Ranking films is not easy. It is also invariably unfair. How do you, for instance, stack up a thriller against a comedy — two vastly different films that define success and failures on their own terms? Which is the why following list, comprising of 2015’s best films, is less about pitting one movie against the other, and more about recommending the finest films of the year, finding out what worked for Indian cinema, and why. From lavish mainstream spectacle to ambitious, heartfelt indies, 2015 in films was quite eventful, and had much to offer. And as with any other list, this one too is highly subjective and personal. The list of year’s best, ranked in ascending order, runs below:
10. Bajrangi Bhaijaan: You don’t expect a Salman Khan movie to even come close to a list featuring the best films of the year, let alone figure in it. But Bajrangi Bhaijaan was different, for it told us that masala movies, featuring one of the most bankable stars of Bollywood, need not be lazy or smug, need not take its audience for granted, need not dumb down its storytelling techniques. Directed by Kabir Khan, Bajrangi Bhaijaan stripped Salman of his star power and transformed him into a character, one who was serving the story and not his core audience; the writing here, too, was much assured, replete with intelligent foreshadowing that earned the film its various difficult plot transitions. But what was even more significant? That Bajrangi Bhaijaan achieved all this without sacrificing its commercial appeal (it was the biggest box office hit of the year, earning more than Rs 300 crore from Indian theatres). If the merits and success of this film can’t wake up mainstream Bollywood filmmakers from their unending stupor, then perhaps nothing will.
9. Piku: Wanting to live with one’s parents, and actually living with them are two markedly different realities, because the people we adore and admire often take us for granted — sometimes too much and too often. Piku understood, and showed, this facet of urban life quite well. Revolving around a crabby old father and his easily angered daughter, Piku expertly lay bare the joys and oddities of a Bengali upper-middle class family, which considered nothing out of bounds, among other things, discussing bowel movements in detail on dining table. If the humour in Piku was populist and accessible (although not unreal), then its sadness, in contrast, was latent, always present but hardly visible.
8. Talvar: Taking leads from the 2008 Noida double murder case (of a 14-year-old girl and a domestic help), Talvar dug its claws deep into the venality and callousness of the state’s cops and country’s foremost investigative police agency. Here, the sensational grisly murders were seen through three conflicting points of view, producing different interpretations and outcomes, aided by differences of class. Talvar was also a deeply personal film, reflecting the stand taken by its makers on a case that had been in public eye for long — something Bollywood isn’t known for. Vishal Bhardwaj’s writing — sharp, acerbic, and darkly funny — was the film’s hallmark, and so was its leading man, Irrfan Khan, who proved with yet another outing that he could do no wrong.
7. Baahubali: There’s so much that doesn’t work in Baahubali, especially in the first half — clunky dialogues; sloppy CG; an awkward, and mildly troubling, song sequence — but when the film comes into its own in the second half, there’s simply no stopping its brute force and visual imagination. Indian films barely do the sweeping war epics — hardly run the long races — this well, but Baahubali was absolutely committed to its scope and scale, reveling in its singular energy and madness that had gone missing from Indian screens for a long, long time.
6. Masaan: We are walking in a strange, confounding fashion, suggested Masaan, taking two steps forward and three steps back. We are liberated — through our Facebook accounts and smartphones — and yet chained, through regressive notions of caste and class. Unfolding via three separate and occasionally intersecting stories, Masaan was about modest dreams struggling to escape a small town, guilt compounding grief, shame of the past threatening to override the future. But beneath its many layers of gloom and despair lay an earnest thread of hope, underlining the fact that the power of refashioning our own narratives is not beyond us.
5. Titli: “Aap suar ho (you are a pig),” says the eponymous Titli to his father in the film’s closing segment, then slams his grandfather’s framed photo on the table, and walks out of the house. This small but fascinating scene in Titli plays out like a mini-movie in itself, encapsulating the motifs of this morbid and darkly funny drama, where brothers are murderers, the family house is a jail, and depravity is loose change. But Titli’s willingness to look beyond its coming-of-age narrative, and, instead, analyse the origins of oppression was most remarkable, making it a complex and suffocating film that refused to offer a shred of respite.
4. Killa: The Marathi movie Killa nailed a specific and significant facet of childhood: it’s not just a period of frivolity and innocence — that children, much like adults, also grapple with intense loneliness, alienation, and insecurities; and their lack of eloquence and comprehension only complicate their troubles. Atmospheric and contemplative, achieving much by doing so little, Killa brought the sound of silence back to theatres and weaved an extremely affective tale of growing up that was more somber than it was willing to admit.
3. NH10: By juxtaposing the inhabitants of two ‘Indias’ — Gurgaon and an impoverished settlement on its outskirts — and making them embroiled in a violent tussle, NH10 offered a disturbing account of a schizophrenic society, threatening to implode. This film, clocking a runtime of just 107 minutes, touched upon a plenty of disconcerting scenarios that are, quite unfortunately, still relevant: the way the society treats women, handles dissent, and looks at migrants. But even beyond its thematic underpinnings, NH10 worked as a riveting genre piece — a racy, chilling thriller — that was immensely satisfying even if you chose to look away from its darker, disturbing truths.
2. Court: The visual language of the multilingual drama Court — steady camera framing its subjects in long takes (reminiscent of Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami’s movies) — makes this film a little too life-like, makes you feel like a voyeur: one who’s seemingly close to this world but can’t effect a change. Most principal characters of this film — fighting for or awaiting justice — are as helpless, who can only hope that justice will be served. But, as this film masterfully suggests, justice — a theoretical concept — is realized by ordinary people (lawyers, judges) who are often caught up in their own battles, in their own lives. Court was about a fair idea getting lost in the crowd of people who are unfair to themselves (and to the people around them). If most things Indian aren’t truly international, it’s because they emerge from a mindscape that isn’t ambitious, that is too shortsighted, that gets satisfied too easily. But Court was one rare achievement that kept pushing its boundaries, kept teasing its different strands out, resulting in a movie that’s set a new benchmark for contemporary Indian cinema.
1. Kaaka Muttai: How much joy and heartbreak can a pizza, priced at Rs 300, bring to anyone’s lives? A lot, if you ask the leads of the Tamil movie Kaaka Muttai, two pre-teen kids, living in a Chennai slum, who do everything possible to procure that princely sum: selling stolen coal, distributing pamphlets that proclaim to cure impotency, convincing passersby to buy a street puppy for Rs 25,000. The world of Kaaka Muttai is beautiful — one that you hope exists somewhere — where joy, despite the unending gloom, is just around the corner, to be found in small things; sorrow is almost always tempered by humour; and hope is not in short supply. Deftly directed and photographed by debutant filmmaker M. Manikandan, Kaaka Muttai implied that it is easy to be cynical, it is even easier to be mirthless, what’s much more difficult is, finding genuine joy, at times for the flimsiest of reasons, amidst acute suffering.