It feels like just yesterday cinema halls closed their doors a week before India’s first lockdown in March. But yesterday was six months ago. High-profile releases just around the corner – Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi, Kabir Khan’s 83 – were indefinitely postponed. April came with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the Indian film and OTT ecosystems had banked enough content to entertain a shell-shocked country for the foreseeable future. A black hole loomed large. Sports had dried up, would films follow suit?
As it turns out, the show did go on. Far too many artists have perished, but art has survived. At some point, the vacuum from no on-floor shoots might emerge. But as of September, when most production work has resumed after the long gap, the calendar has stayed steady. There has been no dearth of new titles dropping on platforms. Filmmakers as well as producers have adapted well, not just creatively (lockdown filmmaking, remote post-production setups) but also distribution-wise. For a population largely stuck indoors, it may have also come as a bonus that most of the stories released during lockdown have been geographically diverse. From Jaipur to Delhi, Lucknow to Kolkata and Dubai to Vizag, the grounded travellers in us have been satiated.
Here are 20 of the best titles – shorts, films and web shows across Indian languages – over the last six months in no particular order:
Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime)
Arguably the finest in a strong period for Indian web shows, Sudip Sharma’s bleak and bracing Paatal Lok is world-class long-form storytelling. A rare beast of social critique through the prism of mythological mayhem, Paatal Lok freed modern Delhi from the shackles of pop-cultural stereotypes. It also captured the attention of a country locked behind closed doors in May (‘Hathoda’ Tyagi and Hathiram Chaudhary became household names) and, uncannily, delivered a prophetic portrait of parasitic Indian media houses a month before all hell broke loose.
Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar VIP)
A taut dysfunctional family thriller set within the virginal narrative confines of upper-class Rajasthan, Aarya also marked the terrific comeback of Sushmita Sen. Based on a popular Dutch series, Aarya cleverly localized the single-mother-owning-drug-cartel motif, doubling up as a solid origin story of what promises to be a wider, stranger universe.
Gulabo Sitabo (Amazon Prime)
The slice-of-life comedy – starring Lucknow, Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana – used a deceptively still narrative to juxtapose tradition against modernity, commerce against art, and the “anti-climax” against the “twist”. The two-paced film may have polarised opinions, but it skillfully hid a slow-burning drama behind its crabby humour.
The ingeniously designed split-screen short film about a man’s past and present unfurling at once conveyed the mental anatomy of domestic violence – with a depth often missing from long-form storytelling. It’s only 11 minutes long, but Samskara managed to “film” time, weaponize it and make it the sole protagonist.
Panchayat (Amazon Prime)
The distinctly good-natured TVF series dropped in April – technically the first enjoyable watch in lockdown – at a time most of us were looking hopefully and desperately towards the distant horizon. The balmy story of a city boy taking up a village job – and reluctantly warming up to the local lifestyle – felt therapeutic, tender and, I dislike using this term, the “need of the hour”.
Gamak Ghar (Mubi)
Available on Mubi for one month this summer, Achal Mishra’s melancholic, photographic film starred a house. Three generations of a family – their banter, memories, moments, history and evolution – occupied the house, and the documentary mood only bolstered the static perspective of the walls while the world kept moving around them. Gamak Ghar felt like more than nostalgia; it felt like the futility of nostalgia had finally been filmed.
Raat Akeli Hai (Netflix)
An exquisitely detailed whodunnit set in the emotional hinterlands of central India, the Honey Trehan directorial combined old-school mystery with new-age rage to create one of the most immersive and well-shot cinematic experiences of the “small screen” in 2020. The ensemble led by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte overstays its welcome at parts, but the ambition – and complexity of tone – is unmistakable.
Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya (Netflix)
C/o Kancharapalem director Venkatesh Maha found the non-descript beauty of Araku valley in his Telugu remake of Maheshinte Prathikaaram. With some lived-in performances and a hummable soundtrack, the film did what any successful adaptation must – it adjusts the spirit of the original rather than simply retain it. The relaxed vibe further deepened the beta-male hero’s depth of field.
Shazia Iqbal’s 21-minute short, currently on Mubi, is technically a “coming of age” tale of a young Muslim woman in Mumbai – except it eschews the coming-of-age template altogether. There’s a maturity to the rage, a sense of quiet rationalism about the irrationality of religion that distinguishes Iqbal’s voice. In a sense, Bebaak is inherently a scathing social drama; it doesn’t try to be one.
Gunjan Saxena (Netflix)
A competent Indian biopic is rarer than a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and Gunjan Saxena beat all the invisible odds to give us an immensely watchable ode to India’s first female Air Force combat pilot. A lot of noise preceded and succeeded the film for reasons not cinematic, but the Janhvi Kapoor starrer transcended labels, studios and controversies by doing the simple things well and circumventing the patriotic trappings of channeling the Kargil War.
Asim Abbasi’s quietly revolutionary Karachi-set series sucked the unassuming viewer in with the promise of a feminist vigilante tale, before bravely subverting the trope in the second half with conviction and craft. The expectation-reality divide has seldom been as rewarding, and a versatile cast only drove home a story that grew extra legs to reach a finish line.
Krishna and His Leela (Netflix)
Ravikanth Perepu’s rom-com is far from original, but in context of its Telugu-language roots, there’s a comfortable matter-of-factness about the way its characters depict new-age bonds. The mainstream movie doesn’t oversell the “boldness” of themes like multiple partners, physical affection and broken marriages – they just fit, without scrutiny, in a story about a complicated male protagonist and his flawed perspective of the fluid landscape of love.
Director Devashish Makhija’s trademark nihilism acquired a language through Manoj Bajpayee’s minimalistic performance as a retired Maharashtrian cop at the crossroads of religious extremism. Bhonsle’s Mumbai was desolate, lonely but also hauntingly hopeful – a cultural ferriswheel where one generation sacrifices itself to welcome the next.
A narrow male gaze is writ large upon this wonderfully acted film – not so much in the existence of conservative characters or setting as the writing and its conflict-resolution payoffs. But depending on how one digests the great premise – a phone-call triggers an unlikely romance – Muhammad Musthafa’s Kappela can be invigorating or infuriating, but never less than intriguing. (Indian cinema halls closed a week into Kappela’s theatrical run; its Netflix release in June served as a more official exhibition date).
Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone employed a lightness of touch to dig into the racial tensions of Humayunpur, Delhi’s unofficial outpost for North-east migrants. The salty story – about a diverse group of North-eastern friends scrambling to cook a special meal on the eve of a wedding – examined the politics of food, the grammar of longing and the hidden odours of secularism during a period most of us have used to get reacquainted with the kitchen.
Chintu Ka Birthday (Zee5)
The quasi-children’s chamber drama about an Indian family stuck in Iraq during Saddam’s fall felt stagey at first, but slowly eased into the abilities of its experienced cast members. Vinay Pathak and Tillotama Shome (those silent glances) drove a bittersweet film that stayed the course – with its smart use of space, and context of time – despite some over-precise writing.
From the figurative witches of Churails to the literal churail driving the figurative feminism of Bulbbul, it’s been one of the more fascinating years for female rage on screen. The Bengal-set period goth-horror fable also capped a fascinating few months for producer Anushka Sharma, cleverly reuniting the Laila Majnu couple (Tripti Dimri and Avinash Tiwary) in a diametrically different context.
The Gone Game (Voot)
Necessity is the mother of invention. The quarantine thriller – where technology defines the language of suspense – is an interesting addition to Indian storytelling. The Gone Game has been the most ambitious of all the Hindi-language attempts – it had glitches, like an incoherent final episode, but it thrived on a perfectly plausible predicament with an in-form cast to boot.
C U Soon (Amazon Prime)
The predictable but urgent Malayalam-language thriller has the sort of moral premise that allows it to transcend the trappings of “lockdown storytelling” and exist as an organic computer-screen movie – more on the lines of international hits like Searching and Unfriended. The revelations aren’t shocking, but there’s an arc to its characters – especially Fahadh Faasil’s – that humanizes both the distance and intimacy of modern technology.
Dibyendhu Bhattacharya delivered one of the season’s most modulated performances as a police investigator in this inconsistent but atmospheric crime drama. The busy series – centered on the mysterious death of a forest officer in the Sundarbans – leaps from Bengal to Manali and wedding to murder, struggling to link multiple threads, but in the process outlining a well-performed assortment of devious characters.
Bridge (Youtube): The smart low-budget short featured a pimp, prostitute and little girl lighting up the darkness of Mumbai.
Ram Singh Charlie (SonyLiv): The phrase “small film with a big heart” was invented for the Kolkata-set anti-fairytale starring Kumud Mishra.
JL50 (SonyLiv): An inventive, if not entirely sophisticated, science-fiction series about lost airplanes, time travel and a brooding Abhay Deol.
Khayali Pulao (Youtube): A sweet, meta short starring social media star Prajakta Koli as a Haryanvi teen whose progressive aspirations are inspired by her secret access to technology.
Mee Raqsam (Zee5): Baba Azmi’s film about his father and legendary poet Kaifi Azmi is bolstered by an elegant Danish Hussain performance.