But 2017 was also the year when the biggest films drew long queues outside theatres.
With just days to go before we discard our old calendars for new ones, a look back at 2017 is both depressing and exhilarating. The year 2017 will go down in cinematic annals as the year when one of Bollywood’s biggest directors was hounded by a fringe caste group and his film held hostage on an imagined insult to a fictional character they claimed was a potent symbol of their valour and virtue.
2017 will also be remembered as the year when the ministry of information and broadcasting pulled out two jury-selected films from the International Film Festival of India — Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga, and Ravi Jadhav’s Nude — without the courtesy of an explanation.
Shri Rajput Karni Sena, which had competed in the qualifiers with middling results (first protesting Jodhaa Akbar and then Veer), got their big break with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, a film based on the fictional queen whose first known mention is in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 1540 epic poem, Padmavat.
And Ms Irani, who had waged a war against the students of JNU for threatening Hindurashtra with their naare-baazi, now, as the custodian of Indian culture in cinema halls, unilaterally disregarded the decision of a 14-member jury and pretty much ignored the Kerala high court’s order to show Sexy Durga at IFFI.
But 2017 was also the year when the biggest films drew long queues outside theatres and some serious directorial talent debuted in small but searing and memorable films.
There’s little left to be said about the monumental hit Baahubali 2. But there’s lots that needs to be said and written about some of the best films that you may have missed this past year.
These films have nothing to do with box-office ratings, but each one stands out because of distinctive directorial vision, politics and skill that resulted in not just great acting but narrative styles which lifted stories that were not entirely new.
Among the best movies of 2017 that you may have missed were five debuts — Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj, Rakhee Sandilya’s Ribbon, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, Shankar Raman’s Gurgaon and Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha).
Newton: A film like Newton is, perhaps, a natural choice for the best film in a year that was dominated by disagreements, distrust and disappointments. In Amit V. Masurkar’s Newton, a government clerk on election duty in the conflict-ridden jungle of central India tries his best to conduct voting despite the apathy of security forces and the looming fear of guerrilla attacks by communist rebels, all the while ignoring that his earnestness only feeds into the myth of free and fair elections that prop up the proud claim of India being the world’s largest democracy.
Masurkar brilliantly brings out the dark, disturbing undertone, primarily with the help of his screenplay and characters who give us a glimpse of an India that’s both troubling and funny. The film’s cast — Rajkummar Rao, Raghubir Yadav and Pankaj Tripathy — keep viewers transfixed by embodying the delightful contrast between the absurd and harsh reality that afflict India, and define it.
A Death in the Gunj: Tying for the top honours with Masurkar’s Newton, Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut may seemingly be a film where family dynamics rule, but its uneasy and ominously dark narrative in its looming sense of dread sets the mood for an impending catastrophe, and an insight into troubled characters. While the gloomy sense of calm begins to haunt you through a series of incidents, the inevitable reality of death looms large over this coming-of-age story. Sen’s acclaimed career may include numerous performance-oriented films — from Mr and Mrs Iyer to Page 3 and Wake Up Sid, but she’s also almost a fine documentarian in this evocatively melancholic film, and shows her consummate skill detailing each character with the right individualities.
Be it the shy young man Shutu played by Vikrant Massey, or the feisty Vikram played by Ranvir Shorey, the opportunist city-bred Mimi’s (Kalki Koechlin) uninhibited carnality, or even the backdrop of McCluskieganj, a sleepy forest retreat in Jharkhand, showcasing its luxuriously lived-in-but-decaying-splendour-period décor — every bit transports you to the setting of an old Anglo-Indian town of 1971. Beautifully shot, its pure movie magic lies beyond the visual, and is a testament to the timeless, transporting power of cinema.
Lipstick Under My Burkha: Alankrita Srivastava’s black comedy chronicles the rather secret lives of four women and their spirit of rebellion. Leading repressed lives, these women not just break away from tradition but also unshackle themselves into free-spirited individuals. They may as well make the first move too. Through the prism of almost sensationalist fantasies that each of them dreams of, we get to meet a widowed Buaji alias Usha (Ratna Pathak); mother-saleswoman Shirin (Konkona Sen); college student Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) and beautician Leela (Aahana Kumra). As their throbbing lives ache for animated action they break-free and breach the stereotypical mold to unite together. Set in the crowded bylanes of Bhopal, the film’s protagonists are characters representing many layers of the humanistic desires that lay stifled and powerless in their narrow worlds, but, nonetheless, have a will to rebel.
Gurgaon: In the wake of a city’s changing skyline, the collateral damage in the shape of honour killing, patriarchy, ambition and political power come in all shapes and sizes, but only a few have been on such familiar terms with all of their ignominious varieties as Shankar Raman’s Gurgaon.
Emotionally ragged, and visually stunning, this exquisitely crafted crime thriller is a portentous story that, as a film, doesn’t just ask for time and effort; it earns it. In that sense, its achingly revealing portrait of the aspirations of men in a metropolis drifts gently into moviegoers’ consciousness. Pankaj Tripathy’s indelible under-the-skin performance is probably this year’s best!
Mukti Bhawan: Shubhashish Bhutiani’s film is a story of the kind of fears we all have: the impending demise. It may be our own, or of our loved ones, but the loss of life in the city of salvation Benaras, signifies far more, where death is as much part of its fabric as much it is a celebration, and thus, the city itself, almost becomes a character. A reluctant son who must take his father to the holy city, where his father believes he would attain salvation, allows many relationships to get defined and redefined. Despite the subject being as morbid as death, the film has a light touch feel to fatality, or the interplay between life and death has a gentle humour that emphasises on the entire process of passing away.
G Kutta Se: There have been plenty of films that tackled the unspeakable horrors of honour killing, so it would take a filmmaker of singular vision to place a fresh spin on it. G Kutta Se is no less harrowing or soul-searching than those that came before it, but in its riveting story, it presents a tale of glaring surrender and matter of fact nonchalance rather than victimhood, and frames them almost entirely through close-ups of emotive faces of virtually unknown actors. At times, the cryptic events are never fully explained, leaving G Kutta Se even more ambiguously unsettling. It’s a brutally honest film by Rahul Dahiya that sometimes becomes an uncomfortable watch due to its brutality. A must-see!
Ribbon: Another first-timer director Rakhee Sandilya’s Ribbon looks at a young working urban couple’s life with utmost sensitivity. Emphasising on somewhat discomfort that a man may cause to his career-oriented professional wife, who is not ready for motherhood, Sandilya lays bare several issues that entail stress, time management and the frenetic pace of life for any ambitious couple living in a metro. She also extracts fabulous performances by its lead, Sumeet Vyas and Kalki Koechlin, who are struggling with issues of parenthood, responsibility and regret. Rearranging characters around her narrative she stages her material with grim reality, all the while presenting a vision of femininity that is seductive, sinister and empowered.
Honourable mention: Anaarkali of Aarah, Raees, Kadvi Hawa, Qarib Qarib Singlle, Trapped, Simran, Secret Superstar, Mom, Dear Maya, Poorna, Rukh and Tumhari Sulu.
The writer is a film critic and has been reviewing films for over 15 years. He also writes on music, art and culture, and other human interest stories.