Where was the anger in Bollywood in a year when the real world was filled with rage? Not always in the expected places, for sure.
The streets of India surged with disgruntlement and dissent, especially in the latter months of 2019. The year even saw the aptly titled Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai? (A question that remained unanswered by the end credits.)
And yet, the angriest character among the year’s theatrical releases wasn’t a protester with her head bashed in by a policeman or a small trader bankrupted by demonetisation or a hapless person trying to prove his citizenship in the only country he has ever known. The angriest Indian in Hindi cinema in 2019 was a doctor in thrall to his own suffering.
As Kabir Singh, the unreconstructed hero of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s blockbuster, sighed and seethed from the loss of his one true love, he typified Bollywood’s tendency to valourise anger directed inwards rather than towards the outside world. In its celebration of machismo and masochism and its depiction of a chauvinist protagonist as the embodiment of real romance, Kabir Singh was the zeitgeist film that we didn’t want but got anyway.
The year didn’t quite throw up the local equivalent of The Dark Knight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Joker or Parasite – the kind of production that spoke to the moment as well as to what had come before and was likely to follow. Two movies came closest to expressing the grim realities of India: Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy and Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 chose uplifting and reaffirming endings (Gully Boy, especially, had the touch of a fairy-tale to it) but they also spoke loudly and clearly of the economic chasm between classes, the horrors of caste, the stereotyping of minorities, and the violence against women.
Other expressions of ire ranged from the elegiac to the comic. Abhishek Chaubey’s promising but underwhelming Sonchiriya tried to puncture the mythos surrounding the dacoits of the Chambal Valley by following an angry and wild bunch running around the ravines. In Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan, Saif Ali Khan growled and glowered as an ascetic pursuing vengeance too ancient and banal to care about.
Ayushmann Khurrana’s police officer was horrified by the treatment of Dalits in Article 15. In the comedies Dream Girl and Bala, Khurrana’s characters responded with irritation, frustration and petulance to unemployment and hair loss respectively.
Khurrana’s snarkier screen rival Kartik Aaryan similarly gnashed his teeth at conservative values in Luka Chuppi and moral policing in Pati Patni Aur Woh. Here were characters dealing with little more than the puzzles of ordinary life and the intransigence of their fellow Indians, but it was enough to bring out the frowns and grimaces.
Other expressions of ire were far more muscular, aimed at real and imagined enemies. Leading the list of glowering men until he was unseated by Kabir Singh was Vicky Kaushal’s Army officer Vihaan Singh Shergill in Uri: The Surgical Strike. Aditya Dhar’s slick and swaggering movie crystallised popular sentiment against the terrorist attack on an Army camp in Kashmir in 2016, in which 19 soldiers died.
The fictionalised depiction of the retaliatory military operation against a training camp in Pakistan – the “surgical strike” of the title – blistered with righteous rage and ruthless precision, and scored a goal or two for a government seeking re-election. “How’s the josh,” a line from the movie said by Vihaan to his team, unsurprisingly found favour with Narendra Modi and his ministers.
Pakistan, that reliable bugbear of the Indian state and the filmmaker, got strafed yet again in the John Abraham-led spy drama Romeo Akbar Walter. Abraham squeezed his bulk into a police uniform for Batla House, in which his character unsmilingly fought enemies closer home – members of the terror outfit Indian Mujahideen, who were supported by traitorous politicians and unscrupulous lawyers.
Kohl-eyed Muslims bent on mischief also set temperatures rising in the train-wreck Partition drama Kalank. Kunal Khemu reached for his eye-liner to play the malevolent leader of a mob who slaughters Hindus and Sikhs trying to flee Lahore around the time of independence.
Some releases reached back in time to spew exasperation at much older adversaries. The historical biopics Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy were found railing against the British over 70 years after they departed from India.
In Kesari, Canada’s most famous Indian patriot Akshay Kumar led a very incensed and vastly outnumbered Sikh battalion against marauding Afghan hordes in the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. Panipat trained its arsenal on Afghan conquerors who defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in the eighteenth century – a case of trying to post facto snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
There were also more recent instances of rage against obsolete machines. Vivek Agnihotri’s screed The Tashkent Files and Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s The Accidental Prime Minister, billed as an expose of the ill-treatment of prime minister Manmohan Singh by his own party, sought to uncover the dark secrets of the Indian National Congress’s years in power. These productions were cinematic versions of alternative truths so popular on Quora and Whatsapp – they presented a parallel version of events, and picked on old wounds in the hope that newer ones would be ignored.
In a class by itself on the outrage scale was Omung Kumar’s hagiographical PM Narendra Modi. Its anger came, perhaps, from its struggle to justify its very existence, and any rise in blood pressure was strictly on the other side of the screen.