In 2012 the script emerged as a formidable star in popular Hindi cinema, as it carried on its shoulders many small films with unusual themes. The largest profits still came from loud mindless comedies, lush and unlikely romances, and action films with orchestrated over-the-top violence. However, intelligent smaller films with offbeat stories, nuanced characterisations, authentic locales, and fluent personalised narrative styles were also welcomed by large audiences and did respectable business.
The most unexpected of these was Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Pan Singh Tomar, a fictionalised biography of a little known national athlete and his fascinating journey from his dusty farmlands in the badlands of Morena to army barracks to seven-time national athletics champion and ultimately to a feared dacoit. It simultaneously spans several mainstream genres — the sports film, the dacoit film, and the biopic — but from its uniquely subaltern standpoint, it deftly avoids the clichés that usually characterise each of these.
The heroism of the sports film is tempered by Tomar’s dry self-deprecating humour. What motivates his initial entry into sports is to be eligible for a better diet than what soldiers are ordinarily fed. And the narrative never deteriorates into a revenge dacoit drama, nor does it celebrate or justify the violence he ultimately resorts to. Tomar strives hard to secure justice for his family through the official arms of the state — the police and the land administration — and it is only when he fails, and has no lawful recourse left to defend his family, that he takes to arms. The barely educated rustic soldier emerges as an engaging and irreverent rebel, coping with fierce dignity with the hierarchy of the army barrack, the harsh competitiveness of the sports track, and the unreformed feudalism and violence of his rural homeland.
Almost as unexpected is a small film about a middle-aged mother, claiming her dignity through a small gentle rebellion of enrolling secretly for conversational English classes. The canvas of Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish is modest; of a home-maker in an ordinary middle class household. The small ways in which the home-maker is taken for granted are the stuff of everyday life, of almost every other home: her adolescent daughter’s embarrassment with a mother not sufficiently fluent in English; her husband’s absent-minded and disengaged fondness for his partner; his lack of intelligent communication with her; and his declaration to his friends that she was born to make laddoos. Departing from the idiom of popular Hindi cinema, which paints its conflicts in loud dramatic contrasts, this one is mellow and understated, extremely light in touch. The intuitive lessons she gives her husband, daughter and classmates in her spoken English class — of respect, grace and equality — are never strident or judgmental, but strike home deeply. It is a winning film, of universal relevance and appeal; one to take to heart.
What I loved about Anurag Basu’s Barfi was its infectious joyousness. There have in the past been significant Hindi films centred around disabled protagonists, but these have tended to be maudlin, like Satyen Bose’s Dosti, sentimental like Gulzar’s Koshish, or sombre and reflective, like Sai Paranjpe’s classic Sparsh. Barfi, on the other hand — although centred round a hearing- and speech-impaired young man and an autistic woman — is racy, mischievous, affectionate and irrepressibly happy.
There could be no greater service than this to the popular depiction of disability because what years of engagement with disabled people and their organisations have taught me is that they do not seek pity or even compassion, however well-meaning. They do not want to be patronised or protected. They want just to be accepted as people, like any other, with strengths, flaws, longings and possibilities. The fact that he cannot speak or hear does little to restrain the protagonist; he is rakish and charming, flirting with every young woman he can find, and an irrepressible prankster. His ultimate choice to live his life with his autistic friend over a winsome and beautiful woman who loves him underlines effortlessly the idea of equality and the possibilities of beauty behind overt physical and mental imperfections, only if one has the mind and heart to see.
The last in my list is a movie in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee tradition, Rajesh Mapuskar’s Ferrari ki Sawari: a slight comedy with great heart. A gentle young Parsi widower’s life centres on raising his son to be a good human being. He startles a traffic policeman when he insists on being fined because he broke the traffic light, even though no one saw him. But his love for his boy transiently overcomes his life-long integrity, when he steals Sachin Tendulkar’s Ferrari for one day to earn the money to pay for his son’s dream to join a cricket training camp overseas. Despite many flaws, its innocence worked for me; the antithesis of another film that will head many lists of the best films of the year but which I found mind-numbing and stomach-churning: Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, with its gratuitous and graphic violence and profanities and its celebration of the worst in human nature. By contrast, I loved Ferrari ki Sawari’s almost defiant denial of any kind of cynicism.
Illuminated by empathy and humanism, the best films of the year centred on unusual protagonists — a maverick soldier, a middle-aged home-maker, a doting single father, disabled young people. They subversively invaded the make-believe world of popular Hindi cinema, but like some of their protagonists, their rebellions were gentle; even so, they pave the way for new mainstream cinema, which is intelligent and caring.