2023 Wrap: Best Documentaries, from Family Chronicles to Pulp Fiction

Diverse, inventive and thought-provoking, this year’s documentaries show a range of cinematic and storytelling styles.
2023 Wrap: Best Documentaries, from Family Chronicles to Pulp Fiction
2023 Wrap: Best Documentaries, from Family Chronicles to Pulp Fiction

The sprawling range of our critically acclaimed documentaries in recent years have thrust them into the overdue spotlight. This year, we saw some turn the spotlight on the self, sincerely reckon with the modern history of our nation, and bring to view people and their distinctive idealism. The highlight, in terms of applause-worthy accomplishments, came early in 2023, when The Elephant Whisperers won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film. Director Kartiki Gonsalves’s film about an indigenous couple and their relationship with an orphaned elephant also stands out for another reason: It’s readily available on Netflix. 

With limited channels of formal distribution and little by way of an infrastructure that protects the filmmaker or helps these films find their audiences, the odds are generously stacked against documentaries. Fortunately, this year has shown that there are those who persist with the genre despite all these challenges. It was also heartening to see platforms like Amazon’s Prime Video, which is home to docu-series like First Act and Rainbow Rishta, are opening up to non-fiction projects. If Santa’s listening, we’re wishing that this trend gathers strength and more good documentaries become liberally and easily available to Indian audiences.

Until then, here are our favourite documentaries of 2023. 

The World is Family

Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan decided to turn his camera on his parents when they started growing older. Patwardhan’s father, Balu Patwardhan, will charm you within seconds, with his mischievous one-liners and irrepressible good humour. Ceramic artist Nirmala Patwardhan — acerbic, brilliant and the perfect foil to Balu — is largely unenamoured by her son filming them, but she tolerates it. Patwardhan’s home videos give us an intimate and moving account of a generation that was there for the birth of modern-day India, and the many shades of idealism and patriotism that informed their lives. Through Patwardhan’s family and the memories of his parents, the filmmaker gives us a potted history of modern India, all the way to the present. It’s the best kind of history lesson.

Against the Tide
Against the Tide

 Insides and Outsides

For his first feature length documentary, Insides and Outsides, Arbab Ahmad  turned his camera onto himself and his family, sharpening the conical spotlight on their histories, and splicing together flyaway fragments to tell the story of a world withering away. Forced by Covid-induced lockdown to do some introspection, Ahmad places his own troubled thoughts about the present alongside the story of his parents, who are at the threshold of a new chapter since his father is about to retire. 

With its many strands of seemingly directionless thoughts, Insides and Outsides is a shape-shifting exploration of Muslim identity in contemporary India. Sometimes in Urdu, sometimes in English, stitched together with home videos, photographs, archival footage, animation and projections, Insides And Outsides is an explosion of form. While trying to outline the history of his parents, Rubina Rahman and  SMK Rahman, Ahmad also gives voice to the dissent that erupted in 2019, with the protests surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Against the Tide

What’s it like to be a Koli fisherman in Mumbai? Director Sarvnik Kaur follows two men, both Kolis, to show the beauty and hardships of living off the sea. Startlingly intimate in parts and deeply informative, the documentary takes you into the fisherfolks’ world. Rakesh and Ganesh are old friends who ostensibly have nothing in common. Rakesh is glossy with wealth and privilege. He lives in a modern apartment and owns a ship that’s outfitted with modern technology. Ganesh lives in a room with his mother, wife and child. He goes fishing in a rickety boat and when his baby son falls ill, he has no money to get the infant the treatment he needs. Still, the friendship between Rakesh and Ganesh is strong and Kaur’s camera is a shadow, trailing alongside both men, noting the differences and contrasts between them without judging either. 

Kaur’s decision to choose two men who are on opposite ends of the financial spectrum despite belonging to the same industry allows her to showcase many of the issues the Kolis are facing. Carefully empathetic to both Rakesh and Ganesh, Kaur shows the divergences and convergence between them.  

Hunt for Veerappan

With stunning shots of beautiful landscapes and clever use of both archival footage and staged scenes, Selvamani Selvaraj brings the gloss of fiction storytelling to the life of Koose Munisamy Veerappan. The Hunt for Veerappan offers a compilation of this legendary criminal’s greatest hits and offers a portrait of how the tactics used by law enforcement agencies to catch their predator-shaped prey have changed over the years. Selvaraj speaks to a wide range of people, including those who hunted Veerappan as well as those who lived by his side. Veerappan’s wife, Muthulakshmi, is most likely to give you goosebumps. Rigorously researched and beautifully filmed, the series (available on Netflix) is ripe for binge-watching. 

The Golden Thread
The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread

In her documentary The Golden Thread, Nishtha Jain follows in a snaking movement, from behind, workers walking through a jute mill that is slowly creaking away into exhausted extinction. The workers keep looking over their shoulder, at the camera, as though asking — are you keeping up? Or perhaps, you’re still here? Or, perhaps, what are you still looking for? There is a squirming discomfort here — for the protagonist, but also, us, the spectator. The tension here is the ethical kink of being a voyeur. Why is our gaze being met? 

Shot with exquisite grace by Rakesh Haridas and brought to life by Niraj Gera’s brilliant sound design, The Golden Thread lets the workers decide the flow of the narrative. If jute were a person, she would be exhilarated by the attention paid to her sighs and screams — when she is flattened, when she is braided, when she is swallowed, when she is spat out. 

Cinema Marte Dum Tak

Vasan Bala’s six-part documentary, available on Amazon Prime Video, focuses on the history, and cultural relevance of C-grade films. Cheaply-made but turning impressive profits, these films were pulpy, inventive and prolific. Mostly smutty and aligned mostly towards drama and horror, C-grade films made up the bulk of the Hindi film industry’s volume between the late Eighties to the early Aughts. They sought to entertain, delighting in their flamboyant tastelessness, and catered to the audience’s sleazier side. 

Cinema Marte Dum Tak turns the spotlight on four directors who were once considered legendary by their peers: J. Neelam, whose filmography includes Kunwari Chudail (The Unmarried Witch, 2002); Dilip Gulati, maker of Jungle Beauty (1991); Vinod Talwar, a master of trashy horror films with tantalising titles like Raat Ke Andhere Mein (1987); and Kishan Shah, who is haunted by the success of his estranged younger brother and pulp movie legend Kanti Shah (who directed the 1998 pulp classic Gunda, starring Mithun Chakraborty). The four directors are given the budget to make a short film and their return to the world of filmmaking is documented over six episodes. The net result is nostalgia at its wackiest as talking heads like actors Raza Murad, Kiran Kumar and Rakhi Sawant recount how B- and C-grade films were made in the past while in the present, the four shoots cover everything from mud-wrestling women to vampires.

Cinema Marte Dum Tak
Cinema Marte Dum Tak

Special mentions:

A  Night of Knowing Nothing

Payal Kapadia’s documentary premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2021, but since it got a screening at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this year, we’re shoehorning it in because of just how beautiful it is. A stylised archive of our broken, fighting generation, where the brawn and brutality of the oppressive state and right wing goons infest the imagination, A Night Of Knowing Nothing uses a frame of fiction to talk about the hard reality of protesting students being assaulted by law enforcement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the 2015 protests at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) protests, and the politics surrounding these incidents. Quoting the poet Aamir Aziz — “Everything will be remembered” — Kapadia has stitched together footage of pain. 

All that Breathes

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 2022, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes finally arrived at an Indian platform this year. Streaming on JioCinema, this celebrated documentary is centred on two brothers who run a bird clinic in Delhi, in the basement office of their soap-dispenser business. The self-taught men spend their nights tending to injured black kites that fall out of Delhi's toxic skies. A beguiling snapshot of a country on the brink of both cultural and environmental apocalypse, the filmmaking does an exquisite job of teasing out metaphors through the merging of thoughtful voice-over, dramatic cinematography and profound profiling. 

While We Watched

Vinay Shukla’s film on journalist Ravish Kumar is a time capsule of two years, from 2018 to 2020, documenting what would end up to be among Kumar’s last years at NDTV India (Kumar left the channel in 2023). While Shukla’s camera watches Kumar, the journalist is witness to a shrinking newsroom where every few months, a cake is brought out to bid yet another colleague farewell. Although the documentary didn’t give the viewer a comprehensive sense of either Kumar or the complexities of the media landscape, While We Watched is a moving salute to a man who has become the national conscience.  


If you google Madhukar Zende, you will know he is the one who caught serial killer and thief Charles Sobhraj (twice). There’s even a Marathi comic on him. However, there is more to Zende than Sobhraj, and this film gives one of the Crime Branch’s original supercops a chance to reminisce about his past. Zende is a delightful subject, speaking candidly about both work and home; performing for the camera, and also showing a humane side that is rarely visible in conventional portrayals of police officers. Humorous, intimate and smartly edited, director Akshay Shah’s film is a pertinent reminder that there is often more to a subject than the media coverage they get.

With inputs from Deepanjana Pal, Prathyush Parasuraman and Rahul Desai.

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