Best Indian Films 2016: Thithi, Visaranai and others prove small can be big, beautiful, bold
From Raam Reddy's Thithi, Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot, to Nagraj Manjule's Sairat, here are the best Indian films from 2016.
Like the 100-plus years that preceded it, in 2016 too India persisted with its passion for films: making them, watching them, discussing them with as much hunger as we shop for jewellery and consume street food.
My pick of 2016’s Best Indian Films (those that came to theatres, not festivals alone) covers the entire spectrum of cinema from low-budget indies to cash-rich, big-banner productions. If you have not seen them already, you have missed something.
BEST INDIAN FILMS:
Thithi / Kannada
Debutant director Raam Reddy’s Thithi is the story of four generations of men from one family in the Karnataka countryside. It takes us through 11 days after the demise of the eldest, leading up to the ceremony that his poverty-stricken family is compelled by custom to perform to mark his passing. A morbid subject on the face of it, but Reddy and his co-writer Eregowda turned it into a thoughtful, highly amusing yet never stereotypical observation of rural life and life itself, helped greatly by the cast of non-professionals drawn from the isolated village in which it is set.
Beginning with the Golden Leopard at Locarno 2015, Thithi won numerous awards at the international, national and state level, a testament to the universality of its themes and the relatability of its characters to audiences far removed from that secluded setting.
Visaranai / Tamil
I remained frozen in my chair and unable to speak for several minutes after I first watched Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai (Interrogation), a nerve-wracking account of police torture and police-politician ties in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The realistic portrayal, the superlative cast and the frightening knowledge that the film is based on activist-cum-autorickshaw-driver M. Chandrakumar’s real-life experiences (chronicled in his book Lock Up), made this one of the grisliest and most beautifully disturbing cinematic experiences of the year gone by.
Visaranai won an award at Venice 2015 and was selected as India’s entry to Oscars 2017.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali / Malayalam
Four films on this list feature atrocities against characters belonging to the one community most neglected by commercial Indian cinema: Dalits. As they are in the real world, caste, gender and class are inextricably intertwined in Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game), a deeply insightful take on Kerala society.
Human beings briefly cut off from their usual societal/civilisational ties have spawned great works of art in the past, from William Golding’s 1950 novel Lord of the Flies all the way back to Moses and the Israelites’ journey through the desert recorded in the Book of Exodus of the Bible. In Ozhivudivasathe Kali, on an election holiday in Kerala, a group of middle-aged male friends gather in a forest house, where underlying tensions burst on to the surface and a seemingly casual, childish game turns deadly. Based on a story by Unni R., the film rolls out in a deceptively understated fashion that heightens the impact of its horrifying climax.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali won the FIPRESCI award for Best Malayalam Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala 2015.
Shakun Batra’s film about a fractured family rediscovering itself broke new ground for Hindi cinema in many ways. It did not idolise family, but held up the Kapoors of Conoor as the true normal. It was that rare ensemble cast Hindi film with solid roles for senior character actors (Ratna Pathak, Rajat Kapoor and veteran Rishi Kapoor). And it had as one of its central figures a non-caricaturish gay man played by a mainstream male hottie, without his sexual orientation being a butt of jokes or the ‘issue’ around which the story revolved.
It takes courage to even envision such a venture as commercial fare, but Batra did. His producer Karan Johar backed him with a robust marketing campaign. The result: this poignant film ended up as one of 2016’s biggest money-spinners and one of the best reviewed works of the year.
5: Chauthi Koot / Punjabi
This is a film about fearful silences and dreadful in-betweens, about the inexorable wait for what could happen because you never know who might attack you for something as innocuous as your pet barking in the night. Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) – drawn from Waryam Singh Sandhu’s short story collection of the same name – is set in the decade when terrorism destroyed the peace in Punjab. It is an affecting portrait of perennially anxious families, caught in the suffocating space between the state and terrorists claiming to fight on their behalf.
Chauthi Koot was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival. It won 2015’s National Award for Best Punjabi Feature Film, while Thithi was Best Kannada Feature Film and Visaranai Best Tamil Feature Film. All three lost the overall Best Feature Film trophy to the more high-profile and flashy Bahubali.
6: Natasamrat / Marathi
Director Mahesh Manjrekar’s grand interpretation of V.V. Shirwadkar’s Marathi stage classic Natasamrat (The Emperor of Theatre) was one of the year’s biggest Marathi hits. Fuelled by Nana Patekar’s towering performance and sterling support from Vikram Gokhale, it tells the story of retired Shakespearean actor Ganpatrao Belwalkar perpetually reminiscing about his career in theatre while his own personal life crumbles in Lear-esque fashion.
This is a visually rich film with shades of grey in the narrative. It could have done without stereotypically positioning Ganpatrao’s daughter-in-law and daughter as the driving forces of the family split while presenting their husbands more kindly, but it remains noteworthy for refusing to gloss over the father’s follies, thus not unequivocally condemning the children.
Natasamrat is an indicator that Patekar is possibly bored of the Hindi roles offered to him, which may explain why he has been repetitive in his Bollywood outings unlike in Marathi cinema. I get goosebumps from the mere memory of that scene in which Gokhale’s character Ram – from his sickbed – and Ganpatrao (Patekar) engage in a dramatic conversation as Karna and Krishna.
This gem from director Ram Madhvani is based on the true story of Pan Am flight purser Neerja Bhanot who was killed while trying to save passengers on a hijacked flight in 1986. Madhvani struck just the right pitch and tone in Neerja, with support from an exceptional technical team to capture that claustrophobic aircraft, Saiwyn Quadras’ contemplative screenplay and a stupendous cast who captured the essence of this real-life heroine.
Neerja was Everywoman, young, lovely and good-hearted – yet when the call came, she proved that she was like no other. Sonam Kapoor in the title role was a picture of understatement, ensuring that this performance will for a while now be her calling card as an artist. With the slightest of gestures and expressions, she conveyed courage overruling panic and a million other emotions we can only assume Neerja Bhanot experienced on that fateful day.
When a film makes you feel like an eyewitness to an ordeal being recounted on screen 30 years after the fact, you know it is special.
8: Kammatipaadam / Malayalam
Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam is an account of how poor Dalits in old-time Kochi were driven out of their homes by the builders who transformed it into the megacity it is today, filled with high-rise residential complexes and other modern structures. There are wheels within wheels in this thriller, and an inter-caste romance running parallel to the main thread about the real-estate mafia. The most tragic aspect of the story is how Dalit goons were hired to execute evacuations, so that the community was pitted against itself, while the rich got richer at their expense.
Next step: a story of Dalits where the sutradhar is a Dalit, not a higher-caste member of their gang. Until that happens, there is this heart-rending film with its brilliant ensemble cast led by matinee idol Dulquer Salmaan, Vinayakan and Manikandan R. Achari.
Kammatipaadam is shrouded in an intense sadness that is hard to shrug off long after watching it. That feeling is caused, in no small measure, by the film’s haunting music. My earworm as I write this article is the song Puzhu pulikal, its melancholic tune, the impeccably chosen voices, and lyrics that speak of the injustices done to the original people of the land.
Anurag Kashyap’s essay on evil across class is one of the best in his filmography of 13 years as a director. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vicky Kaushal play Raman Raghav 2.0’s protagonists, two men divided by social strata but united in their addiction to violence. Vasan Bala and Kashyap’s writing was complemented by the year’s best ensemble cast from Bollywood (a hat tip here to casting director Mukesh Chhabra) and finesse in every aspect of the production.
Raman Raghav 2.0 is a cutting comment on society’s selective response to violence: a policeman assigned to protect a woman from a rustic serial killer looks the other way when her own boyfriend – an educated fellow cop – assaults her. As dominant patriarchal forces resist demands to criminalise marital rape in India, this is a highly relevant piece of cinema.
10: Sairat / Marathi
Love across caste divides was the theme of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (Wild), which has the distinction of being the biggest Marathi hit of all time. The film stands apart from most caste-themed Indian cinema for its plush packaging, complete with pretty pictures, a sense of fun and Ajay-Atul’s breezy songs. Sairat’s high entertainment quotient does not dilute its gravitas, though it does lull the senses to the extent that the macabre ending comes as an utter shock.
Sairat does need to be called out for a scene in which the hero Parshya (Akash Thosar) hits the heroine Archi (Rinku Rajguru), and his action is, by implication, equated with her whining about their post-elopement struggles. A film that is so sensitive about one undesirable reality cannot be absolved for its brief casualness towards another, i.e. domestic violence.
In the matter of caste though, Sairat is pathbreaking. When Archi and Parshya fall in love, they learn that battling social divides is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is this film.
Kali / Malayalam
I wonder if only a woman can fully understand the fear depicted in Kali (Anger), that sense of constantly being on edge without being fully conscious of it, until it becomes second nature because of the everydayness of harassment in our lives. I sat through this one too terrified to budge or breathe, worrying about what would happen next to Anjali (Sai Pallavi) and Siddharth (Dulquer Salmaan) in Sameer Thahir’s hair-raising thriller involving relationships, sexual violence and the worlds on the edge of our world.
Kothanodi / Assamese
Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi (The River of Fables) draws from Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s Buri Ai’r Xadu (Grandma’s Tales), a compendium of folk tales from Assam. Truth be told, I have questions about the unqualified depiction of the female stereotypes in these traditional stories: the wicked stepmother, for one. That said, I have not been able to get these creepy, weird, bizarre yarns, their atmospheric portrayal and the stunning settings out of my mind.
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