2020 was the year that no one wanted, but couldn’t escape from: the deadly virus was, and is still, around us.
Everything changed. We were forced to clamp down on so many things we took for granted, especially those activities which led us towards gathering in large numbers. The movie hall became one of the first places to be ruled out of bounds; now, when theatres are slowly opening up, we are still reluctant to return to a place which entertained us, and transported us.
More than anything else, I will look back on this year as the one in which The Movies Came Home. As a long time film critic, my life has been divided into the times I spent inside darkened theatres, and the one outside. March-end onwards, I spent weeks trying not to get overwhelmed by the endless array of things to watch: ‘new’ Bollywood (and Hollywood, and every other language) films made a reluctant move towards streaming platforms, and OTT became my own home theatre. No inside-outside silos, just one long, endless blur of movies and shows.
And that’s the other thing I had to embrace – series and shows – which up until then, had always been an option, not an essential part of my viewing life. Putting aside my derision for ‘binge watching’ has been a huge learning curve. I can’t say I’m a happy binge-r still, but there you go.
And here I am, thinking of the movie memories of 2020, those numbers a perfect symmetry, but with nothing else that added up, with the gifted people we lost (Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, Sushant Singh Rajput, Saroj Khan, Jagdeep, Nishikant Kamath, Soumitra Chatterjee). These passings would have been tragic any other year, but in this one, the loss has been heavier, harder to handle.
Ordinarily, Angrezi Medium wouldn’t have made it to this list. But not only will I remember it as the last film I saw in a theatre this year (third week of March), it will be marked as the last time we saw Irrfan on screen. As a doting father, who will go to any lengths to make his demanding ‘beti’ happy, Irrfan lifted the strictly serviceable script as only he could. Within a month, he was gone.
Ditto for Dil Bechara, not Sushant Singh Rajput’s best, but one in which he reminded us of how difficult it is process untimely, shocking deaths. The film, quite aptly, was about two young people in love, and how they deal with difficult lives and impending deaths, and with it, we bade Rajput farewell.
Here are, in no particular order, some of the films that stood out for me. Right on top is Prateek Vat’s Eeb Allay Ooo, which has been doing the festival rounds and has arrived in theatres, just as the year is about to end. A biting satire of striking originality, it focusses on the plight of migrants, and people who live on the margins, through the very-specific-to-the-Rajdhani-sarkari-naukri of a man (Shardul Bhardwaj) who chases away monkeys. Who is more of a menace, the humans or the simians?
Meel Pathar, Ivan Ayr’s terrific tale of a man who counts out his time by the mileposts he passes, is another of my favourites of the year. Suvinder Vicky plays the trucker with countless miles on his clock, and a creaking back; Lakshvir Saran is the apprentice hungry to take-over. The former is called Ghalib, the latter, Pash, and the film is pure poetry.
Arun Karthick’s Nasir is a razor sharp film about a man who is nothing but gentle. All Nasir wants is to be able to live a life of fulfilment and dignity, with his family. His needs are modest. His ambition, too. He is caught at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and his fate mirrors so many others who have become casualties, in real life, of these polarised, communalised times.
Who is a serious man? A man we take seriously? Or a man who wants ‘seriousness’ as a label to be able to enter worlds which are not his automatically? Nawazudin Siddiqui in Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men (based on Manu Jospeh’s novel of the same name) channels deep-seated anger and malice to elevate his son’s position on the socio-economic ladder, but he has a lesson in there himself, realising that your place is yours, and that’s where lies sanity.
Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad also centres around a couple of connected lessons. You may be a ‘modern’ man, but you may be as bound in patriarchy as the older generation. And women are not meant to bear the brunt of your frustrations. Despite a few cheesy, heavily underlined passages, the film waves a strong flag for women, especially those who have made their peace with holding it down for their men.
I missed Sooni Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet when it came out in February, and have only managed to catch up with now. What a delight this one is, as it tracks a group of underprivileged Mumbai teens through the tough paces of ballet, a dance form we think of as one ‘belonging’ to the rich and the privileged. Achintya Bose and Manish Chauhan are fleet-footed, and grounded, and the film says something we tend to forget, especially in bad times— everyone can dream. And that dreams can come true.
Female desire is such a hot potato that most moviemakers stay away from it. Alankrita Srivastava dives straight in, with Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktey Sitaare, which works as a companion piece to her previous what-women-really-want Lipstick Under My Burkha. Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar play small-town cousins, very different from each other in situation and ‘swabhaav’, but finding common cause in their quest for self-hood.
Anvita Dutt’s debut feature Bulbbul is a period piece which feels sharply contemporary. A child bride, more tree sprite than little girl, in 19th century Bengal is told that her feet are adorned by ‘bichiyas’ (toe rings) in order to tie her down, to home and hearth, and never-ending domesticity. The free-spirited Bulbbul, played by the doe-eyed Tripti Dimri, is schooled in pain and privation, and taught the value of silence. ‘Chup raho’, counsels a sister-in-law whose wounds do not appear on the surface but feel as deep. How submissiveness is flipped on its head, turns Bulbbul into a strongly feminist subversive tale.
Desire doesn’t always have to be sexual. It can also manifest as breaking free from whatever it may be that holds us back. Geetha J’s Run Kalyani, which I saw as part of the virtual New York Indian Film Festival ( NYIFF), trains a soft but sure gaze on a young woman who works as a part-time cook. She has an ailing aunt to look after, and intimidating rent collectors to fight off. Through the everyday actions of an ordinary woman, we see patterns emerging, of love, succour, and most importantly, freedom.
Sir plays out like a realist-fantasy which sets out to prove that two lonely humans can find a connection, overcoming often-insurmountable differences in class, and position. Rohena Gera sets her thought-provoking film in a swish Mumbai location, where a well-appointed high-rise flat houses Vivek Gomber’s wealthy, US-returnee and his live-in domestic help, played with implacable dignity by Tillotama Shome. Both have broken hearts, his from his fiancee, hers caused by a sister who rebuffs her efforts to make her rise above their station. We know how hard that will be, for both the ‘sahib’ and the ‘maid’: will it last?
A two-timing husband, played by Ranvir Shorey, finds himself saddled with a dead body, and a problem. In a few hours, their best friends will start trooping in for a celebratory dinner, and he needs to hide his crimes, both corporeal as well as of the spirit. Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh is yet another exploration of some of the director’s favourite themes — of truth and falsehood, crime and punishment — and leaves us asking ourselves tough questions. Can something with a crack in it, ever be mended?
Raat Akeli Hai is a crackling whodunit. But it is also more than just a murder mystery. In Honey Trehan’s assured debut feature, toplining Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, we get a sharply drawn small-town eco-system which allows powerful men to prey upon helpless women. How do you break away from terrible bondage? And is doing away with a despicable human such a big crime? The meek shall not always remain trodden.
And, bringing up the rear, for no other reason than they came towards the end of the year, are Anurag Basu’s Ludo, and Vikramaditya Motwane’s AK vs AK. Both felt like a stretch in places, both could have done with tighter writing, but both had that special something which leaves a residue behind. Pankaj Tripathi as a trippy don, and both AKs (Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap) being played to their strengths: especially the latter who gets to do a hilarious send-up of himself, as the guy who makes those ‘dark, realistic flop films’ and manages to stay in the news because he gives everyone ‘gaalis’: kismet ki hawa kabhi garam, kabhi naram.