In the year that we have just left behind, a long overcast sky was illuminated by some glimmerings of hope. This was reflected also in the mood of popular cinema, where, after many years of exile, both idealism and real people made a significant comeback.
Nowhere was this better reflected than in the most popular film of the year, the already iconic ‘3 Idiots'. This wonderful celebration of friendship, youth, non-conformism, and creativity rapidly won the heart of the entire nation, in a way that few films have done in recent times. The writers Raju Hirani and Abhijat Joshi are marvellously inventive. As in the Munnabhai films, they speak to audiences of universal lessons of life — of following one's heart, of taking courage to swim against the tide, of the many things more important than money, of the difference between learning and success in examinations, of both the selfless devotion and tyranny of parenting, of facing adversity with calmness (‘ aall izz well '), of loving and laughter and letting go. They speak of these with wisdom, tenderness and insight, and yet retain an extraordinary lightness of touch and great affection. They use the grammar and idiom of popular films, but with mischief and irreverence. In doing so, they create a cinema that is original and thoughtful but never didactic, entertaining but never mindless, subversive but never cynical.
No place for cynicism
It is this same refreshing — even defiant — rejection of the dominant cynicism of the times we live in, which characterises another significant film of the year, Shimit Amin's ‘Rocket Singh'. In this film, we encounter a middle class Sikh boy, fresh out of college, with poor grades and desperate to make his career as successful businessman. And yet, when he lands his first job, he finds that it requires him to bribe and short-change clients, and to submit to humiliating superiors. He sets out to prove instead that it is possible to run a successful business by ensuring consistently honest and quality service to clients, and by respecting his co-workers. The pace of the film is sometimes tedious and turgid, but the tenor gentle and pleasantly under-stated, as the film tracks convincingly his bumpy journey to succeed without compromise of his beliefs.
The outcome is an interrogation into the feasibility of being honest and still successful in today's world. The film brought to my memory a very different old Hindi film, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's ‘Satyakam', which asked precisely the same question, but came to very different conclusions. In it, the protagonist is an honest government engineer, but his scrupulous and stubborn integrity in the end bring him only harassment and suffering, and leaves his family destitute. By contrast, today's Rocket Singh ultimately prevails, succeeding in establishing a profitable company, while his more conventional, corrupt and hierarchical first employer bites the dust. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's classic is much more nuanced and philosophically challenging. But I found the optimism of ‘Rocket Singh' heartening: I know exceptionally good people who have also found conventional success in life. The film's assurance to young audiences that goodness is not incompatible with modern living is simple but not simplistic.
A much more under-rated film last year was also cast in the mould of a light-hearted modern fable, like ‘3 Idiots'. This was Priyadarshan's ‘Billoo Barber', about a village barber who is widely seen as a loser, unsuccessful in even his modest trade. His stock suddenly rises sky-high when a rumour makes the round of the village that he is a childhood friend of superstar Shah Rukh Khan (who plays a sardonic satire of himself). The barber becomes a local hero to the village, even to his children, who are now proud of him. It is only the barber himself — played brilliantly by Irfan Khan — who remains relatively unmoved by his sudden good fortunes, knowing that this too will pass. He responds with endearing bemusement, dignity and scepticism. It is a small film, funny and touching, about the contrasts between the real worth of a human being, and what the world sees and values in him. It is also, in the end, an affirmation of the possibilities of egalitarian friendship across classes, a modern version of the timeless myth of Krishna and Sudama.
Another film that unexpectedly drew in the audiences was Balki's ‘Paa'. For me, above all, the film was a celebration of difference and inclusion. The disabled child who looks like an old man is warmly accepted by his single mother and grandmother, as by his class-mates and teachers. None of them is patronising: they all accept him just as another school-boy. Even the appellation of a ‘special child' becomes irrelevant: if he is special, it is not because of his disabilities, but because of who he is. It is the school we wish every education centre in this country would become.
Like all those who populate his life, the audience also quickly comes to love the young boy in the film, from his very first appearance when he tries to hide the wet spot where he soiled his trousers, as he is called on stage to win an award. He could be a 12-year-old boy in any middle-class urban home: he is impish and stubborn, plays pranks, is glued to the Internet, calls his grandmother ‘Bum' because of her large posterior, runs away from girls, loves to theorise about ‘potty', and longs for the father he does not have. The film also gently breaks many other stereotypes, most effectively of the single unmarried mother: here she is spirited, self-reliant and unapologetic. I could have done without the interludes of the young politician seeking relevance, which struck the only unauthentic notes in the film, but these were small costs for a work of popular art which reminds us, with soft humour, of the intrinsic equal worth and personhood of each human being, even when they look and behave so differently from the rest of us.
I loved also the vibrant portrayal of the syncretic culture of Old Delhi in Rakeysh Mehra's ‘Delhi 6'. The metaphor of the ‘black monkey' of hatred and distrust was a little overdrawn and clumsy, but the film beautifully evoked traditions of shared living of Hindus and Muslims, and Delhi has rarely been captured with greater beauty on celluloid.
But what was for me the best film of the year sadly received the smallest audience, partly because it was simply not marketed well enough. Actor, activist and director Nandita Das crafted a film which I regard to be the most important cinematic commentary on communal violence after M.S. Sathyu's master-work ‘Garm Hawa'. Das's ‘Firaaq' reconstructed a day three months after the violence broke out in Gujarat in 2002, around five interwoven stories. Through these she talks of rage, fear, remorse, anger, revenge, hate, betrayal, defeat… and yet of how the human spirit still prevails. Both films were centrally about violence, but they were remarkably free from the portrayal of violence in any of their frames. Both films were about the production of hate, but they were enduring affirmations of love. Both films spoke of the pain and despair of those who suffered violence and hate, but both ended with hope of the survivors.
In this way, real people returned to our cinema, as did concerns of truth and caring. There is still little political cinema in our country. The long exile of the poorest and most oppressed — of caste, of the despair of farmers, of hunger and hopelessness, of militant violence and State oppression — from popular Hindi cinema has still to be breached. But the original, humane, idealistic voices that we heard in 2009, carry hope that perhaps at last the ‘other' India will be heard with greater clarity in the years ahead, in a renewed stirring for a fairer, kinder world.