As we near the end of 2021, one of the most difficult, laden with death-and-despondence years that we’ve managed somehow to lurch through, this can finally be said: the struggle for Bollywood to stay relevant has never been more real. It’s not only the long closure of theatres during multiple lockdowns which has been a problem. It’s also that there have been barely any films worthy of our time, pandemic or no pandemic. And that, truly, is the nub. For this ritual look-back which involves pinpointing the best of Bollywood, I was hard put to choose: almost every film that I’ve really liked this year has been non-Bollywood, whether it’s been in an Indian or foreign language.
The big-ticket Bollywood biggies, helmed by Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham (Radhe, Sooryavanshi, Satyameva Jayate 2) were tired, trashy retreads of the same old fight of good vs evil, chest-thumping jingoism, playing the majoritarian-minority-othering card, and invincible hero-giri. They may have pulled out a pandemic-stricken industry from a dark hole, but in terms of cinematic value, they provided zero accretion.
‘Bell Bottom’ is about the only big-budget starry Bollywood extravaganza I enjoyed this year; ‘Shershaah’ wasn’t all the way consistent, but its sincere, near non-jingoistic re-telling of the life and death of a war hero was noteworthy. Still waiting for Kabir Khan’s ‘83, Atrangi Re, and Jersey, though: we’ll see what we’ll see.
Meanwhile, here are the handful of Hindi films, listed in no particular order, which caught my attention, in a good way. None of these films are without flaws, but they are those which attempted freshness, and gave us new voices.
Raat Akeli Hai
Honey Trehan’s ‘Raat Akeli Hai’ is a smart refresh of the small-town-murder-mystery-laced-with-sexual-intrigue. An elderly groom is found murdered on his wedding night. There are suspects strewn all over the place, filled with oppressed women, jealous men, a rocky inheritance, sins of the past, and street-smart cops learning on the job. Who dun it? A standout performance from Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a bonus.
Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
Dibakar Banerji’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, starring Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor with gender-bending names, revisits some of the director’s familiar concerns. The weight of masculinity, the shifting sands of morality, the problem of going straight in a crooked world. The opening sequence pulls you in right away: have you been on a Delhi/NCR road late at night, being chased by an SUV full of entitled Jat hooligans? You will never forget it, if you live to tell the tale. The film unravels somewhat as it progresses, but like I’ve always maintained, a Dibakar Banerji film, even one that doesn’t hit all its marks, will always be on my list.
Ramprasad Ki Tehravi
Ramprasad Ki Tehravi plays out in a house of mourning, somewhere in UP. The patriarch has passed away, leaving a joint family biting at the jib. The politics of death is fascinating, and debutant director Seema Bhargava does a good job of creating realistic characters: who, if anyone, truly grieves? Who has shown up strictly to keep an eye on how the family fortunes will be divvied up? Who has the right to speak ill of the dead? It’s morbid but humorous, and Konkona Sen Sharma as the outsider ‘bahu’ who will not join the other daughters-in-law toiling away in the kitchen (the hardest worked spot in this kind of family whether it is a marriage or a funeral), catches your eye.
‘Sherni’ is a double-edged title, referring to the big cats that are in danger in our forests, which are themselves being denuded by greed and callousness, and the human guardian who fights like a tigress to save everything. Just like his previous ‘Newton’, Amit Masurkar comes up with a film whose messaging is spot on — that four-legged animals are much less dangerous than two legged ones– even if it wobbles in bits. It also gives Vidya Balan another full-bodied role to explore, and even though she is a little more outlined than the others for her starry value, she provides heft to the movie.
The time when Bollywood bio-pics unpick the unlovely, unglamorous sides of their subjects is very far away. Till then we’ll have to be content with a film being able to re-create time and place with a degree of authenticity. Thalaivi’s choice of Kangana Ranaut to play the controversial but all-powerful Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jaylalitha may be questionable on the grounds of the being-Tamilian-speaking-Tamil metrics. But in the way Ranaut makes the character her own, all doubts are dispelled. She plays it with authority, sweeping aside all opposition. Just like the woman she plays. Fully meta. Oh, and Arvind Swamy is delightful as MGR, JJ’s mighty mentor and more. We really need to see more of him.
Shoojit Sircar’s bio-pic ‘Sardar Udham’ takes its time, sometimes feeling like too much time, to build a portrait of its chosen subject. A period piece takes a lot of doing, and we see total commitment to the re-creation of the slice of colonial India the film is set in, with long tracts in London and pre-Partition Punjab. To pull off a character whose nobility grows as he goes along, and who does not flaunt the mandatory musculature demanded by mainstream Bollywood, as well as the loud flag-waving demanded by New India, is a tough ask. Sircar’s Udham Singh is a hero we can believe in. And the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh, as seen through Vicky Kaushal’s stunned, too-numb-to-grieve eyes is heartbreaking. And unforgettable.
Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger
Ramin Bahrani’s ‘The White Tiger’, based on Arvind Adiga’s novel of the same name, is about a young man who claws his way out of abject poverty to climb the slippery pole of newly-created wealth born out of a sharp, street-smart mind. Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra (who also has an executive producer credit), Mahesh Manjrekar all have significant parts in the film, but the one you take home is Adarsh Gourav who plays the eponymous Balram Halwai with a mixture of seething anger and unctuousness, making it one of the best performances of the year.
Shall I let you into a secret? Plain bad films are actually easier to handle than the ones that disappoint, and nothing disappointed me more than Yashraj Films’ ‘Bunty Aur Babli 2’, starring Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji. The two con-artists from the original B&B, Saif stepping in for Abhishek Bachchan (whom I sorely missed), are now middle-aged and thick-waisted. A couple of newbies throw down a glove, and our original Bunty and Babli pick up the challenge and give chase. This four-hander should have been a zinger, but not one thing, and I will repeat this, not one thing, or element, or character in this misguided mess of a movie comes anywhere near the first, which wasn’t exactly Oscar worthy in the first place but got away with its cockiness and silliness because it had complete confidence in itself. And this, from a legacy Bollywood studio. No fun, hun.
It was much easier and much more rewarding to pick out the films from the fiercely independent space, or other parts of India, which gave me joy. Again, a list in no particular order.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s ‘The Disciple’ takes a deep musical dive into a world of shastriya sangeet, gurus and shishyas and paramparas. It is a uniquely Indian way of teaching and imparting learning, and we are witness to the very particular way of life that makes the bond between student and teacher both sacred and sacrosanct, but the power dynamics that the film gently but inexorably unfolds are universal. Can a teacher completely give all his/her secrets away? How long can a student, especially one whose whole life is bound by the guru’s whims and fancies, wait for his break-out moment? Tamhane’s previous ‘Court’ still remains my favourite of the two, but ‘The Disciple’ took me, as I’m sure it did others, on a journey whose narrowing circularity feels like real life. Not everyone gets to the stage where they can own the stage. But music sustains.
Fire In The Mountains
I watched Ajitpal Singh’s movingly rendered ‘Fire In The Mountains’ early this year, and I still remember each twist and turn of the mountain paths that its lead protagonist Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) takes. She carries her burden, a drunken husband, an abandoned sister-in-law, a teenage daughter on the verge of becoming wayward, and a son confined to a wheelchair with admirable stoicism. Her never-give-up spirit becomes a beacon, even when other spirits are whistled up.
The Great Indian Kitchen
‘The Great Indian Kitchen’, directed by Jeo Baby, has irony steeped in its title. Set in Kerala, it is about a man and a woman, and how generations of patriarchy have seeped through the very walls of their house and made its way into the kitchen. Nimisha Sajayan’s exhausted wife spends all her waking hours trying to cook and feed her husband (Suraj Vejaramoodu) and father-in-law; the latter not only take it for granted that they will be served hand and foot, they move not a single muscle to help clear up. That’s also a woman’s job, isn’t it? As is dutiful sex in the bedroom. The climactic break-through, even though overwritten, feels well-earned and cathartic.
‘Joji’, a Macbeth remake, features Fahad Faasil as the titular character, written by Syam Pushkaran and directed by Dileesh Pothan. Meek, weak engineering student Joji, played by Faasil, lives in a large homestead with his domineering father, still as strong as a bull in his mid-70s. Two other brothers and a sister-in-law are under the old man’s thumb. What if he dies? What if his death is engineered? Innocence, guilt and the desperate attempts at redemption are on display in this morality tale, helmed by the trio who have given us some of the finest recent films from Kerala.
The films below are still not out, either in theatres or on streaming platforms; watch out when they do.
Pebbles ( Koozhangal)
‘Pebbles (Koozhangal)’, nominated as the great Indian hope for the Oscars, is a debut feature which feels as if it has been organically sprung from the very earth it is set upon. The cracked, blistered heels of its protagonists, father and son, match the cracks and blisters of the bone-dry ground they walk on. This is a picture of a group of dirt-poor people in rural Tamil Nadu and their extreme lives (rats are caught and devoured) done with absolute empathy. Stands to reason, because the director P S Vinothraj, (as does Ajitpal Singh for Fire In The Mountains) picks up the strands of his story from his life. We feel the heat, and the beat, every step of the way.
‘Pedro’, from self-taught filmmaker Natesh Hegde, is another debut feature which feels like life itself. The accidental killing of a cow in a tiny Karnataka village leads to many fronts opening up at once: how does a man who has worked with live electrical wires all his life and borne its scars, save himself from the charges that inimical humans lump upon him? Hegde’s camera stays still, and the film is a brilliantly observed drama about how everything happens when nothing seems to happen. It is also a picture of India today, where bigotry and blame-games have taken over our landscapes. How can anyone escape?
Irfana Majumdar’s ‘Shankar’s Fairies’ is a lovely nostalgia-doused picture of childhood laced with memories of an India of the 60s, when the nation was still trying to figure out which authority figures to follow: the British may have left in 1947, but in the early 60s, there were large bastions which proudly flaunted the ‘burra sahib’ spirit. As a little girl and her adult companion, the family retainer, spend time together, she learns many things, especially that while not everyone is created equal, fairies are forever.
Barah By Barah
‘Barah By Barah’, by Gaurav Madan, is about a city and its people in a state of great flux, trying to deal with relentless change. Whether you call it Benaras or Varanasi, it doesn’t matter. It is a city of great antiquity, and a magnet for seekers around the world: it is as easy to spot a world renowned bansuri player on the ghats as well as the man who will help you take the body of your loved one to the pyre. How does a ‘death photographer’, a man who makes his living photographing the dead, fare in a world that has switched to cell phone cameras? The film makes you think.
Once Upon A Time In Calcutta
‘Once Upon A Time In Calcutta’, directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta, has a similar concern in the way it captures the old spirit of this historical city, still languishing in pockets. Like the crumbling theatre whose owner refuses to sell. Like the people who work in the gig economy, women who offer beauty services at homes, men who seduce people to part with their hard-earned savings in the hope of a fat jackpot, humans who get in transactional relationships to get what they want. We know that time doesn’t stand still, whether you insist on calling Calcutta, or Cal, or have adopted its new moniker, Kolkata.
The next two films are mainstream-with-a-difference, easily among the best of 2021. They prove that the mainstream can be powerful, too, given the right intention and execution.
One of the most, if not the most, harrowing and impactful films this year was ‘Jai Bhim’. The atrocities heaped upon the lower castes is one of those mainstream cinema staples that is thrown in for colour, most often as a ‘problem’ for the ‘hero’ to solve and feel big. In this film, starring Suriya, the atrocities are not a side-bar; they are the main act. The Irula tribe, traditionally snake and rat catchers, have been at the wrong end of the stick for decades: one of them is wrongfully accused of theft and flung into prison. While his wife, played with great grit by Lijomol Jose, fights for his release with the help of human rights lawyer Chandru (Suriya), the police unleash brutal torture in the lock-up. It is hard to look at the barrage of beatings and the intimidation; it is equally important that we do not look away. This, we have been told, is not as bad as it can get in real life. What can be worse than this? ‘Jai Bhim’ confronts us with difficult questions, doesn’t paper them over for mainstream purposes, and doesn’t let us close our eyes.
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana
‘Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana’, directed by the prolific Raj B Shetty, is a mouthful of a movie. It is also one of the best iterations of a gangsta flick I’ve seen in a while. Set in Mangaluru, it is about two boys who grow into close friends and allies: there’s nothing in common between the horribly beaten and left-for-dead Shiva and Hari, the obedient son of a strong single mother, but their ties are stronger than blood. The mythical overtones are strong. Hari is the begetter, Shiva is the destroyer, and the third angle to their triangle, Brahmayya is the one who creates/ protects, and between the three, they are an invincible force. But gangs are meant to be broken, and slowly but surely, the dissipation starts. The writing and direction, and the creation of characters, is spot on; it is hard to find a moment that feels extraneous.