As I sit down surrounded by the winter chill for my annual letter to The Wire about my favourite Indian films of the year, what strikes me most is how little did cinema – still surely the most popular and influential of the arts in India – reflect on the tumult that sweeps the country.
When we will look back on cinema in 2022 years later, it is this silence of cinema when its voice was most needed that we will remember. If this silence is born from fear, or indifference, or complicity in the command projects of hate and unfreedoms, it is hard to say.
The year that we leave behind was one that was deeply troubled for the Indian people. It was marked by feverish stirrings of the already overheated politics of hate, in which noxious hate speech and the outrage of “bulldozer justice” were its paramount markers. 2022 also witnessed mutely the further crushing of our freedoms, with some of the country’s most idealistic hearts and minds continuing to be locked behind prison walls with no hope of even a trial commencing; the further erosion of independent media and intimidation of the few that still struggle to survive; and the targeting with charges of grave crimes of citizen dissenters, journalists of integrity and opposition politicians.
But all of these were mostly absent from the big screen.
The one fracture which a few films did focus on was of spectacularly vulgar, ever-widening inequality. Unimaginable levels of wealth accumulation of a tiny number combine with the desperate impoverishment and want of millions. For this reason, on the top of my list of worthy films of the past year is the barely noticed and massively underrated debut film of M. Gani, Matto ki Saikil.
Matto is a Dalit middle-aged casual construction worker (played with masterly empathy and authenticity by Prakash Jha). His lone significant property is a ramshackle, 20-years old bicycle that improbably carries him to the construction site in the city in which he sometimes finds work at dirt wages.
The only time the state intervenes in his life is when officials driving into the village at dawn in white cars chase him with a stick for defecating in open fields. For the rest, he cannot depend on official support when his wife falls ill; or to help educate his two daughters; or to secure his rights to decent work, fair wages and social security; or even when he is attacked and robbed.
Abjuring both sentimentality and melodrama, the deliberately low-key narrative builds a devastating and deeply affecting commentary on the dead-end hopelessness of poverty of millions of casual workers in the country, and the profoundly culpable failure of the state to help build a better life for millions of its distraughtly poor people.
Jhund literally means the “mob”. Located in a Nagpur slum, the film is inspired by the true story of Vijay Barse, a retired sports teacher, who adopted a ragtag bunch of slum youth and wielded them into an energetic football team. The film tracks how just gathering each evening for practice for this team sport helps the young people – the ones who are dismissed by their more privileged neighbours as a “mob” – struggle to steer their lives away from crime, drugs and violent rage.
In this way, the film offers hope in a manner that Matto ki Saikil never could. Jhund works most because Manjule sources real faces, many from slums, and they emerge as cheeky, plucky, ravaged but never pitiable or crushed. In a sequence that I found most affecting in the film, the young people talk about their lives to their teacher and other team members. When a teenager (whose spiked hair is dyed golden) reflects almost in wonder, “No one has ever been interested in my life”, I confess to have teared up. This film does not rise to the heights of Manjule’s earlier Fandry, but it still qualifies for this list because Manjule is genuinely interested in the lives of those people who for most of us don’t matter.
And then we have Pa Ranjith’s vibrant, visually and thematically explosive Natchathiram Nagargiradhu.
For this, Pa Ranjith adopts his own idiom of storytelling, a heady amalgam of theatre, documentary, dance and song. At one level, it is a rumination on “honour killings”, the peculiarly South Asian social monstrosity of parents who brutally take the lives of their own children when they contravene the boundaries of caste and religion in choosing their life partners.
But at another level it is both an exploration as well as a celebration of transgressive love itself: of love that defies the frontiers established by dominant cultural mores, the borderlines of caste, faith, class, age and sexuality.
The one mainstream Hindi film in my list is Harshavardhan Kulkarni’s Badhai Do, which manages to be funny, sad and tender at the same time.
In a small town in Uttarakhand, a gay police officer and a lesbian physical education teacher decide to marry to escape the pressures of their respective families to submit to a conventional arranged marriage. The film manages to portray both prejudice and resistance without judgment or stereotyping, and with unusual compassion.
I found particularly affecting the closing passages of the film, in which the police officer -played with rare empathy and insight by our finest young actor Rajkumar Rao – first comes out to his family, and then to his colleagues in the police force. He is policing with other policepersons a pride parade that is marching, dancing through the streets of the town. The police officer hesitates, then wears the mask that is the marker of the proudly gay, even as his colleagues watch bemusedly. It is an act of courage, resistance and honesty that lifts the film.
The two other films that make it into my inventory of the best films of 2022 are interestingly films about the love for cinema.
In one of these, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) Anik Datta is brave enough to recreate the making of a much-loved masterpiece by the greatest master of Indian cinema Satyajit Ray. Pather Panchali, is, even today an essential part of almost every major list of the greatest films ever made. Datta recalls the many obstacles that the handsome talented book illustrator and advertiser overcame to make this, his first film. Called upon to illustrate the cover of a children’s version of the classic novel, he decides to make a film based on the novel.
The film describes – with barely disguised names – how Ray gathers together a set of amateur actors and technicians for the film, including a young Ravi Shankar for the music, finds the village location, sketches each frame of the film, and musters the resources to complete the film at a fraction of what any mainstream film would have cost. Ray’s wife pawns her jewellery, and the Chief Minister takes money from the budget of the Public Works Department to partially fund the film, because its title is ‘the song of the road!’
Ray’s wife speaks later aptly of the universe conspiring to make sure the film was made (and with it, history). Anik Datta’s film is meticulously researched, respectful but not hagiographic. The period of the 1950s is authentically recreated, as is Ray’s astonishing range of talents. It helps that Jeetu Kamal bears a stunning resemblance to Ray.
Aparjito is sure-footed and compelling, and for someone like me who rates Pather Panchali right on top among his favourite films, it is a radiant tribute.
Bringing up the rear of my list of the best Indian films of 2022 is India’s official entry to the Oscars, the small but enchanting Gujarati film Chhello Show (‘last film show’).
Building on childhood memories of the director Pan Nalin, it narrates the captivating story of a young boy in a remote village in Saurashtra discovering the magic and enchantment of the moving image called cinema. His father, a tea-seller on a wayside train station, often chases his son with a stick when he plays truant from his village school which bores him. The boy steals money from his father’s earnings to run away from school to secretly watch films. A friendship with the projector man helps him learn about the mysterious play of light that makes cinema possible. With his friends and some stolen film reels he establishes a makeshift projection room inside an abandoned ruin in the village.
As the film progresses, the boy’s heart breaks as he witnesses the end of one more chapter in the history of cinema: the transition from celluloid to digital film, and the demolition of the low-cost single-plex cinema hall. The boy’s parents finally accept his ambition to become a film-maker and they pool their savings to send him to the big city to study, the first step in his chosen journey. This small film is an enchanting ode to not just cinema, but to childhood and to chasing one’s dreams.
Films that did not make it
And here are four films that could have made it to my list, but fell behind due to some outsize flaws. Three films that missed my list are all exquisitely filmed, each frame like a painting with their chosen colour palettes.
Two of these are Anvita Dutt’s Qala and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue. But even as you find yourself mesmerised by the staggering visual beauty of the films, you find it hard to empathise with the characters – a successful singer in the 1930s who pines for her mother’s encouragement in Qala, and two siblings, a young man and woman, who fall in love with the same mysterious paying guest in Cobalt Blue. The performances soar, with Tripti Dimri and Neeley Mehendale standing out respectively in the two films. But both films have a coldness in their core. Behind the flawless visuals and colours, and the masterfully constructed atmosphere of time and place, you are left longing to know the characters better, and to care for them more.
On the other hand, Sanjay Leela Bansali’s visually alluring Gangubai Kathiawadi has significant emotional heft, and is the finest in Bansali’s extravagant and indulgent filmography. The film’s strengths are in its depiction of Ganga, the young woman forced into prostitution in a Bombay brothel in Kamathipura, feistily fighting back to emerge as a powerful brothel owner and a mafia queen, and in Alia Bhatt’s commanding portrayal. However, Bansali airbrushes entirely the grime and indignity of forced brothel-based sex-work, and also the brutally violent moral inversions of the mafia.
The first half of the film recreates powerfully the terrifying days of the 1984 Sikh massacre after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Trilokpuri in East Delhi. It hinges on the mission of two friends – a Hindu police officer and a Muslim truck owner – to rescue their Sikh friend, his family and their neighbours. In a moment of haunting sadness, the Sikh man weeps as he cuts his hair to disguise himself as his Hindu friend watches.
But all of this build-up is frittered away when the animosity of the policeperson who hunts them down is explained away trivially as revenge over a soured love affair. The profound ethical and political failure of those days, that would haunt the nation for decades – and even more relevant to the times that we are passing through – is erased and the considerable moral promise of the film squandered.
In normal times, 2022 would have rated as a passable year for Indian cinema. But in the fraught times that the Indian republic is passing through, it is a year when Indian cinema turned away from storytelling that defends and celebrates justice, equality, freedom and kindness. It is a year when India’s most popular and powerful art form chose once again to betray its soul.