It hasn’t been a good few weeks for writer-musician-filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj. His passion project, Rangoon, an original alternate-history epic not based on any of the Bard’s literature, bombed at the box office and, more tellingly, earned some lukewarm reviews. Though that’s the thing about the Hindi cinema’s most talented all-rounder; even his most ‘disappointing’ films aren’t bad in a conventional sense. This film, like most of his others, ignited plenty of debate, and divided viewers into two polar opposite camps. Very rarely will you find a person who thinks that a Vishal Bhardwaj film was “OK” or “timepass”; his passion and craft shines through even his most indulgent wayward efforts, almost as if his lesser films are a result of his own burning desire to create artists and art – which is a lot more than can be said about most other directors’ unsuccessful films.
Here is, in a nutshell, a ranking of his 9 feature-length films, in ascending order of preference:
9. 7 Khoon Maaf
Perhaps the only time Bhardwaj got completely carried away by the performance-art of his adapted story (of Ruskin Bond’s Susanna’s Seven Husbands), with a multifaceted Priyanka Chopra giving her most ‘invested’ performance. Bhardwaj is known to take actors (as well as non-actors) and turn them into searing portraits for his films, and this was no different, except that somewhere in the midst of his painted frames and fluid narrative, the ambition to tell a story turned into an eagerness to ‘make’ many things. As usual, Bhardwaj’s haunting music trumped his ability to craft a balanced film – turning Chopra’s turn into a seminal one, one that she will perhaps value the most, confidence-wise, in her transition to a recognizable international face.
8. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola
Perhaps Bhardwaj’s most defiant drifter – far away from the confines of conventional commercial cinema. As a result, he went a bit too far in his pursuit of independence and ‘maverick’ voice, hiring the services of Imran Khan in the midst of Pankaj Kapoor and a fairly shackle-breaking Anushka Sharma. This was an important film for her – one of the first instances she, after establishing herself as a mainstream face, surrendered her talent to someone of Bhardwaj’s caliber. Yet, a curious mix of texture, vanguard-swishes and vaudeville theatre led audience to believe that maybe Bhardwaj needs to be reeled in a bit, instead of making the kind of cinema only he wants to watch.
Perhaps it’s telling that three of his ‘bottom’ most works have come in this decade – he has directed four films since 2010. His most “flawed” work is easily his most ambitious, where he flexes his muscles as a ‘balanced’ mainstream-meets-auteur Tarantino-ish filmmaker. Rangoon is entertaining and crafted superbly in parts, but is all over the place with a narrative that tries to out-reach and out-punch – in scale and tone – a Bombay Velvet. Both these adventurous alternate-history extravaganzas haven’t clicked with the audiences, but reveal a lot about the trends and sensibilities of two of India’s most fascinating filmmakers. Maybe Bhardwaj opts for a low-budget thriller next? Never say never.
The least of his Shakespearean adaptation trilogy is still a terrific sensory experience – more for its sociopolitical relevance, geographical integration and enigmatic performances. Shahid Kapoor only ever gives his all (he called himself the Leo to Bhardwaj’s Scorsese recently) to the Bhardwaj camp (which also includes his disciple Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab), and he put himself on a plate as the Kashmir-conflicted Hamlet, with Tabu (as his mother) providing the kind of oedipal waves Hindi cinema isn’t quite used to. Haider had its flaws, at times too dense and inaccessible for its own good, but became one of the most-admired films of 2014.
This Hansel-and-Gretel-ish fairytale was Bhardwaj’s debut as a director, with Shabana Azmi – as the titular witch – providing perhaps the most frightening face ever in an Indian children’s film. A wonderful little vision, realizing a remarkable young performance by Shweta Prasad (who later impressed more as the sister in Iqbal). And perhaps the filmmaker’s most innocent, freewheeling work.
4. The Blue Umbrella
His National-award winning film, based on a novel by Ruskin Bond, is widely regarded as perhaps the best (and most underrated) Indian children’s film ever made. A charming little tonal tale set in Himachal Pradesh turns into one of Pankaj Kapur’s most storied performances, as a greedy shopkeeper in pursuit of the titular umbrella, still managing to arrest viewer empathy as a ‘kiddie villain’.
The first of his Bard adaptations (Othello) got Bhardwaj into the national limelight – after his first three criminally underrated films (two of which are mentioned above). He turned Saif Ali Khan’s third-wheel career into an actual one, with his ominous character Langda Tyagi (Iago) weaving a hypnotic web of deceit and jealousy around the doomed couple of Omkara and Dolly (Kareena Kapoor). This was a remarkable display of craft, casting (not to forget the introduction of Deepak Dobriyal as Rajju), adaptation and instinct, catapulting his reputation into the top league, making him one of the most ‘daring’ filmmakers for his time.
His sophomore film, based on Macbeth, with the underworld as a backdrop, boasted of some truly stunning performances – namely Pankaj Kapoor as Jahangir Khan and Irfan Khan as Miyan Maqbool. Maqbool became more of a cult classic as the years passed, and as we began to see more of Bhardwaj entering the all-encompassing realms of Shakespearean tragedies. Satirical, dark, funny, with lines that still reverberate through the ghosts of every failed gangster flick, Maqbool remains one of his finest films.
A memorable double role by Shahid Kapoor (and the first instance where he proved he was more than a chocolate-boy hero) – one with a lisp, another with a stutter – fueled this underworld-based original caper thriller, which went on to become the director’s biggest solo hit of his career. The music, of course, helped as usual, with Dhan Te Tan topping every chart, but the film was a shock to many senses because of the time it came in – when contemporary gangster dramas were stuck in a rut and a black hole created by the loss of form and sanity of Ramgopal Varma, a little before Anurag Kashyap unleashed his Gangs Of Wasseypur onto the world. A brilliant film, more as a colourful canvas of Mumbai’s seedy underbelly and some memorable supporting acts (Chandan Roy Sanyal, Amole Gupte).