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Of Death, Oppression and Resistance: My List of Best Indian Films of 2021

Unsurprisingly, many of the best films of the year were meditations about death and loss, but also about inequality, oppression and resistance.

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The year that we leave behind us was, in many ways, more calamitous than what most of us would have witnessed in a lifetime. It was a year in which death and dread ravaged virtually every home and workplace; in which people choked without oxygen outside or in hospitals; a year of triumphal mutating viruses and lonely deaths; one when cremation pyres lined sidewalks, anonymous bodies were thrown into shallow mass graves, and corpses were floated in rivers. It was also a toxic year marking the further rise of the incendiary politics hate. It was a year of ever-mounting suppression of free voices. But it was also the year of the historic victory of farmers, of ordinary people fighting with courage and solidarity against the hubris of the state.

It is not surprising, then, that many of the best films of the year were meditations about death and loss, but also about inequality, oppression and resistance. For the greater part of the year, cinema theatres remained shuttered. Most people, including I, turned to our television screens for a second year running, for the nourishment of cinema.

Jai Bhim

In many ways, the choice of the film of the year is not difficult. T.J. Gnanavel’s Tamil film Jai Bhim quickly rose to become an instant classic, despite some obvious flaws. Based on a real-life incident in 1993, it shines for speaking what few Indian films have had the courage to speak; it was a rare, unflinching portrayal of caste and tribe oppression, and of police lawless and casteist cruelty. A community of Irular tribal people survive in desperate poverty, making a living catching rats and snakes, or by labouring in farms and brick kilns. There is an endearing dignity in the portrayal of the community in the early sequences of the film; an Irular man Rajakennu insists on setting free into the jungles a poisonous snake he catches in a rich man’s home, declaring that the snake too has the right to live; or he speaks of his dreams with his wife for a better life. But after he is falsely charged with robbery, life tumbles downhill terrifyingly for him, his pregnant wife Sengeni, and many others in his community. They are rounded up, beaten and tortured mercilessly, until Rajakennu and two other men disappear one night from the police station. The police claim that they fled from custody.

The rest of the film is preoccupied with the battle of Sengeni, with the help of an idealistic human rights Marxist lawyer K. Chandru, to prove that the policemen brutally tortured the three men, and killed Rajakennu. They triumph at the end, with the policemen being charged with murder. This is all the more stirring because this actually happened. Chandru went on the become a high court judge famed for his social conscience.

I have some quibbles with the film, for its too-graphic enactments of police torture and violence, its high-decibel drama, and the sometimes two-dimensional division of all characters into victims, perpetrators and hero-rescuers. The few Indian films about oppressed communities made over the years tend to hold the narrative arc-light primarily on a middle-class protagonist as the rescuer – whether as lawyer, activist or policeperson – while the oppressed people emerge mainly in the shadows as helpless victims, without agency or their independent capacity for resistance. Jai Bhim risks the same trap, except that lawyer Chandru has a winning humanity, and he declares at the end that he is rescuing himself, by rescuing his conscience. But I wish we got to know better the true heroine of the story, the pregnant widow Sengeni. Still, this is a searing, brave and impassioned portrayal of what is most culpable and disgraceful in our social order.

Eeb Allay Ooo!

The other film on the top of my list this year is much lesser known, lesser watched and under-rated: the debut film of Prateek Vats Eeb Allay Ooo!. Released in theatres in December 2020, it was available mainly online this year. This quietly immersive and affecting portrayal of the life of migrants – always precarious, exploited, undignified and resilient – continues to return to me many months after I watched it, and I would include it in any list I draw up of the best films not just of the year but even of the decade.

After the first brutal lockdown in 2020, millions of migrants spilled on to highways across the country, staking their lives walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. Middle-class residents of cities were amazed at their sheer numbers: for them the people who build and work the cities are most invisible. Prateek Vats makes them visible: his way of noticing is compassionate, curious and respectful.

Also read: Top 10 Indian Movies Released on OTT Platforms in 2021

The protagonist, a fresh migrant from Bihar to Delhi, desperate for any employment, takes up work at dirt wages to frighten monkeys that have become a menace in the highest offices in the national capital. Earlier, the monkeys used to be frightened away by black-faced langurs. But animal rights activists forced the banning of the use of langurs, and the task fell instead to human workers. Overcoming his initial fear of the monkeys, this is work that the protagonist still finds humiliating, exasperating and daunting.  But he is desperate to hold on to this employment because he can find no other, and the film tracks his journey in the city – and of his brother-in-law, a reluctant security guard, his sister and a woman he loves – until he is sacked. If there is one film you watch this year-end, it should be this one. Few can match it for empathy, and for moral clarity.

Coming to terms with death

Among the films that meditate in different ways on coming to terms with death, I liked most Sumitra Bhave’s film Dithee (literally Seeing). This gentle and lyrical Marathi film traces one night in the life of a village ironsmith, unable to overcome his grief at losing his grown son in an accident. He rejects his son’s widow and baby, and rages also against God. But he is healed that rainy night with the love of his friends, their worship together, and by helping save the life of a neighbour’s cow and calf who would otherwise have died with a difficult childbirth.

There were also two different films about the days of mourning ritually prescribed for Hindus after a death, when traditionally the entire joint family gathers to mourn together. Coincidentally both these films were shot in the same house. In one, Pagglait, directed by Umesh Bist, the grown son of the family dies five months after his arranged marriage. His young widow is unable to feel any grief for her dead husband; they had not built a bond between themselves. Younger cousins and friends form a protective collective around her, even as the elders are dismayed by her want of display of public mourning.  There are further misgivings when they discover that her husband had left his insurance money entirely to her and not his parents. They try unsuccessfully to trick her out of her insurance. In a film that is funny and endearing, the director clearly roots for the young widow.

In the other equally accomplished film on mourning after death, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, written and directed by noted actor Seema Pahwa, the widow is much older. She too watches bemused as her children and their spouses are preoccupied by who will among them inherit the house, greedy but reluctant because this inheritance would mean also accepting responsibility for the care of their mother into her old age. In this film, also a penetrating portrayal of underlying tensions and rivalries in a joint family, like in Pagglait, the widow again opts to build her own life, this time in a music school independent of any of her children.

Exploring the Indian family

Three other films in my list also explore the dynamics of the Indian family, but not in the context of a death in the family. A harrowing indictment of the casual, normalised patriarchy of many Indian families is the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen, written and directed by Jeo Baby. A trained dancer, educated in Bahrain, is married into a Kerala family, one in which her father-in-law and husband feel convinced that she should do nothing else but devote her entire days to cooking, cleaning and washing. She tries her best to adjust to their expectations from her, but in the end, the drudgery and their cold indifference to her feelings and aspirations lead her too to rebel.

#Home, also in Malayalam, directed by Rojin Thomas, is lighter in touch, but reflects on transformations in contemporary Indian middle-class homes. The focus in this film is on a father, unassuming to a fault, and often bumbling, but gentle and considerate. His grown son, an aspiring film writer, is ashamed of him; his teenaged son only uses him; and his wife, a retired nurse, only sometimes sees his worth. There are tracks I think the film would have been better-off without, such as of a yoga psychotherapist, and a somewhat fantastical childhood backstory of their father’s one act of courage and kindness as a child. The film traces the journeys of the two sons as they learn over time to respect and value the qualities of their father. I wish they had done this for his intrinsic worth, and not for the unlikely story of one act of childhood heroism.

A stark film, P. S. Vinothraj’s Tamil film Pebbles (which was India’s official entry for the 2022 Academy Awards), covers one day in the life of an alcoholic and abusive father, and his small son. The man pulls his son out of his classroom to take him to his wife’s village, to where she had gone after he was particularly violent with him; he wanted to use the boy to persuade her to come back. In the village, they find she had already returned home. The man vows to thrash her to death when they get back. The boy does everything to delay this journey home, beginning with tearing up the only currency notes they had to pay for the bus tickets. So, they are left with no option except to trudge through hot and arid countryside. With this misleadingly slight story, the film is luminous for its observation of the innovative resistance the little boy displays to his father’s violence, and for his protectiveness to his younger sister and mother.

Sardar Udham

One film that scores high for its sheer sweep as cinema, politics and history is Shoojit Sarkar’s Sardar Udham.  It is hard to forget its harrowing portrait of a teenaged orphan trying desperately to save as many lives as he can from among the dead and wounded, riddled with bullets piled one upon the other, the night after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. In 1919 in Amritsar, General R.E.H. Dyer ordered soldiers to fire without warning on an unarmed assembly protesting peacefully within an enclosed courtyard after blocking its single exit. Estimates of the numbers of women, children and men who were killed ranges from 350 to 1,200.

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The film tracks the life of the teenaged orphan, Udham Singh, as he grows into adulthood, haunted by the memories of the massacre. He becomes obsessed with the resolve to avenge the massacre by killing the Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, then retired in London, who had ordered and publicly frequently defended the slaughter. This magnificently crafted film follows the journey of Udham Singh, his growth as a communist revolutionary, his lonely years in London in the 1930s, his assassination of O’Dwyer, his interrogation and torture that followed, and the trial that led him to the gallows. I don’t believe in the path of violent revolution. But this film powerfully spells out the egalitarian and humanist core of the politics of  revolutionaries for India’s freedom like Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh.

Some of the most memorable moments in the film is of the depictions of his friend Bhagat Singh, and of the political education of the two young men. “We are not terrorists, we are revolutionaries,” they would often repeat. “We are humanists; we don’t support violence except as symbolic acts of resistance against unjust power. We don’t hate the British people, we only hate colonialism.” And in a lesson for our times today, “A true revolutionary can never harbour communal, caste or class prejudices.” During his torture, when Udham is asked to reveal his name, after many days of stubborn silence, he finally answers – Ram Mohammad Singh Azad!

Grahan

I complete my list of ten for the year with not a film but a television series, Ranjan Chandel’s Grahan. It is remarkable that there have been too few films, especially those constructed around a humanist core, about the most traumatic events in India’s recent history – the Partition riots, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, many communal pogroms that targeted India’s Muslim minorities, numerous attacks on Dalits, the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre, the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Kashmir uprising and repression, many terror attacks, the 2007-07 anti-Christian Kandhamal massacre, the NRC project of manufacturing statelessness in Assam, and lynching.

With outstanding performances by Pawan Malhotra and Zoya Hussain, Grahan stands out for its revisit to the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre in the industrial city of Bokaro in ways that are both its courageous and humane. A young police officer in contemporary times is charged with reopening investigations into the events in the city in 1984. Her world crumbles when through her investigations she discovers that her father was part of the mobs that attacked Sikh families decades ago. As secrets tumble out, she learns invaluable lessons, about hate, about culpability and in the end about atonement.

Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.