The top twenty Indian movies from 2021
DIVERSE CINEMA ACROSS DIFFERENT GENRES AND LANGUAGES THAT ROSE ABOVE THE REST, ACROSS THE PAST 12 MONTHS
IT MAY have been a horrible year for Bollywood, but that didn’t stop the various regional Indian film industries from delivering delightful gems, across a wide variety of genres. This resulted in one of the most interesting years for Indian cinema with diverse languages, stories, and styles of filmmaking.
Eastern Eye went back across the last 12 months to select the top 20 Indian films of 2021, in no particular order, because they all deserve to be seen.
Avijatrik: The Bengali language drama premiered at the Kolkata International Film Festival last January and has been on an interesting journey since then, including a screening at the 2021 London Indian Film Festival. It was billed as the sequel to legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s iconic Apu Trilogy, which ended in 1959, and shows what happens to the legendary character next and his overwhelming desire to explore the world. It was always going to be a mammoth task to attempt a project like this, but Subhrajit Mitra revisits a classic over 60 years later and does it wonderfully well.
Mandela: The Tamil language comedy-satire released on Netflix and delivered a clever take on global politics with a simple village-set story. It revolves around two warring half-brothers using caste divides, rivalry, and bribery to get elected as the next leader, but not bothering too much about policy. When the results come out as an exact tie, someone dismissed as the village idiot has the casting vote. The intelligent film filled with funny moments and clever comedy was unlucky not to be selected as India’s official Oscar entry.
Tribhanga – Tedhi Medhi Crazy: Actress turned writer-director Renuka Shahane delivered an absorbing story of human relationships. Kajol plays a short-tempered actress, who rushes to the hospital when her estranged mother falls into a coma. Also, at the emergency room is the fiery film star’s own grown-up, pregnant daughter and a young man writing an autobiography about her author mother. What follows is the story of three generations of women from the same family, filled with deep pain, unresolved issues, and unexpressed emotions. The Netflix release with multiple layers and emotional shades may even make you re-evaluate relationships with your own family members.
Cinema Bandi: The Telugu language comedy premiered on Netflix and was a big surprise. An autorickshaw driver finds an expensive camera left behind by a passenger and gets the inspired idea of using it to make a movie, despite having zero knowledge about the process, and tries to get the entire village involved. Meanwhile, the irate original owner is desperately trying to find the camera. The endearing comedy showed that when a story is good enough there is no need for stars to make it shine brightly.
WOMB (Women of My Billion): The 2021 London Indian Film Festival opened with this emotional documentary about one determined woman’s 3,800-kilometre walk from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India to Kashmir in the north. Along the 228-day journey, she discovers human stories of women and young girls across India. Her long trek is intercut with three brave women telling personal stories of tragedy and how they found a way out of darkness. The determined young woman also finds hope, answers, and allies in an important mustwatch movie.
Abhijaan: A film for fans of classic Bengali cinema, it explores the life of legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee. One of the last cinematic works to feature the late great Indian legend was screened at the London Indian Film Festival. The film, which goes back and forth in time, not only shares an extraordinary life of a great artist, but also gives an intriguing look at Indian art house cinema. A strong cast comes together to deliver a fitting tribute to a cinematic giant and allows him to tell his own story.
Honsla Rakh: The most successful Punjabi release of 2021 clocked up huge box office numbers globally. Diljit Dosanjh, Sonam Bajwa and Shehnaaz Gill star in the laughter-filled film about a divorced father, who raises his son single-handedly and faces problems when he starts dating again. Things gets complicated when the child’s mother re-enters his life. The comedy has many stand-out moments and great performances. There is also strong music, a nice overseas setting and plenty of relatable moments.
Mara Pappa Superhero: The Gujarati comedy-drama had its European premiere at the London Indian Film Festival. The story revolves around an impoverished girl with a big heart, who begins to believe her street vendor father is a fearless superhero and goes on a quest to prove it. The family-friendly feel-good film reconnects audiences to the wonders of childhood and has a fairy tale-like quality. The light-hearted story has an uplifting energy, largely thanks to a well-written screenplay and a standout performance from young Bhavya Sirohi.
Skater Girl: The Indo-American production is a great girl power infused film driven by an original concept. The Hindi and English language film revolves around a young British woman, who travels to a small village and introduces the young kids to skateboards. One of them is a lower caste young girl living in biting poverty, who suddenly has her life transformed by skating and goes on an empowering journey. The simple Netflix film with a big giant beating heart offers up a multi-layered story with heart-warming scenes from start to finish.
#Home: The Amazon Prime release is a light-hearted Malayalam language comedy-drama about a doting father, who feels disconnected from his technology-obsessed children. This leads him to set out on a journey to get more closely connected to a smartphone and the social media-driven new world he finds himself in. The film manages to mix up humour with more emotional moments, but what makes it special is that this is a rare Indian film with an older protagonist, and an interesting exploration of a very relevant cross-generational divide.
Searching for Happiness: A four-year-old girl named Shahida puts a smiling face on a balloon and releases it from the rooftop to spread happiness. Shahida starts missing her balloon and runs away in search of it. The innocent youngster wanders the hazardous streets of Kolkata, and we meet real life people looking for their own happiness. Meanwhile, her desperately worried mother starts a frantic search. The beautifully written hour-long film explores happiness in a simple manner and effectively puts across its life-affirming message.
Master: The Tamil language action thriller headlined by superstar actors Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi was one of the few commercial Indian entertainers that clocked up huge box office figures, along with getting good reviews. The Amazon Prime movie revolves around a feared gangster using young boys to build his dishonest empire clashing with an alcoholic, free-spirited professor sent to teach at a juvenile centre. The story of two determined men with a dark past, has sharp camera work, big dialogues, larger than life leads and well-defined characters.
Dostojee: The highly accomplished Bengali drama premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and received well-deserved praise. Director Prasun Chatterjee delivers a delightful film debut with the poignant story of two eight-year-old boys in a Bengal village, who get caught in a fast-spreading climate of religious intolerance. Although the story of boyhood and friendship beyond boundaries is set in the early 1990s, it is a very relevant film in today’s times and shows how innocent young children get caught up in conflict created by adults.
Bombay Rose: India has an awful reputation when it comes to animated feature films and that is why Bombay Rose was like a beautiful breath of fresh air. The animated Netflix release is an artistically made love story rich in colours and loaded with imaginative touches. There is an escaped child bride in the underbelly of a city, whose only release is imagining a life during a fairy tale-like Mughal era. There is a street-smart hustler and an elderly woman in a broken-down old apartment, who imagines herself living in a bygone era. The beautifully animated movie presents a fairy tale like story of love, hope and dreaming of a better life.
Once Upon A Time In Calcutta: The film, which premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival, was described as a cinematic poem to contemporary Kolkata. The story revolves around a bereaved woman driven to go on what turns out to be an emotional and challenging journey. Along the way, we meet others trying to get a better life in a beautiful city that can be unforgiving and has hidden secrets. The wonderfully shot drama adds an interesting artistry to each of the scenes.
Joji: The Malayalam language family drama is an interesting adaptation of Macbeth. It revolves around the power play between three infantilised sons eager to get their inheritance when their strict overbearing father has a stroke. The youngest of these three brothers puts a cunning plan into motion and what follows is an unexpected story loaded with intrigue, set within the confines of a plantation where they all reside. The biggest hero of this engaging Amazon Prime drama is a well-written screenplay with unexpected turns and believable characters rooted in reality. This is the kind of Indian cinema adaptation Shakespeare deserves.
Invisible Demons: The Rahul Jain-directed documentary dazzled audiences at Cannes Film Festival, Zurich Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival before being acquired by streaming site MUBI. The immersive and at times unsettling documentary about the devastating effects of climate change is explored through the stories of some of Delhi’s 30 million inhabitants. The hard-hitting look at the effects of pollution, especially on the poor, is a timely film that puts across an important message and gives a chilling reminder that we need to act.
Pagglait: This smart black-comedy drama premiered on Netflix and revolves around an unapologetic widow. Sanya Malhotra brilliantly plays a young woman, whose husband dies not long after their wedding and instead of being devastated, she seems to be indifferent. As grieving close relatives become perplexed, she goes on a unique journey to take control of her life and finds some unexpected truths along the way. The story-driven gem finds light-heartedness in a tragedy and has a consistently good cast making great use of the unique material.
Karnan: The hard-hitting Tamil language action drama headlined by superstar actor Dhanush sees him play the powerful title role. The rural story based on real events revolves around a villager fighting for the rights of his oppressed community. The wonderfully shot film may be a difficult watch in places, but it tackles important themes and tells a compelling story about rising up. If you look closer you will realise there are plenty of parallels to the classic Mahabharata.
Koozhangal: India’s official entry for the 2022 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film premiered at various international festivals. This included winning the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Set in rural India, the Tamil language film is a simple story of a bad-tempered villager and his son’s journey through a desolate village to find his wife, who has fled their home with her young daughter. What the film lacks in plot and drama, it makes up for with breath-taking cinematography that beautifully captures the vastness of an unforgiving rural life.