They opened eyes and turned life, as we knew it, on its head. Nichola Pais marks out the recent films that did so much more than entertain…
When Ram Gopal Varma came out with his Satya back in 1998, audiences had witnessed nothing like it before. Telling the story of Satya, an immigrant who arrives in Mumbai to seek his fortune but is soon sucked into the all-pervasive underworld, the film marked the birth of a new genre in filmmaking – Mumbai Noir. Considered one of the best gangster films of all time, Satya evolved from Varma’s views on the underworld. In his opinion, gangsters, unlike their portrayal in films like Deewar, were not men who rebelled against injustice. Instead they were people with an inherent violent streak.
This theory naturally was at shocking odds with the popular noble explanation for the anti-hero’s misdeeds. As Varma went about treating killing almost as a regular job, showing the gangster as a family man, with his share of pain, fears and adorable quirks, the protagonist suddenly had the power to melt your heart even as he pumped bullets into it. Satya’s credentials stay intact even today, listed as it is among CNN-IBN’s 100 Greatest Indian Films of all time, besides featuring on various other must-see Bollywood film lists. Decades later, the violent streak that Varma is evidently still so enamoured of, continues to show up in almost every film he creates, right up until his latest release this year, VEERAPPAN. And the audiences, once exposed to the stark reality of how the underworld functions in India, remains a little too enamoured of this darkly attractive realm of crime sans conscience…
A love story that drives home the message of self-love? Hindi cinema had seen nothing like it till the sassy, quirky Margarita with a Straw. In a country where our famed squeamishness about sex is dwarfed by our even more extreme discomfort with physical and mental disability, Shonali Bose’s film proved to be a cinematic experience that left conventions properly shaken and stirred. For starters, the audiences had to come to terms with the fact that the heroine Laila (Kalki Koechelin) was a teenager with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. And that was just the start… A student and an aspiring writer, she wins a scholarship at New York University, moves there with her mother and also meets two attractive people – a young man named Jared who is assigned to help her with typing in her creative writing class, and a fiery young activist Khanum, a blind girl of Pakistani-Bangladeshi descent. Laila ends up getting physical with both, breaking fondly held misconceptions with delight and daring. A leading lady who was not just wheelchair-bound but also bisexual, the film ended with Laila setting off on a date with herself. Now that’s a love story with a kick stronger than a potent Margarita!
If Deepa Mehta’s FIRE expectedly sent the chills down right wing India’s spine with its portrayal of lesbian love between small-town sisters-in-law, it took films like MY BROTHER NIKHIL and ALIGARH to give homosexuality the sensitive platform it deserved once the shock wore off. The former portrayed the life of its protagonist, Nikhil, from 1987 to 1994, a time when AIDS awareness in India was in dire need of a boost. Director Onir, who stated that the film was based on true historical fact, told the heart-breaking tale of its swimming champion hero whose life falls apart when he is diagnosed with HIV. Off the swimming team and thrown out of his house, he is even kept in forced isolation by the government in keeping with the Goa Public Health Act. It is his sister (Juhi Chawla) and his boyfriend (Purab Kohli) who stands up for him and are able to secure his release. The film ended on a heartening note portraying how Nikhil attempts to rebuild his life, the AIDS assistance organisation called People Positive that they form and his own reconciliation with his parents.
Dubbed ‘probably the best film yet on the Indian gay male experience’ by the British Film Institute, ALIGARH won huge critical acclaim for its true-to-life tale of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who becomes a victim of sting operation and is sacked from his position of Reader and Chair of Modern Indian Languages at the Aligarh Muslim University, on charges of homosexuality. The film was hailed for being a subtle, sensitive take on a controversial real-life court case, while underscoring the growing strength and diversity of Indian independent cinema. Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival and award-winning critic, lauded it as “that rare film that courageously stands for human rights, including those of homosexuals, yet offers a quiet, distilled perspective.” Aseem Chhabra, popular columnist, hailed it as “a milestone in the history of Indian cinema that should start the much needed conversation about how India treats a visible and yet often ignored minority group”.
Small yet powerful, a clutch of films did more for women’s empowerment than decades of yojanas and pontificating. Nagesh Kukunoor’s DOR explored the theme of the trappings of tradition versus individual freedom via its two women characters who are brought together by fate and find redemption in helping each other. Mahesh Manjrekar’s ASTITVA broke every stereotype associated with the quintessential woman, arguing that a woman is much more than a dutiful wife and dedicated mother. Sridevi in English Vinglish, by her minor yet significant decision of learning English, transforms herself and the way the world sees her, while Kangana in QUEEN goes from a naïve and under-confident girl struggling with the shame of being dumped at the altar, to shedding social trappings and emerging into the sun.
Aamir Khan brought the issue of learning disability out of the shadows with his multiple award-winning film TAARE ZAMEEN PAR. Dealing with the issue of dyslexia for the first time, the film raised awareness about the issue and prompted more open discussions among parents, schools, activists, and policymakers. Even as increasing numbers of parents sought help for their children’s learning problems, the film, only ten days after its debut, influenced the Central Board of Secondary Education to provide extra time to special children—including the visually impaired, physically challenged and dyslexic—during exams. In 2008, Mumbai’s civic body also opened 12 classrooms for autistic students, while in Chandigarh, the education administration started a course to educate teachers on how to deal with children with learning disabilities.