From underdog drama to science fiction, social comedies to hard hitting crime thriller, 2019 saw Bollywood audiences embrace various genres. It was also a year where first-time directors justified their producer’s faith in them.
By Mayur Lookhar
Phew! What a year it was. Starting off with an explosive film [Uri-The Surgical Strike] and ending with a social family comedy (Good Newwz). The trade can count their figures, but for us, 2019 was a year where Indian audiences sent the message loud and clear. Only content is king. That is not to say that all formulaic films failed. The likes of Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan did extract their pound of flesh, but it was Uri: The Surgical Strike that cheered trade the most. Made at a budget of just Rs28 crore, the RSVP produced action drama bagged a stunning Rs240 crore nett plus. The misogynistic Kabir Singh , too, raked in close to Rs280 crore nett. Well, box office though is never a consideration while judging the best film.
As a cinephile, it was refreshing to see the audience warming to different genres. There was a refreshing underdog story, a powerful feminist drama, a female cast dominated science fiction, and a heart breaking sad story too. We saw a quite a few first-time directors making impressive debut.
Without further ado, let’s revisit the best films of 2019.
12 Sonchiriya – Abhishek Chaubey (director)
To say that the film is underrated would be a grave error. Director Abhishek Chaubey’s film received wide critical acclaim. The RSVP film didn’t get adequate screens due to external factors beyond its control.
A dacoit drama may seem outdated in 2019, but Sonchiriya was no tale of loot or revenge. This was a tale of salvation for the notorious bandits from Chambal. The metaphorical Sonchiriya (golden sparrow) was their path to salvation. In their thirst for salvation, Lakhan [Sushant Singh Rajput] and Maan Singh [Manoj Bajpayee] dare to follow their own path, thereby making enemies out of their fellow bandits. It also touched upon casteism, patriarchy, rape. The film was driven by its intense, dark narrative and some fine performances, led by Bhumi Pednekar, Rajput and Bajpayee.
11 Dream Girl – Raaj Shaandilyaa
How many of us were taken aback by the existence of friendly call centres? Screenwriter Raaj Shaandilyaa’s Dream Girl had an edgy subject. But without pushing the envelope, the first-time director gave us a highly entertaining family drama. Ayushmann Khurrana pulled another rabbit out of the hat. The out-of-the-box drama was driven by its rib-tickling humour, delightful earthy characters. While Khurrana displayed his skills at voice modulation, but it was the stellar show by the supporting cast – Annu Kapoor, Vijay Raaz, Abhishek Banerjee, Neha Bisht, Neha Saraf, Raj Bhansali – that had you ROFL (Rolling on the floor laughing). The well etched-out characters, the quality of writing [ by Nirmaan D Singh and Shaandilyaa], and the individual brilliance of these actors made Dream Girl a laughter riot. Though a humorous tale, Dream Girl exposed our loneliness, one that makes us desperate for fine company.
10 The Sky is Pink – Shonali Bose
Only those who have lost a child will truly understand the essence of Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink. Bose, who herself has endured a personal loss, was the right person to tell this emotional story. Though based on the life of the late motivational speaker Aisha Chaudhary (1996 – 2015), The Sky is Pink stressed more on the romance, the trials and tribulation of her parents Niren [Farhan Akhtar] and Aditi [Priyanka Chopra] Chaudhary. Remarkably, Bose lost her son Ishan at a young age. Aisha’s brother and the lone surviving child of Niren and Aditi is musician Ishaan. Well, destiny has its ways to get aggrieved souls together. This was a chance for Chopra and other actors to pay homage to Aisha, express solidarity with the Chaudharys.
The film scored well on technical grounds, and had a competent cast. However, Zaira Wasim as Aisha Chaudhary, was slightly off colour. Sadly, she’s chosen to quit films. The Sky is Pink has its flaws but it has its heart in the right place. You’d be a stone cold to not shed a tear here.
9 Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota – Vasan Bala
Another RSVP film that suffered due to external factors. Ronnie Screwvala and his team at RSVP sure have an eye to pick diverse, engaging stories.
Director Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is a unique, a first of its kind Indian tribute to martial arts legends. The man who feels no pain, that’s the translation of its title. Can such a man be called a superhero? Remarkably, the film and medical science called it a disease. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota marked the debut of one-time actress Bhagyashree’s son Abhimanyu Dassani. The boy has a chiseled physique. He’s good at action and looked comfortable facing the camera for the first time. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was like a childhood dream coming true.
The film had its draggy moments. At times, you felt it was guilty of self-indulgence but the film truly comes alive in the last 40 odd minutes with a long action sequence so authentically shot that had a jaw dropping effect on the viewers. Radhika Madan just didn’t enhance her reputation as a fine young actress, but she also showed her prowess at action. Same goes with Gulshan Devaiah. The subtle humour, fine performances, lively action, unique-yet-conventional narrative makes Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota a priceless modern gem.
8 Mission Mangal – Jagan Shakti
Science fiction is barely explored in Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood. They cost a bomb, but truth to be told, India hadn’t made much inroads into space in the past as they are doing now. First-time director Jagan Shakti picked India’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) of 2014 to tell an inspiring story. The docudrama just didn’t celebrate India’s Mars mission, but Mission Mangal underlined the growing strength of India’s women. The film had five women in the leading cast with the team led by Rakesh Dhawan [Akshay Kumar]. It wasn’t Kumar but the energetic, boisterous Vidya Balan and other female cast that helped drive this Mission Mangal. The film emphasised a bit too much on the personal stories and there was not adequate scientific discussion. It was perhaps an oversimplified docudrama. The scientific feat was a matter of great pride in itself, but the USP (Unique selling point) of Mission Mangal was its empowering female protagonists and the innovative solutions that Dhawan’s team come up to succeed in their mission.
7 Uri: The Surgical Strike – Aditya Dhar
Before its release, one did question the merit of making a film on a retaliatory action that took place just three years ago. However, the surgical strike inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir was something, as claimed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, never done before by Indian army.
The action thriller was a fictionalised account of the Uri attack and the subsequent retaliation that took place 11 days later. First-time director Aditya Dhar produced a highly gripping, intense and entertaining action thriller that’s forever changed the way Indian war, patriotic films ought to be told. Devoid of any jingoism, Uri: The Surgical Strike followed the story through the eyes of Major Vihaan Shergill [Vicky Kaushal), a solider who lost his brother-in-law in the Uri attack. The film has stellar performances, led by Kaushal. The gripping narrative was enhanced through technical brilliance – cinematography, action, production design and riveting background score. The nay-sayers, especially the pseudo liberals, will find plenty of flaws, but the gigantic success of Uri is testimony to the fact that here was an action film that caught the pulse of the nation.
6 Saand Ki Aankh – Tushar Hiranandani
Another film from a first-time director. Tushar Hiranandani’s Saand Ki Aankh took the patriarchal bull by its horns. Set in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, Saand Ki Aankh is the story of two of India’s oldest sharpshooters, sisters-in-law, Chandro and Prakashi Tomar. Before its release, Hiranandani and his producers faced flak for picking two tricenarians to play sexagenarian characters. At the end of the film both Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu shut the debate once and for all with their stellar, convincing show. An empowering feminist tale, but Saand Ki Aankh was more about appreciating the sacrifice by Chandro (Pednekar) and Prakashi (Pannu) that paved the way for the young women in their populous household. The fine narrative, dialogues and the brilliant show by the cast made Saand Ki Aankh an inspiring family entertainer.
5 Soni – Ivan Ayr
Though released on Netflix, it would be a cardinal sin to not include US based filmmaker Ivan Ayr’s intense slow-burn crime drama Soni . It introduced us to the talent of Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra. Delhi’s notorious for its crime rate, but Ayr’s film turned your attention to the challenges that a female cop encounters in a city like Delhi. Soni [Ohlyan] is left frustrated by the bureaucracy that sees influential criminals go scot free. Soni has her own demons to conquer too. She’s often reprimanded but respected by her reporting officer Kalpana Ummat [Saloni Batra]. The film subtly hints towards a probable queer relationship in the making. Soni’s had endured a broken marriage, while Ummat carries the pain of being childless. Despite being cops, both women feel helpless in this patriarchal, dark environment. Ohlyan and Batra’s intense show is the hallmark of Soni. The slow-burn is also rich in atmospherics, and scores high on technical brilliance. Soni sticks with you long after its over. The masses may never accept her, but Soni is an art house lover’s delight.
4 Section 375 – Ajay Bahl
The unabated sexual crimes have left the people frustrated and wanting swift justice. The #MeToo movement further bolstered one’s resolve to take a stand against sexual harassment. While the public anger is justified but director Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 reminded us that let’s not pronounce a person guilty till s/he is convicted.
Bahl’s Section 375 is a no-nonsense courtroom drama that sees a noted filmmaker Rahul Khurana [Rahul Bhat] facing trial after he’s accused of rape by a junior costume designer Anjali Dangle [Meera Chopra]. Khurana is defended by noted defense lawyer Tarun Saluja [Akshaye Khanna] while Hiral Gandhi [Richa Chadha] is seeking justice for her client Anjali.
Bahl’s chucked the traditional, over-the-top approach, and in stead presented a realistic courtroom drama. The highlight of the film was its gripping screenplay, realistic legal arguments, and the intense, confident show by Khanna, Chadha and co. It made you look at justice, judiciary in a whole different way. It condemned trial by media, urging people to keep their emotions in check while commenting on such cases. Section 375 is arguably the most outstanding and realistic courtroom drama in Bollywood.
3 Hamid – Aijaz Khan
If its Kashmir, then most Bollywood films are either busting terror modules in the valley or some brave to show the Kashmiri Muslim’s ire against the Indian army, government. Unheralded director Aijaz Khan’s film is neither. But it is a rare gem that binds two conflicting views through humanism.
Central Reserve Police Force jawan Abhay [Vikas Kumar] is frustrated with the life in Kashmir. He despises the locals, especially the stone pelters. Fate though brings him in contact with a young 7-year-old Kashmiri Muslim boy who assumes Abhay’s voice as the voice of Allah. Hamid [Talha Arshad Reshi] is seeking to find his father Rehmat [Sumit Kaul] who has gone missing for over a year. Through the course of their many mobile phone conversations, Abhay develops an affinity towards the boy. It also helps him change his perceptions about Kashmiris. Based on the play Phone No 786 by Mohammed Amin Bhat, Hamid is a human interest story that is so relevant in the troubled times. It proves all it needs is a conversation to change perceptions.
2 Article 15 – Anubhav Sinha
Having addressed racism, bigotry in Mulk , Anubhav Sinha exposed the age old casteism in India through Article 15. The concerned article of the Indian constitution calls for no discrimination of citizens on ground of caste, religion, colour or creed. Sinha’s Article 15 was loosely based on the 2014 alleged rape and murder of two Dalit girls in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. Singh picked Ayushmann Khurrana as his investigating cop Ayan Ranjan. Article 15 showed the ugly face of casteism, discrimination within the discriminated, the dirty politics that cripples justice. It raised serious question to our society, the Dalit leadership, rather the lack of it. The hard-hitting crime drama rode on the back of impressive performances, led by the dependable Ayushmann Khurrana. The thrilling background score served as a character onto itself. Article 15 sent a clear message. A country that cannot look after its minorities can never grow as a society.
1 Gully Boy – Zoya Akhtar
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara  and Dil Dhadakne Do  perhaps created an impression of Zoya Akhtar as a filmmaker who simply tells tales of the urban elites. Perhaps one lost sight of Akhtar’s maiden film Luck by Chance  that chronicled the struggles of an aspiring actor. Akhtar returned to telling an aspirational tale with Gully Boy. Inspired by the tale of street rappers Divine and Naezy, Gully Boy told the story of street rapper Murad Ahmed [Ranveer Singh]. The film also draws inspiration from American hip hop drama 8 Mile .
Though a familiar underdog story, Gully Boy’s true-to-the-soil narrative built an instant connect with India’s large poor, middle class population. Set in the slums of Dharavi, Murad Ahmed beats all odds to achieve his dream. The quality of the writing, the taut screenplay, each scene just gripped your imagination.
Ranveer Singh did the hard yards both as an actor and a rapper. Gully Boy is a dream film for Singh who is very passionate about rap music. This passion is reflected in Singh’s singing too. There’s only one word to describe his performance – genius. But Singh wasn’t the lone genius here. Every actor gave a flawless performance. Gully Boy will go down as the film of the Vijays – Raaz, Maurya and Varma. Maurya also penned the dialogues. Young Siddharth Chaturvedi floored us with his immense talent. The collective effort of the ensemble cast went a long way in making Gully Boy a resounding success. And perfection was also achieved in the technical areas with Jay Oza’s mesmerizing cinematography. Pain, joy, tears, love, adrenaline rush, Gully Boy made viewers experience an array of emotions.
It can be argued that it was perhaps wrong to pick Gully Boy as India’s Oscar representation. The film is out of Oscars now. However, no other Hindi film worth its salt could match the creative and technical brilliance of Gully Boy. Who doesn’t love an underdog tale and this Gully Boy has truly earned the top prize.
Hotel Mumbai – Anthony Maras
There is no clarity yet whether this American, Australian, Indian co-production containing four languages is eligible for popular Bollywood awards, but the pain is very much ours. Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras gave a bone chilling fictionalised account of the horrific 26/11 terror attacks of Mumbai in his film Hotel Mumbai. The Dev-Patel, Anupam Kher-starrer was a fitting tribute to the unarmed heroes of Hotel Taj Mahal. It had unheralded international artistes like Nazanin Boniadi, Armie Hammer. Maras’ highly intense, gripping screenplay kept you on the edge of your seat. It was backed by fine performances, breath-taking background score. As a Mumbaikar, it’s hard to revisit the terrible tragedy, but Hotel Mumbai’s fitting tribute to the unsung heroes of hotel Taj Mahal sure does deserves a special mention.