17 June 2008

25 Great Bollywood Films As Chosen By Me (11 - 20)

11. EKLAVYA: The Royal Guard

(Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2007)

This is one of the few intimate epics that have come out of the new Bollywood cinema in the last ten years, and though the film’s running time comes in under two hours, director-producer, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ode to the faded romanticism of Indian medieval culture is beautifully captured in the heartfelt story of an aging, loyal guard played with a confident assurance by Ambitabh Bachchan. AKS, Black, Sarkar and Nisabdh are just some of the post 2000 films that have been lucky enough to secure the presence of Bachchan Sr., providing him with the opportunity to explore a moral uncertainty that went largely unchecked in mediocre films like Aditya Chopra’s bombastic and forgettable Mohabbatein. Alongside a magnificent performance, this is also intelligent cinema with Chopra showing a real eye for both the epic nature of an enclosed narrative and the emotionally entangled relationship between a troubled father and his estranged son. Vidhu Vinod Chopra continues to improve with each film he makes and he has still yet to do much of his best work, but for the time being Eklavya reveals a film maker who understands the need for a balance between populist cinema and authorial expression.


(Dir. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006)

Revolution, youth, apathy and Indian history; at first glance such radical sentiments and socialist ideals are not traditionally associated with a major Bollywood film star unless that star is Aamir Khan of course, the same Aamir Khan who had been a romantic pin up during the 80s and 90s, and who had post Lagaan transformed his star image from the adolescent romantic lead to a producer of politically engaged films about India’s relationship with the British empire. Rang De Basanti concerns itself with the political disengagement of the youth from the political system and how an insight into the revolutionary dissent initiated by figures like Bhagat Singh inspires similar feelings of wanting to change the status quo. Youth activism has never been a popular theme within the mainstream of Indian cinema and the pessimistic and defeatist ending did not prevent Rang De Basanti from becoming one of the biggest films of 2006. The juxtaposition of freedom fighters from the past inter cut with contemporary acts of dissent aimed directly at the Indian government works brilliantly to suggest that any change within society carries with it a certain price, and that sacrifice is a concept that has almost disappeared from the middle class youth of India today.


(Dir. Shimit Amin, 2004)

Shimit Amin has most recently been winning great acclaim for his collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan on Chak De India, a film that he was hired to direct for the Yash Raj factory after the success of the 2004 crime film, Ab Taak Chhappan, starring Nana Patekar and produced by gangster genre master, Ram Gopal Varma. The film is about a corrupt cop played by Nana Patekar who has made a fiercely notorious reputation for killing criminals in sting operations, all at the behest of an underworld gangster who lives a life of isolation. When Sadhu Agashe’s (Nana Patekar) wife is killed at a wedding ceremony, he becomes a softly spoken force of vengeance, utilising what contacts he has left, Agashe finally confronts the underworld don who he feels was behind the assassination of his wife. Not only is this film brilliantly directed by Shimit Amin, it also features a powerhouse performance by the formidable and multi talented Nana Patekar who is probably one of the few actors working today who have an extraordinary range in how a line of dialogue is delivered. A deeply intense actor, only somebody like Nana Patekar would have been able to make us empathise with such a rotten and cruel cop as Agashe who even though achieves some kind of restrained redemption by the end, is nevertheless a violent enemy of society who cares little for the preservation of law and order. This is one of the finest crime films to have come out of the mainstream of Indian cinema.


(Dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1994)

Having made a name for himself directing major Hollywood box office draws like Anil Kapoor in hits such as Mr India, Shekhar Kapur shift away from commercial cinema and his eventual move into Hollywood feature film making was made altogether more acceptable after his first independently produced film, Bandit Queen, achieved widespread notoriety for it’s controversial depiction of Phoolan Devi. Based on a true story, Devi was a notorious female outlaw who endured years of patriarchal abuse in the form of physical and sexual violence that resulted in her being gang raped. In one of the film’s most brutal moments, Pholaan Devi, an outlaw with a revolutionary agenda, returns to the village where she was gang raped. Now a leader of a gang herself, Devi orders her men to shoot all of those involved with her violation, and they do so with an impunity that is frighteningly captured in an outright massacre. This film truthfully deals with the male dominated inequalities of a caste system that discriminated against the rights of women and offers a damning insight into how feudalism was a fundamental means of enforcing social control. When Devi finally surrenders to the Indian government, she is greeted by a crowd of predominately low caste people who have found inspiration in her violent reprisals – too the people she becomes an iconic symbol of social injustice. Having made films like Elizabeth and The Four Feathers, this is still Shekhar Kapur’s best film to date, simply because what is said is the undeniable social truth concerning the gender inequality that exists within India. Bandit Queen also features a worthy musical contribution from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a towering performance from Seema Biswas.


(Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2004)

Kashyap made his name writing scripts for vehicles directed and produced by Ram Gopal Varma, and his output as a scriptwriter is both highly intelligent and commercially successful. Satya, Shool and Yuva are just some of the diverse and challenging films for which Kashyap has been the writer, and is plainly obvious that he has shown a consistent interest in contemporary themes and issues plaguing Indian society today, namely crime, violence and contemporary politics. Though Kashyap debuted in 2003 with his instantly forgettable film, Paanch, it wasn’t until the release of his 2nd feature in 2006, Black Friday, did he make an impact as a talented new director with a great eye for visually stylish mise en scene and slick cinematography. Black Friday’s release was delayed for over two years because of complicated legal reasons and when the film opened it was received with great acclaim for it’s powerful and authentic depiction of the events, approaching a deeply sensitive subject from an alternative perspective that was both risky and controversial. Based on the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, which were carried out in retaliation to the Bombay riots, Kashyap’s film is one of the most intense studies of terrorism that has been brought to the big screen, and it is all done with a great degree of artistic confidence and stylistic finesse. With a great score by Indian Ocean, and an array of spot on performances, Black Friday continues the thread of moral uncertainty and underworld darkness he famously established in films like Satya.


(Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2005)

It is still hard to believe that Shah Rukh Khan’s most formidable performance and arguably his greatest film to date was not only trashed by the critics but was a failure at the box office. Today, anything that the King Khan touches turns to gold, and his careful selection of films means that he has not had a flop since Swades, which suddenly feels like a long time ago. However entertaining Om Shanti Om maybe as a musical spectacle and Don as a radically post modern updating, nothing in the oeuvre of Shah Rukh Khan quite compares to the understated brilliance and magic of Swades. Building on the international success of Lagaan, Gowariker brings the same socialist agenda to the story of a middle class Indian working abroad in America as a NASA scientist who returns to his village in India for his surrogate mother only to end up staying indefinitely. Swades is beautifully judged cinema with some exceptionally staged moments like when the cinema projector breaks down in the midst of a film screening and Mohan (Shah Rukh) through song and dance makes the people in the village see one common goal, that of progress for all. Shah Rukh Khan can rest assured that if he never makes another film again, this is the one that will really stand out when people look back at his illustrious career. Magical.


(Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989)

Many critics and film maker’s continue to regard Parinda as one of the key crime and gangster films, and it is a film that signaled a real turning point in contemporary mainstream cinema. Effectively a swan song to the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, this is still one of the great city films, and is a film in which the city landscape becomes a theme, a character and a signature of authenticity. Parinda brought together a talented and popular ensemble cast comprising of Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit, Anupam Kher and Nana Patekar. A tragic story of two brothers in which the oldest brother is indebted to a local big time gangster (played menacingly by Nana Patekar), Parinda was typically melodramatic in how it used the elements of the masala film but what makes this such a radical departure from the genre is Chopra’s definitive and powerful use of locations. Great music, inventive editing and the allure of Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff in the same movie together meant this was one of the biggest successes of 80s.


(Dir. Mani Ratnam, 2004)

Mani Ratnam has never made a bad film, full stop, exclamation mark. His body of work consists of a diverse and outstanding collection of deeply intellectual but populist films, and his collaboration with Anurag Khasyap on Yuva in 2004 was another attempt to engage with a contemporary political issue, that of the youth. Yuva performed disappointingly at the box office and one of the reasons for it’s failure was the convoluted multi narrative strands Ratnam uses to tell a story about how people’s lives, even though they don’t realise it, are in some way deeply connected to one another. I guess the recent Hollywood film, Crash, comes to mind when you think of Yuva but Ratnam is far more successful in how he tackles his themes because he never feels the urge to preach to us. Most of the Bollywood film stars are desperate to work with Ratnam and with Yuva, he was able to secure a talented cast of up and coming actors including Kareena Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bachchan. One of the other reasons why this film failed to find an audience was due to the political content of many of the stories. Yuva was the turning point in Abhishek Bachchan’s career as an actor who wanted to be taken seriously, and he turns in an exceptionally controlled and confident performance as a lowlife thug who will do anything to get ahead in life. Ratnam and A R Rahman have collaborated on many films together and the soundtrack to Yuva is invigorating and typically brilliant, just like the film.


(Dir. Bimal Roy, 1963)

Nutan gives one of the great female screen performances in Bimal Roy’s masterful prison movie that he made in 1963, bringing an end to a career that was influenced greatly by the neo realist movement in Italy in the 1940s. Bandini can be considered an unusual film for any nation, not only India, because it is concerned with a female character who forms the major basis of the narrative and also it was one of the first films to deal with the social issue of women in prison, and does so with great warmth, providing an emotionally challenging insight into daily rituals of prison life. Beautifully shot with explicit allusions to film noir, Bandini like Mother India, and many other feminist films, offer us a fresh perspective on a traditionally male dominated genre. Nutan is extraordinary as the wronged woman who is made a virtual outcast from society and subsequently becomes a symbol of feminist resistance. The emotions at work in this film are exceedingly complex but gracefully handled by Bimal Roy and he is very careful not to push this film into hyperbole which many films have often become the victim in mainstream Indian cinema. Often overlooked, Bandini is one of Bimal Roy’s best films.


(Dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1973)

The Guardian and British film critic, Derek Malcom, refers to Pakeezah as one of the most erotic movies ever made especially in how Amrohi choreographs the dance sequences, placing a particular camera emphasis on the naked feet of the female protagonist, objecting and sexualising the body so that it takes an added mystical dimension that leaves an unforgettable impression on the spectator. Derek Malcolm is quite right in underlining the eroticism of Pakeezah because this is a film which is all about the figure of the Courtesan who must dance to keep alive her position within society and to become somebody who desires to cut across the social barriers that exists between the courtesan and spectator. It took Kamal Amrohi nearly a decade to complete this film because the main star, Mena Kumari, was not only famously difficult to direct but was also a long time suffering alcoholic which played havoc with her ability to complete film projects. Pakeezah has one of the most imaginative and dense openings I have ever come across for a mainstream Indian film; the creative use of cinemascope, the cryptic voice over and unforgettable music elevates the opening of Pakeezah to a position of enigmatic brilliance. This is perhaps one of the defintive Bollywood statements on the figure of the prostitute within contemporary society and like Bandini and Mother India shares with it a common attraction towards feminist ideology that seems to have more or less vanished from Indian cinema today.


  1. You really want people to watch Bollywood films don't you. I'm not gonna watch 25, so I'll make you a deal; I'll watch your number one and you do my FS6 exam tomorrow. I think that's pretty fair deal.
    From your disciple

  2. i concur with the above fellow. although I've already sat it, so that could be problematic.

    HI OMAR.