Genre: Action, Thriller Director: Thiagarajan Kumararaja Starring: Jackie Shroff, Ravi Krishna, Sampath Raj, Yasmin Ponnappa, Guru Somasundaram Streaming on Amazon Prime
An ultra-violent, slow-burning and stylized neo-noir thriller, Aaranya Kaandam marked the debut of director Thiagarajan Kumararaja. Focusing on one day in the North Chennai underworld, it hinges on the desperate bid by an ageing mafia don to regain his lost libido.
High points: Technically brilliant and marked by a keen sense of time and place
Anbe Sivam (Tamil, 2003)
Genre: Comedy, Drama Director: Sundar C Starring: Kamal Haasan, Madhavan, Kiran Rathod Streaming on Amazon Prime
A film that showcases Kamal Haasan’s versatility like few films have done, Anbe Sivam (Love is God) is inspired by the Hollywood hit Planes Trains & Automobiles. But it manages to carve out its own philosophical space, effectively addressing a wide range of themes from workers’ rights to religious faith.
High points: Sharply etched characters, a finely chiseled screenplay and outstanding performances.
Anniyan (Tamil, 2005)
Genre: Mystery, Action Director: S Shankar Starring: Vikram, Sadha Streaming on SunNXT
A magnificently mounted vigilante thriller, Anniyan extends director S Shankar’s pet theme: a one-man crusade against the ills inherent in Indian society and the system’s inability to eliminate them. The protagonist of the film is a consumer rights lawyer who turns into a serial killer to exterminate wrongdoers.
High points: Technical brilliance, a racy narrative and a powerful central performance by actor Vikram.
Asuran (2019), Tamil
Director: Vetrimaaran Genre: Action, Drama Starring: Dhanush, Manju Warrier Streaming on Amazon Prime
The strength of Asuran, starring Dhanush, stems mainly from its Dalit protagonist’s fight against an upper-caste landowner. It is essentially a tale of revenge, but it is placed in the context of the atrocities that the socially marginalised are subjected to.
Baahubali (Telugu/Tamil, 2015)
Genre: Epic, Action Director: S S Rajamouli Starring: Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Tamannaah, Anushka Shetty, Ramya Krishna, Sathyaraj, Nassar Streaming on Disney+hotstarVIP, Netflix, Sony liv
A VFX-driven fantasy epic set in an ancient fictional kingdom usurped by an evil ruler. The rightful heir wages war against the tyrant to regain control of the throne. A standard tale of valour, betrayal and vendetta enlivened by eye-popping visual flair.
High points: The simplicity and timelessness of its story and its magnificent packaging made possible by the wizardry of the graphic artists.
Bhooter Bhobishay (The Future of the Past), a refreshingly original comedy, is about a group of ghosts who inhabit an abandoned mansion in Kolkata and fight to ward off the designs of a builder who wants to raze the classical structure and build a multi-storied shopping mall in its place.
High points: A lively satire about a metropolis struggling to save its past – a story that could be valid in many other urban pockets of contemporary India.
A historical epic mounted with impressive pizzazz by Bollywood’s high priest of cinematic opulence, Bajirao Mastani takes the audience back to an eventful point in Indian medieval history and narrates the tragic love story of an invincible Maratha warrior and a half-Persian princess.
High points: Outstanding production design, costumes and cinematography make Bajirao Mastani a visual treat.
Chak De India (Hindi, 2007)
Genre: Drama, Sport Director: Shimit Amin Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Vidya Malvade, Shilpa Shukla, Sagarika Ghatge, Chitrashi Rawat Streaming on Amazon Prime
Shimit Amin’s gripping sports film, starring Shah Rukh Khan as a women’s hockey coach, takes in its sweep a range of themes related to nationhood, sectarian prejudice, parochialism and sexism. It remains one of the more socially relevant dramas to come out of the Yash Raj Films stable.
High points: Superstar Shah Rukh Khan is in fine fettle as are the girls who make up the team that works its way out of a trough.
Dabangg (Hindi, 2010)
Genre: Action, Comedy Director: Abhinav Kashyap Starring: Salman Khan, Arbaaz Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonu Sood, Vinod Khanna, Dimple Kapadia Streaming on Netflix
The action-packed tale of a police officer in small-town Uttar Pradesh who resorts to means fair and foul in order to send criminals packing was a runaway box-office hit. It spawned several imitations, including a far less successful sequel.
High points: Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s thunderous dialogue delivery and a storyline that promises non-stop thrills.
Dangal (Hindi, 2016)
Genre: Sport Director: Nitesh Tiwari Starring: Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Zaira Wasim, Sanya Malhotra Streaming on Netflix
Dangal, an Aamir Khan starrer inspired by true events, hinges on the exploits of a former wrestler who, as recompense for his own failure to make it to the big league of the sport, coaches his daughters to take on the world. The Haryana-set sports drama raked in big bucks at the domestic box office, it also struck a massive chord in China. Dangal made stars out of three young actresses – Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra and Zaira Wasim.
Dil Chahta Hai (Hindi, 2001)
Genre: Coming of age, Romantic drama Director: Farhan Akhtar Starring: Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Preity Zinta Streaming on Amazon Prime, Netflix
The first film written and directed by Farhan Akhtar, the slickly mounted Dil Chahta Hai enjoys cult status among Bollywood fans. The plot revolves around three upper-crust Mumbai friends negotiating a string of emotional crises that severely test their friendship.
High points: Marked by smart writing and littered with witty non sequiturs, the youthful drama is made convincing by a lively cast led by Aamir Khan.
Lagaan (Hindi/English, 2001)
Genre: sport Director: Ashutosh Gowariker Starring: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne Streaming on Netflix
This cricket-themed saga set in a drought-hit colonial-era village is about a bunch of ragtag cricketers who take on a strong British team to ward off the tax backlog on their farm produce. Lagaan won an Oscar nomination, losing out narrowly to Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land.
High points: Its ambitious canvas is bolstered by deft execution and vivid characters that spring out of the screen.
Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil, 2002)
Genre: Musical, Drama Director: Mani Ratnam Starring: Madhavan, Simran, Baby Keerthana, Nandita Das, Prakash Raj Streaming on Amazon Prime
Director Mani Ratnam packs great emotional energy and dramatic flourish into Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek), a film about a nine-year-old girl adopted by a writer and his wife. The child sets out to search for her biological mother, a Tamil militant fighting in the Sri Lankan civil war.
High points: Outstanding cinematography by Ravi K Chandran and a clutch of fine performances by R. Madhavan, Nandita Das and Prakash Raj.
A follow-up to Munnabhai MBBS, this one made an even bigger splash. The friendly underworld don imbibes the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, who reveals himself only to him and gives him tips on life. As a result, the goon goes about using peaceful means to help people solve their problems.
High points: A sequel as good as the original – that is a rarity in cinema history. The Sanjay Dutt-Arshad Warsi duet is fantastic again.
PK (Hindi, 2014)
Genre: Satire, Comedy, Drama Director: Rajkumar Hirani Starring: Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, Sushant Singh Rajput, Saurabh Shukla, Sanjay Dutt Streaming on Netflix
As gutsy a mainstream film as any in the history of Hindi cinema, Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is a satirical comedy that questions religious dogmas and blind faith. A humanoid alien lands in India and discovers a society steeped in superstition. The film ruffled many feathers but smashed box office records.
High points: A buoyant star turn by Aamir Khan and an entertaining script co-written by Hirani and Abhijat Joshi.
Queen (Hindi, 2014)
Genre: Comedy, Drama Director: Vikas Bahl Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Lisa Haydon, Rajkummar Rao Streaming on Voot, JioCinima, Sony liv
A girl is dumped by her would-be husband a day before the wedding and she decides to go ahead with the planned honeymoon all by herself. Her ride through Paris and Amsterdam exposes her to the world and new sensations. When she returns home, she is a woman transformed.
High points: Breezy script, steady direction by Vikas Bahl and infectious pivotal performance by Kangana Ranaut.
Sairat (Marathi, 2016)
Genre: Romance , Drama Director: Nagraj Manjule Starring: Rinku Rajguru, Akash Thosar Streaming on Netflix
Fandry director Nagraj Manjule’s second film, Sairat, smashed Marathi cinema box office records. But that isn’t its only claim to fame. The film uses popular love story conventions to narrate the tale of an ill-fated affair that blossoms – and dies – across the caste and class divide in rural Maharashtra. Sairat touched raw nerves because of its searing, unflinching quality.
Paruthiveeran (Tamil, 2007)
Genre: Epic, Drama, Romantic Director: Ameer Sultan Starring: Karthi, Priyamani, Saravanan, Ponvannan, Ganja Karuppu Not available for streaming
Set in a Tamil Nadu village, Paruthiveeran tells the story of a petty criminal’s fraught relationship with an upper-caste girl that ends in tragedy. The material is thin but the treatment more than makes up for what the film lacks in depth and range. Riveting all the way.
High points: Strong lead roles backed by solid storytelling.
Virumaandi (Tamil, 2004)
Genre: Action, Drama Director: Kamal Haasan Starring: Kamal Haasan, Abhirami, Pasupathy, Napoleon, Nassar Not available for streaming
Written, produced, directed by and starring Kamal Haasan, Virumaandi enjoys cult status and has spawned many imitations. The Rashomon-like plot revolves around two prisoners – one serving a life sentence, the other on death row – and unravels the circumstances that have brought them here.
High points: A gripping storyline and strong acting
Assamese writer-director Bhaskar Hazarika is a cinematic fabulist whose sensibility is anything but ordinary. His two films, Kothanodi (River of Fables) and Aamis (Ravening), foray into zones of consciousness that border on the bizarre (in the case of the former) and the macabre (in the latter) even as they remain unwaveringly humanistic.
Kothanodi drew upon a compendium of Assamese folk tales to narrate four stories blending the fabulous and the fantastic to throw light on the human condition. The film had its world premiere in Busan. Aamis, the story of a young man drawn towards an older woman via their love for meats of all kinds – a forbidden relationship that triggers a chain of acts of self-destruction. The Aamis premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Only two narrative features old, Gurvinder Singh, a filmmaker with a distinctive approach to the medium, is already close to achieving the status of a master. His first film, Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse, 2011), premiered in Venice. His second, Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction), made it to the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard competition.
The two Punjabi-language films, adapted from literature, were richly textured, quietly engaging portraits of common people dealing with socio-political and historical forces beyond their control. The Mani Kaul protégé has been running a café in the tiny town of Bir, Himachal Pradesh for several years. His next film, Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut), which is expected to premiere in one of the major festivals later this year, is a personal “insider’s take” on the lives of the ordinary folks of a place in flux owing to its transformation into a paragliding hub.
Going Beyond Stories
Half a decade is all that the 42-year-old lawyer-turned-filmmaker has taken to carve a niche for himself. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s combative films, which have fetched him numerous international and state awards since his first feature, the crowd-funded Oralpokkam (Six Feet High, 2014), go beyond mere stories. They engage at a very deep level with contemporary social and political issues.
Chola, his fifth feature and the sole Indian film in the official line up of the 76th Venice International Film Festival, is no different. It expands upon his concern with individuals dealing with collective attitudes and prejudices in a complex society. It, however, represents a break from his previous four films. Chola is two hours long – the longest of Sasidharan’s films thus far – and features mainstream Malayalam cinema stars, Nimisha Sajayan and Joju George, both of whom picked up acting prizes in the 2019 Kerala State Film Awards. Sasidharan’s S Durga won the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in 2017.
Actress-filmmaker Konkona Sen Sharma has yet to chalk out plans for her sophomore directorial outing, she is one talent capable of springing surprises both behind and in front of the camera. Her maiden film, A Death in the Gunj, as fine a film as any Indian first-timer has ever made, premiered in TIFF in 2016.
One of her earliest films as an actor, Shonali Bose’s Amu, in which she played the titular role, also screened in Toronto. She is currently prepping for a web series that she is slated to direct on the life and times of Arati Das, who was known as Kolkata’s queen of cabaret in her heydays. The show will be set against the social and political backdrop of 1960s and 1970s Bengal. The series is expected to go on the floors early next year. That rules out the likelihood of Sen Sharma delivering a new big screen film in 2020. She is nonetheless one Indian filmmaker whose progress as a director will be followed with keen interest.
Strong Cinematic Sense
The world is likely to soon hear a great deal more of the maverick Meghalaya filmmaker Pradip Kurbah. A two-time National Award-winner, he is all set to catapult his native language, Khasi, on to the global cinema stage. His third narrative feature, Iewduh, set in the entrails of the largest market in the northeastern hill state and filmed with sync sound, is due to emerge in a major international festival soon. Kurbah’s first two films, RI: Homeland of Uncertainty and Onaatah: Daughter of the Earth, fetched him unstinted awards and accolades.
Amrit Pritam, who works closely with Oscar-winner ResulPookutty, is the sound designer of the film. A director rooted in his milieu and endowed with a strong cinematic sense, he has already earned a fan following in his home state and other parts of India. Iewduh, which promises to be the next big leap in his career, could be the beginning of a new chapter.
An alumnus of the Kolkata-based Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Dominic Sangma, who makes films in the Garo language, is another Meghalaya filmmaker who has begun to make waves worldwide. His debut feature, Ma’ama (Moan), a deeply personal film that probes loss and longing from the standpoint of an old man – the director’s father – grieving for his long-deceased wife, instantly marked him out as a storyteller of exceptional depth.
Ma’ama was the only Indian film to earn a slot in the International Competition of the 2018 Jio MAMI Film Festival. Sangma’s second film, Rapture, was one of ten projects from across the world selected for mentoring by filmmaker Mira Nair in the La Fabrique Cinemaprogramme hosted by InstitutFrancais as a part of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
A Tamil filmmaker waiting to be discovered by the world, Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s two films – the neo-noir gangster film Aaranya Kaandam (2011) and the multi-plot drama Super Deluxe (2019) – have established him as one of the most strikingly voices working in Chennai today.
Aaranya Kaandam was in the making for several years, ran into trouble with India’s censor board and eventually under performed at the box office. But the film’s appeal has grown steadily – it now enjoys cult status. Kumararaja’s second film, Super Deluxe, proved beyond doubt that here was a fearless filmmaker capable of weaving pure magic with ideas, plot twists and images. The film orchestrates its multiple strands with awe-inspiring skill and an unfailing sense of drama that draws its strength from being both provocative and entertaining.
Driven by a fresh burst of energy, a new breed of independent filmmakers are delivering films based on their own individualistic visions, erasing the gap between the socially meaningful and the commercially viable Indian cinema – By Saibal Chatterjee
Mediocrity is mainstream Indian cinema’s comfort zone. It has always been. But today, being middling is more than just an old habit for filmmakers seeking easy ways to achieve runaway commercial success. It has become a necessity. Low-grade, star-driven commercial cinema and its purveyors are being gleefully embraced by both the masses and the official agencies charged with the promotion of film culture in the country.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an unabashedly misogynistic film like Arjun Reddy hits the box-office bull’s eye. Its Hindi remake, Kabir Singh, made by the same director with a different actor, does even better.
Another easy-to-sell category of cinema has emerged, especially in Mumbai, over the past few years: adulatory biopics and puff jobs. These are films that are either aggressively jingoistic (Uri: The Surgical Strike, RAW: Romeo Akbar Walter) or are unabashed extended, fictionalized public service adverts (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha). Taking the line of least resistance pays instant dividends. These films not only make pots of money but also often go on to win national awards at the cost of essays that are leagues ahead in cinematic terms.
But for a new breed of independent filmmakers who are consciously pulling away from the crowd and following their own individualistic visions to deliver films aimed at erasing the gap between the socially meaningful and the commercially viable, Indian cinema today would have worn the looks of a hopeless wasteland.
Mercifully, even filmmakers working in the mainstream space – Pa. Ranjith and Vetrimaaran in Chennai and Anurag Kashyap and Anubhav Sinha in Mumbai – do not shy away from hitting political hot-buttons and questioning gender presumptions in stories couched in popular narrative formulations.
When Vetrimaaran makes Vada Chennai, he ensures that it isn’t any ordinary gangster flick. He infuses it with a social resonance that communicates truths about a city and society in ways that are beyond the reach of less clued-in filmmakers. Pretty much the same is true of Pa. Ranjith. His two Rajinikanth vehicles, Kabali and Kaala, have a strong caste struggle sub-text delivered in a style that never strays into the preachy and boring. Ranjith also recently produced Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal, the story of a boy from an oppressed caste struggling to ward of continuing discrimination.
Ranjith is now in the midst of directing his first Hindi-language film – a drama based on the life of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. The choice of hero is a natural progression for a filmmaker whose cinema has probed the place of the deprived and dispossessed in a society where power flows from religious identity and caste allegiance.
Important elements dovetailed into the plot of Anurag Kashyap’s boxing drama Mukkabaaz also reflects the political consciousness of the maker. The ills of the caste system have also been laid bare in stark detail in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15. The film is a worthy follow-up to Sinha’s Mulk, which addressed the issue of Islamophobia head-on. We might argue that Indian films still haven’t gone far enough to call out patriarchy and the Brahmanical order. But the very fact that some films are making an attempt, no matter a feeble, is itself a sign of the changing times.
A fresh burst of energy is driving independent filmmakers not just in Tamil Nadu and Kerala but also in Mumbai. The primary space in debutant Madhu C. Narayanan’s Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights, scripted by Syam Puskaran, is the home of four brothers who have no woman in their lives. The siblings are all flawed, scalded individuals until women enter their lives and make them see life and love in a different light. The film is an examination of masculinity that turns the entire notion of patriarchy on its head.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s daringly innovative multi-plot drama Super Deluxe is a film that throws caution to the wind and yet comes with such astounding formal precision that one cannot but watch in awe and applaud. Kumararaja throws four sub-plots into a giant, constantly whirring grinder and emerges with a film so fascinating and so wondrously inventive that one is caught by surprise at every turn.
Super Deluxe subverts our expectations at every turn. A couple is thrown into turmoil following the death of the woman’s ex-boyfriend in her bed. A father of a boy returns to his family after a seven-year absence in the guise of a transwoman. A schoolboy who bunks school with his friends to watch a pornographic film flies into a rage on discovering that his mother is an adult movie actress. Four friends get into terrible tangle with the underworld in an attempt to wriggle out of a minor jam.
The fast-paced, almost breathless film delivers a dazzling kaleidoscope of an urban landscape where every single day is as strange and disconcerting as the previous one. Super Deluxe is testimony to what younger Tamil filmmakers are capable of as storytellers and craftsmen.
The new Malayalam cinema, too, is going through a wonderfully fecund phase. Three films made by Kerala directors are in two of world’s major festivals this year. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola (Shape of Water) premieres at the Venice Film Festival while Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Getu Mohandas’s Moothon are in the Toronto International Film Festival. Sasidharan’s S Durga won the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam a couple of years ago, the first Indian film to bag the prize.
Lijo is, of course, also a name to reckon with. He is in the midst of a urple patch., Before Jallikattu, he delivered two absolutely stunning films – Angamaly Diaries and Ee. Ma. Yau – both of which prove his grasp over the medium and his phenomenal ability to handle a multiplicity of actors within single uninterrupted sequences.
The first world that spring to mind when watching a Lijo film is dynamism, the kind that can be extremely infectious. It would be no exaggeration if we were to suggest that he, along with Sasidharan, are the ones who are propelling the resurgence of Malayalam cinema on the global stage. We expect more surprises as filmmakers from Kerala reclaim the place they had in international festivals in the 1980s and a part of the 1990s.