Best Indian Films 2019: Poetry and courage across languages, from Assamese to Hindi, Khasi, Malayalam and more
2019 was a year in which small films in the Assamese and Khasi languages drew eyeballs, and the Kerala-based film industry aka Mollywood outdid itself.
2019 was a year in which small films in the Assamese and Khasi languages drew eyeballs beyond their traditional audiences, the Kerala-based film industry aka Mollywood outdid itself, and its counterparts in Bollywood under-performed. In this year that no seer could have predicted, here is a list of my favourite Indian films, with the top spot going to one that enjoyed an unprecedented months-long run in theatres across India, from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai and the National Capital Region.
1: Kumbalangi Nights / Malayalam
Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights feels like what you might get if you were to sit by your window in a house in Kumbalangi – a tourist village on the outskirts of Kochi – and gaze at life as it passes by. Realism has never been as enjoyable, educational and romantic as it is in this delicately woven saga of a dysfunctional family. A couple frolicking in the bioluminescence in the waters outside their home, an angry woman telling her boyfriend her biopic could be titled “The Girl Who Fell For An Idiot” and a generally lighthearted veneer partner this film’s grave concerns ranging from patriarchy to mental health. At once hilarious and thoughtful, Kumbalangi Nights is a sublime experience.
2: Aamis / Assamese
Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis revolves around the attraction between a married doctor and a PhD student in Assam. A love of meat here becomes a metaphor for carnal longings, but gets a whole new layer in this story’s setting, since India’s North East is othered by the rest of the country for, among other reasons, its differing food choices. Only a deliciously wacko mind could zero in on this everyday reality and mould it into the surrealism of Aamis. If you have seen Kothanodi, you already know Hazarika has just such a mind.
Aamis is about sexual desire in a repressive society and the definition of “normal”. It is scrumptiously twisted and an electric shock to India’s cinematic conventions.
3: Iewduh / Khasi
Iewduh is set in an iconic marketplace in Shillong, which serves as a microcosm of Indian society. While the film’s characters go about their daily grind, the hustle and bustle of the bazaar absorbs a constant and lethal churning. Pradip Kurbah’s naturalistic storytelling is perfect for this slice-of-life film in which a community seems largely unmoved by a battered wife’s cries that are now a background score to their lives, but kindness too rears its head amidst apathy and despair. Iewduh is a beautiful film, and Kurbah one of the most significant voices to emerge from Indian cinema this decade.
4: Virus / Malayalam
How Keralites joined hands in 2018 to contain a deadly Nipah outbreak forms the story of Aashiq Abu’s Virus. The film’s clinical tone mirrors what must have been the business-like persistence of the politicians, bureaucrats, healthcare professionals and average citizens involved in this real-life emergency. Virus’ massive ensemble cast featuring some of Malayalam cinema’s most respected names in big, small and even tiny roles serves to underline the importance of every available individual in a crisis, including those who have no clue that they served a role. The film is a stirring ode to human compassion and a reminder of the best that we can be in trying times.
5: Asuran / Tamil
In Asuran, writer-director Vetri Maaran gives his hero a larger-than-life persona and all the trappings usually reserved for upper-caste male leads in masala films. The protagonist journeys from defiance to pacifism then all-out aggression through his life-long battles with the caste system and class. Within a mainstream format, in a space most unexpected, Asuran demands that we step out of our privileged existence and confront the demonic force of caste in our midst.
6: Jallikattu / Malayalam
When a buffalo goes wild in a Kerala village in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, the men pursuing it go wilder. Their chase soon becomes an outlet for their true selves, a camouflage for personal battles and ultimately, the most imaginative deconstruction of the self-destructive nature of patriarchy seen on the Indian screen.
7: Super Deluxe / Tamil
Some of the biggest stars from Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam cinema come together in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s gut-wrenching Super Deluxe, which tells the stories in parallel of an unhappily married couple trying to dispose of a corpse, teenagers surreptitiously watching pornography, a trans woman returning to the wife and son she abandoned in an earlier life and a porn actor seeking hospital treatment for her child. The fine balance it strikes between its sense of humour and its sensitivity is one of Super Deluxe’s many achievements.
8. Article 15 / Hindi
In Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, an upper-caste policeman is dragged out of his privileged cocoon when two Dalit girls are raped and murdered in an Uttar Pradesh village where he is posted. Through the Dalit activists Gaura and Nishad, he is forced to confront the very real dangers faced by India’s most oppressed community. This line spoken by a policeman in Article 15, “Aap se nivedan hai Sir, santulan mat bigaadiye (I beg you Sir, don’t disrupt the balance),” must rank among the starkest samples of status quoism ever showcased in a Hindi film.
9. Hellaro / Gujarati
A group of women discover dance and with it the courage in their veins in Abhishek Shah’s Hellaro. The story is situated in an isolated Gujarat village where women have accepted domestic violence including rape as a way of life, even as some of them in turn target the less fortunate in their midst. Swept up in an outburst, a hellaro, a gust of energy and optimism when they chance upon dance, they learn the power of solidarity and find in it a reason to live.
10. Gully Boy / Hindi
In the richly rewarding Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar places a poor Muslim slumdweller in Mumbai’s underground rap scene. Gully Boy’s gripping story is bolstered by the addictive rhythms of the hero’s compositions and his infectious rebelliousness, which are the handiwork of a host of Indian rappers including Naezy and Divine whose lives Akhtar acknowledges as the inspiration for her film.
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