Hindi cinema floundered and sank a lot this year. The spate of shoddy films began early (Ok Jaanu, Kaabil, Raees), settled down for a bit, gathered momentum again (Begum Jaan, Noor), and by the time I saw Sarkar 3, I thought I had seen the worst film of the year – even though eight months of the year were still remaining. But then came Half Girlfriend, Raabta, then topping them all – and by a fair margin – came Jab Harry Met Sejal and Bhoomi. I had a new ‘worst film of the year’ nearly every month from April to September.
But 2017 threw a few surprises too. More than half a dozen promising directors made their debuts. Their films spanned different forms and genres; they told their stories with wonderful assurance and finesse. Bollywood proved to be a disappointment, but the indies gave us hope. Here’s a list of the movies I liked in 2017:
10. Monsoon Shootout: Writer-filmmaker Amit Kumar gives the Hindi neo-noir, long suffering from trite nihilism, a new purpose. His debut, Monsoon Shootout, ponders less on the aftermath of violence and more on its possibility. A crucial scene is filmed thrice where an idealist cop facing a gangster grapples with three options (“good, bad and middle”), resulting in three mini-films examining free will, identity and morality with confidence and impressive clarity. Its inventive structure – also a sly comment on the nature of storytelling – signals a new voice as fascinated with form as with content.
9. An Insignificant Man: A revolution, often a love child of idealism and hope, promises winds of change, an illusion of control. The formation of an alternate political force, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), stirred a similar mood in the country. Filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla followed the rise of that movement for a year, culminating in AAP winning the Delhi Legislative election in December 2013. But their documentary, An Insignificant Man, transcends its premise, capturing a country sloughing off its apathy and foreshadowing the transience of the revolution, a heady romance too intense to last.
8. A Death in the Gunj: A holiday home, drunk conversations, fast-flying banters and New Year celebrations – the family in A Death in the Gunj looks like a happy content bunch. But that cheery façade hides a callous heart, bullying and sidelining a timid member, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), struggling hard to express his discontent or dissent. Extracting stellar performances from a wonderful ensemble, Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is a sharp portrayal of toxic masculinity, unresolved grief and fragile sanity, supplemented by incisive footnotes on class divide. Sen Sharma was always a gifted actor; A Death in the Gunj shows her directorial talents are as polished.
7. Gurgaon: The jungles have disappeared, but the animals have remained, searching shelters, sniffing trails, hunting preys. In Shanker Raman’s thriller, the beasts lurk in plush bungalows, high-rises and nightclubs. Centred on one such family, the Khetris, whose land brought them overnight fortunes, Gurgaon is a disconcerting account of the seductions of new money, its inability to provide contentment or solace, transforming regular strivers into brute cannibals. Evocatively filmed, acutely observed and aided by a brilliant Pankaj Tripathi, Gurgaon explores its namesake in terrifying detail: a city casting light on the glitz, shadows on the skeletons.
6. Tumhari Sulu: Central to most Indian homes, housewives have lacked a voice in mainstream Hindi cinema. They’re treated as accidental details, spectators on the sidelines watching vigorous struggles of their husbands, sons, and, of late, daughters. Amid such indifference, Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu is not just a poignant and funny drama, but also a corrective measure. A talkative striver constantly finding new identities, Vidya Balan’s Sulu is endearing. Her ambitions are simple, her troubles mundane: the sly pressures of a ‘progressive’ husband, a demanding father, interfering sisters. Yet, we watch and listen intently, because desire – no matter how ordinary or subdued – is still desire.
5. Lipstick Under My Burkha: Alankrita Shrivastava’s debut revolves around four women in Bhopal, seeking alternate lives. They belong to different age groups, religions and classes. They also have different wants: choosing a husband, living independently, earning a living, lusting for a young man. Resisting the route to moralise, Shrivastava frees her protagonists, telling their stories with considerable nuance and humour. Even though these women battle severe patriarchal structures, they aren’t feminist symbols. They are simply people – feisty, ambitious, rash and too enchanted with their own stories to let someone else do the writing.
4. Tu Hai Mera Sunday: The world of Tu Hai Mera Sunday is so sincere and pleasant that you crave a slice of it. Sure, it has bruises and warts – there’s discontent, loneliness, grievances — but its people don’t succumb to easy cynicism or apathy, staying determined to fight for their joys, give their lives unique meanings. Milind Dhaimade’s debut tackles disparate themes – accepting the imperfections of family, rejecting the conventional career paths, finding courage to be vulnerable – but never gets burdened with their weight. It is always alert, peering through the din and bustle of Maximum City in search of wonder, beauty and magic.
3. Newton: In the melee of slackers, double-dealers and yes-men, Newton (Rajkummar Rao) is an idealist, a misfit. Sent to conduct elections in Chhattisgarh villages, beset by the armed conflict between the naxals and paramilitary forces, Newton finds himself in a land that renders his perfections imperfect. As Newton struggles in the foreground, the finer details of the background – the efficacy of democracy, slippery slope of idealism, absence of choice – slowly emerge, as Amit Masurkar’s Newton, helmed by two wonderful actors, Rao and Tripathi, elevates itself from a simple political satire to an examination of existential angst and elusive independence.
2. Anaarkali of Aarah: Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) dances on raunchy songs and turns heads. She smokes and swears, flirts and manipulates, enjoys casual sex and attention. But she can’t be coaxed or coerced; Anaarkali won’t dance to anyone’s tunes. Set in Arrah and Delhi, Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah is centered on a sexual assault, but isn’t restrained by it. It is also a film about migrants exploring a megacity, the inner-life of a small-town Bihar, a shy middle-aged man stung by the anxieties of love. Burning with rage, bubbling with humour, confidently carried by a fiery lead (easily the best female performance of the year) and a delectable soundtrack (replete with Bihari folk songs that are as risqué as political), Anaarkali of Aarah is a heartfelt account, an essential jolt and wicked fun.
1. Trapped: Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) is locked inside his house. It is located on the 35th floor of a south Mumbai high-rise, and he’s just moved in. The building has no other occupants. His friends, family or girlfriend don’t know the new address. His cellphone dies, so does electricity; he has no food; the water supply stops. Vikramaditya Motwane takes the bare bones of a survival drama and gives them a new life. As Shaurya struggles to escape – or, for that matter, live – we’re reminded of our own battles: fighting for significance, tussling with apathy, making an impersonal city personal. We, at least on the surface, are not Shauryas. We’re not cutting balcony rails, burning mattresses, eating rats. But we are trapped – in stale relationships, in unfulfilling jobs, in the ennui and confusion of daily life. Our desperations may seem muted because unlike Shaurya, our jails are less obvious.