Best of 2020: A Dazzling Dozen

By Pickle  August 18, 2020

Twelve Hindi films that shone amid the Covid-19 gloom by Saibal Chatterjee

When Irrfan Khan’s final film, Angrezi Medium, hit the screens a month and a half before the much-loved actor’s death, the Covid-19 shadows had already begun to lengthen. It turned out to be the last Bollywood film that
Indian audiences saw in a theatre before all screening facilities went into a limbo in the country. Not surprisingly, eight of the 12 films mentioned here went straight to streaming platforms although at least one of them, Yeh Ballet, a Netflix original, dropped when movie halls were still open.

This list has several other salient features. Five of these films are by first-time directors, a like number of these titles have been directed by women, and at least 75 per cent of them have strong female characters dealing with – and usually tiding over – the repercussions of patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

In the midst of a raging debate over nepotism in the industry sparked by Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death, something else happened, and it was a whole paradigm shift. Big banners, boxoffice, opening weekends, collection figures, star power and media hoopla went out of the equation, allowing us to sit back and watch cinematic works without letting extraneous factors impact our consumption patterns or our critical judgment, except in the case of Dil Bechara, Rajput’s posthumous release on a streaming platform.

Eight-and-a-half months into what has been a terrible, terrible year, these 12 Hindi films did their bit to dispel some of the gloom.

Bhonsle

Director: Devashish Makhija
Starring: Manoj Bajpayee, Santosh Juvekar

Streaming on Sonyliv

Director Devashish Makhija’s third film, which premiered in Busan in 2018 and was released on SonyLIV this year, achieves the cinematic equivalent of sharp, painful pin pricks. It employs what might look like standard revenge drama elements to deliver a powerful statement on the sons of the soil-versus-outsiders debate that has been a central theme of Maharashtra politics for decades. A considerable part of the film’s frisson is delivered by lead actor (and co-producer) Manoj Bajpayee. He is astoundingly good as the titular character – a frail, terminally ill, superannuated policeman who finds the strength for one final act of heroism.

Thappad

Director: Anubhav Sinha
Starring: Taapsee Pannu

Streaming on Amazon Prime

Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, as topical as the director’s previous two films (Mulk and Article 15) but appreciably less dramatic, is more than just a slap on the face of patriarchy. It is the film that starts an instant conversation. No matter on which side of the divide you are on – you cannot ignore the point that the film makes. A dutiful woman jettisons her own ambitions so that her husband can pursue his. She files for divorce when the man slaps her in the middle of a house party. Her rebellion, accidental but essential, becomes a clarion call whose urgency is accentuated by the film’s mellow but intense tone. TaapseePannu shines as the woman who decides to seek redressal.

Raat Akeli Hai

Director: Honey Trehan
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Aditya Srivastava, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Gyanendra Tripathi

Streaming on Netflix

Raat Akeli Hai, an understated and compelling neo-noir thriller, is a smartly mounted whodunnit directed by first-timer Honey Trehan. Hitchcock meets Chabrol in a Polanski-inspired universe where moral depravity clashes with conflicted ideals. It is a genre film about a policeman determined to nail a killer but it keeps well clear of conventional tropes. At one level, Raat Akeli Hai is febrile, at another marvelously measured. Sacred Games co-writer Smita Singh’s screenplay yields a riveting murder mystery that probes the ghastly face of patriarchy in a dysfunctional family. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is terrific, so is Radhika Apte.

Yeh Ballet

Director: Sooni Taraporevala
Starring: Julian Sands, Achintya Bose, Manish Chauhan

Streaming on Netflix

Scripted and helmed by Sooni Taraporevala, Yeh Ballet, a Netflix original film thatpremiered before the Covid-19 pandemic brought conventional film distribution to a halt, is smartly written and technically solid. The true story-inspired dance movie is bolstered by its two young lead actors – ballet dancer Manish Chauhan and newcomer Achintya Bose. Taraporevala’s first narrative feature since her 2008 directorial debut (Little Zizou) pivots around two Mumbai working-class lads who eye a new life when a crabby ballet master spots them and proceeds to help hone their talent. Deftly orchestrated, the film balances its formal sobriety with the boyish vitality of the two protagonists. The understated Yeh Ballet is a moving rags-to-riches tale that does not miss a step.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Director: Sharan Sharma
Starring: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi

Streaming on Netflix

Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl, another Netflix original, is scripted by Dangal co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra and directed by debutant Sharan Sharma. Real-life war stories emerging from Bollywood often end up as screechy hyper-nationalistic bilge. This one doesn’t because its emphasis is firmly on a story of a young woman’s struggle to ward off both self-doubt and deeply entrenched male bias as she breaks into the Indian Air Force and becomes the first-ever female combat pilot. Both on the home front and in her chosen workplace, she is up against challenges that the film presents in a simplified form, which aids it in boosting its emotional quotient. Janhvi Kapoor, at the receiving end of spiteful trolling in the run-up to the film’s OTT premiere, does well enough not to be completely overshadowed by a brilliant-as-ever Pankaj Tripathi.

Bulbbul

Director: Anvita Dutt
Starring: Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam

Streaming on Netflix

A feminist fable set in dark times and a forbidding space, Bulbbul, produced by Anushka Sharma for Netflix, adroitly breaks away from the norms of the genre. One may quibble about the period and cultural detailing, but the film works because debutante director Anvita Dutt presses the horror genre into the service of a universal story of women wronged in an aristocratic family in 19 th century Bengal. Bulbbul, enlivened by superb performances from the principal cast, uses painterly means – the colours vary from the muted to the riotous – to conjure up an evocative palette.It creates a perfect ambience for the unfolding of a story that necessitates instant and willing suspension of disbelief.

What Are the Odds?

Director: Megha Ramaswamy
Starring: Abhay Deol, Yashaswini Dayama, Karanvir Malhotra, Priyanka Bose

Streaming on Netflix

A quaint take on the highs and lows of growing up, What Are the Odds? is first-time director Megha Ramaswamy’s ode to a city and the joys of youth. The film takes the audience on a trippy outing into a world where magic seeps into the realms of the real and opens up avenues for innocence (on the wings of its liberating flights of fancy) to express itself in surprising ways. The unique rhythms of the film (enhanced by an apt score by Sagar Desai) and the charm of its young leads, Yashaswini Dayama and Karanvir Malhotra, work wonders. What are the Odds? is an unpretentious little gem that is both upliftingly warm in its celebration of life and refreshingly clear-eyed in spotting – and coming to terms with – the thorns strewn on the path to adulthood.

Pareeksha

Director: Prakash Jha
Starring: Adil Hussain, Priyanka Bose, Sanjay Suri

Streaming on ZEE5

Veteran director Prakash Jha employssteady, to-the-point methods to highlight the class divide in India’s education sector in a film that benefits enormously from a rock-solid performance from Adil Hussain. Playing a Ranchi rickshaw-puller determined to give his teenage son the best available education no matter what the odds are, the actor, known to be a purveyor of subtle emotions, changes gears to hit the higher notes of his craft. Scripted by the director himself, Pareeksha renders a familiar narrative in the form of a straightforward melodrama with a clear social message. It attempts a blend of emotionally engaging storytelling with a defined ideational aim. It succeeds.

Chhapaak

Director: Meghna Gulzar
Starring: Deepika Padukone

Streaming on Disney+hotstar

A landmark film that surmounted obstacles put up naysayers ahead of its release, Chhapaak made quite a splashand deservedly so. Its urgent theme and a strong central performance by Deepika Padukone propel the film well above the ordinary. Director Meghna Gulzar, co-writer writer Atika Chohan and the lead actress work in unison to bring a horrific true story to the big screen. It may not quite be the last word on the subject, but Chhapaak is an undeniably effective portrayal of a woman scarred for life by an acid attack. It is an impressively attentive probe into the masculinity gone awry, a society devoid of empathy and a legal system riddled with inadequacies.

Jawaani Jaaneman

Director: Nitin Kakkar
Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Alaya Furniturewala

Streaming on Amazon Prime

The only film in this “best of the year so far” list that might be described as out-and-out commercial Bollywood fare, Jawaani Jaaneman, directed by Nitin Kakkar, thrives on defiant quirks that help it carve out its own niche. A delightfully cockeyed romp that is both comic and dramatic, it puts a vigorous spin on a father-daughter relationship and navigates it into a space that brims with surprises. Even when it teeters on the edge of self-conscious affectations, the film does not lose its lightness of touch and humorous strain. Saif Ali Khan, debutante Alaya F and Tabuare in their elements, which ensures that the dramedy, even when it is at its lowest ebb, is never less than intriguing.

Gulabo Sitabo

Director: Shoojit Sircar
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana

Streaming on Amazon Prime

The narrative is laced with unbridled zaniness, with Amitabh Bachchan rising to the occasion in the role of an avaricious old man out to outwit a
young intransigent tenant of his. Gulabo Sitabo, written by Juhi Chaturvedi, is laced with wit and keen sense of place. Director Shoojit Sircar never dilutes the grungy essence of the off-kilter drama, an attribute that keeps the audience guessing until the very end how it will all end for the two bickering men whose sights are set on Lucknow’s century-old Fatima Mahal. The screenplay, which makes no song and dance about its feminist core and lets the male duo have an apparently free run, factors in a trio of women – two young girls and one nonagenarian – who always seem to have the measure of men around them. It is they who hold the strings of the puppets.

Panga

Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Jassi Gill, Richa Chadda, Neena Gupta

Streaming on Disney+hotstar

Pangaha’s Kangana Ranaut in the role of a retired kabaddi player who returns to the sport after a longish hiatus. The comeback isn’t obviously a cakewalk. Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari tackles the film’s central premise in a sure-footed manner. The intelligently scripted and well-acted sports drama is rooted in the real world and the characters are easy to relate to. Bollywood’s sporting sagas often suffer from lack of authenticity. Panga does not strain credulity. At times Panga might seem a tad sluggish, but, in the ultimate analysis, the film’s deliberate pace does more good than harm to its uncomplicated arc.

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