2020 — what a year!
There was never a greater need for content than this year, as we collectively spent time on our couches staring at the television screen waiting for something to — if not amaze us — distract us from all that was happening around. It was a desperate year, we would have watched anything. And while there was the occasional good movie or television show, most of it was pure drudgery, much like the year we are closing out.
It’s only been a few years since streaming channels have picked up steam in India where they always had the more accessible movie theatres to compete with. With COVID19 shutting down cinema halls, platforms like Netflix India, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, SonyLiv, and Zee5 effectively became the only places to turn to. Most movies released online where they fought for attention alongside more elaborate and spatial web series. Actors who had been missing from the movies — Sushmita Sen, Chandrachur Singh, Pratik Gandhi — had the opportunity to flex their acting muscles in extended web series, whereas commercial stars, who unwittingly saw their movies release on the small screen, looked diminished and out of place. It would be unfair, and frankly impossible, to make separate best of the year lists for movies and television content — so intertwined was their consumption and competition.
So here’s a list of the best movies and web series from an overall dull tapestry of content to come out of India in 2020. If you haven’t watched them yet, do not despair. The pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon.
1) Thappad (Hindi)
Ever since he traded commercial fare for social justice movies, Anubhav Sinha seems to have rediscovered filmmaking. Sinha’s “Thappad” starring Taapsee Pannu is a less convoluted film than “Article 15” and “Mulk,” but more textured and nuanced. As the name suggests, “Thappad” is about a homemaker named Amrita who is slapped by her husband at a dinner party, and begins to question their entire power dynamic and her place in the marriage. While centered around a singular act of physical violence, “Thappad” is more concerned with the aftermath. What happens when the rose-tinted glasses that glaze over a person’s flaws fall apart? Pannu plays Amrita with subtle confusion and grief, and her eyes — they have never seen more clearly.
2) Paatal Lok (Hindi)
Siblings and producing partners Anushka Sharma and Karunesh Sharma of Clean Slate Filmz are proving to be a great team. After producing discomfiting, inventive, and original films like “NH10,” “Phillauri,” and “Pari,” they made their web debut with Sudeep Sharma’s “Paatal Lok.” A plot to assassinate a fearless journalist is intercepted, even before it has had time to hatch — but there is more to the conspiracy than meets the eye. Hathiram Chaudhary, a low-ranking policeman with little bureaucratic or social power, makes it his mission to uncover the truth. Featuring an exceptional turn from Jaideep Ahlawat, “Paatal Lok” is revelatory of the nexus between crime, politics, and the media that is commonly found in India.
3) Scam 1992 (Hindi)
“Scam 1992” by Hansal Mehta — a dramatic retelling of the biggest stock market scam carried out by infamous stockbroker Harshad Mehta — arrived on SonyLiv, and quickly propelled the then underwhelming streaming channel as a platform to watch out for. Mehta’s web series is thrilling, heady, and most importantly, for a show about the stock exchange, not boring. Lead Pratik Gandhi turns in such a spirited performance as “Big Bull” Harshad Mehta aka Bombay Stock Exchange’s Bachchan, that you find yourself drunk on the cocktail of money and power that this film stirs up.
4) Aarya (Hindi)
It’s been a hot minute since former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen graced the movie screen. It’s been even longer since Sen delivered a sincere, dominating performance — the likes of which we’d seen in “Samay: When Time Strikes Back.” “Aarya” marks her triumphant return, alongside another prodigal actor Chandrachur Singh. Helmed by Ram Madhvani of “Neerja” fame, “Aarya” is a taut web series about a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her family. Come for Sushmita Sen, stay for the incredibly clever writing and strong supporting performances from Sikandar Kher and Namit Das.
5) Bulbbul (Hindi)
Anuskha and Karunesh Sharma’s Clean Slate Films had another great project this year — the incredibly moving “Bulbbul,” which uses horror as a tool to tell the story of a woman wronged. Writer-director Anvita Dutt packs “Bulbbul” with the scares, yes, but what you are left with after watching the movie is not fear, necessarily, but rage. Ray’s Charulata looms large in “Bulbbul” – the young bride of a Bado Thakur is left all alone in their mansion and her husband quickly puts an end to her only friendship with the closer-in-age brother-in-law. What comes of her isolation and ill-treatment in this patriarchal household? Dutt compels you to see not the ‘chudail’ in a woman, but the woman in a chudail.
6) Varane Avashyamund (Malayalam)
After the year we’ve experienced, a smile is perhaps the kindest gift a movie can give us. And Anoop Sathyan’s ensemble film “Varane Avashyamund” doles it out in heapfuls. Starring Suresh Gopi, Dulquer Salmaan, Shobhana, Kalyani Priyadarshan, and a bevy of delightful actors in supporting roles play residents of an apartment building. This is a movie about finding joy in the mundanity of living and loving thy neighbor. It is such an utterly delightful movie that you find yourself wishing you had a role to play in it, however small your screentime.
7) A Suitable Boy (English, Urdu)
Mira Nair’s adaption of Vikram Seth’s sprawling 1993 novel for the BBC is a lavish undertaking of a deeply relevant story. Centred around the matchmaking of the shy but spirited Lata Mehra in the years after Indian Independence, Mira Nair deftly takes on the communal tension that made Seth’s novel a definitive tale of the youngest democracy in the world. Featuring powerhouse performances from the inimitable Tabu as the pained Saeeda Bai and Ishaan Khatter as the troublesome Maan Kapoor, Nair’s take is plush with charm and anxious with apprehension.
8) Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan (Hindi)
It’s been a long time coming. After decades of endlessly mocking queer-presenting characters, Indian cinema is finally exploring queer representation and love in movies. But unlike the suffering “My Brother… Nikhil” or the sensitive “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga,” director Hitesh Kewalya chooses to tell the story of a same-sex couple by immersing them in the slice-of-life dramedy routine of Delhi that Hindi cinema loves. It results in a genuinely warm, funny film that does not once mock the gay couple at its center. Jitendra Kumar and Ayushmann Khurrana play lovers as seamlessly as Raj and Simran.
9) Pushpavalli Season 2 (Hindi)
“Pushpavalli” from writer and comic Sumukhi Suresh is unlike any other web show in India right now. A dark, stalker tragicomedy, Suresh plays Pushpavalli, a young woman so obsessed with a man that her obsession begins manifesting through toxic and dangerous schemes. Unlike Arjun Reddy, Suresh doesn’t care to play Pushpavalli as a hero — in season two, she’s much more dangerous and wrathful. Her sociopathy isn’t empty handed, its regurgitated every time she’s dismissed or worse, insulted. “Pushpavalli” is not a heroic tale, and that honesty makes the show credible.
10) Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (Hindi)
“Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl” is that rare biopic on a member of the armed forces that is very often somber and quiet. Director Sharan Sharma trades the noise and bravado of hypernationalism to tell the rousing story of Gunjan Saxena — the first Indian woman to be awarded the Shaurya Chakra — by focusing on her personal triumph. In this movie, Saxena, played deftly and sensitively by Janhvi Kapoor, must combat the derision of her peers and overcome her self-doubt to soar high. Has any other Hindi movie featured a love song from its heroine to her ultimate dream — the sweeping skies? Pankaj Tripathi, in his role as Gunjan’s father, is easily one of the best onscreen parents Indian cinema has ever had.
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