Our relationship with cinema halls, in 2021, echoed last year’s disappointments. We spent the first two months recovering from the first wave, and when theatres began to open in March — allowing a handful of releases — the second wave hit in April. Movies returned to theatres from the end of August, but people were still hesitant and unsure, a reluctance that has only begun to fade in the last few weeks. But even now, some uncertainty lingers, as a new variant or wave can still lock us indoors.
So, at the end of the year, we remember more OTT films than theatrical releases — both in terms of quantity and quality. And since streaming platforms encourage us to “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”, we could access films from all over the country. (One of the more acclaimed ones, The Great Indian Kitchen, even paid a direct homage to the Bong Joon-ho quote. The credit for its English Subtitles read, “1” Barrier”.)
My favourites run below:
10) Cinema Bandi
What do you think when you hear the word “filmmaker”? The chances are high that a certain kind of person comes to your mind: educated, polished, city-slicker. But Praveen Kandregula’s debut — centred on an autorickshaw driver and a still photographer, in an Andhra Pradesh village, wanting to make a film — squashes the conventional to imagine the magical. A world where ordinary people nurture extraordinary dreams, where lack of access or education doesn’t mean lack of resolve or intelligence, and where cinema is truly ‘democratic’: a film made ‘by the people’ and ‘of the people’.
Cinema Bandi, however, doesn’t try to be ‘deep’ or sanctimonious. It is way too busy revelling in kooky humour, capturing a charming story, and everything else — the understated commentary on the rural-urban divide, the healing touch of communal compassion, the egalitarian attitude towards ambition — seems like a beautiful by-product. Justifying an exceptionally original screenplay, Kandregula’s vision is endearing, innocent and cute — the kind of cinema that puts the ‘all’ in ‘small’.
Rohith V.S.’s psychological action drama is less of a movie and more of an untrammelled beast. It roars, chases, and bites — and just doesn’t stop. It opens to a young man, Shaji (Tovino Thomas) — unsuccessful, haughty and rich — whose father, the owner of a vast estate of land, snubs him. Affluence and entitlement have inflated his ego. Until one day, he meets a worker at his father’s plantation — someone who hasn’t come to meet his ‘master’ but extract revenge.
As the film unfolds through gorgeous and naturalist cinematography, and impeccably choreographed fights, a crucial backstory compels us to reconsider the differences between the good and bad, native and alien, man and beast. Kala is a courageous mainstream feature: It casts a star (Thomas is a renowned name in the Malayalam film industry) — someone we, the audiences, can identify with — and then humiliates him, physically and psychologically, so that we feel the punch. The movie explodes with anger, its spirit of rebellion liberating, and its expressions of violence desperate and unhinged — as well as poetic.
8) Drishyam 2
Georgekutty (Mohanlal), the biggest cinephile ever, lives his life as if he’s a fearful character in a thriller. The only difference is, he’s also its screenwriter. So, if he can write a good enough story, he can save himself or, rather, save his family. But that requires him to not just imagine and create a world but also one that anticipates — and responds to — the police’s investigation. It keeps getting better, as he outwits them with (literal) plot twists via a novel and a screenplay — this school dropout has, after all, learned from the best.
Staying true to its roots, Drishyam 2 outshines its popular and acclaimed prequel, conceiving newer turns, misdirections, and delights. As the film gets deeper and murkier, it complicates our perceptions of good and evil. And Georgekutty outpacing the cops — at the backdrop of the country becoming a police state — makes you want to side with the ‘little guy’. Never underestimate the cinephiles, Joseph’s thriller winks at us, for they know that storytelling can be liberating and thrilling — but also cunning and unsparing.
“I do this job because this is who I am. My misery lies in the fact that this is all I am.” Meet Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a truck driver, who has recently lost his wife, whose friend just got fired, and who is himself on the verge of being replaced. If there is poetry in his life, then it drains out slowly and reluctantly — captured in the above expression of fatigue and rejection. Yet Ghalib holds on to his moral centre, wanting to do the right thing.
The other part of the film revolves around Ghalib’s intern, Pash (Lakshvir Saran), hired to replace him. Pash is trying to outsize his own misery and misfortunes, knowing that his success can only come through Ghalib’s failure. Ivan Ayr’s understated and moving drama depicts a layered story of urban decay, where workers have become dispensable commodities — homeless ‘milestones’ — who can only better their lot by crushing people like them, by becoming more soulless than their callous bosses. But Ghalib and Pash continue to fight the good fight, holding to their humanity with all their might, hoping against hope to keep the dying flame of poetry alive.
A predator, a prey, and a literal and bureaucratic jungle. But look closer and you’ll find that, in Amit Masurkar’s drama, identities can be swapped, and small triumphs and gargantuan failures mirror each other. Who is the predator here: the ‘dangerous’ T-12 tigress, an animal on the verge of extinction, or the corrupt administrative officers, opportunistic leaders, and hungry hunters? Who is the prey here: the conscientious officer Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), the helpless and scared villagers or, again, the tigress herself — responding to her hunger and fundamental nature?
A delightful and delicate slow-burn where contradictory and consuming perspectives simmer, Sherni is an excellent example of clear-eyed filmmaking, which reveres the tiny details as well as the big picture. It’s also one of the rare Hindi films that doesn’t condescend but listens to our people: their concerns, their talents, their rights to self-determination. In a world where people have become more vicious than animals, intent to gobble everything in sight, Sherni tells an embracing and disconcerting story of unexpected allies and fading fights, where victory can only be measured in terms of deflected loss.
5) Sarpatta Parambarai
Pa. Ranjith deploys the universal features of a sports drama — an unsure newbie, fierce opponents, a boxing tournament — to deliver an unmistakable Indian punch. Because the real fight here is not inside, but outside, the ring, as the hero, Kabilan (Arya), is a Dalit. Set in Madras during the Emergency, Sarpatta Parambarai’s intense home-grown style — informed by crowded set-pieces, charged aural ambience, earthy-and-visceral cuts — makes the film easy to recognise, impossible to forget. The filmmaking language complements the story, as it is pivoted on a decidedly Indian monstrosity, mocking the rivalries and solidarities spawned by the boxing ring, the caste system.
But even with a runtime of 173 minutes, the movie has no space for convenient catharsis or easy triumphs. As the intricate plot careens and deepens, an old feud, integral to Kabilan’s past, comes to light, reshaping our perception of allies and foes. An excellent addition to the growing list of recent anti-caste Tamil cinema, Sarpatta Parambarai pummels the vile social order with unflinching pride and power.
4) Sardar Udham
“You lamb, me lamb, butcher same,” Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal) tells an Irish Republican Army rebel early in the movie. Six words, three countries, one mindset. Centred on a fabled Indian freedom fighter, the film connects the languages of oppression, uniting rebels and workers across continents. It also attempts to free the Indian revolutionaries from the current debates of narrow nationalism. “A revolutionary has to follow certain principles,” says Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar). “You can’t be prejudiced, communal, or casteist.”
Ostensibly a biopic, Shoojit Sircar’s directorial takes unexpected detours and delivers pleasant surprises. Its non-linear structure, for instance, hints that it is not just the story of one person. Its piercing look at the freedom movements and their leaders — understanding their motivations, explaining their methods — sharpens their identities. Not every Indian is good, not every Brit bad. This film is not about the fight between people, it’s about the fight between ideas. It is, in the truest sense, a film about freedom: from British colonialism, from oppression and exploitation and dehumanisation — anywhere in the world.
3) The Great Indian Kitchen
Jeo Baby’s drama takes us to a place that many Indian directors, and many Indian men, seldom visit: the kitchen. Like Thappad, it reveals the stories buried in a story. It follows a young dancer (Nimisha Sajayan) who has just gotten married into an affluent patriarchal family. After its men dirty and leave the dining table, the film observes her from afar: washing utensils, cleaning the kitchen, wrestling with a leaky tap. And it does so again and again, as the story advances forward — and the marriage descends southward.
Such an approach could have made the movie tedious and preachy, but The Great Indian Kitchen’s tone, pacing and rhythm is near-perfect. With impressive economy, it magnifies the oppression hiding in plain sight, exposes the hollowness of affection and respect, and disrobes the tyranny of soft-spoken people. Even though the film is devoid of loud confrontations or decelerations, its quiet and alert camera is a constant indictment of the insularity of an upper-middle-class Indian home: its casteist beliefs, its fanatical devotion, its fixation on gender segregation, its addiction to reinforce hierarchy, despite plentiful access to technology and education (the husband is a teacher in an all-girls school). The Great Indian Kitchen also invites us to reconsider our perceptions of numerous family dramas: that many of them, despite their sunny and welcoming facades, may hide horror stories.
If Mari Selvaraj’s film had a physical form, it’d be a ball of massive fire rolling from a great height: hungry, fast, unstoppable. Karnan burns so bright — and for so long — that nothing, or no one, can remain still in its presence, not even the audiences. Set in southern Tamil Nadu, it is about a Dalit village’s fight for dignity — led by a young brave man, Karnan (Dhanush) — against the local police and zamindars for a seemingly small reason: They’ve been denied a bus stop.
The film doesn’t distil casteist oppression through overt dialogues, but the actions say it all: the stares, the gait, the mannerisms of the people from the dominant caste. But this is no sob story, as Karnan and his people rise in revolt to reclaim what is, and what was always, theirs. This is the pinnacle of commercial Indian cinema — it sings, it dances, it spits fire — lit by heady cinematography, unceasing momentum, spellbinding set-pieces, and throbbing anger. It creates a world so palpably real — so starved for justice — that you want to live in it, root for it. Inspired by a true story, Karnan doesn’t just depict a significant chapter in Dalit resistance, it does so in a manner that dignifies rebellion itself.
1) The Disciple
A young man, a revered mentor, a difficult dream — and the recorded lectures of Maai, the guru’s guru, and the disciple’s solace and soul. Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), a young classical singer, wants to devote his life to meaningful music — if his art is memorable enough only then his life can have meaning. Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomoric drama has the sincerity and the stillness of a prayer, so it is, quite befittingly, marked by reverential figures: parents, gurus, gods.
It is a masterful contemplation on desperate devotion, ‘deceptive’ mentors, and a stinging betrayal — the lies we tell ourselves, the lies we allow the world to tell us. It is a stunning achievement across departments — cinematography, editing, performance, screenwriting, and much more — whose precision produces a haunting and hypnotic melody, contradicting the imperfections and delusions of the protagonist. It slowly unveils the façade of sanctity to reveal its insecure and hypocritical essence — more flawed than the disciple himself — and then asks a question both conscious-pricking and terrifying: How much do we know about the people we claim to love?