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Malayalam cinema is flourishing. Hindi cinema is languishing. An unscientific, mid-year survey of the Indian film industry throws up that conclusion. In year two of the pandemic, which is, in some ways harder than year one because we imagined that we would be out of the woods by now, films from Kerala have sustained and nourished us. These stories of human frailty, hubris, family, relationships, good and evil, crime and punishment have startled us with their originality and craft. Meanwhile Bollywood seems to have lost its moorings, epitomised by the bloated mess that was Radhe. Thanks to streaming platforms, audiences have access to the best films from across India. I hope that raises our standards and enables us to demand more. These are my favourites from the first half of 2021.

10. Mandela

Streaming on: Netflix

Mandela could be a spin-off from the Munnabhai universe. The title character, played by a terrific Yogi Babu, seems like Munna’s Tamilian brother – a good-hearted, naïve game-changer who throws into the spotlight the greed and corruption of those around him. Mandela even has a Circuit-like sidekick. Writer-director Madonne Ashwin tells a timely story about caste, democracy and marginalisation with humour and compassion. The satire bites but it never becomes vicious.

9. Nayattu 

Streaming on: Netflix

Nayattu means the hunt. In Martin Prakkat’s disturbing police procedural, the hunters are cops but the hunted are also cops. After a road accident, three police officers get embroiled in a cauldron of caste politics and violence, and are forced to flee. What’s fascinating is how Martin and writer Shahi Kabir, a police officer himself, consistently humanise the characters. So even during the tense pursuit, the narrative finds room for moments of silence, introspection and an ordinary decency. In one of my favourite scenes, a man wordlessly buys sanitary pads for a woman. In how many movies have you seen that happen?

8. Geeli Pucchi

Streaming on: Netflix

Bharti Mandal is female, Dalit and gay. That intricate intersectionality is perhaps a first for Hindi cinema. Except this isn’t a feature. In a 43-minute short film, director and writer Neeraj Ghaywan tells a searing story of the hesitant intimacy that develops between two women from opposite sides of the class and caste divide. Konkona Sen Sharma as Bharti combines external toughness with vulnerability and a rage that flashes in her eyes as she understands that it is impossible to navigate the chasm between them. And Aditi Rao Hydari is the perfect foil as Priya – naïve, fragile and trapped in the upper-caste patriarchy. Geeli Pucchi is a masterclass in saying more with less.

7. Jathi Ratnalu

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

“I’m also a responsible Citizen Kane of this country” – how can you resist a film that features that dialogue? Jathi Ratnalu, about three small-town boys who come to the big city – Hyderabad – looking for jobs, money and the good life, is a sparkling concoction of humour, social commentary and terrific chemistry between the leads (Naveen Polishetty as Srikanth, Rahul Ramakrishna as Ravi and Priyadarshi as Sekhar). Director and writer Anudeep K.V. also peppers the film with hat-tips to all the films he’s loved. This is a film I wish I had seen in a theatre – it would have been magical to sit with strangers and laugh.

6. Karnan

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Karnan is a powerful call to arms. Director Mari Selvaraj reimagines the Mahabharata so that the demi-god Karna is no longer a good man on the wrong side. Instead, he is the saviour of his people and his village, Podiyankulam. Unlike his first film, Pariyerum Perumal, which portrays a determined but peaceful rebellion against the caste system, Karnan tells us that sometimes violence is the answer. The film features striking visual imagery, the terrific song ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga’ by Santhosh Narayanan and a blazing performance by Dhanush as Karnan. He is both myth and everyman. And that is an unbeatable combination.

5. Drishyam: The Resumption

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Honestly, I didn’t think writer-director Jeethu Joseph would be able to pull off a sequel to his superbly scripted Drishyam, in which we are rooting for Georgekutty and his family to get away with murder. The second film isn’t as seamlessly constructed as the first – the first act is plodding – but once the plot kicks in, Joseph takes us on a gripping saga of crime and punishment. Georgekutty’s deceptions are so elaborate that they will take your breath away. And superstar Mohanlal plays the character superbly, with just the right inflection of sorrow and scarring.

4. Kala

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

A fractured father-son relationship, a home invasion horror story, the casual callousness of the privileged and the rage of the underprivileged – Kala packs in a lot. Director Rohith V.S., DOP Akhil George, Dawn Vincent, the director of music and sound design, and editor Chaman Chakko construct a beautifully crafted, immersive experience into one man’s hell. Lead and co-producer Tovino Thomas delivers a brilliant performance as an entitled man who is fighting his own frustration and failure but who is also taught a brutal lesson. The teacher – a labourer played by Sumesh Moor – is terrifying and terrific. The mayhem and brutality in Kala is relentless. But Rohith doesn’t allow us to look away – either from the consequences of violence or the consequences of our actions.

3. Joji

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

In the hands of Malayalam cinema’s dream team – director Dileesh Pothan, writer Syam Pushkaran and actor Fahadh Faasil – Macbeth becomes a riveting drama about a deeply dysfunctional family. A formidable patriarch controls his three sons and his vast estate with an iron fist until a stroke confines him. Now the family members must negotiate between their true feelings for this despotic figure and the mournful façade that society requires. Joji, played by a terrifically unnerving Fahadh Faasil, puts into motion a chain of events that lead to murder. As Joji plots, he discovers his own capacity for cruelty and his utter lack of morals. But Pothan layers this disturbing story with touches of humour and whimsy. It is a thing of beauty.

2. The Disciple

Streaming on: Netflix

The Disciple is a meditative character study that draws you deep into its mysterious spell. Using stillness, long takes and wide shots, director Chaitanya Tamhane tells the haunting, melancholic story of a Hindustani classical vocalist, Sharad Nerulkar, who gives his life in the pursuit of his art. But Sharad slowly discovers the dichotomy between the purity he seeks, and the reality of the marketplace and the reality of his talent. Singer and debutant actor Aditya Modak transforms externally and internally as we watch. And as that happens, Chaitanya asks us to consider the cost of Sharad’s devotion. Like Sharad, we wonder: was it worth it?

1. The Great Indian Kitchen

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

The Great Indian Kitchen is a gutting portrait of domestic slavery, of the lives that millions of women in this country lead, toiling away, unpaid and unsung. Nimisha Sajayan plays a housewife – unnamed because director Jeo Baby wants us to understand that she is an everywoman. Her first flush of excitement when she has an arranged marriage slowly gives way to a seething anger. The film is brilliant because Jeo doesn’t create high drama or outsized villains. Instead, he showcases the horror of the ordinary – the pile of unwashed utensils, the disgusting kitchen waste, the half-chewed bones and spilt curry that men leave on the dining table for women to clean. The women are second-class citizens, only there to serve. The rage of the housewife becomes your rage. This film should be required viewing in educational institutes.

Special mentions:

Sanu John Varughese’s Aarkkariyam

Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar

Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar

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