We all know the massive damage that Covid-19 inflicted on the entertainment business but what did it do to criticism? I often wonder how different my responses to a film would be, if I were sitting in a theatre, with hundreds of other people, who laugh and scream when I do. If the same visuals were playing on a large screen with Dolby Atmos sound with an interval perhaps but without a watermark of my name. Through the year, I tried to replicate the experience. I made strict rules for uninterrupted viewing and zero distractions. I tried to stay in the zone.
As a critic, it has been a year for pausing and growing. But more than ever, I understood that it is the stories that sustain us. Even when there are few – only around 90 Hindi films released this year. Here are my best and worst.
5. Love Aaj Kal
Love Aaj Kal was a confounding film about confused people. Like in the first 2009 Love Aaj Kal, the story was about two love stories in different times – one present day and the other in the 90s. Once again, an older, wiser confidante – here played by Randeep Hooda – tried to steer the young couple through their tumultuous emotions. And once again, Imtiaz Ali tried to make a case for the redemptive power of love. But despite the sparkling music by Pritam and ample star power – Kartik Aaryan, Sara Ali Khan and Randeep Hooda – the film tanked because the narrative was a bewildering mess. The fatal flaw was the character of Zoe, played by Sara, a woman with a brittle exterior and fragile interior. Battling between love and career, Zoe came off as shrill and annoying. Her classic line – tum mujhe tang karne lage ho – inspired some terrific memes. But by the end, that's exactly what I wanted to say to her. This love story missed the mark by a mile.
4. Coolie No 1
Coolie No 1 is a remake of a remake so there was little chance that the film would offer something innovative. But I was surprised at how outdated and tired the film turned out to be – from the lame jokes to the idea of what a Hindi film hero and heroine should be to the posturing – the film pretends to celebrate dignity of labour but actually undermines it at every step. Varun Dhawan in brownface tried vigorously to rescue this film from itself but it was an impossible task. What bothered me the most was Sara Ali Khan – an intelligent, attractive actor reducing herself to a well-dressed prop. I think this entire team can do much better than this.
3. Mrs. Serial Killer
"Stop calling me Joy. I'm not a fucking ice cream." This immortal line is delivered by Manoj Bajpayee, playing Mrityunjoy Mukherjee in the film Mrs. Serial Killer. Mrityunjoy is a respected gynecologist in an unnamed hill station. When the bodies of pregnant women with their foetuses sliced out are discovered, Mrityunjoy is arrested for the crime. So his wife, Sona, played by Jacqueline Fernandez, decides to get her husband out by replicating the crime. I think only director, writer, editor and composer Shirish Kunder can explain the logic of that. Shirish was perhaps going for a gothic horror film – or at least, that's what the saturated colours and mood lighting suggests. But what we got was an unhinged train-wreck. In one scene, Sona tries to perform an abortion by watching a YouTube tutorial. Honestly, you can't make this stuff up.
2. Sadak 2
Maybe there should be some rule about how many years after a film's release, can a sequel be made. Because clearly 29 years is too many. Talent has faded, tastes have changed. It becomes impossible to recreate the earlier magic. Prime exhibit – Sadak 2, in which Mahesh Bhatt returned from a two-decade long directing sabbatical. And Sanjay Dutt reprised his role as Ravi, a mentally unstable driver. Here he rescues a young girl Aarya, played by Alia Bhatt, from a sadistic godman. With a logic-free script, hammy performances and terrible dialogue, Sadak 2 felt like it was made in the 90s. I soldiered through it by paying attention to jewellery – the dhongi baba, played by an unintentionally comical Makarand Deshpande – wears terrific bracelets and necklaces. And that was, by far, the best thing in this movie.
Laxmii was an equal-opportunity offender. The title, which was first Laxmmi Bomb, offended thin skinned Hindu groups for connecting bomb with a Hindu goddess. The film offended the rest of us. A remake of the 2011 horror comedy Kanchana, Laxmii featured Akshay Kumar, in saviour mode yet again. The film ostensibly propagated a message of inclusion – for transgenders and the differently abled. Even an inter-faith marriage was bunged in to show how progressive the makers are. But the good intentions were contradicted by the film itself. Laxmii was transphobic, sexist, shrieky, gaudy and just all-around awful. The most curious aspect was Akshay's physically strenuous but emotionally vacant performance. Perhaps he understood all along that Laxmii was truly a bomb.
The hesitant relationship between a maid and her upper-class employer. This is a minefield of a story but writer-director Rohena Gera ventures into it with an observant eye and tenderness. Sir doesn't scream about inequality, the class divide, the folk who serve people like us and who we rarely acknowledge. Instead Rohena builds little moments of hurt and happiness. The film rides on Tillotama Shome's brilliant performance. Ratna has grace, strength and dignity. I was rooting for her all the way.
I don't think we applaud enough the people who make us laugh. Lootcase, directed by Rajesh Krishnan and written by Kapil Sawant, put a smile on my face for days. The story of a working-class man, Nadan who finds a suitcase filled with 10 crore in cash is inspired comedy. From Nandan and his wife Lata using Chinese dishes as code for sex to Gajraj Rao as the hysterically oily MLA to Vijay Raaz as the suave don Bala who is a fan of National Geographic – Lootcase is consistently inventive and hilarious. This was the one film that I wished had released in theatres. I think it would have worked magic.
Cargo is proof that a filmmaker's imagination can trump stars, scale, budgets. Director Arati Kadav builds a future world – the film is set in 2027 – that is both audacious and original. Cargo, about demons who work on a space ship where humans are prepped for rebirth, explores loneliness, death, relationships with a touch that is both light and hefty. The lead actors – Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi – are stellar and the production design by Mayur Sharma is a thing of beauty – he repurposes retro TV sets and customized vacuum cleaners into gadgets of the future. I loved the sly humour that Arati inserts into this grim scenario. There is death here but no despair. If you haven't seen Cargo yet, do find it on Netflix.
I know this is supposed to be a list of feature films but hey, it's 2020 – nothing is what it's supposed to be. Vishaanu is one of the five short films in an Amazon Prime anthology named Unpaused. It's been directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware and written by Shubham. Vishaanu, which mean Virus, is about a migrant family, that has been rendered jobless and homeless in the lockdown. They become squatters in a sample flat but their luxurious surrounding only reminds them and us of how threadbare their life is. But even in these dire straits they find a moment of joy. Vishaanu says so much with so little. And the acting by Abhishek Banerjee and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan is terrific.
1. Eeb Allay Ooo!
In the opening credits of Eeb Allay Ooo!, director Prateek Vats thanks the monkeys of Lutyens Delhi. It's deserving because they play a starring role in this ferociously original satire about the struggle of a migrant worker in New Delhi. Anjani is a professional monkey repeller. His job is to scare the monkeys away so that bureaucratic machinery in government buildings such as Rail Bhawan, Vigyan Bhawan and Nirman Bhawan continues without disruption. In a sense, Anjani works at the corridors of power but the irony is that he is powerless. Even the monkeys he is trying to scare seem to have more agency than him. Anjani is so marginalized that he is invisible. Shardul Bhardwaj's performance as Anjani is terrific. Pratik and writer Shubham create a film that is both darkly funny and subtly harrowing. Eeb Allay Ooo! is a penetrating and brilliant commentary on the state of our nation. This is a masterful debut.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Thappad, Serious Men and Raat Akeli Hai. The latter two were propelled by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in ferocious form. The former two were women empowerment stories, which despite their flaws, landed persuasively.
Taapsee Pannu as the housewife who initiates a quiet rebellion in Thappad was fantastic. Gunjan Saxena, despite the predictable beats, had me weeping copiously. Janhvi Kapoor's sincerity propelled the narrative but the magic was wrought by Pankaj Tripathi. Can any daughter ask for a warmer, wiser cheerleader?