From a Tulu-language oddity, to a genre mash-up from Guwahati, to an unapologetically bonkers crime epic set in the gold mines of Bengaluru - our picks of the best films since 2014
Watching a non-Hindi language film in this country can feel a bit like traveling off the beaten path. It’s like you ditched the touristy things and went local, stayed in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Hindi cinema — at least for those of us this side of the Vindhyas — has dominated the popular consciousness for so long, that it has, over the years, become our default choice of movie watching. But that might be changing. Some of the coolest films made in India in the last few years haven’t been in Hindi. The fact that the highest grossing Hindi film, Baahubali: The Conclusion, is the dubbed version of a Telugu film, shows that we are open to the idea of watching a film that's not originally made in a language we understand, and that has actors we aren't familiar with.
Earlier, even if the intent was there, there was the problem of access — apart from the rare screenings at film festivals, Satyajit Ray’s films hardly ever got shown anywhere outside Bengal. But today, a Tamil gangster flick is a few clicks away, thanks to digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar. Just like driving to a secluded hill in Maharashtra is possible, thanks to the GPS on your phone.
To make it easier for you, we have drawn a list of the best of such films from the last five years: from a Tulu language oddity, to a genre mash-up from Guwahati, to an unapologetically bonkers crime epic set in the gold mines of Bengaluru - our picks of the best regional films since 2014. Not all of them are available on streaming right now but we hope will land up on one of the platforms sooner or later.
Kothanodi (2015)1/6In a village of strange happenings, a young woman gives birth to an elephant-apple, and a mother makes a deal with the devil. A reworking of Burhi Aair Xadhu (Grandma's Tales) — a collection of classic folktales from Assam — with a feminist twist, Bhaskar Hazarika’s anthology is a horror film in an eerie sort of a way. Shot on location at the river island Majuli, Kothanodi demonstrates the wild power of folktales, even as it attempts to subvert it (this story has no moral). That we never question the preposterousness of it all is testimony to Hazarika’s ability to spin a good yarn. Kothanodi has strong performances, led by Seema Biswas as the superstitious matriarch who brings about her daughter’s doom, the always reliable Adil Hussain as the good-hearted merchant, and Zerifa Wahid, who is wickedly good as the evil stepmother.
Local Kung Fu 2 (2017)2/6Kenny Basumatary’s sequel to his low-budget cult hit Local Kung Fu (2013) — which was made with Rs 95, 000 lent by his mother, and featured a cast comprising family and friends — dials up the madness. Thrown into the already ingenuous blend of Jackie Chan movies and cultural details of urban Assam is Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. As the action shifts from Guwahati to Tezpur, two sets of twin brothers, one who know martial arts and the other who don’t, get mixed up — and what ensues is a whirlwind of confusion involving rival local gangs, a sleazy godman, slackers with a DSLR, and a deadly uncle-nephew duo. With fight scenes done without the usual camera tricks, and an off-kilter sense of humour, this action-comedy also slips in a message or two without being heavy-handed about it — like the fact that one of its lead characters is gay.
Village Rockstars (2018)3/6A quiet coming-of-age tale of a girl in a remote village in Assam who dreams of owning a guitar. Seen through the eyes of 10-year-old Dhunu, Village Rockstars is as much about fighting stereotypes and daring to dream, as it is about nature's profound effect on us. There’s a scene in which Dhunu and her brother lay down to rest in a puddle in the grass, palms pressed against their ears so that water doesn’t get in; I haven’t seen a more blissful picture of idleness in recent memory. Das, who has shot and edited the film, uses locations we haven’t seen much of to create spectacular images. Set in Kalardiya of Chaygaon district where she herself grew up, she cast people from the village who have never faced the camera (Dhunu is played by her cousin, Bhanita Das). India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2018, Das’ second feature film is also an example of the resourcefulness of filmmaking.
Bulbul Can Sing (2018)4/6Teenagers Bulbul, Bonnie and Sumon grow up in the same village as Dhunu of Village Rockstars, but life under the endless skies is a lot less sunnier when there is moral policing and slut shaming and homophobia. A spiritual successor to Village, Bulbul Can Sing shows how the same place can feel messier when seen through the eyes of an older protagonist. The feral wildness of childhood gives way to love letters in high school, and the unsureness of adolescence is conveyed with the tenderest of touches: such as Bulbul’s shaky landing on a note while singing the sargam during one of her music classes. Das — who was an actor before she was a director — brings out natural performances from first timers Arnali Das, Bonita Thakuriya and Manoranjoan Das. As exquisitely crafted as her breakout film, Bulbul Can Sing is a story of love, loss, and the restorative powers of nature.
Aamis (2019)5/6Nirmali (Lima Das), a married paediatrician, and Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah), an anthropology student, bond over a shared love for meat, and embark on a gastronomical adventure of sorts. Director Bhaskar Hazarika takes this seemingly harmless premise to its dangerous, shocking limits in his genre-bending second feature — prompting an endorsement from filmmaker Anurag Kashyap who has described it as, “Nothing like it has ever come out of India”. With its ideas about taboo and repression, and its exploration of the relationship between food and sex, Aamis repulses and provokes. But the film’s strength is in how it does these things without showing much. Aamis - which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is expected to release later this year - confirms the arrival of an exciting filmmaker, and his predilection for the weird.
Suspended Inspector Boro (2018)6/6
Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)1/6Perhaps the only great recent Malayalam film to subsist on a very Malayali, almost Anthikadian essence of storytelling. A celebration of the ordinary, the film questions, and almost mocks, the primal and very masala movie need to seek revenge. It found poetry in plain-speak, making dialogues as unassuming as its filmmaking style. Never before (and never again) has a pair of Hawaii slippers played such a significant role in an everyday epic. It’s the one film I’d show to an eager foreigner, wanting to learn more about Kerala and its people. I struggle to pick a favourite scene but the one in which a kid sneaks a book into his school bag, as he sings the national anthem is what makes Dileesh Pothan our most exciting director. Even characters that appear for seconds have a way of forming their own stories in our head. What more does a film need to do to be called a classic?
Sudani From Nigeria (2018)2/6It’s that rare film with an almost purifying effect; a viewer leaves the theatre a better person after watching this film by first timer Zakariya. Set in North Kerala and its maddening football culture, it has the ability to show you a place and its people like we’ve never seen before, yet everything and everyone seems familiar. What’s unfamiliar, though, is this film’s heartbreaking humaneness that finds love and friendship in the unlikeliest of places. Aided perfectly by the two women who played the protagonist’s mother and her best friend, the film made household figures of many first-time actors. It is also the film that got us to discover the sheer brilliance of Soubin, the actor. If you don’t tear up in the scene in which he speaks to the bedridden Samuel in broken English, you’re made of stone. A film that’s as comical as it is cathartic, as pleasurable as it is painful.
Mayaanadhi (2017)3/6The only true-blue romance to make the list, this Aashiq Abu tragedy borrows from the same gene pool as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But that doesn’t take anything away from its Urban Keralite setting which captures the nights of Kochi with a dexterity you only find in New York movies. The topic of sex is explored with a rare maturity and complex understanding in this relationship drama of true equals, made better with exemplary performances by Aishwarya Lekshmi and Tovino Thomas, in that order. The film also has one of the best climaxes in recent Malayalam cinema.
Ee Ma Yau (2018)4/6Another gem from 2018 (is there a better film year?) this is a work of an auteur at the height of his powers. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Bergmanesque Ee Ma Yau explores the idea of death and its after-affects on the lives of the few who are robbed by the sudden demise of a loved one. It talks about the struggles of a son as he tries to organise his father’s “dream” funeral but everything that can go wrong, does. A broken casket, a secret family, the talk of foul play and the corrupt system makes everything impossible. Yet the film refrains from any kind of sentimentality or cynical hopelessness, always finding a way to make us laugh at the man’s dire situation. Books can be written about the film’s final stretch and Chemban Vinod Jose’s performance in it, making it the kind of film that ages like wine, only getting better with age and what the viewer has experienced.
Angamaly Diaries (2017)5/6The other Lijo Jose Pellissery classic is our answer to the films of Anurag Kashyap and gang from up north. This is a ballsy film that introduced a treasure of fine performers - pork and its trade has never been the same for any Malayali since its release. It’s also a very synesthetic film in the way it appeals to the viewer’s every sense. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, everything comes together to make watching Angamaly Diaries an immersive experience like no other. And what more does one need to say about the film’s unforgettable single-take climax? It’s the kind of pure cinema that can simultaneously give wet dreams to Kurosawa, Wells and Godard. Coupled with a brilliant soundtrack by Prashant Pillai, Angamaly Diaries perhaps makes it to every best film list in the country, not just Malayalam alone.
Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017)6/6
Kumbalangi Nights (2019)
Lathe Joshi (2018)1/6The uneasy conflict between art and obsolescence acquires a human edge in Mangesh Joshi’s poignant film about a lathe factory worker whose 35-year-old job is hijacked by machines. The protagonist, Mr. Joshi, wears the most tragic face of nostalgia: an old-school craftsman rendered redundant by the quantitative focus of evolution. Chittaranjan Giri plays Joshi like a man who has acquired the emotional prowess of a machine – poker-faced, lost, almost emasculated, as if he were perpetually on the brink. His left-behindness is reflected in the way his immediate family – a food-catering wife, a hardware-engineer son, a blind grandmother – adapt to the technological progress of their own routines by barely registering his presence. The details, especially the metallic soundscape and spatial camerawork, frame “Lathe Joshi” as an analogue telephone stuck in a digital era. I wonder what Joshi would think if this film ever streams on the internet.
Fandry (2014)2/6A teacher explains Sant Chokhamela’s verses: a person should be judged by his inner qualities, not by caste or religion. Ambedkar and Shivaji Maharaj posters adorn the village walls. The only Dalit student steals adoring glances at an upper-caste girl, while we hear an adult lament about how his hands tremble when he aims for the queen on the carrom table. An idyllic background score punctuates the boy’s days. The national anthem interrupts a desperate pig-chase sequence. The village drunk empathizes with the kid. The backdrop of Nagraj Manjule’s feature-film debut is ripe with littler tragedies within the primary narrative of a dreamy Dalit boy in a caste-segregated Maharastrian village. Fandry, which ends with a damning shot that redefines “breaking the fourth wall,” is the younger sibling of Manjule’s next, Sairat (2016). Except Jabya’s journey, unlike Parshya’s, is cut short well before he dares to become a resounding romantic tragedy.
Court (2015)3/6A social activist is charged with abetment of suicide on the claim that his protest song influenced a manhole worker to kill himself. Most filmmakers might have played the absurdity of this one-line plot – as a loud satire or cheeky courtroom comedy. But first-time feature director Chaitanya Tamhane painstakingly recreates the mundanity of the Indian judicial system – a curious case of cinema internalizing life rather than reacting to it. The multilingual anti-drama cleverly casts its producer as a privileged outsider (a Gujarati defense lawyer) at the heart of what is essentially a Maharashtrian ecosystem. The film wryly documents the ironies and dis-passions of a bureaucratic subculture, as if to express that the gatekeepers of human fate are also bookish government employees. The final shot – of the judge instinctively slapping a kid who interrupts his weekend snooze – is emblematic of the India that Court puts on trial. The judge, after all, goes back to sleep.
Killa (2015)4/6Cinematographer Avinash Arun’s achingly melancholic directorial debut understands the difference between a ‘children’s film’ made by adults and a film about children experiencing adult situations. By locating the latter on the cloudy Konkan coast, Killa manages to internalize the fragile psychological state of a seventh grader – his mental city is “downgraded” to a village – uprooted from Pune after his father’s death. Chinmay’s story, his head, is a live-action companion piece to Pixar’s Inside Out. The struggle to adapt, especially in a culture that frowns upon emotional expression, is the most overlooked conflict of most childhoods. Arun captures the sounds of classrooms and pranks and rainy afternoons through a perfectly assembled cast of young actors. Killa is so visually evocative that even today, when I recall images and scenes, the actual language (Marathi) rarely ever registers.
Kaasav (2017)5/6Not unlike Killa, the physical sparseness of the Konkan coast again reflects the emotional journey of an isolated mind. But the National Award-winning Kaasav – the third of director-duo Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s “mental-health” series after Devrai (schizophrenia) and Astu (Alzeihmer’s) – directly addresses the psychology of depression, the disease most romanticized by today’s mainstream storytellers. Manav, a lost, suicidal teenager, is taken in by Janaki, a long-suffering woman who sees herself in him. It’s never as simple as “they heal each other”. The unfussy symbolism aside (Janaki is a turtle conservationist: the turtle-shell metaphor is visually weaved into the return-to-nature narrative), Kaasav perceptively hints at the crippling effect of technology on a young protagonist. Manav’s cellphone is an invisible character; his contact list is full, but his head feels empty. Unlike social media profiles, his history remains a mystery – just as it should, given the tendency of cinema to paint depression as an adjective with an elaborate backstory. The turtles need to be conserved, not explained.
Jigarthanda (2014)1/6I wanted to begin with one really out-there movie, stuffed with directorial swagger - the one thing we don’t get much of in Tamil cinema. I thought of Super Deluxe, but it’s too recent, too well-known. Hence, Karthik Subbaraj’s ode to gangsterism, Tamil cinema, and gangsterism in Tamil cinema. Jigarthanda subverts the hero/heroine (they do “bad” things), the villain (who becomes the most lovable character), and even the narrative, which gradually acquires a meta layer. The director seems to be saying that, in the present Tamil-cinema scenario, anyone, apparently, can become a hero and begin calling the shots, and directors with vision are forced to compromise – so the only way to make the movie you really want to make is to become some sort of gangster. It’s fun. It’s vicious. It’s brilliant.
Sethupathi (2016)2/6How can such a listing exercise not contain a masala movie, especially one centred on the cop character Tamil heroes love to play? SU Arun Kumar’s second film (and second outing with Vijay Sethupathi, after Pannaiyarum Padminiyum) has genuine masala moments capable of making those of us who cannot wolf-whistle feel impotent – the way Sethupathi, from a distance, dispatches the villains, or the way he wears a handkerchief mask, rides up to the man who’s making his life hell, and... But in the midst of the expected hero-versus-villain showdowns, the film is as much a chronicle of a householder who can never forget that his is a very dangerous job. Sethupathi’s last half-hour is ginormous fun, driven by the irresistible Naan yaaru (composed by Nivas K Prasanna, sung by Anirudh). When the right dose of masala combines with the right kind of music, it’s something else.
Aandavan Kattalai (2016)3/6Manikandan’s third feature is another marvellous comedy of desperation (his first was Kaaka Muttai), the story of an honest man (named Gandhi!) whose dire situation makes him dishonest. He then realises that to turn honest again, he may have to adopt more dishonest means. Manikandan and his writing team (Arul Chezhiyan, Anucharan) should hold classes for other Tamil filmmakers who want the story-screenplay-dialogue credit but reveal little understanding of these elements. Everything in Aandavan Kattalai is there for a reason -- say, the conceit of leaving one’s home and struggling in an alien land, which is a steady undercurrent. And it isn’t just about the protagonist’s journey. We, too, get to journey through the dense ecosystem he’s enmeshed in. Entertainment that is about something, that says something – it’s the elusive grail Tamil filmmakers keep chasing. Only Manikandan seems to have found it.
Pariyerum Perumal (2018)4/6I looked at the films above and realised Vijay Sethupathi is in every one of them, which says something about how definitive an actor he’s been in the last five years. For a definitive film not starring Vijay Sethupathi, you don’t have to look much further than Mari Selvaraj’s powerful debut, produced by Pa Ranjith. Kathir plays an oppressed youth carving out a place of his own, through education. (This is a post-Pa Ranjith phenomenon. In films like Kadhal, the boy was content to remain a labourer.) The dominant-caste villain and his poetic death are a masterstroke. We see that evil doesn’t always have to be vanquished with weapons. Sometimes, all it takes is for good people to not be cowed down, that they stand up and resist. The closing shot is like a still-life painting we can ponder about for hours. It’s not an ending, really. It feels more like a beginning.
Peranbu (2019)5/6Ram’s least angry, most moving drama is about a father (Mammootty) and his efforts to care for his daughter with cerebral palsy (Sadhana). The first half is set in the midst of nature, filled with bird calls, rolling mists, soft shafts of sunlight. In the second half, the film moves away from this Eden to the city. Paradise is truly lost. But this isn’t an empty exercise in “the big city is bad” school of filmmaking. The urban space is an extension of nature, too. It’s just that this version of nature is built with brick and cement. The most fascinating aspect of Peranbu may be in how it fills the gaps in (Ram’s guru) Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai. It shows us what a well-meaning man who locks himself away with a child-woman would have to deal with: periods and pads, sanitation and unquenched female sexuality. Peranbu doesn’t preach. It doesn’t judge, either.
Kurangu Bommai (2017)
Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018)
Awe (2018)1/5Prasanth Varma’s multi-genre, non-linear tale of a set of intersecting stories is a hot mess of invention and imagination. Varma’s ambitious film offers a blend of fantasy, whimsical comedy, romantic drama, horror and sci-fi, among others. The unusual debut feature feels like a first-time filmmaker’s wet dream — pouring every story and genre they’ve ever wanted to explore, all into one. From talking fish to haunted basements to magical bathrooms to touching on themes of sexuality and mental illness, Awe manages to feel personal despite its magnitude. Varma tries to do far too much, but the film’s bold, out-there storytelling and whimsical characters are exciting and keep you guessing.
Mallesham (2019)2/5Mallesham is in many ways Pad Man (a film it will no doubt be compared to for the similarities in story), done right. Raj Rachakonda’s rousing biopic is based on the true story of Padma Shri-winner Chintakindi Mallesham who invented an ‘asu’ machine which revolutionized sari production to save the women of his village from dangerous, punishing work. Telling a story for what it is rather than glorifying its subject, Mallesham is the rare biopic made with honesty. It’s a small, unassuming film with an indie spirit and the beating heart of a mainstream entertainer. It's led by a career-defining performance from Priyadarshi, who has till now been largely seen as the comic relief or the hero’s best friend.
C/O Kancharapalem (2018)3/5Like Raam Reddy’s Thithi, C/O Kancharapalem is a ‘community film’ in that it is largely made up of a cast and characters from the residents of Andhra Pradesh’s Kancharapalem. A wonderful blend of fiction and reality, these people are the film’s soul, offering the kind of oddball characters that you’d perhaps only find in real life. Debut director Venkatesh Maha’s C/O follows four tender love stories of people at different life stages. From the innocent purity of school romance to a widow opening herself up to new possibilities, the film explores how issues of love and marriage are treated, overlooked, disregarded, questioned and violently rejected by a society that won’t let people be. There comes a point in the film when you think it’s getting too melodramatic, but Maha throws in an intriguing final revelation which makes you want to revisit the whole thing all over again.
Arjun Reddy (2017)4/5Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s defiant outlier — as well as its Hindi remake Kabir Singh — has commanded wildly different responses from viewers, from repulsive to fascinating to everything in between and has clearly managed to tap into something. Led by an unforgettable Vijay Devarakonda, the film is a character study of a terrible person that explores ideas of toxic masculinity and aggression and, the morality of his actions aside, tries to get you to understand him. And yet, bafflingly, he remains a walking, talking, smoking, snorting, alcoholic contradiction/conundrum. It’s a film which demands a personal response and, while it may leave you confounded by its protagonist, it’ll certainly teach you about yourself. Arjun Reddy places a character, his journey and his actions in front of you and leaves you grappling with questions about what’s unfolding, what’s acceptable, what permits redemption and what defines glorification.
Pelli Choopulu (2016)
Kirik Party (2016)1/6In a short period, Rakshit Shetty has not only proved his mettle as an actor, but also shown his brilliance as a writer. Kirik Party, co-written and co-produced by Shetty, which also stars him as an engineering brat in the beginning and as a Devdas kind of tragic figure in the latter half, is both funny and poignant. Although many coming-of-age films have enjoyed success in Kannada cinema, this movie feels like a breath of fresh air since it has some lovely songs and two charming women (Rashmika Mandanna as Saanvi; Samyuktha Hegde as Aarya) with whom Karna (Shetty) builds undying bonds. The other fascinating thing about it is that it’s set away from the hustle-bustle of Bengaluru; hence, it gives us a peek into the little city of Hassan and its surrounding areas. Every college film plays out like it’s a tribute to the halcyon days and Kirik Party does just that, albeit with extra doses of fun and silliness.
Ondu Motteya Kathe (2017)2/6Ondu Motteya Kathe is about the tragedy and comedy of being bald. The humor (in a fabulously choreographed dream sequence, women smilingly declare that they prefer loneliness over a bald partner) is leavened by a strain of sadness. Director Raj B. Shetty, who also plays the lead, makes us painfully aware of the cost of not having hair. Shetty plays Janardhan, a 28-year-old Kannada lecturer in Mangalore who attempts to find a wife after the local matchmaker declares him to be an unsuitable boy (he’s bald and he teaches Kannada). Janardhan is aided in these efforts by the college peon Srinivas. In a hilarious scene, Janardhan writes a love letter. Srinivas reads it and stoically declares: Along with this, give her a Kannada dictionary. Ondu Motteya Kathe shows us the ache of being ordinary but gently and affectionately, Shetty also persuades us to stop judging people so superficially. As an added bonus, dialogues and songs from the iconic Kannada superstar Dr. Rajkumar, provide a running commentary.
Thithi (2016)3/6Thithi begins with death and ends with despair. In the two hours in between, director Raam Reddy creates a riveting and raucously funny portrait of rural life, the complexities of familial relationships, young love, greed, survival and stark poverty. The film is set in a remote village in Karnataka and begins with the passing of Century Gowda, called that because he managed to live for 100 years. He spends the last few minutes of his life insulting everyone who passes by – it’s hilarious and you can only imagine what terrors Gowda must have unleashed when he was less frail. His death alters the lives of the next three generations – his son, grandson and great-grandson. All three are drawn into a chain of events that inevitably lead to tragedy. But what makes Thithi so powerful is Reddy and writer Ere Gowda’s ability to mine the humor from the absurdity of life. They tell this story with great control and affection. Death becomes funny instead of frightening. What can be more life-affirming than that?
KGF: Chapter 1 (2018)4/6KGF is loud, lurid and unapologetically bonkers (at one point, the hero says: 'If you think you’re bad, I’m your dad') but it’s also ambitious, emotional and hypnotic. The film is an origin story, setting up the mythology of the gangster superhero Rocky (the actor is introduced as ‘Rocking Star Yash’). Like many great movie gangsters (Vijay in Deewar, Velu Nayakan in Nayakan), Rocky learns his craft on the mean streets of Mumbai. But then, he is summoned to Bengaluru where an evil gold-mining empire has been flourishing in secret since 1951. Writer-director Prashanth Neel is a lover of slow-motion, top shots and testosterone. The simplistic and high-pitched film has only one aim – to set up Rocky as the invincible savior of the oppressed (other characters describe him as both ‘barood’ and a typhoon). There is zero subtlety or nuance here but Neel skilfully tells us an over-wrought tale of a man on a mission. Interestingly, Rocky’s rage comes from his mother who he worships but his gender politics are seriously skewed – the first time, he sees the heroine, he says: Congratulations, I love you. Hopefully the film’s ensuing chapters will fix this!
Nathicharami (2018)5/6How does a young widow fulfil her sexual desires? Not many Indian films have tackled that question. Director Mansore’s Nathicharami is worth watching for the premise alone. The lovely Sruthi Hariharan plays Gowri. Three years after her husband’s death, Gowri is still arranging the newspapers and ashtray as he preferred it. But she’s also desperately lonely and pining for sex. She actively pursues it, even setting rules for the men about what happens after they make love. Her pursuit is awkward, painful and ultimately liberating. The film presents Gowri as sad and troubled but also strong. Despite familial pressure, she continues to live as she deems fit. Mansore also sensitively depicts the other women in Gowri’s orbit – her housemaid who dispenses practical advice and a neglected homemaker. The latter wants to infuse some love into her arranged marriage. Nathicharami is a slow burn. It’s quiet and like Gowri, occasionally clumsy. But like her, it also has a quiet dignity. The film is frank without being explicit. And here less is more.
Bakita Byaktigoto (2014)1/6A young man’s quest to make a vérité-style documentary becomes a heady trip into the heart of Bengal. The idea of his film? To interview people in the streets of Kolkata about what they think of love, that most ineffable of mysteries. As one thing leads to another, Pramit (Ritwick Chakraborty) and his cameraman, Amit (Amit Saha), tumble down a rabbit hole of whimsical characters and doppelgängers, snaky lanes and decrepit houses, and land up in a village called Mohini. This is a fairytale, that gets stranger as we go, but whose implausibility we never question, largely because of the film’s presentation as documentary footage, and the poetic eye that cinematographer Subhankar Bhar’s jittery, grainy camera casts. Pradipta Bhattacharyya’s remarkable debut feature is a triumph of low budget filmmaking. It’s also a departure from contemporary Bengali cinema’s preoccupation with English-speaking, urban-centric characters and stories. The film had a poor one-week run when it first released in 2013, and was re-released in 2014, after word of mouth around it caught on.
Asha Jaoar Majhe (2014)2/6An elegiac, wordless film about a day in the life of a young married couple (Ritwick Chakraborty, Basabdatta Chatterjee) who work in different shifts and meet only for a brief period during the day. Set against the backdrop of a crumbling Kolkata, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut feature eschews ‘plot’ in favour of atmosphere, luxuriating in the details of domestic life: like going fish-shopping, feeding the cat, having a siesta. The absence of dramatic conflict never comes in the way of all those hypnotic sequences, such as the one in which mustard oil is poured into a sauce pan in all its screen-filling glory. Shot beautifully by Mahendra Shetty (Lootera) and Sengupta, and boasting of a sound design (Anish John) that jumps at you, Asha Jaoar Majhe is a rich, sensory experience.
Nagarkirtan (2019)3/6Kaushik Ganguly’s doomed love story of a girl trapped in a man’s body and a young man still unsure of his sexuality is earthy, lyrical, and ultimately devastating. It helps that Ganguly has at his disposal two of the best Bengali actors around. Riddhi Sen, as Punti, uses his androgynous aspects in uncanny ways in his National Award-winning performance; while Ritwick Chakraborty is (as always) effortlessly good as Madhu - who comes from a family of Kirtaniyas but works as a delivery guy in a Chinese joint. By setting his story in a lower economic strata in mofussil Bengal, the director shines a light on how class adds a layer of complication to the constant struggles of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people. Ganguly uses familiar tropes - highlighted by a charming meet-cute, where Madhu plays 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai' on his flute - smoothly cutting between past and present, and building up to a final act, before ending with a sledgehammer of a climax.
Pariah Dog (2019)4/6American filmmaker Jesse Alk goes looking to shoot a documentary on the stray dogs of Kolkata and ends up making it more about the lonely, broken souls who care for them. From a single lady in her late forties who belongs to an aristocratic Bengali family that has fallen on bad times, to a 63-year-old failed singer, whose only moment of glory has been winning a reality show hosted by Sourav Ganguly, what emerges is a funny, melancholy profile of four arresting personalities who live on the fringes of society. Jesse's father Howard Alk - who made music documentaries on Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin - had visited Bengal in the late sixties to make a film on Luxman Das Baul. The way Pariah Dog captures Kolkata, with its surreal scenes of everyday urban existence and sensuous shots of the city at night, reveal the curious eye of an outsider who has old ties to the place.
Cat Sticks (2019)5/6Set on a rainy night in Kolkata, photographer Ronny Sen’s moody, personal debut feature follows different people, from different sections of society, who have one thing in common: they are all brown sugar addicts. Etched with details so specific that they seem to have been observed through a keyhole, Cat Sticks looks at the life of addicts with empathy, and without judgement. What makes it more poignant is perhaps the fact that the director knew these people, who lived in his neighbourhood, most of whom aren’t around anymore. Accompanied by a grungy score, and shot in haunting, chiaroscuro black and white (by Shreya Dev Dube) in the ruins of Kolkata — abandoned jute mills, dark alleys, and depressingly tube-lit middle class homes — the film is also a lament for a city that was once great.
Shajarur Kanta (2015)
Ebar Shabor (2015)
Chauthi Koot (2015) - Punjabi1/6With long shots, a slow pace, dark, minimalist frames, and a brilliant sound design, Gurvinder Singh’s film, set during Operation Blue Star, does not care much for the big picture. It engages with the smaller narratives, and individual portraits and anxieties against the backdrop of a larger narrative where ideas of nationhood and brotherhood are being questioned. A Punjabi man in a tweed coat befriends two Hindu men who are, like him, looking to get into the freight trains to Amritsar. He is looking for not just a safe place, but also safe company to keep while getting there. This is juxtaposed with a story of a Sikh man and his family, including a dog, who find themselves stuck between rogue Khalistan nationalists and the violent state police infrastructure. Be prepared, because in this film, less is happening, more is felt.
Amdavad Ma Famous (2015) - Gujarati2/6Hardik Mehta’s documentary is a love letter to both kite flying and the city of Ahmedabad. Here, Ahmedabad becomes a metaphor for old and new structures, tin roofs and mosque domes next to one another, mingling often, but never becoming one, like the younger and older characters who populate his narrative. Primarily fixating on Zaid, the eleven year old with a passion for flying and collecting kites, for whom reason is an afterthought, Mehta’s cinematic gaze takes us through the joys of a kaleidoscopic sky of kites, by whisking his camera through peak traffic, in between narrow gullies, and unfinished rooftops. Showing monkeys and children alternately climbing onto and off structures effortlessly, the camera also converses with maulvis, security guards, and concerned parents who too once had colourful childhoods. The hazards are articulated, the skipping of school mentioned, but all eyes are skyward for the magic to commence.
Paddayi (2018) - Tulu3/6Abhaya Simha’s National Award-winning film is a visually stunning recreation of Macbeth. While adapting the beats of the story of power, disruption, and transition to a fishing village, Sinha chooses to heighten the communist and erotic tendencies of Lady Macbeth, here Sugandhi, and her talon like grip on Macbeth, Madhava. Situating the story in the flux between tradition and modernity- recreating and living in myths, here the three witches is one divinity. So there are malls and traditional theater performances, you have a fisherman who prefers to hold onto traditional methods, while another, with steel boats and fishing expeditions during breeding season stands in for modernity, the West, Paddayi. Shot in sync sound, it gives a visceral lived in feel to the haunted shores that are shown in chaos when life is both conceived and destroyed. A sumptuous film that blends Shakespeare and traditional folk theater, myth and modernity.
Lady of the Lake (2016) - Manipuri4/6Based on a short story, Haobam Paban Kumar’s Lady of the Lake may sound like dry, documentary territory — it’s centred on a married couple from the fisherfolk community living in the floating biomasses of Manipur’s Loktak Lake. But the director injects drama into the set-up by introducing a gun, and a ghost. Even scarier is the dredging machine sent by the Government to carry out a clearing operation — justified by their allegation that the inhabitants of the lake are polluting it — that looks like a cross between a particularly vicious Transformer and a tank. With non-professional actors saying stylised lines, and the use of bright colours and precise lighting, Haobam masterfully blends documentary and fiction. Opening with scenes of destruction that recall the beginning of Apocalypse Now (1979), the climax, filmed during the magic hour of dawn, has a beautiful folktale-ish ending. And a killer final shot.
Ma.Ama (2018) - Garo5/6Meghalaya-born Dominic Sangma turns the camera on his father, a man who becomes obsessed with the idea that he will meet his dead wife after he passes on. It’s Dominic’s story too, as he goes into a cinematic interrogation of his mother’s mysterious death — his only memories of her being imagined ones based on things he has heard, or photos he has seen. Set in their village, where all of the Sangma clan congregate around Christmastime, buried family truths are revealed with touching honesty in this story of guilt, regret, and reconciliation. The cinematography, by Acharya Venu, who works with natural light and uses the region’s dry, wintry landscape to the hilt, has a calmness about it. It was the only Indian film in the International Competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018.
Daughters Of The Polo God (2018) - Manipuri