2021 BestIndian Films

It’s been a trying year for the film industry but a pretty good one for film lovers. With streaming firmly cementing its position in our lives, we got easy access to films across Indian languages. The team at Film Companion has compiled a list of their 15 favourite films of the year. We’ve only considered movies that released theatrically or on streaming.

Sarpatta Parambarai 

Director: Pa. Ranjith

It should be no surprise that Tamil cinema’s finest contemporary filmmaker, Pa Ranjith, delivers a stunningly intricate piece of work in Sarpatta Parambarai. He packs it with little delights, which lend themselves to multiple pleasurable viewings. Writer Tamizh Prabha creates a layered drama effortlessly touching on class, caste, gender and political underpinnings of what could have been a simplistic story of a struggling boxer. While Arya is adequate, Pasupathy, John Vijay, Shabeer Kallarakkal, Dushara Vijayan, Anupama Kumar give stellar performances, elevating the film. Murali G is patient and non-intrusive with his cinematography. RK Selva’s editing is thoughtful. Stunt choreographers Anbariv make art. A completely in-control Pa Ranjith brings all this together into a wholesome film — his best yet.

Geeli Pucchi

Director: Neeraj Ghaywan 

Geeli Pucchi means wet kiss. Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film is about the hesitant relationship between two women in a small town in North India. Bharti Mandal, who is female, Dalit and gay. Which means she is marginalized three times over. And Priya Sharma, an upper-caste, more affluent married woman. Neeraj and writer Sumit Saxena create a layered story which keeps twisting with exquisite subtlety. And Konkona Sen Sharma as Bharti delivers the performance of the year. The superb use of a steel mug encapsulates the complex emotions embedded in the story – loneliness, desire, resentment and revenge. Geeli Pucchi is terrific storytelling.

The Disciple 

Director: Chaitanya Tamhane

You don’t need to know Hindustani classical music to appreciate Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple. But you do need to submit to Tamhane’s challenging poetry – the immersive sound design, the studied frames and Aditya Modak’s melancholic performance. Aditya, a musician who makes his acting debut as Sharad, transforms externally and internally, as we watch. It’s astounding.

The Disciple came to us on Netflix after winning accolades around the world – it was the first film from India to be selected in the main competition of a European film festival in almost 20 years. It debuted at the prestigious Venice Film Festival where it bagged the Best Screenplay award and the FIPRESCI award, given by international film critics.

Abhishek Chaubey’s short from Ankahi Kahaniyaan

The overarching theme of Ankahi Kahaniya is love and longing in Mumbai. Madhyantara focuses on the fledgling relationship between Manjari and Nandu. Manjari lives in a chawl and earns a little money with her embroidery skills. She spends this on movie tickets at a ramshackle single screen near her home. This is where Nandu works as a projectionist, cleaner, canteen worker and all-around caretaker. 

Madhyantara is a meditative film and Chaubey wisely refuses to make things obvious. He merely alludes to why what happens, happens. This film does what the best shorts do – squeeze meaning into every dramatic beat and dialogue so that in half an hour, you undertake an entire journey.

The Great Indian Kitchen 

Director: Jeo Baby

The Great Indian Kitchen is a penetrating portrait of the life that too many women in this country lead. Writer-director Jeo Baby creates a scathing critique that isn’t propelled by high drama or a thick plot. Nothing major happens. The reason this film hits so hard is that he finds the horror in the ordinary – the way in which women toil incessantly, almost like prisoners trapped in front of the sink and the stove, how men take their labor for granted, offering neither help nor appreciation, the drudgery of their daily lives and the slow stifling of their individuality and their dreams. If nothing else, this film will make you appreciate all the mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, who continue to toil away, unsung and unpaid.

Sardar Udham

Director: Shoojit Sircar

The last forty minutes or so of Sardar Udham counts as the finest filmmaking in the country in years. Director Shoojit Sircar and actor Vicky Kaushal wholly immerse us into the violence of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. We see open wounds, a severed hand, children dead and bleeding. Udham trips on bodies and bullet shells and cries into the night: Koi zinda hai.  It is the heart of darkness rendered with such precision and skill that it renders you speechless.  The film is a dramatized telling of the life of a man about whom little is known except that in 1940, he assassinated Sir Michael O’ Dwyer who was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh genocide. Despite long stretches that are inert, the film lands a punch to the gut.  And the world building – DOP Avik Mukhopadhyay, production designer Mansi Dhruv Mehta and international production designer – Dmitrii Malich – is immaculate.  The film also shows us what genuine patriotism looks like.

Malik

Director: Mahesh Narayanan 

Fahadh Faasil’s second tragedy of the year reinterprets Godfather in interesting ways but it lasts for so long in our heads because it is a character study of a man who lost everything in his efforts to help his community. The mood is always somber and it’s rarely treated as a story of triumph. It’s impossible to remain an observer here because Malik expects us to be an executioner, constantly asking us to decide if Allika is a nallavar or a kettavar.

Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana

Director: Raj B Shetty

Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is directed by Raj B. Shetty who earlier made the wonderful Ondu Motteya Kathe. In that film, he proved that he was a wonderful writer and actor as well. He took a rom-com situation and made it an anti-rom-com with a strain of sadness. In this film, he takes a time tested cops vs criminal story and finds new dimensions and newer ways to express it. In other words, he proves that he is a genuine filmmaker as well as a very good director. Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a deliberately paced film. The emotions build slowly, almost invisibly. The second half is where all hell breaks loose and even here, the violence builds slowly, almost invisibly.

Kala

Director: Rohith VS

If Lijo Jose Pellisery is the most fascinating Malayalam director, Rohith VS is perhaps the most baffling. Each of films comes from a brain that looks at the world and cinema differently, and with Kalahe’s created poetry out of violence. “Who is civilised?” asks this gem, giving us a moody masterpiece where the “hero” turns into the villain and vice versa. The shot of a man reclaiming his rightful throne (it’s a toilet seat) is among the most striking visuals, just like that shot of a cactus tearing into Tovino’s back.

Nayattu

Director: Martin Prakkat

Nayattu is a chilling film about the machinations of the system. The title means ‘The Hunt’ in Malayalam. Here the hunters are police officers but the fugitives are also police officers. Writer Shahi Kabir and director Martin Prakkat construct a taut and tense thriller, which reveals the rot at the heart of our democracy. It’s a jungle and each person in the hierarchy casually condemns the one lower. Justice is a joke. Caste is weaponised in the struggle for power. The only thing that matters is perception and winning. This isn’t new information. What makes Nayattu brilliant is the way Prakkat reworks it.

Aarykkariyam

Director: Sanu John Varughese

Aarkkariyam rides on the shoulders of its three excellent actors – Biju Menon as Ittyavira, Parvathy Thiruvothu as Shirley and Sharafudheen as Roy. None of them have big, actorly moments here. They are simply being. But watch how they change imperceptibly through the course of the film. Watch also how Varghese builds an atmosphere of dread so that ordinary spaces in their house become ominous. And how he uses Sanjay Divecha’s background score, dominated by an acoustic guitar, to layer the story. Sanu is a celebrated cinematographer who has shot films such as Badhaai HoLootcase and the blockbuster Jersey, featuring Nani. As a director his taste is more minimalist. He builds little moments that stay with you.

Drishyam 2 

Director: Jeethu Joseph 

Jeethu Joseph is a superior writer when he enters the Drishyam universe and you feel this the second the sequel begins. It is not even close to the film we expected from the underwhelming trailer, with an almost philosophical approach to what’s going on in Georgekutty’s mind. A criminal who committed a crime on the same night as the family has even completed his sentence. But for George, the punishment will never end, giving us a complex study about the mind’s decay, good intentions notwithstanding.

Doctor 

Director: Nelson

The biggest surprise of 2021 is watching Sivakarthikeyan resist the temptation to mouth scathing comebacks. In Doctor, Nelson achieves exactly that. As a fan of the director’s previous outing Kolamavu Kokila featuring a fantastic Nayanthara and Saranya Ponvannan, I had high expectations of Doctor. It delivered all that and then some.

Nelson takes the same theme — don’t underestimate a family in dire straits — but mounts it on a larger, more ambitious canvas. He makes it more mainstream without losing the quirkiness of his cinema; the metro fight scene exemplary of this. He makes the jokes more accessible, an upgraded edition for the Lollu Sabha-loving audience. And, as a bonus, he has a healthy and charming disregard for the family unit.

Minnal Murali

Director: Basil Joseph

Basil Joseph, the director of Kunjiramayanam and Godha, was not bullshitting when he explained his vision for Minnal Murali as a film that worked independently, even without the superhero angle. The writing is layered and mature and it rarely needs the crutch of a superpower to stay with the viewer because it is, beneath the dazzle, a film about love and family. Like a well-made Pixar movie, it makes you feel like a child again without ever taking this child for granted. Even with our tired eyes bludgeoned by the bi-weekly CGI-fest, it gets you to fish out a word that was once a big part of our movie-watching. I think that word was ‘wonder.’

Writer 

Director: Franklin Jacob

Throughout Franklin Jacob’s Writer, Thangaraj (Samuthirakani) keeps insisting that his new trainee should be a “makkala nesikkara kaavalan” (protector who loves his people) — sentiment that Franklin weaves into the film with surprising empathy and laser-sharp objectivity. With the piercing eye of a documentary filmmaker, he builds a world that’s complex, inefficient, unfair and exploitative. Yet, he stays stoic in the face of atrocity, trusting his viewers have heart.

In doing this, Franklin Jacob makes a stellar debut, writing a taut film, playing out the pieces one at a time, building tension, but hardly making the viewer restless. As a director, he is confident, staging scenes with masterly clarity. Cinematographer Pratheep Kaliraja favouring wide shots, capturing the environment with a keen eye. Govind Vasantha adds a new timbre to the film, even in its most emotional moments, staying at a respectful distance, letting us mourn.

The best part of Writer — like most storytellers from Pa Ranjith’s stable — is their faith in revolution and gumption for the good fight. Devakumar (Hari Krishnan), Saranya (Ineya), Maruthamuthu (GM Sundar), and Thangaraj himself put up a fight, in whatever way they can, never once giving into the cynicism that’s looming large. Writer stands for hope, even when everything is stacked against you.

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