The monologue has long been cinema’s purest narrative device. In many ways, a monologue, whether an exasperated rant or inspirational speech, is cinema. A character speaking fluently – transfixing a room, auditorium or even nation, compelling people to listen in pin-drop silence, lending gravitas to every single word in the most unlikely of circumstances – is a rarity in everyday life. A fantasy, almost. Public figures and political leaders are the only ones afforded the privilege of being listened to without being interrupted, but the sense of occasion comes with the territory. It’s different from, say, a blind Colonel delivering a compassionate speech during an Ivy League School disciplinary session in defense of a young student. Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman monologue proved that there is nothing quite as romantic as a sharply written and performed climactic speech. And that it’s not just the courtroom that accommodates the rousing word.
Mainstream Hindi cinema, more than most, thrives on the monologue. On the sermons and the meltdowns, the pleas and the verdicts. But some of the movies’ most memorable scenes – where the feelings trump the phrases – have come from the climactic speech. This is a distinct artform: Staking the finality of a full-length movie’s resolution on…an oration. The camera, too, has a role to play – even something as basic as a well-timed crowd cutaway adds to the ethos. Here is where a film’s politics are laid bare. It makes for the most direct form of communication between the maker and the audience; the medium that separates the two is transcended. Hence, we come away not with lyrical lines or memorable quotes but with entire moments.
The last two decades, in particular, have had more Hindi film screenplays conclude – and resolve themselves – in ways that can be heard rather than seen. A majority of them are social statements, but there are also the personal petitions.
Here are some of the finest “climax speeches” of the new millenium:
It’s a testament to director Ram Madhvani’s grasp of cinematic grammar that one of this decade’s most moving ‘podium’ speeches ends a film of breathtaking action. By the time it arrives, the words – their crippling staticness – become both an intimate reminder of loss and a breather from the film’s relentless motion that preceded them. For five minutes, Shabana Azmi, as slain air-hostess Neerja Bhanot’s mother, brilliantly depicts the conflict of a woman who is torn between the brave parent the world needs to see and the shattered heart she wants to be. You can sense she had prepared a more formal speech, but she keeps breaking into peels of fond reminiscence. Her Punjabi twang never once overwhelms the depth of her struggle. Grief is not an inherently verbal emotion. It is more visible than audible, especially in a performative medium like the movies. Which perhaps adds to the poetry of our melting tear-ducts once Azmi rounds it up with that immortal Rajesh Khanna line: “Pushpa, I hate tears.” By now, she is even trying to emulate the late superstar’s intonations in her choked-up voice. Just for her little girl.
SAURABH SHUKLA (JOLLY LLB)
Over the years, Justice Sunderlal Tripathi, a character that fetched Saurabh Shukla a national award, has become an enduring pop-cultural icon. Again, it wasn’t so much the anatomy of his climactic speech as it was the timing – a winning resolution of his compromised personality – that remains crucial to his stature. Up until this moment, Judge Tripathi, a rotund and weary veteran, spends the entire film defying the intensity of a Bollywood courtroom drama: He comes across as a passive listener and a man of mundanity, a career sellout condemned to a “life goes on” gait. His speech follows a fiery closing argument by the film’s hero – a masala monologue with meme-worthy gems like “Kaun hain yeh log? Kahaan se aate hai?” and “Maanta hu ki footpath par soney ka haqq nahi hai, lekin footpath gaadi chalaane ke liye bhi nahi hota”. But Tripathi’s verdict stands out not just because it redeems his own reputation in court, but also because cinema, like life, finds great solace in the voices of wise old men judging the truth of our times. Shukla’s victory here is that he could have well been addressing his living room.
NASEERUDDIN SHAH (A WEDNESDAY!)
For better or worse, the closing speech of the “stupid common man” in Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday! finds its loudest echo in today’s India. The concept of a man holding an entire system hostage to avenge his city – citizen terrorism to counter communal terrorism – is problematic. But there’s no denying that, in context of the film’s radical ambitions, the semi-monologue is impassioned and expertly delivered. The actor’s immense stage experience – notice the way the camera frames his face, allowing him to almost break the fourth wall by addressing us – helps convey the character’s self-awareness, his regretful morality. He knows that his process is wrong. As a result, he is not just chastising the system but himself, too, in a jaded tone that suggests an inability to distinguish between victimhood and vigilantism. The film might have positioned him as a hero, but Shah himself draws the line with his fatigued rant.
SRIDEVI (ENGLISH VINGLISH)
An Indian homemaker raises a wedding toast to the happy couple. Much to the shock of her patronizing husband, the woman delivers this speech in English, a language she hadn’t ever spoken till now. Her words – about family and mutual respect – are actually directed at him, but with exemplary grace. There’s much to be said about Shashi Godbole’s – Sridevi’s – touching monologue. It’s easy to tell when urban actors try to play vernacular or rural characters. They interpret it as “broken English” – severed sentences interspersed with perfectly pronounced words and vowels. They find it harder to unlearn the diction than the accent. Case in point: Akshay Kumar’s UN speech in Pad Man, Arjun Kapoor in Half Girlfriend, Harshvardhan Kapoor in Mirzya. But Sridevi comes very close to replicating the “newness” of knowledge. Notice the way she subconsciously uses her hands to convey her message – a sign that she hasn’t yet come to terms with the fact that she is thinking and speaking in different languages.
RANBIR KAPOOR (TAMASHA)
Tamasha, Imtiaz Ali’s most disputed film, has silent pleas written into the eyes of its tortured protagonist. Ved is a misfit: an artist who is yet to discover that his storytelling isn’t just an escape but also a medium of personal expression. When he finally sits his domineering dad down at the end of the film, Ved confides in the language of his future. In the only way he knows how – as a story. A story about a hero robotized by the pressures of small-town expectations…until love jumpstarts his dormant system. We’ve seen similar awakenings in other films (R. Madhavan in 3 Idiots), but Ranbir Kapoor turns this into an anthem of the disillusioned Indian everyman. The details elevate the scene: the strategic cutaways of his grandmother’s (Sushma Seth) anguished face, a mirror framing the father-son moment as if it were a portrait of Ved’s posthumous legacy. Note how Kapoor – after denying them a happy ending, and waiting for the mother to react (“Kyun?”) like a beguiled moviegoer – gives the subtlest of defiant nods, as if to break the spell and ask: “Nobody likes a tragedy, right?”
PARESH RAWAL (MUMBAI MERI JAAN)
Most films open with a dreamy Mumbai monologue. But Nishikant Kamat’s multi-narrative communal drama ends with a nightmarish one, delivered by its most unassuming character. Paresh Rawal’s sub-inspector Tukaram Patil – a manifestation of Mumbai’s famous “chalta hai” attitude – turns a routine retirement speech into a profound rumination on the wounds of India’s most secular city. Alternating between nostalgic smiles and wide-eyed regret, Rawal gently rues the transformation of his beloved city in his 36 years of service. The crowded trains, the packed spaces, the media coverage. The bomb blasts that have threatened to redivide Mumbai into its seven pieces. The reactions of his colleagues – nodding along as if he were narrating anecdotes – indicate that Patil is trying to slip some food for thought into his usual tomfoolery. He even calls himself a poet, a “shaayar,” to lighten the mood. His tears in the end prove that – more than literature and documents – a city’s history acquires a personality when uploaded into the memories of its loyal gatekeepers.
TAAPSEE PANNU (MULK)
In 2018, Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk emerged out of the ruins of propaganda cinema and delivered a damning verdict of our times. Taapsee Pannu plays Aarti, a Hindu lawyer that defends the Muslim family she is married into against allegations of second-hand terrorism. Her climactic speech, however, strives to erase the Hindu and Muslim from the previous sentence. It attempts to highlight the blatant “Us versus Them” narrative peddled by a democratic nation’s political establishment. Unlike Jolly LLB, here it’s not the judge’s uplifting prognosis but the defense’s closing argument – a dramatic and clear-minded takedown of our country’s inbuilt communal prejudice – that drives home the film’s progressive message. Pannu’s body language, exasperated yet tragically hopeful, acquires an extra dimension because her character is estranged from the husband whose family she is fighting for. The camera is positioned in a way that makes it seem like she is persuading not the judge but us, the viewers, to see the light. Her monologue is the final word – a timely rejoinder to the common man’s monologue in A Wednesday.
ALIA BHATT (HIGHWAY)
Alia Bhatt’s breakout performance ends with an outburst so blinding in its reflective rage that I have barely been able to revisit it since 2014. It’s not a meltdown, quite the opposite in fact. A young woman, back in the prison of Delhi high society after tasting freedom with her rugged captor, exposes a sexually abusive uncle. One line encapsulates the trauma of childhood abuse more than most: “Everyone tells us to be vigilant outside our homes, but who will protect us from the monsters inside the house?” More importantly, it’s the blocking (the choreography) of Meera’s speech that lends it a social grammar: Note how, while Meera confronts the uncle without restraint, there are no individual reaction cutaways. The others occupy the same frame as her. Only once the man reacts does he occupy a separate shot, as if there were no escaping her truth. All eyes are on him. After this, a few others in the room are afforded fleeting “guilt shots” too; it’s just them and their conscience.
RANI MUKERJI (BLACK)
Michelle McNally gives a graduation speech on a podium 40 years in the making. She rattles off every elephant-ant-underdog proverb in the first few seconds itself, as if to suggest that none of them sound as powerful as “a blind and deaf woman becomes a college graduate.” It’s to tireless director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s credit that one of the best monologues in modern Hindi cinema is delivered in sign language. Rani Mukerji extols the virtues of the colour black, even as her aged mother (Shernaz Patel) serves as the voice to her words on stage. The scene is informed by the way Mukerji’s excitable gesturing juxtaposes beautifully with Patel’s restful verbal subtitles. You can sense that the elegant lady is trying hard to imbibe the enthusiasm of her daughter’s tone. The camera occasionally cuts to the mother – she is not just translating but listening, reacting and feeling simultaneously, often moved to tears by Michelle’s strength even as she narrates a miracle in real time.
AMITABH BACHCHAN (BAGHBAN)
Baghban’s philosophies haven’t aged very well, but the film was – is – depressingly reflective of Indian domestic culture. I don’t mean the “all kids are ungrateful jerks” culture; I mean the “parents are heroes for expecting something in return for parenting” culture. In 2003, though, the film felt like an update of David Dhawan’s Swarg, but also a timely antidote to Sooraj Barjatya’s everything-is-awesome syndrome. Bachchan’s climactic speech, where he passive aggressively lashes out at his sheepish sons for failing at their “duty,” is a milestone in Hindi cinema’s social-drama landscape. My father still sends me this clip when I fail to answer his phone calls. But perhaps what humanizes the self-righteousness of the sermon is the old man’s bitterness – not at being abandoned by his kids, but at being separated from his beloved wife. He lets his hurt as a husband – the camera even begins to focus more on Hema Malini towards the end – overwrite his fatherly entitlement. The author in him shines through.
AMITABH BACHCHAN (PINK)
There’s a lot of noise in Pink. All the right things – about consent (before #MeToo), character, misogyny and power – are said, argued, screamed and declared in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s politically correct courtroom drama. But the loudest monologue is its mellow two-minute-long closing statement. It is delivered in the tired baritone of Amitabh Bachchan’s semi-senile lawyer character – as if to suggest that all the cacophony and debates are futile, because “No means NO” is all people really need to know. There’s more to this scene than the distillation of the film’s social significance. Deepak Sehgal comes out of retirement to fight the case – but more selfishly, to remind himself of his disenchantment with society after his wife’s death. Here, however, while addressing a judge whose voice is as old and wavering as his, he is unable to meet the gaze of anyone in the room. He looks blankly into space, as if in a state of punishment for being complicit – as a (male) mute observer – in the perception of Indian womanhood. His words are winning, but his gait, defeated.
Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox)
Bandra loner Saajan Fernandes’ ‘last letter’ to pen pal Ila extends the language of Ritesh Batra’s debut film by being more of a voiceover than a conventional monologue. But we come away with the sadness of Saajan’s thoughts. And the silence – like a heartbreaking mic drop – that rounds it off.
Shah Rukh Khan (Mohabbatein)
Raj Aryan’s rainy last-ditch plea to the glum Narayan Shankar turns into a lyrical truth pill that, for those few minutes in front of the fireplace, drowns out the hype surrounding the first-ever “face off” between two generations of Bollywood superstars.
Shah Rukh Khan (Veer-Zaara)
The film’s “Main qaidi number 786” monologue is a romantic courtroom speech – remarkable for not just its philosophical nature, but also the style in which the camera discloses the dual rhythm of the poem…by swaying inward and outward, in sync with the political undercurrents of the old hero’s words.