1. 404: The smartly-written screenplay about a doughty medical student who befriends the boy who killed himself in the same room has echoic shades of Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat which had the painter Aamir Khan moving into the house of a woman who commits suicide. Dhobi Ghat romanticized the link between the present and past. 404 imbues a sense of tragic regret and doom in the relationship that forms between the present and past room-mates of the hostel room.Lording over the eerie link is a professor of psychology-a true inheritor of Shakespeare and Kafka’s legacy, if ever there was one– battling over his own demons, struggling to keep the wall between the supernatural and rationale up firmly in place, watching it collapse in a noiseless but horrific heap.In the role of the professor who is rapidly losing a grip on reality filmmaker Nishikant Kamat (Dombivli Fast, Mumbai Meri Jaan) turns in the kind of evolved and involving performance that makes all other recent directors-turned-actors look like a harem of hams. Kamat builds the character’s troubled inner world with evocative gestures. His nervous restless eyes and fidgety body-language suggest a profound bonding between the terror in the mind and its manifestation in the outward physical world.Tisca Arora as his supportive colleague and wife is as usual, excellent. As is the newcomer Rajvvir Arora as the boy who can ‘see’ the dead.The film opens as a look at the sorry repercussions of ragging and then builds into an elegant but emphatic treatise on the guilt, memory, regret and grief. The cinematography by Savita Singh is richly layered suggesting deeper meanings in even the most routine moments. The editing by Sarvesh Parab is tight .But economy is not an obsession here. Getting the mood and pace right are predominant.
2. Aarakshan: The educationist in Prakash Jha’s film, as played with supreme magnetism by Mr Bachchan, is a man of all seasons. What he does with unnerving effectuality is to tell us that our educational system is fatally flawed. And it’s just not enough to talk about it.When Dr Prabhakar Anand senses he can no longer fight the corrupt educational system from the inside, he moves out, starts educating girl children from a tabela owned by a benign peasant (Yashpal Sharma, a regular in Prakash Jha’s cinema and in splendid form here).The portions where we see Prabhakar Anand’s awakening as a grassroot educationist is so closely aligned to Amitabh Bachchan’s image of the actor of the masses that you feel the idealism of the educationist somewhere noiselessly mingles with the actor’s ability to slip into super-hero’s roles without flying physically.This film levitates Mr Bachchan in far more subtle ways. He plays a man with the gumption to say no to a system of education that progressively favours purchased merit. Spearheading the educational racket in “Aarakshan” is Manoj Bajpayee playing his coaching-institute wheelerdealer part with over-the-top gusto.Towards the end when all hell breaks loose, and Bajpayee’s character is seen pounding with his fists a steamroller meant to mow down Dr Prabhakar Anand’s idyllic educational spot, a character whispers, “He has lost his mind.”To lift the tale from the discernible blemishes (spotless Nehru jackets for the principal character in every sequence, over-pancaked women playing supporting roles, too much attention to getting the commercial language like the mandatory songs, right) there are the high point all of which gather momentum in the second-half when the film tells us with punctuated passion, that something can be done to change Indian mindsets that encourage educational malpractices, that grasroot education is the only feasible remedy to the corrosion of the entire educational system.The sequences showing Prabhakar Anand teaching maths in a tabela with ample support from his daughter (Deepika Padukone), and two students from different social stratas (Saif Ali Khan and Prateik) convey the warmth of an idealism that we lost in our cinema since the days of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Satyakam”.Merit is the main issue in this meritorious film. The performances range from the loud to the lyrical, depending on whether the camera moves away from Mr Bachchan or stays close to him. He brings to the part of the conscientious and immovable educationist a kind of emphatic idealism that would look highly inappropriate in any other actor. With his imposing presence Mr Bachchan never lets the character’s high ethics down.Among the other actors Saif Ali Khan plays a Dalit boy who still irons his own clothes (a bit overdone, the drama of the damned) Saif moves through the motions of social protest and individual outrage with stealth and conviction.In fact the one deep flaw in the film is that the relationship between the characters played by Mr Bachchan and Saif of the deeply-committed benefactor and the indebted but conflicted protege, is not given ample room to grow in Anjum Rajabali’s flawed but brilliant script.
3. Haraamkhor: She is 15 going on 18. Or so she claims when the local female doctor examines her for missing her period. At her age she should be only thinking of the periods that she must not miss when the bell rings. But no. Sandhya is about to be seduced by her sleazy teacher.In what perhaps ranks as the most below-the-belt male protagonist in recent times, Siddiqui is cast as small-town school teacher with a serious hormonal imbalance and a disgusting lack of moral grounding. While he has a very fulfilling physical relationship with his wife Sunita(Trimala Adhikari) at home he inches his way up the salwaar(there is no polite way of putting this) of his student Sandhya.A mere child, if you look at it with dispassionate eyes. And that’s how debutant director Shlok Sharma wants us to look at Shweta Tiwary who is an absolute natural as a mofussil ingénue, not quite unaware of the effect her presence has on her ever-horny teacher, but not quite the seductress either.Let’s put it this way. She is Lolita without the seductive oomph. Nawazuddin’s Shyam Tekchand is cunning slimy self-seeking and unscrupulous.He is so brazenly selfserving that he looks ridiculous even in his obscenity. And yet Nawaz brings a certain innocence to the character that is hard to define, as though he can’t fathom why he is so leery about his students . Or why he beats up girl students outside the classroom just to get even with Sandhya .If Nawaz’sRaghu Raman’s sharp blunt tool causing grievous injury were in his pants he would be Shyam Tekchand.
4. 3 Idiots: Some things never change in a straitjacketed society like ours. And really, when Hirani with enormous help from his co-writer Abhijat Joshi, sets down to criticize the glaring anomalies in our education system, we are compelled to wonder for a few seconds-and just for that bit of cynical time-freeze-if flogging the sacred cows of our institutionalized system of governance in cinema, is not just an excuse to pull out all stops and let the young heroes have all the fun that their more disciplined counterparts in schedule-driven colleges deny themselves.The British rock bank Pink Floyd said it first. “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control/no dark sarcasm in the classroom/teacher, leave those kids alone.”So if Raj Kumar Hirani wants those ‘kids’ to be left alone, where does our education system go? Into a free-wheeling zone of self-chosen vocation for every child? But then, not every child is a Mangeshkar, Tendulkar, Khan or even Farhan Qureshi (Madhavan) from this film, who craves to be a photographer but ends up living his father’s dream at an engineering institution.The thought processes underlining the film’s super-vibrant but calm surface are never allowed to seep out and bubble to the exterior of the narrative. If at heart, 3 Idiots is a serious indictment of our education system, at the surface it’s a character-driven film played out at an observant and opulent but always-feisty octave. The sounds of protest against the curbs checks and downers in our education reach out to us in a cascade of crisply- written lines spoken by characters who have lived out the nightmare that precedes that long journey into the realization of our dreams.Aamir Khan undertakes his character’s journey through the paradoxical labyrinth of ambition-driven education system (incidentally, the loopholes in our education was also the theme of Aamir’s Taare Zameen par and Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS) with a gut-level understanding of what pains today’s average 20-something.Aamir’s transformation into a 22-year old collegian is so complete and so non-impersonified that you end up wondering if he has been lying about being 40-plus in real life! Like most Aamir starrers, 3 Idiots, too is predominantly his vehicle. Most of the funniest lines and inspiring situations in the script come from Aamir. And boy, does he play the boy-man with restrained relish!Sharman Joshi as the poor middleclass boy driven to near-suicide by his parents’ ambitions gets two meaty sequences. He chews on them with careful sensitivity leaving a lasting impression. Madhavan as the third ‘idiot’ expresses his smothered dreams through a series of half-expressed thoughts and a fear of unhappiness that reach his eyes without transit.In a country where students are driven to suicide by their impossible curriculum, 3 Idiots provides hope. Maybe cinema can’t save lives. But cinema, sure as hell, can make you feel life is worth living. 3 Idiots does just that, and much more. The director takes the definition of entertainment into directions of social comment without assuming that he knows best. Here’s V Shantaram happily and effortlessly jogging into Manmohan Desai’s territory.
5. Student Of The Year: This is an unabashed celebration of candy floss cinema. Filled with colour, gaiety charm and joy, this film of frothy flamboyance gets its fervour and energy from the three newcomers who let me say right away, are significant additions to Bollywood’s overworked star-stable.The setting is a Utopian college where books are arranged not for their academic value but how well they work for the film’s sleek colour scheme. Two students, one rich spoilt and arrogant, the other a bourgeois dreamer with intense aspirations, are pitched against one another. Outwardly the campus battle suggests a shallow war of one-upmanship between the two heroes for the campus hottie’s manicured hand.However with a miraculous manoeuvring away from the vacuous, screenwriter Rensil D’Silva creates an inner world of angst and craving for these seemingly over-privileged protagonists, all products of malfunctional families. Admirably the supporting cast of students is also given a back-grounder, so that the film’s student brigade appears more than just a keepsake picture shot in a flattering light.In terms of cracking his young brigade’s inner-life Karan Kohar has moved far ahead of his maiden Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Neither the students nor the teachers in Student Of The Year are caricatural. Not even the gay dean , played with endearing aplomb by Rishi Kapoor whose soft corner for the sports coach(Ronit Roy, restrained) never hits any hard edges. And when Rishi on his deathbed winks at the heterosexual coach and says, “Maybe in the next birth”, you feel the same lump in your throat that you did when in the 1970 trendsetting romance Love Story Ali McGraw told Ryan O’Neal love meant never having to say you’re sorry.The film has a wonderful retro-futuristic feel to its romance. While the good looking troika at the plot’s centre wear only the elite labels and travel in the poshest cars, their allegiances alliances and ideas on friendship and love are purely old worldâ€¦.except that Rajendra Kumar would never have asked Raj Kapoor, “Ab tu mujhe kiss karega?” after every buddy-embrace, like Sidharth Malhotra does.Young, vibrant, colourful, exuberant and exhilarating Student Of The Year is that heady swig of a frothy beverage that leaves you feeling good about life. Karan Johar gets into the heads and hearts of the three restless young and spirited lives swirling seductively in a love triangle that resolves itself over a hand-to-hand combat outside a designer-hospital. And this time Alia Bhatt gets the hospital clothes right.