1. The year of the actress
(L-R) Kangana Ranaut in 'Tanu Weds Manu Returns', Anushka Sharma in 'NH10', Bhumi Pednekar in 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha', and Priyanka Chopra in 'Quantico'
“Actresses can’t pull in audiences” is the sweeping statement Bollywood uses to justify the wage gap among other double standards faced by its leading ladies. Sure, no major paradigm shift has occurred this year either, with the biggest earner of 2015 — Bajrangi Bhaijaan — riding largely on the pumped-up shoulders of Salman Khan.
However, what’s pertinent is that, this year, there were more films that did well, buoyed by strong performances from its leading ladies, than usual. Kangana Ranaut’s much-loved double-role act in Tanu Weds Manu Returns went a long way in ensuring that the film grossed over Rs 150 crore at the box-office; meanwhile, Deepika Padukone kept blowing our minds with consistently stellar turns in Piku, Tamasha, and Bajirao Mastani, films that also garnered varying levels of appreciation from audiences. On a different plane, Priyanka Chopra starred as the lead in the American TV series Quantico, while continuing to capture our attentions with her performances in Dil Dhadakne Do and Bajirao Mastani.
Comfort zones were abandoned by actresses as well as audiences, who turned up to watch Anushka Sharma’s gutsy (not ‘ballsy’, never ‘ballsy’ — message received) turn in NH10 (which she also co-produced) as well as Bhumi Pednekar’s outstanding, uninhibited debut as a plus-sized teacher in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. There was also the reliably superb Richa Chadha, the only well-known name in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. And, of course, there’s Radhika Apte, who appeared in four films this year and is fast becoming the discerning filmgoer’s favourite new actress.
But this may also be remembered as a year when some of Bollywood’s actresses chose to abandon political correctness, be outspoken, and use their statuses as celebrities wisely. Sharma spoke about censorship and sexism in the industry, Padukone shared her struggles with depression, and Chadha brazenly advised star-crazy viewers to “find better role models”. Whoa.
2. The continued rise of Irrfan Khan
The 48-year-old, credited simply as ‘Irrfan’ in some of his recent films, has continued to remain perhaps the country’s most interesting actor. While his current status as Hollywood’s go-to Asian character actor led to a significant role in one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, Jurassic World, Khan made quite the mark in Indian cinema too. Beginning the year with Anup Singh’s Punjabi film Qissa: The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost, he delivered superlative perfs in both Piku and Talvar, two of the most-acclaimed Hindi films of the year.
Riding a wave that began with Slumdog Millionaire (2009), Khan has transformed himself into a global brand. This has reflected in his value back home as well. Larger sections of the audience are going to the theatres to watch him act, while he’s having a gala time choosing what he wants to do seemingly as per his fancy (including a very funny and relevant All India Bakchod video). If indicators such as appearances on magazine covers and celebrity power lists aren’t enough, Khan has enough in his kitty — a Ron Howard film starring Tom Hanks, an intriguing Japanese-Canadian Netflix show, and a choice of promising Hindi projects — to ensure that this rise continues on at least the same trajectory through the foreseeable future.
All he needs to do, really, is say no to films like Jazbaa.
3. Acclaimed directors made the shift from small- to big-budget cinema… and failed
(L-R) Stills from 'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!', 'Bombay Velvet', and 'Shandaar'
Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, and Vikas Bahl all had releases this year, but at least two of those films have been almost universally rejected by critics and audiences alike. Who’da thunk?
While Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! was ambitious and quite beautiful to look at, its lacklustre plotting and storyline didn’t impress the critics (including this writer) as his films usually do; the audience stayed away as well. Kashyap finally came out with his long-awaited Bombay Velvet, an insanely over-budget and long-delayed production that turned out to be one of the biggest critical and commercial failures in recent memory. And even the director of last year’s much-loved Queen, Bahl, let his fans down with the bizarre Shaandaar.
Interestingly, the same shift has been one of the most popular trends for the past three or four years in Hollywood, where indie directors such as Marc Webb ((500) Days Of Summer), Gareth Edwards (Monsters), and Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) have successfully made the jump to blockbuster cinema with The Amazing Spider-Man films, Godzilla, and Jurassic World respectively.
4. Hollywood blockbusters gave Bollywood more reasons to worry…
A still from 'Furious 7', featuring the late Paul Walker (second from right)
In August, when Quartz India wrote about Hollywood and regional films “stealing Bollywood’s thunder”, the year had seen two Hollywood films cross the psychological Rs 100 crore mark at the box-office: Furious 7 and Jurassic World. The last time that had happened was in 2010, when Avatar was on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film in history.
Bollywood regained ground after that, with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, ABCD 2, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, and Dilwale grossing big numbers. However, the likes of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Spectre also ended up earning good money. With Hollywood film releases reaching wider audiences — Furious 7, for instance, was dubbed into several Indian languages and released in 2,800 screens — and garnering a larger chunk of market share with each passing year, there has never been a better time for Bollywood to up its game than now.
5. … as did a middle-aged Telugu filmmaker named S.S. Rajamouli
A still from 'Baahubali: The Beginning' featuring Telugu star Prabhas
Baahubali: The Beginning, the first of two parts in Rajamouli’s Telugu-Tamil bilingual epic, turned out to be a game-changer in every sense of the word. At Rs 250 crore, it is the most expensive production in Indian cinema’s history, and its first part has grossed roughly Rs 600 crore worldwide. Its Hindi dubbed version alone made more than Rs 100 crore.
But it isn’t just about the numbers. Baahubaliproved that it was possible to make a big-budget action epic with the help of (occasionally) world-class special effects and a gripping narrative. Its success outside south India is clear evidence of solid, muscular filmmaking transcending language barriers. It has also established Rajamouli, who has previously proved himself to be a visionary director with Magadheera (2009) and Eega (2012), as an unstoppable force who is changing the landscape of Indian commercial cinema for the better.
6. We tolerated two MSG: The Messenger movies
A man named Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh 'Insan', otherwise the controversial leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, racked up a number of credits to his burgeoning filmography this year. Aside from writing, directing, and acting in two widely-ridiculed vanity projects — MSG: The Messenger and MSG-2 The Messenger — masquerading as ‘socially responsible’ cinema, he was also responsible for the music direction and costume design of these ‘films’.
While most legitimate trade analysts and publications declared both films box-office disasters, the makers have stubbornly continued to claim that the first one earned Rs 162 crore and its sequel stormed past the Rs 400 crore mark, which would make it one of the highest-grossing Hindi films of all time.
But there’s no point rolling your eyes, because this doesn’t look like it’s going to go away anytime soon. Aside from further sequels in the MSG franchise (rumour has it there are seven), the Guruji has also announced a new film called Online Gurukul, which focuses on the scourge of terrorism. Clearly, he is determined to save this nation from every evil — whether we want him to or not.
Did someone say ‘money laundering operation’? No? Okay, just checking.
7. In the end, Salman Khan is always the winner
Do you believe he broke the law by hunting and killing endangered animals? Do you think of him as a boorish man-child, who has allegedly gotten away with being physically abusive towards three of his ex-girlfriends? Is he, in your opinion, a sub-par actor, relying on good looks and charisma to peddle largely mediocre cinema?
Fantastic. No one cares what you think. Certainly none of the lakhs of Indians who went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan (which was, by all accounts, much, much better than the average bhai film), nor those who went to watch Prem Ratan Dhan Payo — according to some reports, the combined box office gross of the two films is a staggering Rs 840 crore. Not the scores of cancer and AIDS patients his charity, Being Human, has helped out. The Bombay High Court recently overturned the conviction and the five-year sentence he received from the Mumbai Sessions Court on his long-pending hit-and-run case, which led to the death of one Nurullah Mehboob Sharif 13 years ago. Fans of Bigg Boss apparently can't have enough of him--its makers shelled out crores so he could re-appear as host for the wildly popular reality show’s ninth season.
If young actresses like Anushka and Deepika represent the new, evolving spirit of Bollywood, Khan is the embodiment of its insular and patriarchal face: a male actor, now 50 years old but still playing ‘hero’ roles opposite actresses who are roughly half his age, the son of one of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated writers, and someone who enjoys the support of nearly everyone in the industry.
Every time Khan has appeared in court this year, the industry has held its breath collectively. In May, when he was sentenced, nearly all work had stopped for a few hours, resuming only after he got bail. When he was acquitted, a number of tweets said roughly the same thing: “Nothing can happen to Salman Khan because God is with him.”
Even hardened atheists might be inclined to agree.
Contact HuffPost India
Also see on HuffPost: