A year of high-concept and low-recall movies, numbers twos and threes, and unambitious and cynical remakes of hits from other languages—in short, business as usual for Hindi cinema’s dream merchants, who are perennially on the lookout for wider markets and greater monetary returns. In the process, some of them also manage to produce movies that you might actually remember before the end of December.

The best-performing sector of the battered Indian economy rolled out mostly forgettable but also some noteworthy dramas, love stories and song-and-dance spectacles this year. Directors and writers continued to take chapters out of the Salim-Javed school of the Hindi movie, which emphasizes character and dialogue over other cinematic tools, but there were signs of hope that at least some directors have found ways to tell their stories in visual ways and are harnessing the infinite possibilities afforded by the seventh art. The year saw a greater push for realism, valorous attempts to do away with songs or relegate them to the background, and a wider range of themes and concerns. Changes in the marketing and distribution of films are still too new to be effectively analysed, but 2013 did see risk-averse studios and candyfloss manufacturers throwing their weight behind movies with modest budgets, no-name actors, and offbeat subjects while simultaneously trying to fatten the 100-crore goose.

The act of cross-subsidization—a Ship of Theseus and Shahid for a Chennai Express and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani for Disney UTV, for instance—might just last, but it has already extracted its price. Alternative cinema needs godfathers and godmothers more than ever before to invade cinemas, while giga-budget and star-backed ventures will continue to monopolise screens and tot up box-office returns that can wipe out the budget deficits of whole states. The result is the usual mix of good, decent and lousy films in a year of tremendous ugliness and hope, both on the screen and off it.

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Bhansali Baroque finally gets the proportion right in a movie as succulent as an Indian sweet. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, his Romeo and Juliet-inspired gypsy opera, is a gaudy and giddy riot of colours and sensations. Chief among its pleasures is Ranveer Singh’s bravura man in capital letters, a sculpted satyr who is felled by Deepika Padukone’s kiss and lost forever in the swirls of her voluminous skirt. An uninhibited Singh is matched in his efforts not as much by his luminous co-star but by Supriya Pathak’s heavy-set female don, who rarely stirs from her perch but telegraphs malevolence from within the folds of her black robes.

If the leads resemble strutting peacocks, it’s every bit as deliberate as the baubles, tattoos and mirror-work encrusted walls in this ravishing spectacle, shot by Ravi Varman and designed by Wasiq Khan. For all the ribald jokes, visual flourishes and irrational passions that are paraded between the first frame and the last, Ram-Leela is Bhansali’s coldest work till date. Perhaps in response to the failure of his last two films, he whittles away at his notorious excesses and curbs his tendency to wallow in schmaltz. The movie leans in favour of overkill, and the balance threatens to come undone in the plot-driven last hour, but this large-screen experience beats the Krrishs and the Dhooms that lumbered into the cinemas this year.

Star, from Bombay Talkies

Ship of Theseus

Lootera

Lootera is as pretty as Motwane’s debut Udaan was gritty. Shot by Mahendra J. Shetty for a 70-mm screen, it is a cross between Bengali zamindari yarns and O Henry’s The Last Leaf. Set in the twilight of a feudal and inequitable system, the self-consciously handsome picture, with its painterly visuals and grown-up romance, is a bit too clinical to be one of the great tragedies of our time. Amit Trivedi’s chartbuster-friendly soundtrack hinders rather than complements the slow dance between the leads, which should really have been left silent, but the imagination and ambition are there for all to see.

Chennai Express

Sonakshi Sinha might have given the performance of the year by a female actor, but 2013 was when Deepika Padukone scaled the peak of popularity with a series of giga-hits. She is Kannadiga but plays a Tamilian lass in Chennai Express, a family-oriented action comedy in which Shah Rukh Khan’s clueless Mumbaiite discovers the pains and pleasures of leaving his environs. Chennai Express is not offensive but silly enough to become one of the biggest money-spinners of our time. We get the politicians, and the films, we deserve.

Chennai Express is only the latest example of Mumbai cinema’s continuing fascination for that exotic species called The South Indian. Bollywood usually tends to boil down all of South India, which comprises many states, religions, castes, languages, dialects, income levels and sensibilities, into a handful of Tamilians, who are represented as Hindi-mangling emotional creatures who hit first and ask questions later. As far as Mumbai is concerned, South India, whose major cities are two hours away by plane, is as remote as Papua New Guinea. Tamilians who object to this objectification might take some heart from knowing that when Bollywood thinks of south India, it puts Tamil Nadu on top of the list.

Go Goa Gone

The zombie comedy pits the pitch-perfect Khemu against Vir Das, who outshone his peers in 2011’s Delhi Belly, and Anand Tiwari, an expert in representing the earnest Indian male. The screenplay steams along on the back of entertainingly silly characters (among them Saif Ali Khan’s fake Russian), bad jokes (Khemu’s character is called Hardik, a female character is called Luna just to put in a “riding the Luna" joke), and several side-splitting ones about needy Indian men and the real meaning of a holiday in Goa.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

The most interesting aspect of Prasoon Joshi’s screenplay is the suggestion that Singh’s weltanschauung is shaped by the Partition, and that it becomes paramount for him to exorcise the trauma of the event to restore personal and national glory. The attempt to provide psychological shading is several metres short, but it’s a welcome start.

Shahid

The Lunchbox

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns

Of all the sequels that have been steadily, and depressingly, rolling off the dream factory’s assembly line, none is as curious as Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. (The promise of a third part already sounds like a threat.) Part uno, released in 2011, was the wicked tale of an ex-royal trying to make sense of the workings of the Indian democratic republic, his alcoholic and scheming wife, and a small-time hood who becomes a pawn in their bejewelled hands. The sequel has more characters, including Irrfan Khan’s dandyish ex-royal who wants a piece of the pie; Mahie Gill, the wife who is now a politician, continues to nurse her drink as though it were an oxygen tank; various refugees of the abolished privy purse system also continue to insist that they matter. Writer and director Tigmanshu Dhulia can always be counted on for well-etched characters and crackling dialogue, but he is better at writing screenplays than at directing them, as is also evident from his other release this year, the sloppy and tepid Bullett Raja.

Kai Po Che!

Abhishek Kapoor jettisoned his acting dreams to become a filmmaker with a handle on storytelling and an ability to extract naturalistic performances from his actors. Kai Po Che!, based on Chetan Bhagat’s The Three Mistakes of My Life is set in Ahmedabad and traces the ups and downs of three friends (Amit Sadh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkumar Yadav) who seek fortune in different ways. Two of them attempt to ride the cricket wave that has washed over the country to the exclusion of other sports, and the third takes the Hindutva route to mobility. Amit Sadh’s rightwing neophyte is the most interesting and least developed character, and the relentless twists and turns and frequent refuge to songs underline the perils of trying to marry a realistic storytelling approach with mainstream conventions.

Mere Dad Ki Maruti

Yash Raj Films (YRF), the top-dog purveyor of Indian aspirations and consumerist tendencies, had a mixed-bag year, but it started decently, with the low-octane comedy Mere Dad Ki Maruti. Breezily directed by Ashima Chibber with punchy dialogue by Ishita Moitra, the Dude, Where’s My Car?-inspired scenario saw Saqib Saleem and various dim-witted pals run all over Chandigarh trying to trace his father dearest’s Maruti. Saleem’s acting chops and deft comic timing signal him as an actor worth looking out for.

Shudh Desi Romance

BA Pass

D-Day

The guilty pleasure experience of the year belongs to Nikhil Advani’s thriller, in which a group of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) sleeper agents get their hands on a highly wanted gangster vamping it up in Pakistan. There is never any doubt about who the Karachi-based “Iqbal Seth aka Goldman", played truck-wide broad by Rishi Kapoor, really is, even though the operation to bring him to justice is the figment of a fervid and nationalistic imagination. Shoojit Sircar’s clumsy Madras Cafe, about the plot to assassinate a Rajiv Gandhi-like leader, Sudhir Mishra’s tedious Inkaar, which purports to examine sexual harassment at the workplace, and Neeraj Pandey’s tacky Special 26, inspired by a jewellery heist carried out by fake Central Bureau of Investigation officers, were among the headline-inspired dramas of the year. D-Day proved that fiction—rather, fantasy—works just fine.

Raanjhanaa

Anand L Rai’s casting coup ensures that Raanjhanaa is worth at least a one-time watch. Most of the movie’s battle is won by the presence of Tamil actor Dhanush, whose common-man looks have enhanced, rather than stood in the way, of his popularity. Dhanush’s Kundan woos a woman above his station in every which way (she is fair-skinned, educated, wealthier and in love with another man), walking proudly towards his inevitable martyrdom and assuring conservative sections of the audience that while change might be in the air, the man on the ground resolutely remains the same.

Satyagraha

Prakash Jha’s unique brand of pamphleteering cinema is, mercifully, unique. Having examined various issues roiling the nation in the past (power politics, caste and reservations, Naxalism), the Madhur Bhandarkar of political cinema turns his attention to the Arvind Kejriwal-Anna-Hazare moment in Satyagraha. Various soft-skinned celebrities slip into handloom fabrics to rough it out in the heat and dust of the heartland. The sheer number of issues facing India means that Jha is never going to run out of story ideas. Yegads!

R… Rajkumar

Shahid Kapur, the talented but unlucky star-in-waiting, was just about the only decent thing about Rajkumar Santoshi’s Phata Poster Nikla Hero earlier in the year. Kapur ended 2013 with what is called the “southern masala movie"—code for rapidly edited dross consisting of unreconstructed heroes, low-IQ heroines, lascivious villains, slow-mo action, pelvis-centred choreography, broad humour and songs that deserve to be played only in trucks on distant highways. It’s hard to choose between R… Rajkumar and the Akshay Kumar starrer Boss, a remake of Malayalam star Mammooty’s Pokkiri Raja that came and sank earlier in the year. (R… Rajukmar, on the other hand, clicked with audiences.) The sight of men beating other men to pulp is more World Wrestling Entertainment than cinema, but the remake trend isn’t going to stop any time soon, going by the number of deals signed between southern filmmakers and Mumbai studios.

Krrish 3

Rakesh Roshan, whose last engaging film was the reincarnation-cum-vendetta drama Karan Arjun, watches more American superhero fantasies and comic book-based movies than is medically advisable for this box-office megaton. Hrithik Roshan’s leather-clad superhero sails through the sky while his father, also played by him, potters away on the ground below to harness the power of solar energy for a “Brain-wala Filter" device that can breathe life into the dead. If you have never ever seen a single Hollywood film since the beginning of time, Krrish 3 might just work for you.

Aashiqui 2

Noteworthy for the ability of producer Vishesh Films to successfully rinse and repeat a lovers-in-peril formula. Shraddha Kapoor and Aditya Roy Kapur, the blank-faced but attractive leads, glide through the A Star-is-Born plot about an alcoholic and fading male singer who promotes, and then, falls in love with, a female crooner. Targetted at impressionable adolescents who believe in love-at-first-sight-and-against-all-odds, and packed with songs that will outlive its impact on popular culture, Aashiqui 2 is a combination of box-office smarts and the continuing power of music composers to decide the fate of a movie.

Race 2

Abbas-Mustan, Bollywood’s double-headed answer to Jerry Bruckheimer and James Bond, concoct yet another preposterous but lucrative series of betrayals and counter-betrayals in the Race sequel. Race 2’s clotheshorses jockey for foreign currency – a noble pursuit in the year of the battered rupee – and supply a never-ending series of eye-widening moments, including a running gag about Amisha Patel’s edible appeal, an encounter between a suited Saif Ali Khan and a nude but mercifully pixillated adversary, a car that ejects itself out of a plane, and the theft of the Shroud of Turin, no less. That’s entertainment.

Dhoom: 3

Abbas-Mustan, the originators of Bollywood-style hedonism, must take some credit for inspiring the high-concept Dhoom franchise. The best Dhoom movie was the first. It was set in an identifiable location – Mumbai – and reflected a very real sub-culture of speeding and rebellious rogue bikers. Or did it actually create that sub-culture? That’s for the sociologists to analyse.

The subsequent Dhooms have made more money than the first, but have wandered into la-la land to the point of no-return. Dhoom: 2 and Dhoom:3 amount to little more than watching beautifully dressed guys and dolls chasing each other in the tourism-friendly capitals of the world. Escapism with a big E was never a sin, but it often makes for tremendous dullness. Only critics seem to be carping, since audiences have flocked to the theatres to watch a leading star run down and soar over buildings, drive a bike that is actually a Batmobile, and trump the police each and every time. One of the year’s biggest hits has a contrivance-heavy plot borrowed from Hollywood films, a cast of hammy actors and sub-par handling of action sequences. Dhoom:4, which has no doubt already been green-lit, will release on more screens than the third, and will make more money than all the three Dhooms put together, but will it be remembered for its imagination? Probably not.

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