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This has admittedly not been a Paatal LokScam 1992Panchayat level year for Hindi web television. It’s tough when the bar has been set early on in the streaming cycle. But it’s also fascinating. A marker already exists. And it’s a long way away from the baby steps being taken only a couple of years ago. 2021 has been woefully short of solid Hindi cinema, but the long format has grown. Even the blatantly flawed ones conveyed ambition: you can’t fault shows like Tandav, Maharani, Aranyak, The Last Hour, Special Ops 1.5, OK Computer, Aspirants, Grahan, The Empire and The Whistleblower for trying – or failing. Compare this to our first web year ender in 2017, when we were so short of skill that I felt obliged to mention that it was more of a “least worst” ranking than a “best” one. 

This year, I find it strange – in a good way, I suppose – that a majority of the mentions here are sophomore seasons. We aren’t exactly known to follow up promising starts with worthy sequels, so the “2” rounding off most titles is encouraging. It’s a way forward without flogging a dead horse (like Inside Edge 3, 4, 5, 10). Having said that, it’s perhaps fitting that the year’s best is an original. 

Here are 5 of the best in 2021, ranked:

5. Gullak 2 (SonyLIV)

Once I got over the smug voiceover by the titular character (a piggy bank), I grew to appreciate the middle-class-vignette tone of this affectionate family dramedy. And the nothingness. The constant chatter. The anatomy of the Mishras’ cramped space. The petty ego hassles. Immersiveness need not be centered on the need to engage the viewer. There were times I zoned out, looked away, daydreamed, scrolled through social media, ate and zoned back in the way one might at a small party. This is a kind of immersiveness too, albeit one that reveals more of life than cinema. The din is comforting, the voices dissolve into the background; the people and conversations aren’t as important as the sound of human company itself. Gullak 2 is what happens to you when you’re busy making Paatal Lok-sized plans in life. And that’s perfectly fine.

4. Aarya 2 (Disney+ Hotstar)

The second season takes a while to get going – inherently not as fertile as the first one – but Sushmita Sen drives Aarya 2 with an integrity rarely seen before in mainstream web storytelling. Even when Aarya’s arc is inevitable – the hunted morphing into the hunter and all that – Sen manages to surprise with her body language: there’s not a moment she seems comfortable in a man’s world of filth, but there’s also not a moment she seems incompetent. It’s a fine balance. Unlike most female-driven narratives that insist on legitimizing their courage (by making them cops or spies), Aarya – like Kahaani once did – weaponizes the language of motherhood without turning it into a marauding statement. The way the upper-middle-class lady in crisis speaks is at odds with the way she moves and how she thinks – a trait that turns Aarya 2 into a sum that’s bigger than its familiar parts. It’s good to see co-creator/director Ram Madhvani back in form after the anomaly that was Dhamaka. 

3. Mumbai Diaries 26/11 (Amazon Prime Video)

I’d be lying if I say I approached yet another Indian 26/11 dramatization with great optimism. But Mumbai Diaries 26/11, by the sheer will of conviction and craft, restored my faith in the oft-abused genre. That I was disarmed was down to my own cynicism in how Hindi cinema turns everything into a national statement. Who knew the infamous terrorist attack lent itself to the slow-burning parameters of the long format? I was riveted by the series, playing out almost in real time from the perspective of the medical community in a hospital under siege – by its faces, by their mistakes and flaws and crippling humanity, by the characters’ courage in the face of overwhelming history, by the writers’ refreshing decision to make the system/establishment the real villain, and by the show’s neat balance of emotional momentum and cultural authenticity. It’s true that the bar is low for terrorist thrillers, especially with the current climate of Islamophobia in the country. But Mumbai Diaries stuck to the basics, without letting the moment overwhelm its stacked narrative.

2. The Family Man 2 (Amazon Prime Video)

In the years to come, I suspect The Family Man franchise will headline the syllabi of Indian film schools – not just for its craft and uncanny mastery of commercial storytelling, but also for its growing significance in an age of cultural intolerance, establishment rage and digital bans. Manoj Bajpayee’s foul-mouthed Srikant Tiwari and his merry gang are a symbol of how to say everything by revealing nothing. Like its predecessor, The Family Man 2 walks an outrageous minefield, wryly blending personal drama and political commentary under the guise of an ordinary-superspy plot. The result is a genuinely memorable sequel to a terrific opening season, with meme-worthy characters and an action template that raises the bar for Indian long-form filmmaking. After all, what are we if not Chellam Sirs sauntering in and out of someone else’s frames? 

1. Tabbar (SonyLIV)

With every week since its release, Tabbar has grown in stature and perception. For instance, today, I think of it as a series that peak-form Vishal Bhardwaj might have made if he entered the long-form OTT space. A Shakespearean family drama by night and a morality thriller by day, Tabbar is unrelenting in its grasp of the unsuspecting viewer – we see the Punjab not of Bollywood dreams but of real-life nightmares, with a family wearing their averageness and victimhood as a ruse to hoodwink a system with oily fingers. All along, the writing seems to ask: Even if you outwit your environment, can you outrun yourself? The series is extremely well made and performed – featuring a career-best turn by veteran Pavan Malhotra – that even when the tension is muddled, the question never loses its power. The answer is equally tough: In India, winning for your family often comes at the cost of losing yourself. 

Special Mentions:

Break Point (ZEE5)
Easily the most watchable Indian docu-series in recent memory, the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi ‘tragedy’ is neatly crafted, compiled and contextualized.

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