It's easier to see now than it was back then: the 2000s began with a screaming demand for something new. Going from one decade to another is one thing. This was the turn of a century. Symbolically, it meant so much more. Certain filmmakers and actors, by accident or design, served this craving. Fourteen days into the new millennium, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai launched Hrithik Roshan into overnight superstardom. So hysterical was that phenomenon that it temporarily dethroned Shah Rukh Khan from his position as Bollywood's number one superstar. I'll make the shameful admission of having been part of the herd that opportunistically switched sides.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was different. It had a relatively less hyped release inspite of a formidable star cast, perhaps because it was coming a month after Lagaan (which was scripting its own mega success story). But it ended up being the defining film of the decade. What was different? Everything from the way it was shot, to the clothes the characters wore, to the way they talked, to the choice of wall paint in their houses – now that I think, it might have been the first time I had given any thought to a film's production design, costume – to the humour, to the performances, to the themes it dealt with. The songs by Shankar Ehsaan Loy. One of its lines, appropriately, announced – Hum Hai Naye Andaz Kyun Ho Purana. What better way to say it than to have it penned by Javed Akhtar – whose writing partnership with Salim Khan defined the seventies? Years later, once I had started writing about films, I heard journalist Shekhar Gupta, in a conversation with Farhan Akhtar, give Dil Chahta Hai a socio-cultural perspective. Gupta said that it broke the mainstream Hindi film stereotype of portraying rich people as bad. It made a lot of sense. But to me it is still the movie that was my introduction to cool.
A lot was going on in the 2000s. Single screens started to make way for multiplexes. The Hindi film industry, leaving the days of dubious underworld fundings behind, was being corporatised. Studios like UTV Motion Pictures set up shop. It must have been around the same time that I first heard the now ubiquitous term 'Content is King'. I never liked it. But its practise of placing script over star brought about a revival in the middle-of-the-road cinema, with films like Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009).
Stars reinvented themselves. Amitabh Bachchan started acting his age. Aamir Khan – enabler, collaborator, producer and not just actor – promised quality mainstream entertainment, and delivered on most counts (Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, 3 Idiots). Hera Pheri (2000) helped find Akshay Kumar, an action star in the 90s, his sublime comic side. Saif Ali Khan was suddenly the most exciting star-actor around, making adventurous choices, showing range (Hum Tum, Omkara, Being Cyrus). Shah Rukh did some of his most loved films – Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), Swades (2004) and Chak De!India (2007); although I have fonder memories of his meta-masala blockbusters with Farah Khan (Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om).
Except Rani Mukerji in Black (2005) and Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met (2007), I can't remember enough good roles written for women, let alone memorable performances. There were remakes and sequels, mostly garbage, except Dhoom (2004) was, kind of, fun, and Don (2006) had one hell of an ending. Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) – which established Raju Hirani as a major director – joined the ranks of the hallowed sequels that actually improved on a fantastic first part.
The 2000s were also when Hindi cinema – perhaps encouraged by the new exposures brought about by the internet – grew a whole lot darker. I remember watching Sriram Raghavan's Johnny Gaddaar (2007) on my computer, at first finding the plot entanglements confusing but slowly losing myself in its world of seedy hotel rooms and highways, a bag of money and a blank-faced hero. I was taking in the pleasures of film noir without being conscious about it. The whole crop of Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Raghavan – stylists with eyes for characters and milieus from the fringe – came into their own in the 2000s. We started seeing a lot more Uttar Pradesh and Delhi on screen. A lot more sex, angst. Dev D (2009), which turns ten next month, was the apotheosis. One scene in particular calls to mind: when an old lady gives a moral science lecture to a very drunk Dev, who has come and sat next to her in the bus, how does he respond? He eats up her ticket.
A list of 5 films (that I didn't mention in the piece) you should watch:
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005)
Manorama Six Feet Under (2007)
Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008)
Luck By Chance (2009)