Best Bollywood Films 2020: Monkey chasers, a woman in the sky and a wife for whom one slap was one too many
Here are my picks of the best among the Hindi releases of 2020, from Thappad to Gunjan Saxena, Eeb Allay Ooo! and Raat Akeli Hai.
When the COVID19 pandemic put the brakes on cinema worldwide, it did not help that once the Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood tentatively started premiering films on streaming platforms, their quality was monumentally disappointing by and large. Still, there were some that shone in this otherwise bleak year. Here are my picks of the best among the Hindi releases of 2020 – in theatres and online (films that were showcased at festivals alone are not included).
Note: Since so few new films were out this year in comparison with Bollywood’s annual average, I have made a list of my Top 6 instead of the usual Top 10.
After creating waves on the festival circuit in India and abroad in 2019-20, debutant director Prateek Vats’ poignant Eeb Allay Ooo! came to theatres here in December 2020. Vats tells a story – written by Shubham – of Lutyens’ Delhi’s ‘monkey chasers’ whose job it is to ensure that the simians do not harass bureaucrats and politicians. Their work is challenging and dangerous since on the one hand the beasts could turn violent, while on the other hand their every move is watched by both animal rights activists and religious folk.
Eeb Allay Ooo!’s title is drawn from the sounds the protagonist (Shardul Bhardwaj) is taught to make by his mentor to scare away these primates. The film is a blistering commentary on the Big City’s use-and-throw attitude to poor migrant workers who are treated as expendables although their services are indispensable.
Saumyananda Sahi’s brilliant cinematography and Bigyna Bhushan Dahal’s true-to-life sound design complement each other in Eeb Allay Ooo! to capture a Delhi of cringe-worthy contrasts, with imposing buildings housing the powerful elite of the capital, secluded residential areas inhabited by society’s upper crust and noisy, congested, decrepit back alleys occupied by those like our hero who keep the homes and workplaces of the privileged running and safe.
Eeb Allay Ooo! feels as real as if it were a reality show or a documentary feature. Heartbreaking. And beautiful.
2. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Another debutant delivers. A biographical account of a pioneering Indian combat aviator, first-time director Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl does what few Hindi films have done before: it examines the social conditioning and pressure that influence women’s career choices, casual misogyny in daily life and extreme misogyny at workplaces. Janhvi Kapoor plays the titular protagonist who is passionate about flying, joins the Indian Air Force (IAF) and stays the course in the face of morale-crushing patriarchy and humiliation.
Written by Nikhil Mehrotra, Sharma himself and Hussain Dalal (who is credited with additional dialogues), Gunjan Saxena is surprisingly low-key for a film about the defence services and an actual recent war. It scores with its honesty about Saxena’s reason for choosing her profession, its matter-of-fact approach to the IAF rather than canonisation as is the wont of most Hindi war films and its refusal to translate patriotism into ugliness or loudness in keeping with the current establishment-backed dominant public discourse.
Not surprisingly, when it was released on Netflix in August, the film earned the IAF’s wrath for its portrayal of prejudice within the Force.
Visually spectacular in scenes where Saxena is airborne, with some lovely music to boot, Gunjan Saxena is inspiring and uplifting.
In a country where it is the norm to react to accounts of domestic violence with “but the woman must have done something to provoke him”, it takes courage to make an entire film on what society is likely to describe as “just one slap” (thappad). Producer-director Anubhav Sinha and actor Taapsee Pannu are nothing if not courageous though, and so in 2020, they teamed up for a second time, this time to give us Thappad co-written by Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul and Sinha himself.
Pannu here plays a stay-at-home wife jolted out of years of inertia and conformism when her husband publicly assaults her one day. Apart from its pathbreaking zero tolerance for spousal abuse, the other stand-out element in Thappad is its spotlight on a likeable man who realises that he – like most liberal fathers in real life – has not been as liberal with his wife as he is with his daughter.
A powerful, unnerving film.
Numero uno casting director Honey Trehan made his directorial debut with this noirish murder mystery set in a north India where women survivors of sexual abuse, irrespective of class, are shamed while their predators are let off by society. Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raat Akeli Hai (The Night Is Alone / Lonely / Solitary) plays a middle-aged policeman investigating the murder of a wealthy old man on the night of his wedding to a woman young enough to be his child.
Smita Singh’s writing of this crime saga is as taut as a tightrope, politically aware, detailed and thrilling. DoP Pankaj Kumar’s frames here are among the best seen in a Hindi film this decade. And the large cast – Siddiqui, Radhika Apte as the widowed bride and Ila Arun as the policeman’s mother, among others – is the closest to perfection you will find anywhere.
5. Class of 83
After many years in relative oblivion, Bobby Deol chose wisely and well when he signed up for Class of ’83. Director Atul Sabharwal’s crime drama is about a disillusioned senior policeman (Deol) who taps young new recruits in the Mumbai force to assemble his personal band of vigilantes and finish off the underworld by off-the-books means. Deol is well used in this ensemble cast film in which he co-stars with five fantastic debutants – Sameer Paranjape, Hitesh Bhojraj, Bhupendra Jadawat, Ninad Mahajani and Prithvik Pratap – playing his character’s protégés.
Mario Poljac’s mood photography and Viju Shah’s music round off the film’s technical finesse.
Class of ’83 is a fine sample of minimalist cinema in which not a word, not a shot, not a single musical note is superfluous. Engrossing and memorable.
Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana star as Lucknowis warring over a decaying haveli in director Shoojit Sircar’s philosophically inclined Gulabo Sitabo written by his regular collaborator, Juhi Chaturvedi. The protagonists’ battle over a piece of property while displaying no affection for Amma, the woman to whom it belongs, is open to multiple interpretations. Irrespective of which one your mind turns to, Gulabo Sitabo is gloriously entertaining, folksy fun, not the least so because of the prominence accorded to Amma played with panache by the octogenarian actor Farrukh Jafar, the attention to detail in the writing of an array of eccentric supporting characters, and the richness of the language used.
Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhayay’s shots of Amma’s haveli are a thing of beauty. The music is as mischievous and thoughtful by turns as the story itself. And the gender inversion of Uttar Pradesh’s Gulabo-Sitabo puppetry tradition is one of many unobtrusive ways in which this one-of-a-kind film cocks a snook at convention.
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