Top 12 Indian Films of 2021 – Mid Year Check Point

So just like that, six months of 2021 are already gone. And while we had hoped at the beginning of the year that 2021 would be the year of life opening up again including our regular visits back to the cinemas, sadly that was not to happen. The six months went by with us locked up in the corners of our homes, and watching a lot of cinema that saw their releases across digital platforms – big and small, across languages, genres and themes. There has been a lot to appreciate in what we consumed, quite a bit to feel disappointed, but the overall feeling has been of hope because cinema is becoming far more universal crossing the boundaries of languages and geographies and speaking to our sensibilities with their global human themes. As we are at the mid year checkpoint of 2021, here is then looking at a dozen films that stood out at the top, appealing the most to my sensibilities and making a very strong mark. As always, this is a very subjective list and may not match up with your favorites for the year, but it would be wonderful to know what were your favorite films of the year so far, so that I can also catch up on anything that I would have missed out.

Before we get to the top 12, here are some callouts. Films that have only been festival circuit releases from previous years but finally got a wider release over OTT this year have been included, with the exception of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple which was already watched last year and features as the best Indian film of 2020. Similarly, films that did get even a minor theatrical release last year and got a wider OTT release this year had to sit out, purely because there was an option to watch them widely earlier despite the pandemic. Hence Arjunn Dutta’s Guldasta missed out too, although I personally watched it only this year after its digital release and loved it.

Also, let us get some of the other films out of the way that have been more universally praised, but did not make it to this list. Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen had an extremely strong theme but its length and the execution style diluted the impact for me. Personally think that the film would have delivered a much stronger impact in the long short format. Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam 2 felt convoluted beyond a point to forcefully provide a heroic edge to George Kutty in unreasonable adverse conditions, while Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan didn’t remain consistently engaging and got bogged down by the uneven larger than life commercial treatment in spurts. Similarly, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi had a terrific performance by Konkona Sen Sharma in its favor but the overall film did not match up to her amazing act. Abhishek Chaubey’s Humgama Hain Kyon Barpa might have been the better film of the anthology package Ray, but is above average at best on its own, also emerging as the weakest film of Chaubey’s filmography to date.

Must also talk about some of the Honorable Mentions that missed out being in the top 12 in spite of being strong films on their own.

  • Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose (Hindi) – A vibrant and lyrical animation that had its heart and art at the right place.
  • Praveen Kandregula’s Cinema Bandi (Telugu) – A beautiful feel good ode to films, film-making and life – the most dramatic cinema we are all a part of.
  • Karishma Dube’s Bittu (Hindi) – A wonderfully made short film that made it to the Oscar long-list of live action shorts and rightfully so, even when it was the filmmaker’s NYU student film.
  • Aditya Rathi and Gayatri Patil’s Photo Prem (Marathi) – A simple, sweet slice of life peek into the quest of a woman trying to leave a legacy behind, front-ended by a lovely performance by Neena Kulkarni.
  • Umesh Bist’s Pagglait (Hindi) – Was a fun entertaining watch loaded with some fabulous writing and performances from Sanya Malhotra, Ashutosh Rana and rest of the cast.

And now finally let us look at my personal favorite list of Top 12 Indian films that 2021 had to offer so far:

12. Sherni | Amit V Masurkar | Hindi

Sherni is a riveting story of a fearless tigress fighting alone out there to survive in a jungle that’s turned into a mess by anarchy, whims and fancies of a bunch of bad boys! The rot is deep, the traps are furious, the adversary exists in various forms, and the metaphor of human vs. beast is strong and leaves its pug mark trails throughout the length of the film. Then there is the brilliant Vidya Balan back in her Vidya form after long, getting some brilliant support from Brajinder Kala or Neeraj Kabi, and one of the best closing shots in a recent film. If only Amit V Masurkar’s storytelling was more consistently engaging and his tonality of the docu style drama more even, Sherni could have featured much higher on this list.

Sherni can be watched on Amazon Prime Video.

11. 1232 kms | Vinod Kapri | Hindi and English

1232 kms is a heart wrenching documentary that tells the story of largest human exodus since partition, as the filmmaker accompanies a group of migrant labourers on their treacherous journey from Delhi to Bihar on bicycles or foot, in search of food, hope and life. The film bares open the wounds and the trauma of millions of these migrants, as it happened to them, and makes us a little more ashamed of our privileges as we all survive through the pandemic. With its contextual relevance and impactful treatment,1232 kms is perhaps the most essential watch of the year so far.

1232 kms is available on Disney Hotstar.

10. Nayattu | Martin Prakkat | Malayalam

Nayattu shines in its cinematic glory with its all round technical brilliance and terrific performances by Kunchacko Boban, Nimisha Sajayan and especially Joju George. It is gripping, it is sharp, and it works brilliantly as a taut thriller as we are led on a journey of a cat and mouse chase of cops vs. cops trying to beat the system that they have been gullible of reinforcing themselves. Ideally on this merit, the film should have been much higher on this list only if it had got its politics right as well. But the way it delivers a fairly skewed and lop-sided messaging about the dalit politics of the region leaves behind a sour taste, and robs the otherwise terrific film from some of its sheen. It is still a recommended watch and should be experienced.

Nayattu is available on Netflix.

09. Kala | Rohith V S | Malayalam

Kala is a unique film that is extremely graphic and violent at one end, but is heavily nuanced, loaded with subtext on the other. The film brilliantly subverts the moral compass of right and wrong, and challenges our perception about how we often judge people based on where they come from rather than who they actually are. Hence we have the outstanding Sumesh Moor eventually winning our hearts walking away with the free dog as his companion for seeking peace, while the equally captivating Tovino Thomas is left behind bloodied in his own deeds of using everyone around him to his own selfish intent whether it is his wife, his son, his pet dog or a violent stranger. Kala is definitely not an easy watch, but rarely has gory violence been so lyrically choregraphed on screen.

Kala can be watched on Amazon Prime Video.

08. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar | Dibakar Banerjee | Hindi

When Dibakar Banerjee makes a film, you can be assured it will be smart, intriguing, layered, and unlike anything what you have seen in the genre before. And Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar delivers exactly that. Beautifully subverting the gender stereotype at the root, the film very sharply challenges everything patriarchy without going overt with anything. In the garb of a chase thriller, the film double clicks into the complex thinking worlds of a so called successful upscale urban woman, an apparent lower middle class loser man, many other men who all think they hold the position of power against the woman irrespective of what their power equation is with her, and many other perceptions of success and failures in life. Dibakar Banerjee even extracts superb performances from both Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor, which is an unexpected added plus given their ongoing and perineal forms respectively.

Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar is available on Amazon Prime Video.

07. Mandela | Maddone Ashwin | Tamil

Mandela is a brilliant political satire that exposes the hollow non-existent values of the social setup that we live in, where a man’s worth is only measured as the vote that he can potentially cast in an election where both the candidates are equally disinterested, dormant and dismissive about the responsibilities of public service, and only represent the bloated egos of themselves and their communities divided on caste lines. Yogi Babu delivers a stellar performance in the titular character and evokes a world of easy charm and goodness that has completely gone missing from the times we live in. Sheela Rajkumar is very good as well. The film could have perhaps done even better with a sharper editing, but works beautifully even in its current form and is refreshingly different from the predominant world of dark and edgy content ruling OTTs.

Mandela can be watched on Netflix.

06. Ramprasad ki Tehrvi | Seema Pahwa | Hindi

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi is a precious little gem that is much larger than the sum of its parts. Seema Pahwa’s theatrical roots show and how, whether it is through multiple long shots in the film as if not to break the gaze of life, or overlapping conversations reflecting the cacophony of the times, or multiple flavors of emotions from nostalgia to bickering to unstated desires all cramming up for space in the packed frames but never dislodging one another unfavorably. Her film about death and grief hence becomes a celebration of little somethings of life, with life playing out in its raw emotions and heartfelt moments, striking intimate chords much more like a staged theatre and lesser like processed cinema. And then there is the terrific ensemble cast that Seema Pahwa brings together, where everyone shines in their unique ways leaving such strong character impressions behind. Thank you Team Ramprasad, like Seema Pahwa says we should always express our gratitude for the good things in life.

Ramprasad ki Tehrvi is available both on Netflix and Jio Cinemas.

05. Ankahi (Part of Ajeeb Dastaans) | Kayoze Irani | Hindi

Based on pure cinematic brilliance and given its short format length, it may not seem completely logical to place Ankahi so high in the list of best films of the year so far. But when have the matters of heart anyway been logical! Ankahi is the last film of the Ajeeb Dastaans anthology series, and is the beating heart and porous soul of the package. One cannot take away their eyes and their heart for a minute away from how beautifully this lyrical film flows, such is the scintillating chemistry between Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul. With million words spoken through the eyes and sighs of the two lovely protagonists, the cathartic after taste of Ankahi lingers on for long and makes us want a little more from life. Cinema is all about lasting impressions and impact and Ankahi has oodles of that heartbreaking charm.

Ankahi can be watched as the last film of the Ajeeb Dastaans anthology, that is available on Netflix.

04. Biriyaani | Sajin Baabu | Malayalam

Is Biriyaani the most difficult film to watch on this list? Absolutely Yes. Should Biriyaani be avoided just because it has such a horrifying impact? Absolutely No. Kani Kusruti as the central protagonist is hauntingly brilliant to embody everything treacherous and devastating in life, where one still needs to go on in spite of life snatching away everything away from your sanity. The storytelling is equally bold and riveting, and does not shy away from making strong observations on the deeply rooted religious and social monsters constantly playing havoc in our lives. In spite of its subdued pace which actually works in its favor, the film remains gripping from start to end and leaves behind some of the most haunting visuals of cinema in recent times. I have to confess that I could not sleep the night I watched Biriyaani, but that only shows the power of cinema and the extent to which it can impact you.

Biriyaani can be rented for watching from the Cave India platform.

03. Meel Patthar (Milestone) | Ivan Ayr | Hindi & Punjabi

It won’t be too much to state that Ivan Ayr is possibly one of the best makers of character driven cinema of recent times. If his debut feature Soni from a couple of years back instigated that thought, his sophomore feature Meel Patthar (also marketed as Milestone for the global audience) cements that as a fact. Meel Patthar traces the journey of two drivers of heavy vehicles who are at two different spectrums of their lives; one who is fighting his demons of having lost his family recently and hence his desire to do anything meaningful with his life anymore, and the other young boy who desperately needs the same job of his senior but that would come at a price of dislodging him from that final support pillar of his life. The film can be a reference study for overall technical brilliance in cinematography, sound design or editing, not to mention the terrific portrayal by Lakshvir Saran and especially Suvinder Vicky as the leads. That Ayr leaves enough room for interpretation of closures in the end, further enhances the impact of the poetic film that ensures that one will not be able to forget this milestone so easily.

Meel Patthar is available for watching on Netflix.

02. Joji | Dileesh Pothan | Malayalam

Dileesh Pothan’s Joji plays out like an intensely subtle and starkingly dark lyrical ballad on screen. A brilliant and unique retelling of Macbeth, Joji brings together the universal themes of greed, deceit, ego, self esteem, and the intriguing unravelling of a deliciously dark criminal mind map. The spectacular screenplay, the brilliant camera work and the outstanding background score creates an amazing atmospheric aura with multiple goose-bump inducing moments, and completely transports the viewer to a uniquely engaging cinematic space. Fahadh Faasil is at the top of his game in the titular character, and for sure delivers one of the top 3 performances of his career! The man is a magician who can pull off a range of such diverse emotions in the same scene without saying a word and without resorting to any forced physical expressions! He gets ably supported by the entire ensemble, and Unnimaya Prasad especially stands out. And to think that all of this was done amidst the pandemic calls out for a special round of shoutout! Joji is cinema to be cherished as a brilliant piece of art.

Joji can be watched on Amazon Prime Video.

01. Aarkkariyam | Sanu John Varughese | Malayalam

Aarkkariyam is a brilliant example of how a film does not need to have any heavy dramatic build up, or big reveal aha moments, and yet can be the most gripping human drama that intrigues you with complexities of the human mind and the brooding spell of a developing pandemic. It triumphs as a film because Sanu John Varughese completely involves the viewer in the process as a silent observer trying to peek into the souls of three troubled individuals, and interpret their moral stance in life without any judgements. There is enough room here for the viewer to breathe along with the main characters, and interpret the complex workings of their minds based on the viewer’s sensibilities. One could easily associate the term perfection with the overall vision and execution of the debut filmmaker here who exhibits tremendous maturity in his unbelievably restrained storytelling and gets a terrific technical team to support him so ably. Add to it the wonderfully rooted performances from all the three leads, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Biju Menon and especially Sharafudheen, who nail down every finer detail of every reaction without needing to have any big ‘performance’ moments. With everything perfectly falling in place, Aarkkariyam leaves you fully satiated with the experience of watching complete cinema. Truly superlative stuff.

Aarkkariyam is playing on Amazon Prime Video. Do not miss it!

So that was the Third Vantage Point perspective on some of the best Indian Cinema of 2021. And we can only hope that the second half of the year has more delicious cinema waiting to come and wow us. What were your favorites of the year so far? What are the films that you are looking forward to for the rest of 2021?

Do share your views, and keep watching good cinema!

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Copyright ©2021 Jayashree Chakravarti. This article cannot be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL can be used instead.

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