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Best Bollywood Movies of 2016

2016 was a darned good year for Hindi films, with positive reviews outnumbering negative reviews 26-22 at this site. Here’s my list of the Best Bollywood Movies of 2016. (Click on the title of each movie to read my original review.)

I should start by noting that Dhanak — which released theatrically in the United States and India in June, 2016 — would have made the list had it not already appeared on my Best of 2015 list. I watched it as part of the 2015 Chicago South Asian Film Festival.

As for the ten films that did make the 2016 list, two stood out for employing narrative structures that reflect their subject matter. Pink begins with the aftermath of a sexual assault, and not until the ending credits do we see the events as they really happened, echoing the “he said, she said” nature of many sexual assault cases. Waiting isn’t afraid to show its characters being bored, a feeling anyone who’s spent time in a hospital can relate to.

Neerja and Aligarh were emotional true stories featuring riveting performances by their lead actors: Sonam Kapoor and Manoj Bajpayee, respectively. Parched also earned a nod for the stellar performances by its four female co-leads.

Two films mastered genres with spotty track records in Bollywood: superhero movies and sex comedies. A Flying Jatt was a welcome nod to the colorful, optimistic type of superhero flick that has fallen out of favor in Hollywood in recent years, featuring an ordinary protagonist who discovers his inner hero (with a little divine assistance, providing a compelling subplot about religious identity). Unlike the two worst Bollywood movies of 2016 — the mean-spirited sex comedies Mastizaade and Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3Brahman Naman is raunchy and hilarious, aiming most of its jokes at its hapless leading man.

South Korean films have inspired a number of Hindi thrillers in recent years (Rocky Handsome and Jazbaa, for instance), but the chilling Raman Raghav 2.0 is totally Indian, especially in regard to the way director Anurag Kashyap uses music to guide the audience through emotional moments.

The two films at the top of this year’s list earn their spots by tackling tough subjects in otherwise very commercial fare. Udta Punjab harnessed the star-power of Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, and Diljit Dosanjh to deftly address Punjab’s drug crisis and make it relevant to people not directly affected by it.

My favorite film of the year also featured a top-notch cast, including Alia Bhatt (again), Rishi Kapoor, Sidharth Malhotra, Fawad Khan, Rajat Kapoor, and Ratna Pathak. Kapoor & Sons bravely examines the secrets that family members keep from one another and the resentment that builds because of it, addressing issues like infidelity, parental favoritism, and homosexuality with sensitivity and compassion. That Kapoor & Sons also manages to be lots of fun just further cements it as my Best Bollywood Movie of 2016.

Check my Netflix list to see which of these films are available for streaming in the United States.

Kathy’s Best Bollywood Movies of 2016

  1. Kapoor & Sons — Buy/rent at Amazon or iTunes
  2. Udta Punjab — Buy at Amazon
  3. Aligarh — Buy at Amazon
  4. Parched — Buy/rent at Amazon or iTunes
  5. Brahman Naman
  6. Raman Raghav 2.0 — Buy at Amazon
  7. A Flying Jatt
  8. Neerja — Buy at Amazon
  9. Waiting — Buy at Amazon
  10. Pink — Buy at Amazon

Previous Best Movies Lists

Worst Bollywood Movies of 2016

With a new year underway, let’s take one last look at the biggest Hindi cinema duds of last year. Here are my picks for the worst Bollywood movies of 2016. (Click on the title of each movie to read my original review.)

I’m a little loath to include Baaghi on this list because the film is so unintentionally funny, but it’s also really, really bad, so I guess I have to.

Confusing narratives land Banjo and Ghayal Once Again on the list, though Naam Hai Akira ran away with the 2016 award for Worst Overall Story Construction.

Madaari tries to paint a guy who kidnaps and threatens to kill a little kid as a hero, thus earning it a spot on the list.

All the rest of the worst films of 2016 are problematic in the way they relate to women. Shivaay is weirdly hostile, while Sanam Re is tacky and outdated.

Ki and Ka‘s comedic approach to gender norms falls flat when its male character becomes a national role model just by doing chores. Still, Ki and Ka is positively progressive compared to Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3, a movie built around the stereotype that white women are sluts.

The worst film of the year is written and directed by the same man who wrote the dialogue for Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3: Milap Zaveri. Mastizaade is hatred masquerading as comedy, a mean-spirited attack on everyone who isn’t a straight, Indian man. Zaveri’s targets include women, addicts, and non-Indians, but he’s particularly fond of picking on people with disabilities. His characters literally point and laugh at a man in a wheelchair. This is about as loathsome as a film can be. Mastizaade‘s title as my Worst Bollywood Movie of 2016 is well deserved.

Kathy’s Ten Worst Bollywood Movies of 2016

  1. Mastizaade
  2. Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3 — Buy at Amazon
  3. Naam Hai Akira — Buy at Amazon
  4. Ki and Ka — Buy at Amazon
  5. Ghayal Once Again — Buy at Amazon
  6. Madaari — Buy at Amazon
  7. Banjo — Buy at Amazon
  8. Sanam Re — Buy at Amazon
  9. Shivaay
  10. Baaghi — Buy at Amazon

Previous Worst Movies Lists

Interview with “Brown Nation” Star Omi Vaidya

Few Bollywood outsiders skyrocket to fame with their very first Hindi film, but that’s exactly what happened to Omi Vaidya when he played Chatur “Silencer” Ramalingam in the hit movie 3 Idiots. After a few years and several more Bollywood films, the Los Angeles native returned home to raise a family and resume his Hollywood career. His latest project is the Netflix comedy series Brown Nation.

Omi graciously answered some questions via email about Brown Nation and his documentary Big in Bollywood, which makes its Netflix debut in December. He also had lovely things to say about his Jodi Breakers and Players co-star Bipasha Basu, because, well, Omi’s just a doggone nice guy.

Kathy: How did you get involved with Brown Nation? Was it already a Netflix project when you came onboard?
Omi: “I met the director, Abi Varghese, in 2011 when my documentary, Big In Bollywood, won the audience award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. We hit it off and in mid-2014, he approached me to play the role of Balan in a new sitcom he was creating called Brown Nation. This was an independent TV show with a cast of minority characters speaking in English, Hindi, and Gujarati and financed by private investors–not by a studio or TV company–which meant it may never have been picked up. But it also allowed the show to not be limited by the typical stories and cast of characters you see on American or Indian TV.”

Kathy: What do you like about the cast of the show?
Omi: “When I started shooting, I was astounded by the amount of talent that was on the set. The cast was selected over many months and the actors that were chosen perfectly fit the roles. Many of them also had a wealth of acting experience and some were veterans of comedy and improv. It’s really the level of talent that elevates Brown Nation to a great show you want to binge watch.”

Kathy: Where are you finding the best opportunities right now: India or America? Are you more partial to one storytelling format over another?
Omi: “I am finding great opportunities in both India and America. Both countries are having media revolutions in the kinds of stories they are telling, so it’s exciting to be able to partake in both! I especially like it when the lines blur between the two like they did in Brown Nation. I prefer the efficient storytelling and comedic sensibilities of Western cinema, however there’s an exuberance and excitement to Bollywood that you just can’t get anywhere else. Plus Bollywood stories hit on topics that can be more relatable to South Asians so there’s value in that as well.”

Kathy: After working steadily in India for a few years, what made you decide to come back to America when you did? Was there ever a time when you thought your career might keep you in India permanently?
Omi: “There was definitely a time when I considered living in India permanently. Fame and fortune can be very enticing. But moving to different country solely for career opportunity has its limits. After 3 years of continuous work in India, I had huge professional growth but little personal growth. That’s when I consciously chose to move back to America, because it is the place I was born, grew up, and understood more completely. Although I have a huge fanbase in India, most of my family is in America, and it’s a great place to raise my son who is now 16 months old. My wife, Minal, is also finishing her post-doc at the National Institute of Health. We have a great life, and I still get to do what I love. I strive for a well-rounded life where I am challenged everyday. So in that way, I am blessed.”

Kathy: Having worked in comedy in both the US and India, what do you see as the major differences in comedic styles/preferences between the two countries?
Omi: “I am making generalizations here and there are always exceptions. But in general, comedy in America can be more low-key and subtle and ironic,  while in India the jokes can be over the top and less sarcastic. India still has a rich tradition of using puns or wordplay in comedy or jokes being steeped in innuendo or double meanings. In America, pun or wordplay humor is not as common. Neither comedy style is superior to the other and both really reflect the audience tastes.”

Kathy: Apart from the classic 3 Idiots, which Hindi film are you most proud of?
Omi: “I’m somewhat proud of my work in Madhur Bhandarkar’s, Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji. Although it wasn’t a major hit, my story in the film was realistic and relatable and I got to play a Maharastrian–which is what I actually am! Using my own experiences and some of my mother tongue in the film was extremely satisfying and allowed me to cross an item off my bucket list. Actually, it’s made me add another item to that list: Someday act in a Marathi film!”

Kathy: What are the plans for the release of Big in Bollywood?
Omi: “Big in Bollywood, the documentary that shows my rise to fame in India, is releasing on Netflix by the end of the year. It’s the true story roller-coaster of a film that follows a struggling actor who hits it big, and the perils of a meteoric rise to fame. Please follow me on Twitter @omionekenobe to find out more about the film and it’s release date.” (Since our interview, the Netflix release date for Big in Bollywood was announced as December 31.)

Kathy: Bonus fangirl question: I love Bipasha Basu, and you’ve worked with her twice. Do you have any good Bipasha stories?
Omi: “Bipasha Basu is a great woman and person. Many of the actors in India come from film families, and therefore they come to the set with a chip on their shoulders, as if it’s their right to be famous and respected. But actors like Bipasha and Madhavan came from middle-class homes, and they have retained that modesty and down-to-earth nature. Bipasha has presented a strong, smart woman figure to young Indians who may be looking for someone to look up to. And she’s beautiful too! When we shot Players in the northern-most city in Russia, Murmansk, it didn’t matter who was a star or not. None of the cast was recognized by the locals. But it didn’t matter what restaurant we went to; all eyes went to Bipasha. Even if she dressed like a bum, Russian men would still try to make conversation with her. They would say, ‘You work in Bollywood?’ ‘I know Raj Kapoor!’ ‘Awara Hoon!'”

Thanks so much, Omi! Check out Brown Nation on Netflix right now, and watch Big in Bollywood when it debuts on Netflix on December 31, 2016.

Streaming Bollywood Movies: Eros Now (2016 Update)

A lot has changed in the world of streaming video since my initial review of Eros Now three-and-a-half years ago. New devices have made it easier to watch streaming content on television, offering expanded viewing options beyond the tablet and PC. Let’s see how Eros Now has evolved to take advantage of the new technology.

For those unfamiliar with the service, Eros Now is a streaming video provider that operates on a subscription model, like Netflix. The service’s parent company, Eros International, is both a production house and a distributor, giving it wider access to Indian content than any other streaming service out there.

A subscription to Eros Now Premium — which costs $7.99/month in the United States — isn’t strictly necessary. A free Eros Now Basic account allows the user to watch a selection of movies and TV shows, plus unlimited access to the service’s substantial music collection. However, English subtitles (and Arabic subtitles, for some films) are only available with a paid subscription. A Premium account also gives the user access to the complete catalog of movies and TV shows in HD quality, as well as the ability to download content for offline viewing. (On my home network, it took eleven minutes to download Force to my iPad.)

Like Netflix, Eros Now is available on PCs, smartphones, tablets, and via a variety of devices that enable you to watch content on your television, such as Chromecast and Apple TV. Eros Now doesn’t have an app for the Playstation 4, and though Eros Now’s website says the service is available on Amazon devices, I couldn’t find an Eros Now app for my Amazon Fire TV Stick.

I tested Eros Now on an iPad, iPhone, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Regardless of what device you use to view the content, I recommend creating a “Watchlist” at the Eros Now website first, to make it easier to find the movies you want. Each iteration of the app has a unique, limited set of search parameters. The Eros Now iPhone app allows you to filter the catalog only by language, while the Apple TV app only allows you to sort by genre. The website allows users to choose films by genre or language first, and then by decade of release within those categories — a useful feature given the thousands of films available.

The Watchlist is available on any device that you use. Another nice feature added in the last few years is the “Continue Watching” option that allows you to start a movie on one device, pause, and resume watching on a different device.

Video quality has noticeably improved. The picture is crisp and clear on both the iPhone and iPad. Either iOS device can be used to cast content to a Chromecast or Apple TV, though there is a dedicated Eros Now app for the latest version of the Apple TV.

On my network, picture quality suffered quite a bit when casting a movie — the horror film Alone, in case you were curious — to the Chromecast. Subtitles are superimposed on top of the picture on the Chromecast, which isn’t a huge deal, but other devices place subtitles in the black bar at the bottom of the frame so as not to obscure the image.

Far and away the best way to watch Eros Now is through the dedicated Apple TV app. The image quality is just as sharp as on an iPhone, and the subtitles appear in the black bar below the picture. The app itself showcases the content rather glamorously, with movie posters cycling through on the home screen to highlight the most popular options. Though the search functions are more limited than on the website, the home screen displays films in categories like “Recently Added,” “Classic Hits,” or “Unusual Love Stories.”

For many users, the question of whether or not to subscribe comes down to content. If all you watch are Indian films, Eros Now is probably the only service you need. According to the Eros Now Wikipedia page, the service “has rights to over 5,000 films.” I’m not sure that means that all 5,000 titles are always available in every country where Eros Now operates, but nevertheless, the service offers at least 1,000 titles to US subscribers. The catalog features 296 Hindi films released just since 2010, whereas Netflix currently offers eighty Hindi films, total.

While Eros Now has ended its experiment with same-day rentals for films that release theatrically in India but not the US (boo!), the service quickly adds new releases to its catalog. Both Happy Bhag Jayegi and Dishoom became available for streaming on Eros Now within two months of their theatrical releases.

There are important differences in the acquisition philosophies that shape the catalogs at both big streaming providers, with Netflix currently specializing in acclaimed indie films and Eros Now focusing on bigger budget fare aimed at a wide audience. Take for example the 2016 releases currently available through both services. Netflix has ten, including the immensely popular Airlift, but mostly smaller theatrical releases (like Saala Khadoos) and well-regarded festival films (like Brahman Naman). The ten films available at Netflix earned a combined total of $2,385,752 from North American theaters this year.

Eros Now only has six 2016 films, but all of them released in theaters, except for Aligarh, which earned its own share of acclaim on the festival circuit. The combined North American theatrical earnings of the Eros Now 2016 releases total $3,429,722 — a difference of more than $1 million. If being current on the most popular Bollywood releases — movies like Housefull 3 and Ki & Ka — is your priority, Eros Now is the way to go.

The Crisis of Faith in A Flying Jatt

There are a lot of interesting moral lessons under the glossy, colorful surface of A Flying Jatt. One aspect that has stuck with me since watching the fun superhero movie is how the film portrays the main character’s struggle with his religious faith.

The religiosity of characters is underplayed in Hollywood films in general, but it’s especially absent from the backstories of Hollywood superheroes. Their powers come from science (Spider-man) or space (Superman) or magic (Doctor Strange). Rarely are their powers divine in origin, with perhaps the exception of Thor.

In contrast, all of India’s celluloid superheroes — few as they are — have ties to the divine (I confess, I don’t remember Drona‘s origin story). Krrish‘s powers came from an alien, but the hero’s name is a derivation of Krishna. The villain in Ra.One is a creation of science (as is the hero, G.One), but his name is a play on the demon Ravana. Their stories are explicitly related to Hinduism.

A Flying Jatt is even more overtly religious than the Krrish films or Ra.One in that the hero’s powers are divine in origin. When threatened by an evil industrialist (played by Kay Kay Menon, also the villain in Drona) who wants to tear down a tree that bears a Sikh Khanda symbol, Aman (Tiger Shroff) prays to the tree for help. In a subsequent fight with the industrialist’s goon (played by Nathan Jones), Aman is slammed against the tree. A light shines, and the Khanda symbol is branded onto Aman’s flesh. Then lightning strikes, imbuing Aman with superpowers and launching his foe far enough away to give Aman time to master his new abilities before a climactic showdown.

What’s significant about Aman’s story arc is that, before the miracle at the tree, Aman doesn’t identify as religious (to the chagrin of his pious mother). He keeps his hair short and his face shaved, and he refuses to wear a turban. He eschews all the outward signs of his family’s Sikh faith.

When the industrialist first comes calling, the families who live in Aman’s neighborhood head to the tree to pray. Fearful Aman would rather sell the land — tree and all — to avoid a fight. He only prays at the tree as a last resort, when he’s out of ideas as to how to protect himself and his mother.

Even when Aman finally understands what has happened to him, he still hesitates to embrace his faith. His mother begs him to wear the turban that belonged to his father, himself a brave, pious man. Aman refuses, saying that he will only wear it when he feels that he can do so whole-heartedly. His skills and resolve are tested along with his faith, and only before the final battle does he choose to wear his father’s turban and the beginnings of a beard.

Aman’s doubt is important because rarely do we see any Hindi film characters at all questioning their belief in the divine. Religion is a part of virtually every Hindi film, especially since the lines separating culture and religion in India are blurry to non-existent. A character’s faith gives him context, defining his relationships to other characters and his place in the community. Thus, it’s a foregone conclusion that most characters in Hindi films are religious.

In a terrific article about Indian superheroes, Sankhayan Ghosh paraphrases mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, who believes that “there is no place for angst” in the Indian idea of heroism. To have a Bollywood character with superpowers doubt not only himself but his belief in God is a big deal.

The thing about faith in the divine is that it requires belief in the absence of physical proof (unless you are Paresh Rawal’s character in OMG: Oh My God, who meets God in person). But even with the physical proof of a Khanda branded on his back and an array of superpowers at his disposal, Aman still hesitates. Like everyone else, his belief has to generate from within.

It’s a thoughtful message, and it relates to another theme in A Flying Jatt. Aman’s brother (played by Gaurav Pandey) tells Aman that the real heroes are those who fight injustice without the aid of superpowers. Aman’s crisis of faith extends that idea further, letting the audience know that it’s okay for normal people to have their doubts about God. If a guy who has been literally touched by the divine can be unsure, how much harder must it be for those with no concrete proof?

Too often, Bollywood heroes are shown as being infallible and above moral judgment. Ajay Devgn’s Bajirao Singham is allowed to break the rules of a democracy because he’s supposedly an instrument of divine justice — a mortal man who can fix all of society’s problems in whatever way he sees fit, no matter the collateral damage (this was especially a problem in Singham Returns). A Flying Jatt‘s Aman isn’t like that. He’s a protector, not an executioner. It’s refreshing to see a relatable Bollywood hero who appeals to the better angels of our nature rather than our base thirst for vengeance.

CSAFF 2016 Lineup Announced

The feature films competing in the seventh annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival have been announced. Competitors predominantly hail from India, but the festival includes films from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the United States as well.

Hindi films account for half of the competition lineup. I’ve previously reviewed four of them:  Aligarh, Waiting, Masaan, and Island City. Two of the other three Hindi features — Nil Battey Sannata and Budhia Singh: Born to Run — released theatrically in India earlier this year, but not in the United States.

Aligarh, Waiting, and Masaan are all terrific, and Island City has its moments as well. This is a compelling lineup, and that’s just in regard to the Hindi films. The festival runs from October 5-10, 2016. The full schedule of screenings will be posted soon at the CSAFF website.

Split Screen Podcast, Episode 16: Rahasya vs. Talvar

SplitScreenPodcast

Another episode of the Split Screen Podcast featuring yours truly is live! In Episode 16, show host Shah Shahid and I compare two 2015 movies based on the 2008 Noida double murder case. Rahasya‘s release — nine months before Talvar hit screens — followed a lengthy court battle, and Shah and I discuss the legal drama surrounding the films as well as the two movies themselves.

You can subscribe to the Split Screen Podcast at iTunes, or you can listen to Episode 16 in your browser on this page at Shah’s website, Blank Page Beatdown. Every episode of the Split Screen Podcast can be found here, including Shah’s preview of Bollywood movies coming out in the second half of 2016. I’m featured in the following episodes: