Even though Bollywood lovers are happy to be back in the cinemas, this year was decidedly lukewarm in terms of excitement when going back to watch Hindi cinema on the big screen. This was, of course, also the year of RRR, the Telugu-language film that created a huge buzz inside India and abroad, setting all sorts of box-office records in its wake. The exuberance with which the film has been received outside of India was bemusing to South Asian critics, who don’t quite understand what the whole song and dance is about. (See what I did there?) Meanwhile, Hindi-language cinema continued its recent cycle of some movies that missed the mark of delivering a well-seasoned masala plot and a handful that perked our senses.
Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bollywood films in 2022, summed up in 10 movies:
Tales of infidelity aren’t new to Bollywood—so much so that there’s a blurring between real and reel lives. Mahesh Bhatt’s seminal Arth (1982) was inspired by his own messy marriage, while Silsila (1981) continues to enthrall people in the way the movie cast the real life triangle of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan alongside Rekha.
There were a lot of expectations around a contemporary look at marriage and infidelity in Gehraiyaan, especially since director Shakun Batra had delivered a wonderfully complex dysfunctional family in Kapoor & Sons (2016). The trailer starring Deepika Padukone, Ananya Panday and Siddhant Chaturvedi, with Dhairya Karwa barely making the cut, suggested a moody look at modern love. Set to the throbbing song “Doobey” (throatily sung by Lothika), it showcased an earthy and Instagram-worthy backdrop against which very good-looking people cavort with each other.
Gehraiyaan is lovely to look at. Its aesthetic is clearly aimed at the upper-upper-middle class and nouveau riche, the script boasting one character with a peak Bollywood job of cheese farmer. But there’s not much profundity to the film that purports to trawl the depths of the lies we tell each other and ourselves. Deepika’s character Alisha is a yoga instructor who seriously needs to focus more on her inhales and exhales, especially since she keeps going on about “feeling stuck.” Only Ananya Panday, playing sort-of rich brat Tia, adds some heft to the movie, likely because she appears comfortable in a role not unlike her real life. Gehraiyaan was truly a disappointment because some of the points it was trying to make around realities and perceptions in long-term relationships and short-term flings could have made for a compelling story.
At the moment, there are two stars well-known in Bollywood for their unlikely stardom and penchant for doing offbeat films: Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana. This movie is not to be confused with Badhaai Do, which stars Ayushmann as a young man of marriageable age whose parents throw a minor wrench in the works by getting knocked up themselves. Instead Badhaai Do is another, more or less welcome addition, to Hindi cinema’s sudden interest in queer love stories.
Shardul Thakur (Rajkummar Rao) is a cop who loves to flex his muscles, and has a lot riding on his mardana (hyper masculine) image—especially since he’s gay and in the closet. To the chagrin of his family, he’s not interested in getting married. Suman Singh (Bhumi Pednekar) is a physical education teacher (commonly known in India as PT teacher) who also does not want to get married, and is a lesbian—also not out to her loved ones. Shardul suggests to Suman that the two of them should get married to shut their families up.
The arrangement works at the beginning. However, chinks soon start appearing in this marriage of convenience, especially when their parents start making pointed references to their expectations of becoming grandparents soon. Badhaai Do works because of Rao and Pednekar’s commitment to their characters. It also helps when the leads are rounded out by a solid ensemble cast now well-recognized in these contemporary family dramas. Sheeba Chaddha as a scatterbrained widowed mother to her macho cop son is especially a standout.
It’s been a while since a Sanjay Leela Bhansali historical spectacle has wowed me. The sumptuousness of Bajirao Mastani was followed by the disappointment of Padmaavat. Both movies boasted Ranvir Singh and Deepika Padukone, and a soft saffron agenda—given that both films were “inspired” by history, and depicted Muslims as brutal and brutish invaders who went about marauding Indian kings and queens.
Gangubai Kathiawadi takes a page from a much more recent chapter of Indian history. It’s set in post-independence India, when the country was just about finding its feet. Also finding feet, or rather her place, was Gangubai, a brothel owner credited with advocating for the rights of prostitutes to educate their children and get more respect in society. The film tells the story of the rise of Gangubai, who was sold into a brothel at a young age and grows up to fight for women’s equity. Alia Bhatt is luminous in the titular role. Bhansali films are known for their color palettes and as Gangubai, Alia is outfitted in white saris, a big red bindi adorning her forehead. The young actress is able to bring a gravitas to the role, without veering into melodrama.
With this film, Alia Bhatt added her name to the growing list of women producers in Bollywood. In this new role, Bhatt says she hopes to be able bring new stories and voices to the screen, especially on streaming platforms. From the moment she read the script for Darlings, she knew this was a perfect project for Netflix.
Bhatt is a part of an ensemble cast who have shone in different projects in the last few years. She plays Badrunissa, a sweet young lower middle class woman, married to Hamza (Vijay Varma), a ticket collector on Mumbai’s transit system. Hamza is a decent husband but has a propensity for violence after a drink. Badru’s mother Shamsunissa (Shefali Shah) keeps urging her daughter to leave Hamza, and sometimes enlists the help of Zulfi (Roshan Mathew) in trying to talk some sense into her. But things take an unpredictable turn after an accident.
Darlings manages to deliver a dark comedy for the most part. It’s a treat to watch actors such as Varma (who was an amazing discovery in Gully Boy) and Shah (who does an admirable job as deputy commissioner of police Vartika Chaturvedi in the Delhi Crime series) squabble in their domestic situations. The scenes where Badru and Shamsu go to the police station to report a crime are also a riot because of the delivery by Vijay Maurya (also a writer on this film) as Inspector Tawde. It’s clear the cast and crew had fun making the film. However, Darlings does play it a little too safe and too cute for its own good at times.
Laal Singh Chaddha
Do we really need a Hindi remake of Forrest Gump? Apparently the powers that be in Bollywood thought so. So they cast Aamir Khan in the titular role, and do a terrible job in using CGI to make him appear youthful for large chunks of the movie. Khan is known for his persnickety perfection in taking on roles and getting into the skin of the character. But in this case, he’s just following the playbook of a film that’s three decades old.
If you were a fan of the original Forrest Gump, you will like this film. It has all the cloying, saccharine sweetness of the original, just transplanted into Chandigarh. So a box of chocolates becomes a plate of gol-gappe—one of my favorite Indian street snacks, and I shall never deign to associate it with this film. A train station is swapped out for a park bench. Just like Forrest Gump, Laal Singh Chaddha also pays homage to aspects of Indian history—except it almost seems to watch history unfold from the sidelines.
After a series of flops, the Hindi film industry was looking for some box office respite. Despite lacking a coherent or cogent storyline, Brahmastra delivered on the front. Recouping more than $50 million worldwide, it was the top grossing Bollywood film for 2022. It is also now available to watch for your viewing pleasure on Disney+.
Should you decide to tune in, know that Bollywood threw everything and the kitchen sink into this film. It’s made by Ayan Mukerji, whose previous films Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and Wake Up, Sid (2009) were seen as giving voice to contemporary Indian youth. Both those films starred Bollywood scion Ranbir Kapoor, and Kapoor returns as the lead character Shiva in Brahmastra. Add his wife Alia Bhatt in the mix, along with Bollywood veterans such as Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna and (no longer a secret now) Shah Rukh Khan. Then top it all up with CGI and special effects previously seen in Telugu films such as Bahubali (2015) and RRR (2022).
Brahmastra was almost a decade in the making. It’s part Indian mythology, part X-Men, part Harry Potter and part MCU. The sum of the whole is not greater than the parts, however. There’s a smidge of a story hidden in the depths of razzle-dazzle the film throws at the audience. There’s a supreme weapon called the Brahmastra, which has been split in order to avoid wreaking havoc on earth. Bad forces are out to get it. Shiva is an orphaned DJ, who keeps having visions and has inexplicable powers. Then he finds his girl Isha (Bhatt) and his purpose. For that he must train and find a focus to his energy. Then come epic battles, which leave you with more questions than answers. Sadly, there are two more sequels to answer those questions. Or create new ones.
Bollywood has long been making Hindi versions of hit Tamil movies with mixed results. Vikram Vedha (2017) is a Tamil thriller/cop drama starring R Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi. It is inspired by the folk tale Vikram-Betaal, where a king is tasked with carrying a grotesque spirit on his back and answering questions posed by the being during their journey together.
Vikram is a righteous cop, who sees the world in terms of good and evil. He’s tasked with capturing Vedha, a mysterious gangster who is setting the streets of Chennai on fire with murder and mayhem. Vedha is captured thrice by Vikram, and asks him a question at the encounter. Each question and answer session shows Vikram the murkiness of the world around him, leading him to doubt his worldview. The Tamil film is gritty, and both Madhavan and Sethupathi deliver their lines and action sequences with style and flair. Both stars give their characters a lived in look, sporting portly muscularity versus rippling bodies.
The Hindi version of the film adds a Bollywood veneer to the Tamil original. Saif Ali Khan plays Vikram with the same puzzled expression that worked in the Netflix series Sacred Games, but falls flat here. Hrithik Roshan as Vedha sports a grizzly beard and maniacal gleam in his eyes, but is still a smidge too clean cut to ever be believable as a street hustler who worked his way up a life of crime. If you do watch the Hindi remake, watch the Tamil version after to see what the movie could have been.
Monica, O My Darling
I’ll admit to a bias towards this film. I know the director Vasan Bala. I’ve met him a few times when he’s come to the Toronto International Film Festival, and have indulged in long rambling conversations about movies—especially retro Bollywood and kung-fu films. His previous feature The Man Who Feels No Pain (2018), partly an homage to his own childhood of growing up on Bruce Lee films, wowed the Midnight Madness audiences enough to take home the prize.
Monica, O My Darling is a charming thriller that pays homage to a bygone Bollywood era. Perhaps it fits into this larger post-pandemic movement of making movies about movies. (Think The Fablemans and Empire of Light.) Starring our favourite down-to-earth Bollywood star Rajkummar Rao, the movie is about a roboticist Jayant Ardhekar who gets sucked into a tale of sex, betrayal and murder. Jayant’s own moral compass is pretty shady, so in a way he gets his comeuppance. Huma Qureshi as Monica is a treat to watch, vamping up every scene with gusto. The twists are plenty, as are nods to a range from films from Bollywood to Hollywood. Plus there’s Radhika Apte playing a deliciously quirky cop ACP Naidu.
There are quibbles here and there. The movie is so focused on Rao, Qureshi and Apte that the other characters get short shrift. Some twists can be foretold. Nevertheless, it’s a caper of a film that’s a fun watch.
This title definitely got an eye roll from me. Are we veering into a Hindi remake of Teen Wolf? Thankfully, this isn’t quite that jejune. And the creators of Bhediya have given us the fairly successful horror-comedy film Stree, as well as the questionable Roohi. Go in with low expectations and Bhediya might deliver a few pleasant surprises.
Bhaskar Sharma (Varun Dhawan) is a road construction contractor who travels to the northeastern India state Arunachal Pradesh, known for its lush mountainous landscape, to clear some forests for a road project. Since our hero needs sidekicks, he’s often seen roaming with his cousin Janardhan (Abhishek Banerjee) and local yokel Jomin (Paalin Kabaak). Bhaskar manages to convince the villagers to give up their land for the promise of development. However, Bhaskar is bitten by a wolf and finds himself turning into a beast every night, undoing the plans he so assiduously worked on during the day.
These films usually have a socially relevant message, and Bhediya is obviously about protecting the environment and Indigenous rights. There’s also a subplot revolving around the casual racism leveled against northeastern Indians. If you can deal with juvenile and scatalogical humor, Bhediya can be an entertaining watch.
After enthralling viewers with Bulbbul (2020) that was set in Bengal Presidency era, writer-director Anvita Dutt returns with another sumptuous film set in pre-Independence India. Where her previous film explored ideas of female desire and the male gaze, Qala delves into a complicated mother-daughter relationship—through song.
Qala (Tripti Dimri) is a talented singer. However, she is haunted by her mother’s critiques. Turns out that her mother had hoped for Qala’s adopted brother Jagan to carry on the family’s musical legacy. However much Qala strives for her mother’s approval, all she gets are reproachful looks and casual put-downs. While Qala is gorgeous to look at, each frame captured like a painting, it suffers from a one-note performance by its characters. Although they navigate complicated relationships, not much happens to change their circumstances, which can drag an otherwise ethereal looking film.
An Action Hero
What happens if a Bollywood action hero actually needs to become an action hero in real life? Ayushmann Khurrana’s latest film can be appreciated for all its meta-ness. Khurrana plays Maanav, a beloved Bollywood star prone to giving quippy sound-bites during interviews and desperately waiting to drive his Mustang. Unfortunately, there are many demands on a Bollywood star, including appearing alongside local elected officials during photo-ops.
One such meeting goes horribly wrong, and Khurrana finds himself on the run from Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), a loutish, trigger happy elected official—from the fields of Haryana to the streets of London. Bhoora wants revenge, Maanav wants to explain his innocence. Meanwhile in India, the media is baying for Maanav’s blood.
For those following Indian celebrities and the news media landscape, there are several chuckles in An Action Hero. Both Khurrana and Ahlawat play their roles with relish, engaging in fairly believable hand-to-hand combat and the occasional bursts of parkour performed by body doubles. Now if Khurrana could just do something about that pout.
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.