(Editor's note: At the recent Berlin Film Festival held between 11 - 21 February 2016, National award-winning film Ottaal won the prestigious Crystal Bear, as voted by the Children's Jury.)
Before the film awards calendar takes off in our country, come lists by film critics of their choice of Best Films from the year gone by. This is mine. Keep in mind that this is a compilation of best Indian films released in 2015 from among those I watched; it covers fiction features in all languages, not documentaries.
Feel free to disagree – civilly, of course. After all, IMHO – as we say in this age of acronyms – the whole point of watching films is the fun of arguing over them with friends afterwards.
Here you go then: my list of Best Indian Films 2015.
Winner: Ottaal (The Trap) / Malayalam
If Alfonso Cuaron had decided to set Gravity in Kerala’s backwaters, Ottaal is what it might have been.
Veteran director Jayaraj’s film revolves around a bright-eyed little boy called Kuttapaayi, his relationship with his grandfather who is a duck keeper, and their bond with nature.It is the sort of film that can overwhelm you with its awareness of the immensity of Creation, a reminder of the little dots that we are – tiny yet significant – when seen in the context of the expanse of the universe. It is about innocence lost and exploited, a child cruelly plucked out of his placid surroundings to be chucked into the country’s labour force, as an allegory for the havoc humans wreak on the natural scheme of things.
Kuttanad is so scenic that an amateur could point a cellphone camera in any direction and capture loveliness, but cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan takes this handybeauty to another level altogether through his lens, delivering poetry in motion and stillness on screen. The unspoilt, untouched feel of the film is further enhanced by the effortlessness of the non-actors playing the leads, Ashanth K Sha as Kuttapaayi and Kumarakom Vasudevan (a fisherman in real life) as the old man.
Ottaal is derived from the 19th century Russian short story Vanka by Anton Chekhov. The film is so rooted in its surroundings, that few viewers would have figured out the foreign literary source if the filmmaker had not credited it. The acknowledgement is a reminder though that its rootedness is accompanied by a certain indefinable timelessness and placelessness that lends itself well to this universal theme.
After all, every age has had its enemies of innocence and harmony. Chekhov found them 130 years ago in a shoemaker’s establishment in Moscow. Jayaraj found his in the 21st century, stealing from the wetlands of Kuttanad.Beautiful.
First Runner-Up: Court / Marathi with Hindi, English, Gujarati
Court is debutant writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s slap in the face of India’s judicial processes, layered with insights about caste, class and gender.
A sewage worker in Mumbai dies and instead of investigating the terrible work conditions that led to his end, the government cries suicide, charging an inconvenient Dalit activist-singer with performing an inflammatory song that allegedly incited the poor man to take his own life. The bizarre yet believable story is augmented by an excellent cast and unobtrusive, supremely confident direction.
Imagine an Indian lower court being transposed to a non-sensational, non-gossipy Bigg Boss house where cameras stay switched on for 24 hours to record the proceedings– that is how incredibly realistic Court is. Tragic, thoughtful, touching.
Second Runner-Up: Kaaka Muttai / Tamil
A deceptively simple film about a couple of slum children in Chennai, M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai is as sad as it is curiously uplifting. The pivotal characters– as lovable as two little humans can get – nickname themselves Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg Jr) and Periya Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg Sr) after their unusual eating habitsthat see them stealing from birds’ nests. When a swish pizza outlet opens up right next to their slum, they begin craving those slices of cheese-laden promise that they have seen in television advertisements.
Their food quest sets off a chain of events that casts a spotlight on the horrendous class divides in our megapolises where hovels abut high-rise prosperity, luxe malls, homes and eateries, where the welfare of the poor is a mere tool in the hands of a city’s power-brokers.
Iyshwarya Rajesh is impeccable as the boys’ composed, hard-working mother. The little ones themselves, J Vignesh and V Ramesh, are cute as buttons and good actors to boot.
Kaaka Muttai is one of the sweetest, most charming commentaries on poverty, hypocrisy, self-respect and the human spirit that you will ever see.
Third Runner-Up: Dum Laga Ke Haisha / Hindi
A reductive description of Dum Laga Ke Haisha could be this: a good-looking boy, forced to marry a fat girl, mistreats her because he is repelled by her weight and his own inability to withstand family pressure.But being reductive would go against the very essence of writer-director Sharat Katariya’s marvelously uncommon film, which refuses to limit its heroine to her physicality.
Sure, she is the antithesis of the stick figures that crowd today’s cinema and catwalks, but she is also a brand ambassador for resilience, education, aspirationsand a sense of self-worth. Yes, her husband’s response to her proportions is a pivotal point of the film, but neither she nor the director’s gaze defines her by it.
Adding to the entertainment quotient of Dum Laga Ke Haisha is its tribute to the music and dance of 1990s Hindi cinema, especially through the hero’s love for Kumar Sanu. In this context, the choreography in the final song is particularly enjoyable, as is actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s ability to transport us back two decades through his moves.
Debutant Bhumi Pednekar as the central character and Ayushmann as her under-confident spouse, shine despite being surrounded by a cast of very strong supporting actors. Their performances, like the film’s narrative, are pitch perfect.
5. Talvar / Hindi
This fictionalised account of the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murder case, almost-documentary-like in its storytelling style, is chilling in its take on how the system could consume ordinary citizens to cover up its mistakes. Meghna Gulzar’s direction partnered by auteur Vishal Bhardwaj’s flawless writing throws new light on a double killing that rocked this nation in 2008.
There is a commendable matter-of-factness to the Rashomon-style narrative, which offers multiple accounts of the crime and its investigation, variously portraying the parents as guilty or innocent of the murders. The detached tone is sustained throughout, barring a few moments in a strand that holds the parents guilty, in which Neeraj Kabi indulges in some seemingly deliberate, farcical acting when he, as Aarushi’s father,discoversher body.
That being said, there is no doubt about who the film sides with and where it stands. Some people see this as a lack of objectivity. Since when didobjectivity come to mean not having an opinion?
Talvar offers the sort of unrelenting, meticulous scrutiny given to the case by the few responsible journalists who covered it noiselessly in the midst of the cacophony unleashed by the rest of the media. It is a film about the gaping gulf between co-existing social classes, about the inherent problems in India’s criminal justice system and about news professionals gone berserk.
The stellar cast is led by Irrfan Khan who is, in a word, brilliant.
6. Pathemari / Malayalam
When he is at his best, Mammooty has the ability to reach into our weeping bosoms, tear out our hearts and rip them to tiny, tiny shreds. This is precisely what he does in Pathemari.
Director Salim Ahamed’s emotionally gripping film has the veteran playing Pallickal Narayanan, a man who spends 50 years of his life slaving away at menial jobs in Dubai to make life better for his family back home. The kudumbam does not know his struggles and for the most part, remains indifferent to his suffering.
As much as this is a film about immigrants, it is also about how patriarchy saps men of so much in its bid to dominate social power structures, to retain power and wealth in male hands. The film begs the question more people ought to ask: Why, oh why, do men fight so hard to preserve a back-breaking, potentially life-destroying system where they are the primary breadwinners of a family and women the care-givers?
Though it wouldn’t have hurt the story to reduce the halo around Narayanan’s head just a tad bit, so much can be forgiven considering the emotional heft Ahamed achieves inthis film. My heart broke for Pallickal Narayanan when I watched Pathemari. It aches now each time I think of him. What more can you ask of a film?
7. Drishyam / Hindi and Papanasam / Tamil
When Malayalam director Jeethu Joseph made the Mohanlal-Meena-starrer Drishyam in 2013(considered by many to be an uncredited adaptation of the Japanese novel The Devotion of Suspect X),it seemedunlikely thatanyone would better it. And then someone did. Twice in 2015. One of those someones is Jeethu himself.
Director Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam improves upon the lovely original with a casting touch here and an acting moment there,in what is a legit Hindi remake of the Malayalam film. This is the story of two socially divergent worlds colliding, a crime of self-defence and an absolute genius of a cover-up. The architect of the whitewash is a small businessman in rural Goa (Ajay Devgn) who is out to protect his wife (Shriya Saran) and daughters from a police investigation.
The differences between the Malayalam and Hindi versions are barely discernible yet unmistakable. The wife here is portrayed as a stronger woman. As the film rolls along, she progresses from being a mere participant to the man’s partner in his plan. There is more liberalism too in their traditionalhousehold and their conversations with each other.Besides, the reduced age difference between the lead actors here automatically makes her appear more like his equal than his ward.
This Drishyam is, without a doubt, one of the best thrillers ever to emerge from the Hindi film industry.
Papanasam is Jeethu Joseph’s own Tamil remake of his Malayalam film. Starring veterans Kamal Haasan and Gautami – both superb – itreleased just weeks before the Hindi film. Although it is more faithful to the original’s conservatism than the Hindi film, the one element that puts it on an equal footing with the Bollywoodinterpretation is the central casting.
Unlike his contemporary Mohanlal, Kamal here is not acting with a woman who looks and is young enough to be his daughter. The generational proximity between him and Gautami makes theirs automatically come across as more of a partnership than the senior-junior dynamic between the leads in Malayalam,even though both stories feature conformist patriarchal set-ups.
The lead couple’s raging libido too gets an unspoken new dimension in the Tamil film because of the casting. Rarely are stars of Kamal’s seniority shown lusting after wives played by actresses their age. Equally rare are actresses in their 40s portraying women who are openly sexually active. The 14 years that separate Kamal and Gautami is not a small difference, but it is still a refreshing change from the two- and three-decade age gaps between him or his male peers and actresses they romance in commercial Indian cinema.
This unexpected progressiveness is somewhat marred by the completely needless couple of references to rape – however passing they may be – in Papanasam. It is a good thing that those distasteful few seconds whiz by towards the beginning of the film, before Papanasam settles down into being what it is meant to be: a socially perceptive, edge-of-the-seat suspense saga. That it could hold the attentionof even a critic who had already seen two versions of the same story on screen, is a measure of its extreme effectiveness.
8. NH10 / Hindi
A brave, gritty thriller cum social exposition that marked actress Anushka Sharma’s debut as producer. Set in the part of Haryana that is just adjacent to Delhi’s posh suburban sibling Gurgaon, NH10 is a terrifyingly revelatory film.
There are worlds within worlds in this country, and just off the arterial National Highway No. 10 is a world where a professional woman in non-traditional clothing zipping past in an SUV with a husband she chose for herself is no less than an alien from outer space. It is this misogynistic space that Meera accidentally enters one day in Navdeep Singh’s tautly directed, breath-stoppingly told NH10.
The outstanding satellite cast is headlined by Darshan Kumaar whose second screen outing here shows him up to be a remarkably versatile talent. His first was as Priyanka Chopra’s low-key, supportive husband in 2014’s Mary Kom.
Anushka is a worthy fulcrum, inhabiting her character with a vengeance that her more bubbly roles have not necessarily allowed. Explosive and memorable.
9. Piku/ Hindi
An entrepreneur with a short temper, her father who is obsessed with his bowels and his beti, and an exasperated cab company owner – this odd trio forms the focus of the very unusual Piku. It is a risky film that pays off.
How often do we see a mainstream film anywhere in the world filled with poop humour that is ridiculous but not yucky, distasteful or immature? This is director Shoojit Sircar’s latest team-up with writer Juhi Chaturvedi. In Vicky Donor they pulled off an unexpectedly sensitive film about a sperm donor in which, as storytellers, they knew precisely what not to say to avoid being icky. This time they roll out a ream of potty jokes that donotdiminish Piku’s gentle heart, its progressive, feminist core or its courage to speak up about a hugely taboo topic in this country, selfish parents.
Amitabh Bachchan is delicious as an affectionate stereotype of Bengalis, not a contemptuous caricature. Deepika Padukone as the titular heroineis her usual easy self before the camera. And Irrfan should now be anointed The Other King Khan.
Seriously. At least in the Hindi film awards scenario, it might be safe to permanently reserve a slot for him on annual nominations lists. That Piku, without warning, serves up crackling yet comfortable chemistry between him and Deepika is a testament to their talent as much as the intelligent writing.
I did long for some moments of quietude between the father and daughter in the film, but compensation for that grouse comes in the form of the many mellow conversations between the girl and Irrfan’s character.
One of the nice things about Shoojit is the manner in which he has generously ensured that Juhi has been equally celebrated for the successes of Vicky Donor and Piku.Theirs is a writer-director match made in heaven. Inshallah, for the sake of good cinema, may they work together repeatedly in future.
10. Killa / Marathi
This has been a good year for films on children. What makes Ottaal, Kaaka Muttai and Killa stand out is that they are not condescending towards the little ones at the centre of their stories and they do not thrive on precociousness.
Killa is about a boy struggling with the loss of a much-loved father and the simultaneous pain of moving to a new town. It is a lyrical, slow-moving, ruminative film filled with moments of deep, deep affection and empathy between Chinmay, played by young Archit Deodhar, and his gutsy mother (Amruta Subhash).
The fine acting is complemented by Avinash Arun’s lovingly composed frames. This is Avinash’s first film as director, although he already has an impressive CV as a cinematographer that includes director Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam (No. 6 on this list) and the much-lauded Masaan that is not on this list only because 2015 has been such a wonderful time for quality Indian cinema that there has been a rush of films to choose from. Killa – written by the director’s FTII junior Tushar Paranjape – is one of the little gemstones in the year’s accumulated wealth.