Best Of Mumbai 2016: Culture

It was the year that Blue Frog and The Hive shut down and the year AntiSocial and The Cuckoo Club opened. It was the year Gallery Maskara held its final show and the year Akara Art and Bombay Art Society held their first exhibitions. It was the year that Bollywood was exceptionally bad and refreshingly brave. Like many aspects of 2016, it’s been a mixed bag for Mumbai’s culture scene. The staging of large-scale theatrical productions and visits by international music acts were few and far between. On the other hand, a number of small venues opened or began hosting concerts and plays (Harkat Stuidos in Andheri, CLAP in Malad, Tuning Fork in Khar). It seemed as though if people really wanted an enriching cultural experience, it had to be intimate or they had to sign up for it. Take for instance initiatives such as the MAMI Film Club, whose members got to see British acting legend Ian McKellen talk about his illustrious career, and the Sofar Sounds series of gigs where attendees listen so intently they barely touch their phones (the catch: you can only attend by applying for and winning a lucky draw). The next 12 months carry hope in the form of the recently restored Royal Opera House, which is slated to start holding public events in January and the official launch of the Mumbai outpost of Dehli’s Summer House Café. Until then, here are our picks of the best 2016 had to offer for the city’s art, film, English theatre and independent music aficionados.

Rohini Devasher

‘Atmospheres’, Rohini Devasher (2015).

Best Art Show
Speculations from the Field and The In-Coming Passengers
It’s a tie between Rohini Devasher’s Speculations from the Field and Desmond Lazaro’s The In-Coming Passengers. Devasher’s point of departure for her show, which took over the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum for some months this year, was the institution’s small collection of astronomy tools. Her video and prints captured a sense of mystery about space, a sense of wonder that this living planet exists among unknown quantities in the universe. Lazaro’s In-Coming Passengers at Chemould Prescott Road encapsulated his family’s connection to Burma, a country to which many Indians migrated in the early twentieth century and from which most were evicted in the 1960s. The show was both personal and political as his miniature-style paintings of people crossing rough seas in a boat recalled photographs of refugees from West Asia sailing to Europe in flimsy crafts.

Kapoor and SonsBest Bollywood Film
Kapoor and Sons
Since we rarely have good things to say about Bollywood movies, as readers of this site would’ve noticed, this category might come as a surprise. Our pick of the litter is Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons. And it’s not even the best commercial film we watched this year (see below). While the movie breaks no new ground, Kapoor and Sons stands apart from its peers owing to a tightly written story and well sketched characters. A family reunion involving an old patriarch, his son and daughter-in-law and their two sons triggers all kinds of drama and a couple of revelations. There’s even a flinch-worthy moment that you don’t see coming, a rarity in Hindi movies. Rishi Kapoor’s mischievous grandpa and Ratna Pathak Shah as a homemaker with brittle nerves are particularly memorable.

Sairat.

Honorouble Mention
Sairat
Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi blockbuster Sairat had an indie quality despite being a major commercial film. This is because the movie deals with caste in the sort of unflinching way with which big films rarely treat serious issues and because it had unknown actors. The female lead Rinku Rajguru was just 14 years old when it was made. Both co-star Akash Thosar and she deliver terrific performances as two young people in love. Thosar plays Parshya, a low caste boy in love with Rajguru’s Archie, an upper caste girl. The two elope to a city and it’s here that their relationship is seriously tested. Archie can wield a pistol at her relatives while fleeing with Parshya but, being from a wealthy family, she’s horrified at having to live in a slum and perform manual jobs. For Parshya, who has always lived in poverty, this life is no different. This is when the difference in their social positions really hits Archie. Manjule’s film is a sharp, witty and terrifying picture of caste collisions that take place every day in the country.

Raam Reddy's 'Thithi'.

Best Indie Film
Thithi
Raam Reddy’s Kannada film received much acclaim well before it was released in June this year. It won a National Award, a couple of prizes at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015 and viewers at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year were full of praise. All the adulation was well deserved as Thithi is memorable for several reasons. The biggest is Reddy’s success in eliciting touching, funny and credible performances from a cast of non-actors and delivering a comment on rural debt in a subtle and light-hearted way. The film takes place in a village in Karnataka preparing for the funeral of Century Gowda, a cranky old fellow. His son, who’s also quite old, is an eccentric fakir-type character called Gaddappa who likes to wander. This habit irritates his son Thammanna who wants his itinerant father to stay in one place long enough to transfer the family land title to him.

Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator.

Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator.

Best Indian Independent Album or EP
Connected by Donn Bhat
The year saw some prominent names in Indian independent music return with new albums or EPs. Electro-folk-fusion exponent Karsh Kale, ska-fusion purveyors The Ska Vengers, electronic music producer Sandunes and electro-pop act Your Chin each released fan-pleasing sets. In terms of artistic growth, alternative rock group Spud In The Box stood out with their full-length debut Lead Feet Paper Shoes, a layered, genre-melding collection of songs that showcased a band that had left behind sounding like their influences to finally come into their own. The best record of 2016 however belonged to electro-rock guitarist and singer Donn Bhat whose seven-track Connected, featuring trusted collaborator, vocalist Toymob aka Ashhar Farooqui, was his strongest suite of tunes yet. Filled with wry observations about the state of the world (‘2000 Years’) and the state of personal relationships (‘The Beer Was Over’), Connected comprises carefully crafted compositions that make you move and made you think. The title track, about our attachment to and overdependence on our smartphones, is our song of the year, while the spoken word ‘Desh Bhakti’ is exactly the kind of political statement that we should be hearing more often from our occasionally insular indie scene.

AntiSocial.

AntiSocial. Photo: Kaushik Thanekar.

Best New Music Venue
AntiSocial, Khar
Gig goers may have lost Blue Frog but also gained a few venues. For electronic dance music fans, Nook in Kurla became an unexpected haunt but most of the action took place in Khar where it has now become possible to actually gig hop by foot. Tuning Fork, a short walk away from the railway station, has that elusive attribute missing from many places that hold concerts: a crowd that comes to listen. However, the 50-person capacity limits the kind of performances that it can stage to singer-songwriter and acoustic acts (there is no room for a drum kit, which is accommodated at the adjacent studio). With a leaning towards hip-hop, the Mumbai outpost of Delhi chain Raasta, located off S. V. Road, holds much promise but both the location of the stage and the sound set-up make it a bar first and performance spot second. AntiSocial, situated next door in the basement of the Khar outpost of Social, has all the elements we look for at a gig venue, from quality acoustics to great air-conditioning to innovative programming and affordable pricing. Everything from popular dance night Grime Riot Disco to the Levi’s 501 Friday series of gigs now takes place at AntiSocial, which has become the de facto replacement for Blue Frog.

Coldplay's Chris Martin with A. R. Rahman at the Global Citizen Festival India.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin with A. R. Rahman at the Global Citizen Festival India.

Best Gig By An International Act
Coldplay at the Global Citizen Festival India
Apart from Indophiles Major Lazer, which brought frontman Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party here, and a few survey-topping DJs such as Dimitri Vegas + Like Mike and Martin Garrix, barely any big-ticket international acts visited. Soul singer Joss Stone headlined the Mahindra Blues Festival and sitar player Anoushka Shankar played a gig here ahead of her appearance at the Pune edition of NH7 Weekender, but Harley Rock Riders and The Journey, two major music gigs typically top-billed by visiting artists, did not take place this year. MTV’s Spiro and Block Party festivals did not return nor did Vh1’s Emerge series of shows. While they might not be classified as ‘big-ticket’, progressive rock supergroup The Aristocats‘s gig sold out so fast that they added another date the same week. (Guitarist Guthrie Govan will be back in February 2017.) Ultimately, 2016 will be remembered as the year when Coldplay finally performed in India. Tickets cost nearly a month’s rent and attendees had to suffer through inane Bollywood acts but when the British rock band finally took the stage, they gave us exactly the same concert they would have played had they come by themselves: a hits-filled 20-plus songs set during which they worked just as hard to put on a great show as the audience had in waiting to watch them.

Best Indian Independent Music Video
‘Jungli Sher’ by Divine, directed by Vandana Kataria
There were plenty of great videos this year. Director Misha Ghose’s Wes Anderson-esque clip for Kolkata electro-pop duo Parekh + Singh’s ‘I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll’ earned a shoutout from the American filmmaker while her clever animation for Your Chin’s ‘Fighting The Sumo’ was made using just Microsoft Powerpoint and Apple Keynote. While we loved both, our pick for the video of 2016, for its sheer ingenuity is rising hip-hop star Divine’s ‘Jungli Sher’. Like his compatriot Naeazy’s ‘Haq Hai’ and their duet ‘Mere Gully Mein’, the concept is fairly straightforward: the lyrics about life in this hard city are illustrated by multiple sites of Mumbai except that ‘Jungli Sher’, directed by Vandana Kataria, was shot on an iPhone 6s in over 40 locations (from railway tracks to trains to meat markets and malls and offices and nightclubs). The result is an impressively seamless series of scenes as smooth as the rapper’s rhymes.

Loretta

Asif Ali Beg and Sunil Shanbag in a sketch lampooning theatre censorship in the play ‘Loretta’.

Best Play
Loretta
From the major theatre productions that were staged this year, Sunil Shanbag’s tiatr-style play Loretta, which was part of the second season of Aadyam productions gets our vote. This is because it comments on the disturbing political climate in the country, something that theatrewallahs in the city have distressingly failed to address in a meaningful way. Like all tiatrs, Loretta has a central narrative that’s punctuated by a series of unrelated sketches. The main story is a simple, light-hearted musical about a girl, Loretta, who wins over her future father-in-law, a proud Goan, by learning Konkani. It’s a subtle critique of nativist forces in the country. On the other hand, the sketches, written by lyricist and screenwriter Varun Grover, are brassy satires on censorship and the government’s tendency to label any kind of critique as antinational behaviour.

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