 2013. Hailed as one of the best independent Indian films in a long time, Gandhi pens an incredibly downplayed screenplay that raises the usual questions of the meaning of life, morality, beauty, identity and death without getting too preachy or pseudo-intellectual. In particular, the story of the monk- beautifully portrayed by actor Neeraj Kabi- had plenty of potential to become a misguided arthouse effort in over indulgence. But there is much depth to the dialogue here, and Gandhi displays a rare mastery over the tricky paper-to-screen conversion. His actors somehow justify the very risky decision of making a genuine Hinglish-speaking film; often an Achilles’ heel for Indian filmmakers. SoT manages to hold our gazes relentlessly through these soul-searching stories, interconnecting them towards the end not as an afterthought- as is the case with many multi storied efforts- but forming the crux explaining the loaded title.
Raanjhanaa – Dhanush
Every regular Hindi film viewer had an opinion about Dhanush based on what they saw in Raanjhanaa’s promo, but surely no one had an even an inclination of the mighty acting talent that Dhanush was going to reveal himself as. It turned out to be the underdog performance of the year. Dhanush is so good in the film, he makes you want to be him. His madly infectious enthusiasm as the young Kundan and the signature tune that plays every time his heart beats for the love of his life makes you want to grab on to these moments, pin them down so you can stare at them on your time with the same elation as Kundan’s eyes have for his lover.
Best Actor – Female
Ram Leela – Deepika Padukone
This has undoubtedly been Deepika Padukone’s year and Ram Leela shows just how far she has matured as an actress. While the film itself has its ups and downs, Deepika rises way above the script in this one, confidently creating a strong, feisty and passionate heroine who is the life of the film. She gets every shade of her character spot on and lifts this wannabe epic a notch or two on the strength of her fine act alone.
The Lunchbox – Ritesh Batra
There isn’t a single aspect you could change to better the experience that is The Lunchbox and Ritesh Batra’s impeccable direction is the reason for this. The final cut goes well beyond the screenplay. Tension builds, humor edges in, and drama unfolds in restrained measures.There is a sacrosanct approach in detailing the characters and the spaces they traverse. Frames are meticulously set up, without being ambitious at any point. His transitions are superb, simple. It’s almost as if Batra wants you reach for the subtext by keeping the visuals uncomplicated. But his big achievement is modulating every performance to perfection. As it is, a director’s greatest challenge is to continually keep actors aware of their graph and mood in the context of the script and each other. Now imagine doing this with a couple in entirely different locations yet communicating in synchronous pitch. Is this really a first feature? Incredible.
In one of the toughest decisions we had to take between Ship of Theseus and The Lunchbox, we finally chose the latter. It is a film that is charming, genteel, smile-inducing yet poignant and thought-provoking; one that is meticulously crafted and achieves that delicate balance of being a film that is undoubtedly universal and yet so distinctly Mumbai.