In 2018, Laxmikant made sanitary pads, Jeetendra and Priyamvada had a baby in their early 50s and rebellious Manto came alive on screen yet again. This year, Hindi film writers clearly didn’t shy away from flawed characters that evoked laughter, despair and discomfiture all at the same time. While these characters asked uncomfortable questions and prompted introspection, a few others mollified the majority by parroting the same old beliefs. The films in 2018, therefore, brought out two sides of the same story, implying that rebellious voices may yet find a place in the heavily regulated world of Indian cinema.
A more conflicted nationalism
While films like Parmaanu and Satyamev Jayate attempted to play upon our nationalist sentiments, Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi subverted the usual trope by putting forth a softer, low-pitched version of the same. It is the story of an Indian spy, Sehmat, who gets married to a Pakistani military officer but retains her emotionality and identity in the process. People from both sides of the border are humanised and loud bombastic Othering is replaced with measured logical conversation.
We’re told, more than once, that Sehmat will fight any obstacle to save her country, just like her father and grandfather before her. Yet the film doesn’t endorse fanatical nationalist pride. Both Parmaanu and Raazi are based on the idea of nation and national security but the portrayal of the characters and interpretation of the subject sets them apart.
Sports went beyond victory and defeat
After nationalist films, sports centred films or biopics were another popular choice amongst filmmakers. For the past few years, we have had films like Mary Kom, Dangal, Sultan, M.S. Dhoni, Soorma etc – all with a predictable winning shot in the end, conveniently ignoring the deep-seated politics of the Indian sporting world. Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz challenged this convention when the protagonist – a boxer based in Meerut – got knocked out in the end.
We felt the protagonist’s helplessness and frustration within him when the system pulled him down just because of his caste. The film entertained us with its sharp humour but it did not sanitise the corrupt world of sports. In the end, the dedicated boxer lost the game and also his place in the system.
The (new) thin line between cinema and government ads
There were many films that compelled us to think about the current state of affairs. Manto made us realise the importance of our freedom of expression at a time when we are increasingly muzzled by the powerful. Mulk dealt with the idea of bigotry and poked at our ideas of patriotism.
Simultaneously, we also had films that delivered a ‘social message’ where the current government’s initiatives – whether successful in real life or not – were slipped into the narrative.
Two years ago, Toilet – Ek Prem Katha trumpeted the Swacch Bharat campaign and this year, Sui Dhaaga, which features a young couple trying to set up their own business, put the ‘Make in India’ campaign centre stage. Films are supposed to reflect social realities or aspirations or fears, but these films resembled three-hour long government commercials.
Simple doesn’t have to mean irrelevant
This year showed us that a film can raise relevant questions without weaving the narrative around a dark or serious theme. Light-hearted stories with simple screenplays like Badhai Ho, Veere di Wedding and Stree broke stereotypes in more than one way. Badhai Ho broke the taboo assumption that middle-aged people cannot indulge in sexual pleasure. The fresh writing made us laugh and squirm with awkwardness at the same time.
Similarly, Veere di wedding, which definitely had its flaws, conveyed the idea that women have the right to live life on their own terms. Stree introduced us to a world where men are threatened by a female ghost. Unlike the usual slapstick comedies, Stree steered clear of sexist jokes. Instead, it parodied item numbers by putting men in the position to entertain women. These stories were not flawless but they did show us ways of approaching social issues through mainstream cinema.
What made this year really interesting for us was that we got the usual hyper-nationalistic fare, but we also got enjoyable movies that subverted the tropes we’ve come to swear by. In 2019, we already know we’re going to see a particular kind of nationalist fervour with films like Kesari, Uri, Manikarnika lined up for next year. But hopefully we’ll get other types of cinema too.
Note: A earlier version of this story incorrectly included Newton, a 2017 release, in the list of 2018 films. We regret the error