Bunty aur Babli: After years of NRI-pandering love stories and family sagas, and (more recently) multiplex takes on “American Pie” and other species of affable (though often misogynistic) imbecility, this film was the revenge of the bhaiyya (well, sort of), as two small town hicks from nowhere, U.P. cheerfully scam their way across the heartland. Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee were pitch perfect, particularly in the Taj scam, and Shaad Ali deserves kudos, and not just for the film: Kajra Re is the best “item” number in years, looking back to the ‘70s, yet refreshingly contemporary in its lack of moral judgment on the tart at the center of it all.
Mangal Pandey: Were it not for Shabd this would assuredly have been the most unfairly reviewed film of 2005. What was most dispiriting about its reception was that its very Bollywood essence was held against it by the critics (though in fairness many in the public were probably turned off because it wasn’t masala enough). Yet this was a film with some serious things to say, and some serious homage to pay to the conventions of Hindi cinema. And it was clever too: every aspect of the colonial account of Mangal Pandey (from the bhang to the frenzy to the trial) was worked into the script, yet imbued with a cadence that amounted to a subversion of the colonial narrative. So-called cultural nationalists howled protests, and the humorless Trotskyites at Frontline felt history had been distorted-- thereby showing their utter lack of understanding as to what a "ballad" is.
Bluffmaster!: Inspired by another favorite—the Argentinian Nine Queens—albeit more profound than the original, and almost too clever for its own good-- not so much in terms of plot twists as in the allusiveness that Rohan Sippy crammed into virtually every frame-- this restrained and stylish film stays with you after you leave the theater. Even if you don’t think it’s all that (it has been criticized for being a bit flat), where else can you see beautiful, fading, matchless Bombay quite like this? Sippy’s city is not the teeming mass of humanity that is all too often associated with it, nor is it the urban jungle of Satya; rather, this Bombay has open spaces, breathtaking vistas, and, most surprisingly, solitude.
Main Meri Patni aur Woh: Chandan Arora’s odd—and oddly perverse—film is quite affecting. I was especially taken by the film’s feel, by its unembarrassed embrace of its Hindi/U.P. roots, by its understated humor, and by its authentic yet un-selfconscious evocation of a contemporary Indian urban middle class milieu (yes, that is too many adjectives). Doubtless, Royal Bengal Tiger notwithstanding, Tendulkar remains the ballebaaz par excellence (watch the film, you'll know what I mean).
Raamji Londonwaale: While not as technically accomplished as its Tamil original (Nala Damayanti, also featuring Madhavan), this charming film is worth watching, principally for Madhavan’s effortless performance (is there any other actor in India who can do both the Bihari drawl as well as the Palghat Tamil that this chap managed in Raamji Londonwaale and Nala Damayanti?). If I had a Bollywish for 2006, it would be: please please let this man get more roles! (Rakeysh Mehra is listening: apparently Maddy has a small role in Rang de Basanti; in the meantime, you can catch him on sattelite TV as an over-excited game show host on Deal ya No Deal).
Iqbal: Yes, it’s sentimental and sappy, and yes, you know what’s going to happen at the end right from the word go, but it’s irresistible nonetheless, and a classic tale of the underdog triumphing against the odds. It was also nice to see that rarest of birds in cinema, the “normal” Muslim (i.e., not the super-pious “good” Muslim, or the terrorist “bad” Muslim, just regular Joe and Jane), who seems to be making something of a comeback in Bollywood of late.
Shabd: Ok, I’ve opined on this film at length, so won’t repeat myself, but will say that the film’s reception was unfair to say the least.
It’s probably obvious from my list, but I do have a weakness for “small” films set in modest surroundings, though that’s not because I like only those films, but because their contemporary scarcity (in an era of Hollywood knock offs, pole-intensive club T&A-fests, and pretentious “I’m ahead of my time” directors) means that I am always eager to come across a little gem that doesn’t shine too brightly…