So they made a lot of money—at least 100 crore each. That’s one billion worth of notes bearing Mahatma Gandhi’s kindly grin. At an average rate of 100, that’s 10 million Indians—about 1% of the population—beating down the doors of cinemas to watch such perfectly ordinary films, as Rowdy Rathore, Ek Tha Tiger, Housefull 2and Bol Bachchan. Has the film-going public collectively decided to reward mediocrity? Or is a wind of smarter economics blowing in the industry’s favour? As always, the truth lies in between.

The 100-crore club is a result of lowered audience expectations and higher ticket rates. Multiplexes are spreading throughout the country, either replacing single-screen cinemas or coming up as alternatives to run-down movie halls. Films are being promoted and hyped even more furiously than in previous years. Producers have become savvier about timing their releases, as have film stars about marketing themselves. More is merrier—and it is paying off. It’s left to the snobs and curmudgeons to point out that most of the year’s biggest hits are firmly in the comfort zone. They contain few surprises, whether it’s in the casting or story idea or narrative treatment. More is also safer.

Kshay was one of the top films of the year

The safe option of going with remakes and sequels rather than experimenting with new ideas continued this year, with part IIs and IIIs as well as retreads of older hits—the list includes Agneepath,Bol Bachchan, Jism-2and Raaz 3. When film-makers weren’t reworking older content, they were succumbing to the tributitus virus and lifting or reproducing moments and characters from older movies. Some acknowledged their debts, such as Sriram Raghavan in Agent Vinod and Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur, but others weren’t so candid. Anurag Basu’s Barfi!, which is on the 100-crore list, was named India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscar Academy Awards, but its reputation was irreparably dented when its long trail of debts to foreign cinema was exposed, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Takeshi Kitano.

Gangs of Wasseypur lined up some unforgetable characters

The disappointments yielded some minor pleasures. Let’s hear it for the plus-sized women in editor-turned-film-maker Bela Sehgal’s Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi. The story about a late-breaking romance between two over-the-hill Parsi characters took its cue from commercial Parsi theatre and was stuffed with bad jokes, schoolboy-level visual gags and acting as broad as the beams of some of the women characters.

A still from Aiyyaa

Another seasoned actor who had a gala time was Paresh Rawal in the clunkily named OMG: Oh My God. Rawal’s atheist files a case against God after his store is destroyed in a freak earthquake. The satire about excessive religiosity ends with the reaffirmation that there is a “One Above", but not before Rawal takes some well-needed digs at blind faith and the commercialization of religion.

Movie-watching was a delight rather than drudgery with films like Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor, based on a sparkling script by Juhi Chaturvedi. The comedy is about a prolific sperm donor but it actually makes a case for adoption. Nice. Ayushmann Khurrana’s breezy performance matches turns by seasoned actors like Annu Kapoor’s frantic doctor and Dolly Ahluwalia’s tipple-friendly materfamilias.

Gangs of Wasseypur too lined up unforgettable characters, including Manoj Bajpayee’s unapologetically crooked coal smuggler Sardar Khan, Pankaj Tripathi’s vengeful Sultan Qureshi, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s wily politician Ramadhir Singh, Richa Chadda’s long-suffering wife Nagma, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s stoner don Faisal Khan. Anurag Kashyap’s yarn of coal-pilfering gangsters in Bihar and Jharkhand contains a delightful commentary on cinephilia in small-town India, most perfectly realized in the sequence in which Sardar challenges his rival Ramadhir from a truck advertising the latest movie in town.

Despite all the testosterone on display, the year was actually good for women. Sridevi made a spirited comeback in Gauri Shinde’s assured debut English Vinglish. Vidya Balan’s vigilante, powered Kahaani to box-office gold. Parineeti Chopra’s intelligence and presence rescued the initially edgy Ishaqzaadefrom its formulaic cop-outs. Rani Mukerji gamely hoofed her way through Aiyyaa’s excesses. In fact, Sachin Kundalkar’s Aiyyaa, despite the hoots and jeers, was one of the more enjoyable films of the year. Its madcap take on the thin line between fantasy and reality made room for the unabashed expression of female desire. Although Mukerji’s Meenakshi, who is aroused by the body odour of her love object, sniffs around the story far too often, there’s a lot to be said about a film in which the woman, for a change, wears her leaking heart on her sleeve. Also among the better titles were Raghavan’s Agent Vinod, (notwithstanding the bloated and contrived climax) and Sameer Sharma’s Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a Punjab-set comedy with yet another scene-stealing performance from Rajesh Sharma.

One of the top films of 2012 also had a woman in the lead. Karan Gour’s assured debut Kshay, a chamber-room drama about a woman’s growing obsession with a statue of the goddess Lakshmi, saw a limited release at PVR Cinemas multiplexes (it’s out now on DVD). Kshay stars Rasika Dugal in a bravura performance as a housewife whose world starts closing in on her. Strikingly shot in black and white for 4 lakh, Kshay is as far removed from the 100-crore club as it gets—and is all the better for it.

Watchlist: 2013

The promising releases of next year.

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola