Even at its best, 2016 was a middling year for the Indian film industry. There were a few high points but no movie really scaled the zenith of filmmaking. Even the “good” films suffered from a few niggles, which we will ignore in our list below. And as is the case every year, when the nadir was reached, Bollywood seemed to find newer ways to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Here is a very subjective list of what I thought were the best and worst films of 2016 -
The best films, in no particular order:
Airlift – Raja Krishna Menon’s searing tale of thousands of Indians stuck in Kuwait at the height of the Gulf War was an unexpected triumph at the beginning of the year. Akshay Kumar delivered a wonderfully restrained performance in a film littered with some good ensemble acting and a screenplay that never resorted to jingoism, even though there was plenty of scope for it. The story of the largest human evacuation in recorded history made for gripping viewing, thanks to Menon’s control over his craft and his leading man’s author-backed role.
Neerja: Even though the rest of the year would prove us wrong, Ram Madhvani’s “Neerja” made you want to believe that Bollywood had finally learned to get its real-life stories right. The tale of flight purser Neerja Bhanot and her bravery that saved the lives of hundreds of passengers onboard a hijacked Pan Am flight was told with minimal frills and featured powerhouse performances both from leading lady Sonam Kapoor and Shabana Azmi, who played Neerja’s mother. Azmi’s monologue towards the end of the film stands out as one of the most powerful scenes in any film this year.
Aligarh – Another re-telling of a true story, Hansal Mehta’s film makes it to this list purely on the strength of the leading man’s performance. Manoj Bajpayee delivered a nuanced, pitch-perfect portrayal of Ramchandra Siras, a professor at a prestigious university who was suspended after authorities discovered he was a homosexual. Co-star Rajkummar Rao played the perfect foil to Bajpayee, and Mehta’s deliberately slow pace of direction gave us a chance to really let the powerful message seep in.
Pink – Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s film was the true sleeper hit of the year. A film that barely saw any traction before its release, didn’t have any big stars apart from Amitabh Bachchan, and a trailer that didn’t convey much, turned out to be one of the most talked-about movies of the year. Bachchan’s pivotal lines on the idea of consent (how ‘no’ means ‘no’), and the film’s refusal to pussyfoot around the issue of promiscuity propelled “Pink” to the status of a rare Bollywood film that is actually in touch with the real world instead of operating in a bubble.
Dangal: Until the last 20 minutes of its run-time, Nitesh Tiwari’s “Dangal” felt like the best film of the year. The true story of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and how he trained his daughters to become world-class wrestlers had everything going for it – wonderfully choreographed sports sequences, light humour and the perfect ensemble cast. Inexplicably, Tiwari resorted to the “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” and “Mary Kom” style of film-making in the end, giving us a hackneyed climax that felt out of place with the tone of the film. Yet, the rest of the film was so good that “Dangal” still makes it to our ‘best’ list.
Honourable mentions – Island City, Phobia, Kapoor and Sons, Nil Battey Sannata and Udta Punjab
And here are the worst Bollywood films of 2016:
Mohenjo Daro: If Ashutosh Gowariker didn’t have films like “Lagaan” and “Swades” in his filmography, perhaps “Mohenjo Daro” wouldn’t have come across as a huge disappointment. But for a film-maker of his caliber to churn out a mediocre film that looked like it had been produced in the 1990s was unforgivable. Hrithik Roshan’s role as a farm boy who is drawn to the magical land of Mohenjo Daro was marred by bad CGI and a predictable script that didn’t even try to go beyond tired cliches.
Banjo: As if Ravi Jadhav’s film about a street musician wasn’t already a dud, the film-maker chose to cast Nargis Fakhri as his leading lady. The actress, who isn’t exactly known for her acting prowess, had several scenes to herself, and watching her only served to double the torture the film inflicted on its audience. Why Indian film-makers think stories about aging rockers and their superficial angst will make for compelling narratives is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Mirzya: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s tale of star-crossed lovers and reincarnation was supposed to be the big launch vehicle of the year, with Anil Kapoor’s son Harshvardhan Kapoor making his debut. But the film left both critics and audiences stone-cold. The stunning vistas of snow-clad mountains and dream sequences with a hundred dancers cannot make up for the fact that Mehra’s story had almost no meat and the leading pair shared no chemistry. “Mirzya” was a good example of how Bollywood seems to have lost its way around a genre it once knew like the back of its hand – romance.
Ki and Ka: Not that there weren’t technically inferior films to R Balki’s “Ki and Ka” in 2016, but the film makes it to the ‘worst’ list because of its farcical pretense of being a progressive film while propagating the worst kind of regressiveness. The men are all corporate whores who cannot imagine cooking a meal, and the women are either rotund housewives who spend afternoons at movie theatres or working women who cannot even fry an egg. Balki’s gimmicky film-making and Arjun Kapoor’s self-satisfied expression throughout the film was enough to raise the hackles.
Shivaay: In the years to come, Ajay Devgn’s “Shivaay” should serve as a manual on how to take the thrill out of an action thriller. Devgn’s version of “Taken” put Diwali audiences to sleep, his sullen expressions mirroring the lack of action on the screen. Even a few chase sequences around Europe weren’t enough to drive the boredom away.