2018 has not been a conventionally good year as far as Bollywood is concerned. The big, expensive productions, with all their glitz, glamour and star cast, either tanked miserably at the box office or delivered only a brief, flash in the pan hits. It was the smaller movies, with their steady casts and their well-knit narratives, that stole the spotlight completely.
Here are five of the small, independent movies that made a mark this year, some of them giving the bigger productions a run for their money.
Pataakha: The story of two feisty, sparring sisters, adapted from Rajasthani writer Charan Singh Pathik’s short story, Do Behnein, was without a doubt one of the highlights of the year. The raw simplicity of the mise-en-scene, aided by the inspiring performances of the lead characters, engages the audience instantly. The refreshingly sincere narrative makes no effort to sugar coat, drawing us into the lives of the spirited siblings and their never-ending one-upmanship over one another. The film makes no bones about its loud, yet naive rusticity and makes sure that the women remain central to the narrative, never once becoming patronizing. With no major stars in the ensemble, Pataakha came as a breath of fresh air with a clear vision, powerful performances, and a fun, yet compelling watch.
Stree: An unconventional horror comedy with a strongly feminist subtext, this film transported us into a society where, for once, it is men who are afraid to leave their homes at night, and the women folk who offer assurance while advising them to stay indoors! As much as we love our men, it would be interesting to have them sense, just for once, the fear and anxiety that has clutched women since eons. Based on the urban folk legend, Nale Ba, the story, told in a refreshing new voice, makes a strong statement on gender rights, with the feminist undertones deftly crafted in amusing dialogues. A fun watch, Stree is definitely one of the most curious movies of the year.
Manto: One of the most powerful and deeply poignant films of the year was Manto, based on the life of the Pakistani poet-playwright Sadaat Hasan Manto. Actor-turned-director Nandita Das, an inspiration herself, weaves an unflinching tale of hurt, shattered illusions, communalism and the struggle for freedom of speech and expression, while at the same time leading us back in a different time and place with the help of some master actors who are a hundred per cent invested in their roles. The stark ambience of the times coupled with the brilliant interweaving of Manto’s stories, the outstanding direction, and the soulful performances makes the film unmissable in recent times.
Andhadhun: An intriguing mesh of the comedy noir and a tribute to the 1970s Hindi cinema, reminiscent of a Hitchcockian ambience, with a touch of the theatre of the absurd, Andhadhun gets it right from the get go, never falling apart. While the second half threatens to unravel, it never really goes over the edge, and manages to tie the narrative together into a wickedly clever denouement. Inspired by the French short film L’Accordeur, the masterfully crafted screenplay is a testament to Bollywood’s evolution over the years, especially within the thriller genre, and even more so, in the display of dark comedy. The riveting performances by the ensemble cast, certainly a career-defining one by Ayushmann Khuranna, complement the outrageousness of the plot at every step of the way.
Badhaai Ho: An intelligent family drama at its core, Badhaai Ho, deserves special mention amongst this year’s releases, not only for its unusual central narrative but for the sharp social commentary that it handles smartly. The sweet middle-aged romance, a rarity in Indian mainstream cinema, leaves the audience feeling strangely content, to say nothing of the outstanding performances delivered by cast, especially veterans like Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao and Surekha Sikri. The narrative is driven by the middle-class elderly couple’s happy yet awkward revelation of pregnancy, and the hilarious uproar that inevitably follows, including the inability of the other family members to accept this apparently uncomfortable truth. The script, although far from flawless, is refreshingly pure.
A few other films like Mukkabaz that revolved around the struggle of an aspiring boxer, Karwaan that told the tale of three people enduring a road trip together for various reasons, and Manmarziyaan, a raw tale of millennial lust and confusion, deserve mention. In a year where Bollywood has disappointed big time, a handful of films with brilliant scripts, strong acting and interesting narratives, kept our hopes alive. As we make way for a new year, we wonder if 2019 will be yet another year for the no-fuss, less starry movies, which personally I would not mind!