Tepid. If I had to encapsulate Hindi cinema in 2021 in one word, that would be it. Unimaginative storytelling, sloppy writing and remakes became the rule rather than the exception. The worst offenders were loud, creatively bankrupt star vehicles which peddled persona rather than narrative. But even in this morass of mediocrity, there were a few bright sparks. Here are a few of my favourites.
Meel Patthar (called Milestone on Netflix) is a plaintive character study of a truck driver named Ghalib. That little detail exemplifies the juxtapositions of this film – there is little poetry in the lives onscreen but so much lyricism in the way they have been rendered. Ivan is a master of stillness and the slow burn. Like his first film Soni, Meel Patthar is a film that accrues power with each scene. The film asks us to consider the cost of capitalist enterprise and the callousness with which those with power and money treat those without it. Without drama, sentimentality of even a background score, Ivan creates a deeply moving portrait of a man defined by his job. Meel Patthar is a stark lament for a world in which, as a character says, people have simply stopped listening.
Director Dibakar Banerjee and writer Varun Grover are artists, sociologists and social commentators. In Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar, they create a chase film which functions as a commentary on class, gender, toxic masculinity, capitalist greed and corruption. Nothing in the film is what it seems, starting with the names of the protagonists. The masculine-sounding Pinky is a suspended Haryana cop while the Sandeep is Sandy Walia, an upper-class achiever with questionable business ethics. The film begins with a terrific sequence of men in a land cruiser, careening down the Delhi highway, talking about women. At one point, they discuss what kind of a man wears pink. Pinky who can be both tough and tender shows us the possibilities of the colour. The film had solid performances, especially by Parineeti Chopra and a climax that was both stinging and satisfying.
'83 is a skilfully orchestrated crowd-pleaser. Director Kabir Khan takes a rousing story of an underdog team and cranks up the emotions, delivering an irresistible concoction of cricket, nostalgia and patriotism. And at the centre of it is a remarkable performance by Ranveer Singh who disappears into the role of team captain Kapil Dev. This is a film that inspires us to dare greatly. And also insists that we come back to theatres. Cheering, weeping and clapping with strangers as the Indian team picked up the World Cup was one of my favourite movie experiences of the year.
The last forty minutes or so of Sardar Udham counts as the finest filmmaking in the country in years. Director Shoojit Sircar and actor Vicky Kaushal wholly immerse us into the violence of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. We see open wounds, a severed hand, children dead and bleeding. Udham trips on bodies and bullet shells and cries into the night: Koi zinda hai. It is the heart of darkness rendered with such precision and skill that it renders you speechless. The film is a dramatized telling of the life of a man about whom little is known except that in 1940, he assassinated Sir Michael O' Dwyer who was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh genocide. Despite long stretches that are inert, the film lands a punch to the gut. And the world building – DOP Avik Mukhopadhyay, production designer Mansi Dhruv Mehta and international production designer – Dmitrii Malich – is immaculate. The film also shows us what genuine patriotism looks like.
Geeli Pucchi means wet kiss. Neeraj Ghaywan's short film is about the hesitant relationship between two women in a small town in North India. Bharti Mandal, who is female, Dalit and gay. Which means she is marginalized three times over. And Priya Sharma, an upper-caste, more affluent married woman. Neeraj and writer Sumit Saxena create a layered story which keeps twisting with exquisite subtlety. And Konkona Sen Sharma as Bharti delivers the performance of the year. The superb use of a steel mug encapsulates the complex emotions embedded in the story – loneliness, desire, resentment and revenge. Geeli Pucchi is terrific storytelling.
Special mention: Seema Pahwa's Ram Prasad ki Tehrvi, a compassionate gaze at the drama of the great Indian family.