The difference between A-list stars and top-drawer talent was evident across the movies that were released in 2017. While several big-budget productions failed to deliver, other more modestly pitched movies created memorable worlds that salvaged the moviegoing experience in a year filled with more duds than gems.
The complete package
Writing, direction, performances, technical specs – everything fell into place.
Newton Amit Masurkar’s very funny and very angry movie was 2017’s most politically astute release. Located in the chasm between idealism and reality, Newton examined the workings of Indian democracy through a principled government official (Rajkummar Rao) who set out to conduct a peaceful election in violence-ravaged Chhattisgarh. Masurkar and co-writer Mayank Tewari eschewed high drama and a didactic approach, instead opting for a view from the ground up of the exertions and patience involved in ensuring smooth polling. Was the exercise worth it, especially for the tribals squeezed between the police, Naxalites, and corporations? The impeccably performed movie, with standout performances by Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil and Raghubir Yadav, was cynical as well as hopeful.
Tu Hai Mera Sunday The pursuit of a patch of land in space-starved Mumbai became a gentle meditation on the city’s strengths and failures in Milind Dhaimade’s winsome ensemble drama. The common thread running through the various narrative skeins was space, both of the physical and the metaphysical kind. Dhaimade’s affection for his characters and the city itself (at once exasperating and endearing) shone through in every sub-plot.
Trapped Vikramaditya Motwane’s Mumbai movie was a counterpoint to the sun-soaked optimism of Tu Hai Mera Sunday. Beautifully shot by Siddharth Diwan, the movie explored every Mumbai resident’s deepest nightmare – of being locked in without escape – to create a hellish portrait of alienation and despair. As the trapped Shaurya, who befriended rats and roaches to keep himself sane, Rajkummar Rao delivered one of the year’s finest performances.
Anarkali of Aarah “No means no” – and this time, the message was delivered by a woman, as it should be. Avinash Das’s impassioned feminist saga, based on a true incident, traced the battle of the titular dancer to bring to book a local heavy who sexually assaulted her during a performance. While Das allowed Anarkali her victory dance, he never underplayed her struggle and the challenges thrown at her. The movie was powered by a knockout performance by Swara Bhaskar, who made Anarkali an unforgettable icon of consent, and a soundtrack that replicated the lust-and-dust quality of Anarkali’s performances.
Mukti Bhawan In Shubhashish Bhutiani’s skillfully plotted and solidly performed movie, a government official (Adil Hussain) accompanied his father (Lalit Behl) to a makeshift hospice in Varanasi where the father hoped death would claim him. A moving drama about frayed family ties and weighty questions about death and mortality, Mukti Bhawan marked Bhutiani as a director of promise.
CRD The most idiosyncratic release of 2017 was a firm statement on the need to be idiosyncratic. Kranti Kanade’s imaginatively written and brilliantly performed CRD followed the misadventures of Chetan Ranjit Deshmukh (Saurabh Saraswat) as he enrolled in a college drama troupe headed by a fascist, fell in love with his co-actor, and attempted to write a play. A proud art-for-art’s sake portrait about the hermeneutically sealed world of the stage as well the larger world beyond it, CRD was easily 2017’s boldest narrative experiment.
Tumhari Sulu Suresh Triveni’s debut proved to be the balm for a wounded heart in a depression-inducing year. As a housewife who sought to enhance her minor achievements (including winning the Lata Mangeshkar sad song contest) by becoming a radio jockey, Vidya Balan delivered the best performance of her career. Triveni and co-writer Vijay Maurya (who also had a delightful role as a producer who doubts Sulu’s abilities) created several memorable moments of comedy, honesty, and poignancy as Sulu’s marriage teetered after her newfound success.
Shubh Mangal Savdhan RS Prasanna’s remake of his Tamil movie Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013) continued the trend of Hindi filmmakers tackling potentially unfriendly subjects (sanitation, menstruation). The Hindi remake was several times wackier than the original, with more strongly etched characters and a more rigorous exploration of the impact of performance anxiety on a couple on the verge of marriage. The struggle of Ayushmann Khurrana’s Mudit with every man’s nightmare also made room for the feelings of his bride-to-be Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar). As Prasanna’s comedy tipped into farce, and the family members became increasingly more deranged, the screenplay opened out into interesting directions while sticking to its central problem.
Khurrana has played the diffident hero who battles the self, family, and the world in pursuit of romance in film after film. He has been there before, but in Shubh Mangal Savdhan, Khurrana made the journey appear fresh and engaging.
Some of the year’s strongest performances were in movies that remained memorable because of the efforts of their actors.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raees The Rajkummar Rao of 2016 had an indifferent year as he tried to expand his repertoire in ways that ultimately proved to be unsatisfactory for him and his fans. Of the four films featuring Siddiqui in prominent roles in 2017, only Mom was noteworthy. The best, and most relaxed performance, was in Rahul Dholakia’s Raees. As police officer Majmudar, who chased Shah Rukh Khan’s bootlegger throughout the movie, Siddiqui brought a twinkle to his lines and outshone the star in their scenes together.
Saba Qamar in Hindi Medium Two Pakistani actresses appeared in the movies in 2017, but Saba Qamar in Hindi Medium proved to be the better bet than Mahira Khan in Raees. Qamar was delightful as a social climber whose single goal in life – to enroll her daughter in an English medium school – saw her take etiquette lessons, overhaul her wardrobe and play at being a slum dweller. The role required the skillful wringing of manicured hands, which Qamar proved to be very good at.
Irrfan Khan in Hindi Medium Is the beautifully aging actor getting too predictable for his own good? As the Chandni Chowk tailor who became a down-market atelier owner with money but not the accompanying polish in Hindi Medium, Irrfan proved that his acting range still contained unexplored possibilities. Saket Chaudhary’s comedy was three films ungainly wrapped in one, but the leads played off beautifully against each other.
Parvathy in Qarib Qarib Singlle Irrfan played the available and irresistible rake yet again in Qarib Qarib Singlle, and he had all the good lines, but the better character in Tanuja Chandra’s romcom was Southern movie star Parvathy. As a widow who hooked up with a man she met through a dating website, Parvathy displayed her comic timing, her fluency with Hindi (hint), and her ability to navigate the screenplay’s convolutions without dropping a beat.
Seema Pahwa in Bareilly Ki Barfi Doordarshan audiences of 1980s vintage have fond memories of Seema Pahwa as Badki, one of the daughters in the family featured in the television soap Hum Log. Pahwa has replaced Kirron Kher as a beloved screen mother, and is perfectly at home playing a harried matriarch from Uttar Pradesh or Delhi.
Pahwa played the kooky mother in two films in 2017, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan and Bareilly Ki Barfi. The latter film, about a love triangle between a writer who conceals his authorship, the man he passes off as the writer, and the woman they tussle over, saw Pahwa at her absurdist best.
Zaira Wasim in Secret Superstar Zaira Wasim was the centerpiece of Advait Chandan’s overwritten and overwrought drama about an adolescent’s pursuit of her singing dreams. With a maturity and sincerity that belied her years, Wasim magnificently brought to life Insiya, the talented teenager who sought refuge in singing to rescue her abused mother from her oppressive and violent father.
Ranbir Kapoor in Jagga Jasoos After giving Ranbir Kapoor one of his biggest hits as a mute romantic in Barfi! (2012), Anurag Basu tried to recreate the magic by casting the talented actor as a stammering teenage detective in the ambitious but bloated Jagga Jasoos. As the movie went a bit too literally all over the place in pursuit of adventure, Kapoor’s largely dialogue-free performance proved to be a welcome steadying force. If there is any actor in the current lot who would have thrived in the silent cinema decades, it is the fourth-generation Kapoor scion.
Vikrant Massey in A Death in the Gunj One of the year’s most delicately hinged performances emerged out of an ensemble movie with numerous talents. Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut A Death in the Gunj included a lovely central performance by Massey as the put-upon Shuntu, who was incessantly bullied by family members and friends. Shuntu predictably snapped under the pressure, and Massey brought out his character’s plight with grace.
Saif Ali Khan in Chef He has been written off by sections of the media, and he has his moments of laziness. But the most maverick of Bollywood’s Khans still has fire in the belly, as was proven by Raja Menon’s Chef. Khan delivered a charming performance as a father trying to create a new identity for himself while patching up with his son from a failed marriage. The movie didn’t come together as expected, but Khan stayed on course throughout.