25 Hindi films in 10 years. Sounds like a tall task. Surprisingly, our Film Companion curators – Anupama Chopra, Baradwaj Rangan, Rahul Desai, Mohini Chaudhuri and Sankhayan Ghosh – readily agreed on a majority of the picks. Well, except Rahul's almost-hunger strike when Tamasha was ignored and Anupama nearly fainting when no Bhansali movie made the cut.
Jokes aside, perhaps the most revealing aspect of this list is that short films and feature-length documentaries accounted for 6 of the 25 entries. These films are stellar examples of Indian storytelling, limiting some very popular Bollywood movies to the Special Mentions category. This only confirms what we suspected: this decade will be remembered as a watershed one, in which Digital well and truly crashed the Theatrical party. And modern Hindi cinema – mainstream, independent, short, documentary – is all the richer.
Almost ten years later, Udaan feels like a cold summer memory. A sensitive boy defied his abusive father to break free. Rohan might have gone on to become a copywriter in Mumbai before plying his poetry for an Anurag Kashyap movie; little Arjun must be in senior college, thankful that stepbrother Rohan undertook an udaan so that he doesn’t have to. Vikramaditya Motwane’s directorial debut remains a piece of storytelling so tender and personal that none of its artists – including the filmmakers – have touched these dizzy heights again. But the faces are still alive, amidst us, quietly occupying their own coming-of-rage sequels.
This film is remembered for many things. One of the best on-screen kisses we have seen till date. Ranveer Singh’s assured debut. A dialectic shift of Yash Raj towards stories housed in bylanes and not bungalows. This is a story of two wedding planners in a professional partnership that frays when love-shove happens. It is a character study of the uncouth Dilli launda, and the ambitious Dilli ladki, both of whom soften over time. Memorable choreography, hilarious one liners, and an earnest depiction of parting and holding, this film is not just about celebration, it is a celebration itself.
You almost cannot believe that this film was made in 2010. For one, the word ‘Sex’ is used in the title. The film is an anthology of three stories linked by a threadbare connection, a rare feat for a film backed by a commercial film production. It is shot using three cameras for the three stories, a steady cam, CCTV footage, and a spy cam that shakes, jostles, blurs and busts. Dibakar Banerjee’s third film, about DDLJ in the time of Sairat, MMS scandals, and sting operations (Sting is King, proclaims a character), is a celebration of the anti-commercial.
Who could have imagined that an interval-less English-language black comedy about diarrhoea, diamonds and Delhi dud(e)s would count amongst the decade’s most definitive ‘Bollywood’ movies? Delhi Belly, a screwballer that catapulted its writer Akshat Verma to overnight fame, remains a glorious oddity. It wasn’t just the ingenious Ram Sampath soundtrack and pitch-perfect reinvention of lazy comic stereotypes. Each side character – especially Vijay Raaz’s hysterically self-serious Somayajulu – deserved a separate film. One hoped this would trigger a shift in Hindi cinema’s stale genre landscape. But nothing changed...which only shows how Delhi Belly might have truly been a once-in-a-generation event. Cue “Saigal Blues”.
Anurag Kashyap's audacious two-part saga, spanning three generations of gangland violence, seamlessly blends blind ambition and family intrigue, vengeance and burning passion. Comparisons to The Godfather are inevitable, particularly the shootout at the end of the first film that's reminiscent of Sonny's tollbooth massacre, but that would be a disservice to Kashyap’s fiercely original voice. This is a film where the Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi introduction sequence explodes into a hailstorm of bullets and a goat noisily nibbles at a tree oblivious to the courtship unfolding in front of it. Sneha Khanwalkar's soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to this bubbling pot of a film, always seconds away from boiling over.
For archivist PK Nair, art became life and so it's only fitting that his life becomes art in Celluloid Man. The documentary is as much about the need to preserve India's rich film legacy as it is about the legacy left behind by the man himself; the many anecdotes from filmmakers he has worked with, students whose lives he has shaped and even his own family who celebrate his passion and work ethic. But look closely and you'll detect an undercurrent of nostalgia. By the end, there's the acknowledgement that there won't ever be another quite like him, and with that, a creeping sadness is felt.
Arguably the finest Hindi film of the decade, The Lunchbox has long transcended its status as India’s lost chance to win a Foreign Language Film Oscar. Tragic credentials aside, urban isolation almost feels aspirational through director Ritesh Batra’s eyes. Everyone is lonely, in need of tiffins, glances and fleeting connections. The Lunchbox has only grown in stature since – because not only is it an incomplete love story in which its own protagonists do the writing, but also because it is an old-school note in the age of Whatsapp forwards. Usually letters combine to form a word; here it’s the words that combine to form letters.
If you dismantle a ship part by part, at what point does the ship, stop being a ship? Anand Gandhi takes this philosophical question and transplants it among humans. The ship is the human, and the parts are our organs. What makes us human, asks Gandhi, as he follows three characters, a blind photographer, a monk who needs to undergo a liver transplant, and a stockbroker who stumbles upon a case of organ theft. Framed to haunt by Pankaj Kumar, this is a film, infused with pop philosophy and surging sadness of generations trying to find meaning.
Why do we believe what we believe? Because someone told us? We heard it on the radio? Read it in the newspaper? How do we know right from wrong? A philosophical quest, this movie, under the watchful and unpretentious gaze of Sanjay Mishra takes us into the gullies of a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone. In the midst of these existential questions is a story of brotherly love, set against the backdrop of an impending marriage. It is chaotic, it is lived-in, it is endearing, but most importantly, it is relevant.
A story of Kanpur’s electricity shortage — and in extension India’s — Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa’s documentary locates the dramatic in the dry by pitting its anti-hero, the electricity thief, Loha Singh, against the level-headed female chief of the electricity company, Ritu Maheshwari. Singh is a charismatic character who is himself in front of the camera even as he 'performs' for it. One of the fascinating elements of the film is how it is able to bring out his vulnerable side, marked by a scene towards the end where he has a breakdown at a local bar.
A solo honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam slowly becomes a journey inwards for Rani Mehra, who discovers who she really is and can be, after a lifetime of unquestioning obedience to others. There's an exquisite freedom to be found in the littlest things - burping in the back of a cab, or dancing like no one's while everyone's watching. Queen painted a portrait of life innately familiar to most middle-class Indian women and told us that there was more to it. All while breaking down stereotypes about sex work, traditional definitions of masculinity and redefining the idea of freedom in disarming and simple-yet-never-simplistic ways. Long live the Rani.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s feature-film debut, written by Varun Grover, elegantly examines the ‘other-ness’ of Varanasi, a high-profile city torn between shaping its identity to tourism and conceding its stories to religion. Perceptive performances – including Vicky Kaushal’s memorable debut – enable us to exist in the quiet bylanes beyond the ritualistic noise. The FIPRESCI winner in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category thrives on juxtaposing the innocence of one narrative (the blooming of inter-caste love) with the loss of innocence in another (a female teacher stigmatized for premarital sex). In the end, it’s difficult to imagine a more affecting portrait of an India that breathes but rarely speaks.
Piku is about a crabby Bengali man who drives his daughter up the wall. Piku is about a woman torn between tolerating her father and loving him. Director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi lend their film a lovely circularity: The road-movie portion, where Piku and Bhaskor Bannerjee are driven to Kolkata by a stranger, may actually be orchestrated by the father so that he can size up a potential partner for his daughter. Like Kapoor & Sons, there’s a sense of ugly familiarity about their togetherness – the resentments and frustrations are so lived-in that Deepika Padukone’s career-best performance seems purely incidental.
A dining table chat from the underrated Ekk Main Aur Ek Tu (2012) indicated how director Shakun Batra understood the social “rhythm” of Indian family spaces. Not just the words and actions, but also the suppressed silences and reactions. This rhythm is amplified into a full film – the wonderfully nervy Kapoor & Sons – where it isn’t so much about dysfunctionality as about everyday functionality. Coonoor’s Kapoors are a modern-day extension of Monsoon Wedding’s Vermas. That we came away appreciating the forced formality of a family portrait speaks volumes about Dharma Productions’ finest film of this decade.
A slow burn that crescendos to a climax that will stay with you, this film follows a family’s week-long vacation in the winter of 1979 in a remote Anglo-Indian town. Greed, lust, domination, fear, and fun put Shutu, played with vulnerable heft by Vikrant Massey, in the eye of the maelstrom. Konkona Sen Sharma’s first film, based on a story her father wrote, is a mood piece, with sepia and silhouettes that frame a family that slowly disintegrates. With scenes that unravel at their own pace, this film almost feels like a meditation that ends with the jolt of a gunshot.
In the land where India’s first moving pictures were born, not far from Mumbai, the traveling tent cinemas of Maharashtra have been thriving for about 70 years. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s documentary follows a “benevolent showman, a shrewd exhibitor and a maverick projector mechanic” in its attempt to capture the world as it stands on the brink of a transition brought about by the arrival of smartphones. The film takes you to places so real yet magical that Mohammed, Bapu and Prakash linger like figures you had met in your dreams.
All Jyoti Kapur Das’ 16-minute short film essentially shows is a West Delhi housewife chatting over pakoras. But Chutney became the most viewed short film on the internet. It is a story about a story – one that turns gossip into a sinister artform and medium of powerplay. Writer-actress Tisca Chopra effortlessly alternates between territorial wife, bitchy neighbourhood aunty and morbid narrator, as she uses words to intimidate her husband’s unassuming young mistress (Rasika Dugal). You can feel the house come alive with secrets in its soil. You can taste the chutney, and not just the tamarind in it. It may just be one scene, but several films lie within.
A government clerk changes his name from Nutan to Newton, only to find his life in free fall once he's assigned to election duty in a Naxal-hit region in Chhattisgarh. Like him, the movie travels to a terrain so far uncharted by Hindi cinema. The result is a sharply observed satire on the state of Indian democracy, government corruption, Maoism and, in one terse scene, even arranged marriages. Situations are mined for their comedic value, but the funnier the scene, the more gnawing the sense of disillusionment once it ends. Two years on, it's as timely as ever.
For a country that thrives on grief being its most animated emotion, there’s a sense of poetry to an animated film turning grief into a lifeless procedural. Somnath Pal’s meditative 10-minute short – about an adult man arranging his late father’s funeral – could have very well been a live-action film like, say, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. But it emulates reality rather than elevating it, not just reinventing our perception of the medium but also training our focus on the apathetic ritualization of death. It’s no surprise then that the humans look created and their surroundings, disturbingly real.
The real triumph of Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s film is how it tells us a story whose broad contours we already know and yet makes it so thrilling. You feel genuine optimism in the infectious early days of the Aam Aadmi Party. You rally behind Arvind Kejriwal, who seems like god’s gift to Indian politics. In the process, a state reveals itself — Delhi, in all its colour, spectacle and activism. An Insignificant Man becomes truly affecting in the way it deals with the disillusionment with this dream captured in the poignant closing shots of Yogendra Yadav’s face at Kejriwal’s oath-taking ceremony.
Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad’s debut feature, Tumbbad, is first a mood, then a moral tale. Beginning in a village haunted by the rain gods, perennially pouring, with Brahmanical mores and a mansion in ruin, the story moves through three generations, the cascading greed flowing from one to the other. With impeccable set designs, some of the most stunningly styled frames by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, and a hypnotic Sohum Shah, Tumbbad is the blending of genres, sometimes horror, sometimes suspense, but always a spectacle.
The story of a blind pianist, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, whose alleged blindness puts him in a falooda of circumstances is in and of itself novel. Add a Shakespearean vamp, played deliciously by Tabu, who renounces her moral compass, an ageing actor who reminisces his fame, blind rabbits, cabbage patches, and a sunflower-like presence of Radhika Apte, and you get Andhadhun. A delicious cocktail of black humour, suspense, and drama, this Sriram Raghavan film will keep you wondering till the very end, and, agonizingly, even after.
Man flips the bird in Rishi Chandna’s charming short documentary. A middle-class Mumbai household struggles with not just the social awkwardness but also the ideological conflict of adopting a pet rooster. The 16-minute film is funny and perceptive in its gaze: The cocky creature terrorizes the cats and struts around the apartment like a boss. Constructed entirely out of wry piece-to-camera interviews and shots of the disruptive bird, Tungrus works best as a quirky study of multi-generational family dynamics. And it teases with answers to that age-old question: Who came first? The chicken or the humans that eat it?
Ivan Iyr’s ‘North Indian cop’ movie resists being a movie. All we see is a sub-inspector and superintendent going about their job by day and blending into their home by night. There is no “plot” as such. Because Soni understands that being a female cop in Delhi is, in itself, an incredible story. Every scene becomes a short film. Every moment featuring the two women – played by terrific actors – doing what is considered a “man’s job” is hence magnified in its depiction of casual sexism and suppressed womanhood. They just exist, and yet deliver a loud truth: A uniform isn’t always enough to guarantee uniformity.
A love for rap helps Murad (Ranveer Singh) find his own groove in Gully Boy. Music is a defence mechanism meant to block out the outside world, the thrum of a guitar at a college fest, the metallic scrape of the ruler used to jack cars, the soundtrack to a blossoming friendship, the ticket to a better life. The film goes beyond the 8 Mile template to give us an origin story, a searing social commentary on life on the margins and a nuanced take on the universal emotion of desire, set in a Mumbai that's never looked more distinctive and yet so familiar.