I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with today’s premiere of the Hindi Hotstar Special medical drama series Human (also available in Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu).
2015 offered up a satisfying mix of sweet, intimate stories and dark thrills and chills. Here are my picks for the best Bollywood movies of 2015. (Click on the title of each movie to read my original review.)
The year ended on a triumphant note with the release of the historical epic romance Bajirao Mastani. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s colorful, lavish style demands to be seen on the big screen.
Two smaller Hindi films that played at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival prove that big budgets aren’t necessary to make a great movie. Haraamkhor and Dhanak depict the struggles of childhood in very different ways, with Dhanak being easily the sweetest film of the year.
Early 2015 saw the release of two great revenge thrillers: Badlapur and NH10. While Badlapur explores the toll that a lingering desire for vengeance takes on a grieving husband (Varun Dhawan), NH10 is a race against the clock for a woman (Anushka Sharma) trying to defeat the men out to kill her.
In contrast to such dark fare, Piku lovingly and humorously explores the tense relationship between an adult daughter (Deepika Padukone) who hits the road with her ailing father (Amitabh Bachchan).
A pair of top-notch crime thrillers also made the list. Talvar‘s unique story structure sets apart this real-life murder mystery. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! put a modern, stylish twist on a classic Indian literary detective.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha is as charming as can be, telling the tale of a loser (Ayushmann Khurrana) rebelling against his marriage to an accomplished woman (Bhumi Pednekar) who fails to fit his beauty standards. So much care went into the story that it is impossible not to fall in love with these young adults trying to grow under enormous family pressure.
My favorite movie of 2015 is a big budget, multi-starrer that nevertheless tells a smart, contemporary family story. Too often, Bollywood spectacle films are “check your brain at the door” affairs, full of bombast but devoid of substance. Director Zoya Akhtar brings together an A-list cast — including Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, Ranveer Singh, Farhan Akhtar, and Anil Kapoor — for a film that is fun and romantic, but also contains insightful critiques of the respect (or lack thereof) accorded women in modern Indian society. Director Akhtar takes the opportunity this big-budget blockbuster affords her and uses the platform to inform as well as entertain. For that reason, my favorite Hindi film of 2015 is Dil Dhadakne Do.
(Update: I watched Masaan after posting this list. Were I to re-do my rankings, I’d place Masaan in 9th place, between Dhanak and Haraamkhor.)
Haraamkhor (international title: The Wretched) is a captivating examination of adolescents and their understanding of sexuality and romantic relationships. The stakes are high for the kids in the film as they takes their uneasy steps toward adulthood.
The action in Haraamkhor centers around Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Her mother abandoned her years ago, and her police constable father is a secretive drunk. She’s new to the small town in Gujarat where she lives, and she has no friends.
She does have an admirer, however. Kamal (Irfan Khan of Chillar Party) is a skinny boy a few years Sandhya’s junior, and he is determined to marry her. Unfortunately, Kamal breaks both of his arms at the start of the film, forcing him to rely heavily on his best friend, Mintu (Modh Samad), for assistance in his romantic pursuits.
Mintu is the main source of dubious information about sex for all of the prepubescent boys in town. According to Mintu, a boy and a girl have to get married if they see each other naked. He helps Kamal spy on Sandhya in the shower before developing several botched plans to trick Sandhya into seeing Kamal naked. The best of his ridiculous plans involves Mintu acting as a miniature Hugh Hefner, photographing underwear-clad Kamal in what passes for a seductive pose to a pre-teen boy.
Sandhya’s other admirer isn’t so innocent. She’s smitten with her teacher, Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and the older man is happy to draw her into a sexual relationship. This isn’t his first time. His wife, Sunita (Trimala Adhikari), is herself a former student.
Kamal and Mintu are convinced that Sandhya and Shyam are having an affair, but the boys don’t completely understand what that means or consequences it could have. Shyam certainly does, but he’s brazen enough to ride around the small town with Sandhya. She wraps her head in a scarf as a disguise, as if people won’t recognize her bright red backpack and school uniform.
Writer-director Shlok Sharma is forgiving of Kamal’s and Sandhya’s naiveté. Kamal is very much still a kid, and Sandhya lacks good adult role models to guide her through puberty. She’s been disappointed by adults before — but not outright deceived, as she is by Shyam.
Sandhya eventually finds that role model in Neelu (Shreya Shah), the girlfriend her father has kept secret for years. Neelu knows exactly what Sandhya is going through and guides the girl without pushing her. The tender development of their relationship is one of the highlights of the film.
Every performance in the film is excellent. Shah is patient, Adhikari annoyed. Khan and Samad are boyhood at its most endearing. Tripathi is superb, playing a character half her age with great sympathy.
Siddiqui makes a villainous character seem downright ordinary, as though Shyam could be any guy in any town. He’s a violent predator, but thanks to Siddiqui, we see how Shyam is able to maintain his good standing in town for as long as he does.
The integration of Haraamkhor‘s two main storylines isn’t always successful. A scene of Shyam trying to molest Sandhya is immediately followed by Kamal and Neelu sneaking around Sandhya’s house, accompanied by dodo music. It’s hard to flip the emotional switch as quickly as Sharma demands.
But that’s the point of Haraamkhor, I guess. Kids don’t always get to grow up at the pace they are ready for.