By Saibal Chatterjee
Aadmi Ki AuratAur Anya Kahaniyan (Hindi, 2009)
Director: Amit Dutta
Made by one of India’s most fiercely independent filmmakers, Amit Dutta, this is an uncompromising and intriguing series of three episodes that explore the relationship between men and women and between humans and the spaces they inhabit and the objects that surround them.
High points: Cinema at its most rigorous and pure and marked by a vision steeped in a keen understanding of visual poetry
Director Vetrimaaran tells the story of a young man who is exceptionally skilled at training roosters for cockfights and the growing tensions between him and his mentor as his fame and popularity grows. Lead actor Dhanush won the National Award for his performance in the film.
High points: Interesting plotting, believable characters, and convincing depiction of a milieu never seen before on the big screen
Anandabhadram (Malayalam, 2005)
Director: Santosh Sivan
Cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s first film in his native tongue, Anandabhadram transforms a story of sorcery into an exploration of Kerala’s most identifiable cultural emblems – Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, Theyyam and Kathakali dance forms and Kalaripayattu martial arts.
High points: A rare film that bridged the gap between critical acclaim and commercial success – it earned both in ample measure
Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam, 2017)
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Angamaly Diaries is a path-breaking crime drama set in gritty, grimy Angamaly, where a gang of youngsters fight multiple odds in order to ensure that their writ runs without hindrance over the predominantly Catholic town. Featuring a cast of first-timers and a background score rooted in the sounds of the region, Angamaly Diaries is a riveting piece of cinema that culminates in a climax filmed in an 11-minute unbroken shot.
Ankhon Dekhi (Hindi, 2014)
Director: Rajat Kapoor
A middle-aged family man has an accidental epiphany and decides never to believe anything that he does not see. But he dreams of flying like a bird and soaring above all his worldly worries. Rarely has a Hindi film set in old Delhi been so alive to the defining characteristics of the place.
High points: A fabulous pivotal performance by Sanjay Mishra, wonderful gallery of characters, and Rajat Kapoor’s deft directorial sleights
Arekti Premer Galpo (Bengali, 2010)
Director: Kaushik Ganguly
A sensitive and incisive portrayal of transgender individuals in a conservative society, Kaushik Ganguly’s ArektiPremerGalpo (Just Another Love Story) focuses on a filmmaker who sets out to document the life and work of a real-life actor known for playing female characters in Bengal’s folk theatre.
High points: Multi-layered screenplay, believable characters, insightful portrayals
Baishe Shrabon (Bengali, 2011)
Director: Srijit Mukherji
A taut psychological thriller, BaisheShrabon is about two policemen (one of them suspended from the force) hunting for a serial killer who leaves behind lines of poetry at the crime scene. The psychopath strikes on the death anniversary of famous poets but there is little else for the investigators to go by…
High points: Stylish mounting and execution; red herrings galore; a startling climactic twist
Black Friday (Hindi, 2007)
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Director Anurag Kashyap, drawing upon journalist Hussain Zaidi’s in-depth account, reconstructs the investigations into the March 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts. The result is a riveting, pulsating thriller that is much more than just that.
High points: Its 12-minute Dharavi chase scene and the manner in which the film confronts the darkness at the heart of hatred and murderous rage
Celluloid (Malayalam, 2013)
Director Kamal’s recreation of the life and struggles of the father of Malayalam cinema, J.C. Daniel, Celluloid is solidly crafted biopic that brings to the fore rarely discussed aspects of the early years of cinema in Kerala and their deleterious impact on Daniel’s future.
High points: Prithviraj’s sensitive portrayal of Daniel’s character and a well-researched screenplay
Chauthi Koot (Punjabi, 2015)
Director: Gurvinder Singh
Set during the Sikh separatist movement of the 1980s, ChauthiKoot (The Fourth Direction) blends two stories by Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu. It captures the fear and foreboding that paralyzed people caught in the crossfire between Khalistani militants and government security forces.
High points: Use of striking minimalism to drive home the cataclysmic effect of politically-inspired violence on ordinary, innocent lives
Chotoder Chhobi (Bengali, 2015)
Director: Kaushik Ganguly
A love story unlike any ever seen in India, Kaushik Ganguly’s Chotoder Chhobi homes in on the community of dwarfs who perform in a circus. The narrative brings out the social apathy and poverty that the dwarfs have to contend with because of who they are.
High points: A poignant performance by the male lead and a storyline marked by emotional depth
Company (Hindi, 2002)
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
A fast-paced gangster film offers a fictional take on the crime syndicate lorded over by the real-life Dawood Ibrahim. Pitched as a follow-up to Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, Company blends the grittiness of the first film with striking filmmaking flair.
High points: Innovative use of sound and momentum to evoke a world in which danger lurks at every corner
Deool (Marathi, 2011)
Director: Umesh Kulkarni
Tinged with an air of comicality, Deool (The Temple) addresses a deadly serious issue – commodification of religion in a land where large swathes of the population still languish at subsistence level. It pulls no punches. Its characters are vivid and its situations are underpinned with layers of meaning.
High points: Girish Kulkarni’s screenplay and on-screen performance and directorial restraint
Dosar (Bengali, 2006)
Director: Rituparno Ghosh
A complex black-and-white relationship drama about love, duty and infidelity told against the backdrop of an accident in which a man is grievously injured and his mistress loses her life. The film probes the impact the tragedy and the revelation of her husband’s betrayal has on the betrayed wife.
High points: Rituparno Ghosh’s subtle direction and sharply etched characters
Iqbal (Hindi, 2005)
Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
A rare Hindi sports film that looks and sounds authentic and transcends the limits of the genre. Iqbal is about a cricket-obsessed deaf mute boy determined to break into the national team despite the many obstacles in his path.
High points: A quality script, a director in fine fettle and convincing performances from Shreyas Talpade and Naseeruddin Shah
Johnny Gaddar (Hindi, 2007)
Smartly crafted by one of Bollywood’s most accomplished craftsmen Sriram Raghavan, this thriller pays tribute to the genre in strikingly interesting ways. The plot hinges on five con artists who set out to raise a huge sum of money in order to invest it in a scheme that will double their booty.
High points: Its sly twists and turns are sprung upon the audience with brilliant sophistication
Kattradhu Tamizh (Tamil, 2007)
Director Ram’s first film, Katradhu Tamizh is about a young postgraduate struggling to achieve his goals in a social and economic climate that is loaded against the common man. A series of setbacks push him over the edge of sanity. A story told with impressive control and grasp on the medium.
High points: Deceptively simple narrative and solid pivotal performance by Jiiva
Maqbool (Hindi, 2003)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Vishal Bhardwaj’s first Shakespeare adaptation set the benchmark for the director’s subsequent forays. Loosely based on Macbeth, the film journeys into the Mumbai underworld, where a ruthless don’s mistress and his trusted lieutenant get drawn into a dangerous game.
High points: Thanks to a formidable cast (Pankaj Kapur, Irrfan Khan, Tabu), Maqboolgets going from the opening scene itself and sustains the momentum all through
Margarita, With a Straw (English/Hindi, 2014)
Director: Shonali Bose
At the heart of the film is a young woman with cerebral palsy who surmounts all obstacles to assert her right to live on her own terms. The heroine’s voyage of self-discovery is explored without overt theatrics and informed at once with warmth and humour.
High points: Sensitive and incisive storytelling and lead actress KalkiKoechlin’s profoundly moving performance
Miss Lovely (Hindi, 2012)
Director: Ashim Ahluwalia
Set in the mid-1980s, Ashim Ahluwalia’s stylized Miss Lovely dives deep into the underbelly of Mumbai’s sleazy C-grade sexploitation flicks. It tells the tale of two brothers who peddle cheap quickies and plunge into a destructive vortex of betrayal and subterfuge stirred by a mysterious young woman.
High points: A dizzying mix of stylistic elements drawn from 1980s Bollywood sleaze and a measured performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Munnariyippu (Malayalam, 2014)
An intriguing piece of cinema directed by award-winning cinematographer Venu. The character-driven plot revolves around a journalist/writer and her relationship with a twin-murder convict whose story fetches her a big publishing deal. A drama without a dull moment.
High points: Top-notch performance by lead actor Mammootty and sharply etched characters
Omkara (Hindi, 2006)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Othello gets the full-on Vishal Bhardwaj treatment in a drama set in India’s northern badlands where a gang leader commits crimes at the behest of a local politician. Also in the mix are indigenous avatars of Cassio and Iago, the latter played by Saif Ali Khan.
High points: A strong screenplay, intriguing characters and riveting performances
Ottaal (Malayalam, 2015)
A skillful adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Vanka set in the lush environs of Kuttanad in Kerala. The film explores the relationship of a boy with his grandfather, his only living relative in the world, and with the natural surroundings.
High points: The director brings a rare authenticity to the story transported across time and geography. Stunning cinematography by M.J. Radhakrishnan
Pulijanmam (Malayalam, 2006)
A leftist is all set to stage a play about the legend of a low-caste man who defies the gods and assumes the form of a tiger to bring a crazed king to his senses. The man finds his own fight against obscurantism and political oppression of the poor in no different from that of the mythic figure he is trying to bring to life.
High points: An evocative blend of myth and reality that delivers a trenchant commentary on a society coming apart at the seams
Papanasam (Tamil, 2015)
Director: Jeethu Joseph
The Tamil remake of the director’s 2013 Malayalam hit Drishyam, Papanasam is a suspense-filled drama about a man who stops at nothing to save his family from being jailed for the disappearance of a senior police officer’s son who harassed his daughter.
High points: A riveting screenplay replete with twists and turns and a top-draw performance from Kamal Haasan
Shahid (Hindi, 2013)
Director: Hansal Mehta
Shahid brings to the big screen the life and career of human rights lawyer ShahidAzmi, who, in 2010, was killed in his Mumbai office by right-wing goons. The film lays the facts on the table without pointing accusatory fingers. What emerges is the vulnerability of all crusaders in a system that abhors status quo-breakers.
High points: Rajkumarr Rao’s restrained performance and Hansal Mehta’s sure-footed, empathetic approach to the character
Sonchidi (Hindi, 2011)
Director: Amit Dutta
Sonchidi is a complex, challenging film about a search by two travellers for a flying craft that they believe could liberate them from the cycle of life and death. The theme is of a piece with director Amit Dutta’s continuing cinematic exploration of the interplay of human memories, hopes, apprehensions and desires.
High points: PrahladGopakumar’s magnificent cinematography and Amit Dutta’s deeply meditative filmmaking style
Subramaniapuram (Tamil, 2008)
Director: M. Sasikumar
Produced, written and directed by M. Sasikumar, this gritty, suspenseful Tamil-language drama set in 1980s Madurai hinges on four unemployed friends who drift into the world of political violence and are torn apart in the process. Gripping from the word go.
High points: Impressive direction, sharp editing, and unerring recreation of period details
Tamizh Padam (Tamil, 2011)
Director: C.S. Amudhan
Tamizh Padam is a laugh riot that takes parodic pot shots at the conventions of commercial Tamil cinema. Nobody (and nothing) is spared in this acerbic take on the bizarre devices that popular films resort to in order to tell bloated, larger-than-life stories.
High points: The courage of director C.S. Amudhan stands out – he takes on the sacred shibboleths of his own industry
Traffic (Malayalam, 2011)
Director: Rajesh Pillai
This innovative thriller is rightly regarded as one of the defining films of the new wave Malayalam cinema. Director Rajesh Pillai constructed multiple strands around a single incident. Traffic is a dynamically crafted and brilliantly plotted film that is at once raw and refined.
High points: A first-rate screenplay, sustained directorial meticulousness and great performances
Vicky Donor (Hindi, 2012)
Director: Shoojit Sircar
The owner of a Delhi fertility clinic is looking for a sperm donor who can turn around the fortunes of the business. His search ends with the eponymous protagonist, but the latter’s relationship with the woman that he loves goes into a tailspin as a result of his new calling.
High points: Director Shoojit Sircar treats an unusual theme with sensitivity and dollops of humour
Vihir (Marathi, 2009)
Director: UmeshVinayak Kulkarni
A deep introspection on friendship, loss and coming to terms with grief, Umesh Kulkarni’s Vihir(The Well) tells the story of two temperamentally different cousins who grapple with the demands of life, family relationships and growing up. Each does so in his own way, leading to unexpected misgivings – and a tragedy.
High points: Subtle and deft directorial style, lush cinematography and effective acting by the young actors
Visaranai (Tamil, 2015)
A searing look at police brutality and the sheer randomness with which the ‘system’ picks up victims and grinds them into submission, Vetrimaaran’sVisaranai is about four Tamil migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh who are hauled up by the police for a robbery they did not commit.
High points: The realistic texture and the eschewal of melodrama enhance the hammer blows