My Top 10 Indian Films of 2016

It’s still January, if barely, right?  This is a list of my favorite films in Indian Cinema released in 2016.  I have not seen every film released, by a long shot, but I’ve seen quite a few of the top releases in Hindi and Malayalam cinema in theaters.  I still haven’t seen Pink, although that is definitely on my list, and it’s now on Netflix streaming.

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1.  Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)

Kapoor and Sons  was hands down my favorite Indian film of the year.  I just love the way the cast interacts.  It feels like you’re a voyeur in a real family and their drama.  I will admit that Sidharth is the weak link, but Alia and Fawad are so great in this.  Fawad Khan especially just blew me away.  And the soundtrack!  Kar Gayi Chull is my phone ringtone for a reason, because I never tire of hearing that hook.

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2.  Kammatti Paadam

Dulquer Salmaan had an amazing year, but Kammatti Paadam is just a masterpiece.  I’m so glad I saw this Malayalam gangster epic in a theater.  I was nearly shell shocked by the experience of seeing this Rajeev Ravi film.   Dulquer is our eyes into this world of gangsters, and dalit toughs.  He is very, very good, but the two actors, Vinayakan and Manikandan steal the show.

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3. Udta Punjab

Alia Bhatt also had a great year.  I’m still thinking about how fantastic she was in Udta Punjab, a film filled with great performances.  This is the film that introduced me to Diljit Dosanjth.  And how great was Shahid Kapoor as the comic relief?  This was an entertaining film, but also one with an important message about how the drug trade affects everyone– a message the censor board tried to suppress, and thank goodness they did not prevail.  Udta Punjab is currently streaming on Netflix.

kali-malayalam-movie-wallpaper-0922-006394. Kali

Oh my goodness, Kali is such a tense thriller.  Kali means rage.  I admire the script and how the director kept me on the edge of my seat. I did not know what would happen next at any given moment. I felt that anything could happen. And I loved that about this Malayalam movie!  The first half is a personal story of a marriage with young man with anger issues.  Then the second half grips you by the throat.  Dulquer Salmaan gives another stellar performance in a great year, matched by Sai Pallavi.

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5. Dear Zindagi

I adored Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi.  We were afraid when the film was announced it was going to be a romantic relationship, but SRK is her mentor and therapist in this fantastic film.  This is my first Gauri Shinde film, and she is a wonderful director.  This was a nice crossover film that I took some Bollywood virgins to see, and they loved it.

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6. Fan

Although not a perfect film, I submit Fan may be the one of the best performances of Shahrukh Khan’s career in the double role of Guarav and Aryan.

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7. Neerja

This really felt like a year for women in Hindi cinema.  Sonam Kapoor was perfect casting for Neerja.  This film reminded me very much of United  93 – you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still on the edge of your seat watching it unfold, filled with tension.  Neerja is currently streaming on Netflix.

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8. Dangal

I love that Aamir Khan made this movie about girl empowerment.  He let the young women at the center of this true story take the lead, and he was brave enough to play a father with a paunch, no less.  Dangal was one of the biggest family films of the year.

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9. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

I’m still not happy with the ending of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, but man it has some glorious moments.  It’s full on lush Karan Johar film making – actually my first Karan film on the big screen.  I’m reading his autobiography now, An Unsuitable Boy, and he says that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is about his own unrequited love story.  It’s a very personal film.  I wish there hadn’t been all the controversy about Pakistani actors, and Fawad Khan had a bigger part.  That soundtrack!!  I listened to the title track on constant repeat.

 

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I really enjoyed Sultan, and Salman made a great pairing with Anushka Sharma.  It was another Hindi film with a message of female empowerment, even if the majority of the film was about Salman’s character.  Great soundtrack, too!

Special mention for Brahman Naman which I saw the premiere of at Sundance back in January.  I’m not sure if it’s a purely Indian produced film, but it’s a quirky and wonderful teen sex comedy. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

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Dear Zindagi – Alia Bhatt is wonderful in this portrait of a complex young woman at a life crossroad.

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I unabashedly loved Dear Zindagi.  It’s a true measure of my love of my family that I didn’t see Dear Zindagi the day it came out in the US due to our Thanksgiving holiday travels.  I have been looking forward to this movie for some time, hoping it would live up to my sky high expectations, and it did.  I have yet to see director Gauri Shinde’s feature film debut English Vinglish, which evidently deservedly garnered accolades.  (I actually downloaded English Vinglish to watch on my trip but the subtitles were in Arabic. ARGH!)

I’m not saying a male director can’t tell the story of a woman, but there’s a different special perspective a woman writer/director brings to a film.  Alia Bhatt’s Kaira (Koko) is allowed to be a complex young cinematographer who is troubled, and frankly, sometimes unlikeable.  She is no manic pixie dream girl for anyone.  And that is just refreshing to see in itself.  The film totally passes the Bechdel test!  Kaira has a tight knit group of friends who she can be totally herself with, but a tense awkward relationship with her parents.

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She has a working and romantic relationship with producer Kunal Kapoor.  He offers her a dream job directing her first feature film in NYC, but admits his ex-girlfriend will also be working on the project.  He wants to make his relationship with Kaira more serious, but she demurs.  Then she can’t sleep thinking about her quandary — should she go to New York even though it will be incredibly awkward?

Kunal is one of 4 men in her life in this movie (not including SRK).  There’s Sid, the handsome restaurant owner (Angad Bedi) and Rumi (Ali Zafar), a charming musician she meets when she returns to her hometown of Goa.  She has to go back to Goa because her landlord in Mumbai makes her move out because she’s a single woman.  And he’s not the only one harassing her for being single, once she gets home she is barraged by her parents and her aunt and uncle for continuing to work, and not settling down.

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She happens to overhear SRK speaking at a therapist conference and goes to see him.  If only all therapists looked like Shahrukh Khan.  When through several sessions, they get to the root of her insecurities, I was crying right along with Alia.  She is just fantastic in this film.  She has this quality about her that reveals her vulnerability and she sucks me right in.  It’s hard to believe how far she’s come as an actress since Student of the Year.  Highway was my first glimpse and then this year she was devastating in Udta Punjab.  I can’t wait to see her work in the future.

Some reviewers have questioned the epilogue at the end of the film, but I liked it.  As suspected, Aditya Roy Kapoor is the final cameo man in her life.  I liked that the movie left us at a hopeful point — that she’s moved on and is ready for new possibilities.  I like that kind of ending in my romance novels, and I liked it here.

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Shahrukh Khan is fantastic in this as her therapist and mentor.  He has unorthodox methods, like playing Kabbadi with the surf on the beach outside his office.  But best of all is his message to young girls through the words he says to Kaira (Alia).  She thinks everyone thinks she’s a slut because she’s had relationships with more than one man.  SRK asks her if she’s ever bought a chair.  “Did you buy the first one you saw without trying it out?” as he pops from chair to chair in his office.  He gives her permission to live her life without worrying so much what “everyone” else thinks.

The music in the film didn’t send me, but the title track is decent.  It’s not that kind of movie.  There’s mostly montage type song sequences.  Really this is sort of a bridge film between Parallel type cinema (The Lunch Box, etc.) and mainstream Hindi fare.

I’m glad Kaira found support with her Dr. Jehangir Khan, and that director Gauri Shinde has backing from producers SRK (Red Chilies) and Karan Johar (Dharma).  She’s a great talent.  Loved this film, and already have plans to see it again in a few days.  I’m taking some friends who don’t even watch Bollywood films.  This is a great crossover type of film.

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Jatt & Juliet – Diljit Dosanjh is adorable in this Punjabi Rom Com

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Many people recommended Jatt & Juliet on my quora post.  After I saw Diljit Dosanjh in Udta Punjab, Jatt & Juliet moved to the top of the list.  I was completely taken with Diljit in Udta Punjab, and he was one of the best things about that film.  In Udta Punjab, he played a very quiet policeman who was shy in romance, but who could step up with the action when needed.

Diljit’s role of Fateh Singh in Jatt & Juliet is a bit different.  It’s a romantic comedy and he has a zany manic energy that reminded me very much of Varun Dhawan in Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania.  Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood compared Jatt & Juliet to DDLJ.  It does have the hate to love similar trope in the first half of the film.  But Diljit has this silly energy about him that reminded me more of Varun in Humpty — also because Pooja (Neeru Bajwa) is the rich girl that seems out of reach to Fateh.

Fateh’s goal is to marry a Canadian white girl and become a resident in Canada.  He meets Pooja at the airport and the sit together on the flight where he annoys her no end with his antics and incessant patter.  Pooja is flying to Vancouver to attend fashion school.

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Pooja is robbed when she’s about to put down a deposit on an apartment.  She hesitates to ask her parents for help because she doesn’t want them to tell her to come home.  She and Fateh end up living in the same rental house.  And then they end up working at competing next door restaurants.  Pooja thinks Fateh is ridiculous with his talking to his biceps every morning, and he loves to tease and torment her, nicknaming her “pest”.

There is an annoying subplot in the first half where Pooja helps Fateh scam their landlady’s white step-daughter to try to get Fateh a white Canadian bride.  That leads to both being kicked out of the rental house.

After the interval, they are both in dire straights and have to help each other.  Their competing restaurants were once one, owned by an estranged married couple.  They get the owners back together to save the restaurants from bankruptcy, and bond by working together.

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This was what I loved about their romance.  It wasn’t a bolt of lightning love at first sight.  It was gradual.  Little acts of caring.  Sharing work together, and teasing each other, and the romance happening organically.

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This is where the sweet Diljit I loved from Udta Punjab shone through in Jatt & Juliet.

Just like DDLJ, there’s another fiance for Pooja, and some misunderstandings on Fateh’s journey to get together with Pooja.  It has a great ending.

These two actors have fantastic chemistry together, and I’m looking forward to watching Jatt & Juliet 2.  Both films were mega hits in Punjabi cinema.

The negatives for me for Jatt & Juliet were some of the silly comedy side bits.  Instead of a comedy uncle like in Telugu films, there was sort of a comedy cousin.  Not that funny to me, but it may have also been the subtitles not portraying language play.

The other negative was that there weren’t enough songs!  Diljit Dosanjh is a leading Punjabi rapper singer, and he just lights up the screen in the song sequences and dance numbers.  I’m guessing it was the lower budget for a Punjabi film that limited the number of dance sequences, and maybe there are more in the sequel.  This one was my favorite from a wedding in the film:

 

Three and a half stars out of five.  I’m hearing that after Diljit’s Bollywood debut in Udta Punjab, that he is looking for more Bollywood roles.  That’s great news, because he is a real talent.  After seeing what he can do in this low budget dance song, I can only imagine what he would be like in a full blown Bollywood number.

Udta Punjab -A Triumph. A triumph of film making, acting and most importantly, over the censor board

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I saw Udta Punjab on my birthday which may not have been the best idea.  Because it’s a very dark film.  It’s taken me some time to process it and mull it over.  I’m really impressed with the film making of writer/director Abhishek Chaubey.  I enjoyed his film Ishquiya, and he was also a writer on Kaminey and Omkara.  This film straddles the issue of drugs in the Punjab (the title means Punjab’s High or Punjab’s Flying) by telling the stories of four people affected by it.

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Alia Bhatt is a field worker who comes across a packet of drugs from Pakistan.  Shahid Kapoor is a coke addicted rapper rock star who sings about drugs.  Kareena Kapoor is a saintly doctor who runs a drug clinic, hands out needles and speaks out against the drug problem.  And then there’s Diljit Dosanjh who plays a cop, complicit in looking the other way and taking bribes until he realizes that his younger brother is an addict.

This reminded me immediately of the Hollywood film Traffic that told the story of how the Mexican drug cartels impact four people.  I actually have not seen that Oscar winning film, but I did see the BBC series it was based on, Traffik which dealt with drugs from Pakistan in the UK, and it’s a British politician’s daughter who is the addict.  The story of Traffic/Traffik and Udta Punjab are not the exact same plot, but the intention is the same — show the impact through four different characters involved in the drug crisis in different levels.  And show how the problem is very political.  That is overt in Udta Punjab, and that’s why the Indian Censor Board demanded 89 cuts.

Abhishek Chaubey fought back, with the backing of other filmmakers and took it to the High Court.  In the end, the only cut and change was re-editing a scene where Shahid’s rock star urinates all over his audience at a concert.  Which we saw in the trailer!!  I’m so glad this film was released on time and that it is basically exactly what the filmmakers wanted to show us.  There was such a rush that the subtitles on the copy I saw still had some copy errors – when characters sang the subtitles were supposed to be italicized, but we saw typed out <i>.

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I don’t want to spoiler the movie.  The performances were amazing.  Kareena Kapoor was well cast as the cool, collected doctor.  I wasn’t surprised that she was good.  After the bomb of Shaandaar (which I did enjoy parts of), Alia and Shahid are back with a bang.  Shahid in Udta Punjab is acting at the levels he reached in Kaminey and Haider.   His character is a rock star.  He’s larger than life at nearly every moment, but he’s not just a comic caricature – Shahid manages to find some nuance and depth in the quiet moments, like when he’s arrested for lewd behavior and is thrown into a cell filled with criminals.

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Alia Bhatt just keeps getting better and better.  I thought she was a lightweight when I first saw her in Student of the Year, and she is very good in romantic comedy roles.  But when she’s in a drama like Highway, she can really pull out the stops with some amazing scenes.  And there are even more show stoppers in Udta Punjab.  Horrible things happen to her in this movie, and it is her indomitable spirit that carries us through.  I was stunned at what happens to her and how she just perseveres to the end.

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But Diljit Dosanjh’s humble policeman was the revelation of the film to me.  Diljit is big star in Punjabi films, but I have not seen him before Udta Punjab.  I have had Jatt and Juliet recommended to me, and I’m definitely going to seek it out now.  He was adorable in his timid romance with Kareena Kapoor’s doctor.  He wants to be the hero, and show her he can make a difference.  He’s trying to save his drug addict younger brother, as their father has died and he is the head of the house.  He has amazing quiet everyman screen presence and then can be explosive when an action scene calls for it.

This is a film that left me stunned, as it has realism like you rarely see in Hindi cinema.  It gives you a lot to think about.  And it lays bare just how big the drug problem apparently is in Punjab.  Udta Punjab already garnered a lot of press and talk just because of the censor fight.  I hope now that everyone can see for themselves the content of the film, that it will spur conversations about the issues raised in the film.

Four and a half out of five stars.

If you don’t mind spoilers, or if you’ve seen the film, I urge you to read Margaret Redlich’s excellent analysis on her blog Don’t Call It Bollywood.  She delves much deeper into the film than I have here.