This year, I watched more films than ever before (over 65 if I’m showing off) and enjoyed every second of pouring over their details, scrutinising and analysing them and their merits, and just generally being a nerd. I did have a full list of ten (it included Haider, Jigarthanda and Dedh Ishqiya if you were wondering) but I had nothing to say about them. They were perfect, solid, inventively sculpted pieces of cinema. I agreed with their aesthetics and politics. But it’s really hard for me to say what makes them so great. They just…are!
So the films in this list are simply the most interesting; the films which are perhaps not always perfect, but could not have been made in any other way, for any other audience, in any other language or cultural climate. They are works that have surprised me, will continue to surprise me, and that I’m sure will prove to be of great cultural importance to the industries they were produced in. I hope that all makes sense! So here we go:
7. Oohalu Gusagusalade
Sometimes the most brilliant films are not those that try to be everything, to break new ground, or impress with breathtaking craft. Sometimes, a brilliant film will utilise simplicity in such a charming way that you don’t even wish it tried to be ‘better’. If you are making a romantic comedy, you need a good looking lead pair, some relatable romance and some comedy that is actually funny. You do not need a club song or incessant innuendos or suicide and heartbreak. Kudos to this lovely little film which knew exactly what it was and what it needed to do, while subtly and brilliantly assessing the place of a woman’s choice in arranged marriage.
6. Bangalore Days
An ‘epic’ is generally considered to be a film with massive production values, conjuring up a huge sense of escapism and a time and a place you never dreamed of seeing, complete with a sprawling time scale and a vaguely existentialist battle between good and evil. But then there is another kind of epic; the kind that boldly attempts to encompass the entire human condition, from youth to adulthood. One of Bangalore Days’ many strokes of genius was casting the ever-popular romantic pairing of Nazriya and Nivin Pauly as cousins, deftly pronouncing the importance of family and friendships that so many Indian films leave at the wayside. Bangalore Days is a whole life lived, with a cast of characters who will feel like your own kin when it’s over.
How did Shaad Ali imagine this film? Where did the ideas spring from? What kind of brain can envisage such visual composition, such a rich colour palette, and this bewildering sense of kinetic energy on a two-dimensional screen? Films like this, that have a genuine madcap ingenuity and creativity behind them (and I’m talking about the physical, tangible CRAFT of the art-form) are destined to be critical failures. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. God bless Yash Raj Films, India’s most commercial production house, for allowing a filmmaker to experiment, and ultimately fail in telling a story, but excel in the art of making images.
4. Hasee Toh Phasee
Meeta and Nikhil sit down at a bus stand after storming out of the family home. Meeta has returned after disappearing for years without a trace. The wounds are still raw. Nikhil is attracted to her mystery, the fierce independence in her actions. He wants to know what is driving all these choices. To explain, she takes out a red rubber ball. She drops it and it bounces furiously around the bus stand. It doesn’t stop. It just keeps bouncing. He was not expecting that. This red ball, and indeed Meeta’s character, are almost metaphors for this film - a small but vital shot of total insanity amongst the mundane.
3. Punjab 1984
Masala films have a lot in common with the post-apocalyptic genre: those barren, hopeless villages where ordinary folk are terrorised by archetypal evil landlords or corrupt rulers, to be saved only by a singular righteous hero. Using no tricks, technical machinery or effects, Punjab 1984 conjures up this otherworldly atmosphere quite beautifully, employing a steadfastly Indian mode of storytelling which never dilutes or insults the real-life significance of the issue at hand. This film was hard to trust, given that it stars BJP-member Kirron Kher and (allegedly) Sukhbir Badal-supporting Diljit Dosanjh, but its even handed, delicate treatment of separatism makes its ultimately humanist message impossible to disagree with. Smaller budgets make sharper filmmakers, and regional cinema is now the place to turn for honestly made and truly Indian movies.
On the surface, this is just a perfectly sculpted story we’ve heard a thousand times before: two opposing political forces exploiting impressionable youths into carrying out their dirty bidding. There are two best friends whose ideologies drift apart, a romance that becomes a vessel of redemption, and a vivid backdrop of an urban slum and its cast of colourful characters from gangsters to nagging mothers. On this level its a good, engrossing film, but little else. But then, notice the Ambedkar portraits that hang in every house, the Christian names, the political literature that lingers on the bookshelves. These characters are Dalits, once ‘untouchable’ people. And this colourful neighborhood they inhabit is government sanctioned 'slum clearance’ social housing - a ghetto in the most literal sense of the word. The film gains a host of added nuances. Every heartwarming interaction between friends or relations becomes a middle finger to centuries of disgraceful oppression. Their ownership of their environment becomes a reclaiming of this prison. Madras is either a perfectly told saga of wasted youth and failed democracy, or an important document of the current state of the caste struggle. Either way, its a fabulous entry into a canon of cinema that could only be made in the Tamil language, and a fervently proud, rebellious and working-class masterpiece.
I’m going to have to try and be critical about a piece of work which moved me so deeply and profoundly that I was quite literally in tears for half of its two hour runtime. I’m going to have to try and be critical about a film which was so personal to me that whenever I thought about it over the next few days, I burst into tears all over again. I’m going to have to try and be critical about a film which beautifully summed up everything I have ever thought about our futile material existence on this Earth, a film which explores love and kindness and compassion between human beings simply and poetically. This is a story about the haves and have-nots, about the divide between rich and poor, about our priorities, the very nature of the things which give us happiness. It is a film about women, about innocence, about childhood, about family. And all of this from the man who gave us Love Aaj Kal? Ok I’m finished, that’s about as critical as I can get for a film which is so much more than just perfect.
Once again, this list really took over my life. There are of course some fabulous looking films I didn’t get to see (and literally tons more of crappy ones that I actually sat through). These are the films which inspired me, got me thinking, and really forced me to engage with them critically. I look forward to hearing what you think! Much love, and happy new year!!