And the year’s biggest box-office winner … came from foreign shores. Spider-Man: No Way Home, a typically Hollywood combination of spectacle and sentiment, trumped the takings of Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi and laid Kabir Khan’s 83 low.
Streamers kept pace with the competition, pushing out a punishing number of films and series. They often landed on Friday, a date reserved for the movies. Will Monday, or for that matter any other day of the week, become the new Friday for streaming platforms in 2022? Our click-weary fingers are crossed. Here are some of the discoveries, surprises and highs and lows of 2021.
It’s all about loving these families
Seema Pahwa kicked off 2021 with the Hindi film Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi (Netflix). Pahwa’s chronicle of a fractious family that comes together after the patriarch’s death was carried by lashings of honesty and a fabulous cast, which included Manoj Pahwa, Ninad Kamat, Vinay Pathak and Konkona Sensharma.
The death of another patriarch led to inspired comedy and cruelty. Mangesh Joshi’s Marathi-language Karkhanisanchi Waari (SonyLIV) examined a clan united by a common purpose – inheritance – and torn asunder by their mutual disdain. Geetanjali Kulkarni, Mohan Agashe, Pradeep Joshi and Amey Wagh were the star performers.
Malayalam director Rojin Thomas’s Home (Amazon Prime Video) reminded us of why families remain the cornerstone of human interaction. Home followed a technologically-challenged father’s fumbling attempts to connect with his adult sons. An entire tissue box was needed to cope with the extended climax.
The past is prologue
The period drama is all the rage. The past is a refuge from the perverse present. The past is also where some filmmakers go to retrofit the historical timeline to reflect the galloping Hindutvaisation of multifaith India.
Shoojit Sircar’s rigorously detailed but curiously flat biopic Sardar Udham, starring Vicky Kaushal, reminded us of young revolutionaries willing to erase themselves for a cause. Kabir Khan’s rambunctious 83 recreated the Indian cricket team’s historic World Cup win and more innocent and tolerant times.
Vishnu Varadhan’s Shershaah, a biopic of decorated Kargil hero Vikram Batra, resisted the temptation to beat the war drums and focused on Batra’s aching youth – he was 25 when he died – and his tender love story.
Even as the vilification of Jawaharlal Nehru showed no signs of abating, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was a decisive presence in Ranjit M Tiwari’s fictional thriller drama BellBottom. In Mahesh Manjrekar’s fact-inspired web series 1962: The War in the Hills (Disney+ Hotstar), the former prime minister was portrayed as a leader in the wings.
The Dear Leader hovered on the margins of State of Siege: Temple Attack (Zee5), about the terrorist strike on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat in 2002. And what to make of the line from Satyameva Jayate 2 that in order to deal with riff-raff, you don’t need a 56-inch chest but a 56-kilo fist?
I for Islamophobia
Period projects serve another purpose: to create wounds using imagined slights. Many Hindi filmmakers contributed their bit to the rampant Islamophobia that has poisoned the nationalist discourse and led to open calls for genocide of India’s Muslims.
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb turned up with bulging eyes and evil intent in the MX Player series Chhatrasal. Kunal Kolhi’s Lahore Confidential (Zee5), about an Urdu-loving undercover agent in Pakistan, contributed its mite to the demonisation of the language.
In Abhishek Dudhiya’s bellicose Bhuj: The Pride of India (Disney+ Hotstar), the India-Pakistan war of 1971 was an excuse to trot out tirades against Mughal “outsiders” and passwords inspired by Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal.
Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi, about an imminent terrorist strike on Mumbai, was an exercise in Quisling-spotting. The film’s Muslim characters were hectored on patriotism and cautioned against supporting fundamentalists. The message was clear: as in politics, Muslims in the movies are always suspect.
Just what the doctor ordered
Entertainers with a social message can often go wrong. Among the Hindi releases, Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui batted for the trans community, making its point through a dignified and resolute trans woman.
Akarsh Khurana’s Rashmi Rocket, starring a committed Taapsee Pannu, was an honourable attempt to address hyperandrogenism among women in sport. But the most intelligent prescriptive drama was Amit Masurkar’s Sherni (Amazon Prime Video). Starring an in-form Vidya Balan as a forest officer tasked with hunting down a man-eating tigress, Sherni was also the best Hindi film of 2021.
The vital caste debate was cornered by Tamil cinema, which is going through a fascinating reckoning with cinema’s depiction of social realities. Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai deployed mainstream devices – big-name actors, flashy camerawork and fast cutting, Santhosh Narayanan’s music – to examine different aspects of Dalit lives.
If Karnan drew from an actual incident to craft an incendiary account of a Dalit village’s stand against systemic violence, Sarpatta Parambarai flamboyantly dramatised Chennai’s boxing scene.
Tha Se Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim derived inspiration from BR Ambedkar to deliver a stirring legal drama about missing tribals and custodial torture. Amazon Prime Video scored over its rivals by acquiring these titles and giving them the showcasing they deserved.
The year’s breakout Malayalam film was Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (Amazon Prime Video), which explored the drudgery of housework and by extension, the crushing ways of the patriarchy.
Rinse and repeat
Remakes yield risk-free and frequently brain-dead options for Hindi filmmakers keen on maintaining a production pipeline. Telugu cinema gave us Tadap. Laxman Utekar’s Mimi was a glossier and better performed version of the Marathi-language Mala Aai Vhhahcyay!
South Korean cinema also gave us Dhamaka (based on Terror Live) and Netrikann (adapted from Blind). Jay K remade his Malayalam-language Ezra into Hindi as the soulless Dybbuk. Vishal Furia was the only one who got it right with Chhorii, which smartly refused to tinker with the themes of his Marathi film Lapachhapi.
The award for the year’s most redundant sequel was evenly split between Bunty Aur Babli 2 and Drishyam 2. About the only enthusiastic player in Varun V Sharma’s Bunty Aur Babli follow-up was lead actor Rani Mukerji.
Jeethu Joseph’s Malayalam hit Drishyam revolved around a resourceful cable operator who comes up with the perfect alibi to cover up a crime committed by his family. Drishyam 2 made the first film’s water-tight cleverness moot.
Prequels are threatening to catch on too. Special Ops 1.5, about the back story of intelligence agent Himmat Singh, worked as a placeholder until the series returns with another round. Bob Biswas, starring a listless Abhishek Bachchan as an assassin, was the origin story to Kahaani that we didn’t quite need.
Several web series didn’t do the hard work needed to justify a second season. Among the number twos that ran out of steam were Aarya, Illegal, Your Honor, City of Dreams, Ek Thi Begum and Gullak. Only Raj & DK’s The Family Man put in the effort to justify the return of favourite characters and familiar plotlines.
John Abraham provided the laughs in Milap Zaveri’s shouty Satyameva Jayata 2. Cast in a triple role, John Cubed tackled crime, corruption and the challenge of shouldering a dated and incoherent plot.
Call My Agent: Bollywood strove to wipe out fond memories of the French series of which it was an official remake. From risible dialogue to shoddy direction and production values, Shaad Ali’s Netflix series about a film talent management agency was the kind of project that nobody in their right minds should greenlit.
The memes wrote themselves in Vivek Soni’s Meenakshi Sundareshwar, in which a bunch of north Indian actors pantomimed their way through a designer Tamil Brahmin milieu. Starring Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dassani as a married couple separated by circumstance and contrivance, the Netflix release rolled out the stereotypes and Rajnikanthed its way to oblivion.
Anthologies underwhelm by design. It’s challenging to find a set of films that chime perfectly with one another. Streamers rolled out a bunch of them in 2021, but only a handful stood out.
Netflix might have been fallen short in terms of original content in 2021, but its anthology films were worth remembering, at least parts of them. The knockout – and indeed one of the year’s best films – was Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi from Ajeeb Daastaans. A multi-layered narrative of caste and queerness, Geeli Pucchi had an outstanding performance by Konkona Sensharma and a powerful turn by Aditi Rao Hydari.
Ray, a quartet based on Satyajit Ray’s short stories, had only memorable adaptation. Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Hai Barpa starred Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Singh in an imaginatively filmed battle of wits.
Chaubey also directed the year’s other lovely anthology entry. The triptych Ankahi Kahaniya included Chaubey’s film about the magic of the movies and the desire for freedom and flight.
Navarasa had nine films but possibly only one worth revisiting. It starred Delhi Ganesh as a curmudgeon bent on ruining a wedding celebration.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The most unexpected surprise of 2021 was Rishab Seth’s demonetisation comedy Cash (Disney+ Hotstar). The film featured sly and subversive writing and a much-needed riposte to the Narendra Modi government’s claims that the Indian economy is ship-shape.
Apart from 83, 2021’s most unpretentious entertainer was surely Minnal Murali (Netflix). Malayalam director Basil Joseph’s superhero movie, starring Tovino Thomas and Guru Somasundaram, was proof that fantasy needs imagination, rather than a fat budget.
Although much of Indian arthouse cinema hovered on the margins, a few films managed to get onto streamers. Lijo Jose Pellisery’s head trip Churuli, which continues the Malayalam filmmaker’s pursuit of the effects of concentrated male violence, finally landed up on SonyLiv. Mubi introduced Don Palathara and his imaginative cinema to a wider viewership
With the focus on second and third seasons this year, only a few original series demanded attention and concentration.
Hoichoi hosted Mandaar, reputed Bengali actor Anirban Bhattacharya’s vividly wild adaptation of William Shakespeare play Macbeth. The absurdist comedy OK Computer (Disney+ Hotstar), written by Pooja Shetty, Neil Pagedar and Anand Gandhi, created a fun futuristic world of bumbling robots and stumbling humans.
The Empire (Disney+ Hotstar) was a surprisingly thoughtful account of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. Rohan Sippy’s Aranyak (Netflix), written by Charudutt Acharya and directed by Vinay Waikul, put Raveena Tandon and Parambrata Chattopadhyay in a twilight zone of serial murder and corruption. The Married Woman (AltBalaji/Zee5) explored taboo love between women, solidly played by Ridhi Dogra and Monica Dogra.
Netflix’s relentless true crime documentary programming yielded a local gem. Leena Yadav’s House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths was an equal parts disturbing and riveting chronicle of a crime that evades easy analysis.
The standout performances included Sunny Kaushal in Shiddat, Nimisha Sajayan in The Great Indian Kitchen, Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger, Amruta Subhash in the Netflix web series Bombay Begums and Ravi Kishan in the SonyLIV show The Whistleblower.
Dhanush was excellent in Karnan, the saving grace of Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram and the grace note in Atrangi Re. Fahadh Faasil starred in four movies in 2021, but had to cede the Most Valuable Malayalam Player prize to the brilliant veteran Indrans in Home.
Indeed, Indrans’s character Oliver Twist, who is frequently bewildered by his cellphone and overwhelmed by more confident souls, spoke for many of us this year. As we tried to deal with the never-ending waves of dispiriting developments and attempted to stay connected to humanity, Indrans’s retreating manner and quiet certitude showed us one way to cope – by letting go but also holding on.