Cinemas across the country shut down by mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Streaming services took over. Scores of web series were rolled out across platforms – far too many for even hardcore watchers. But just like the avid consumers of news cannot be sated by a subscription to a single newspaper, entertainment fiends realised that it wasn’t enough to sign up to only one streaming service.
Not all shows were successful, partly because of the imperative to keep churning out more seasons. This led to overstretched narratives and coddiwomple plotlines. On the plus side, there was an efflorescence of writing and acting talent and an exploration of subjects that often bypass bottomline-conscious Bollywood.
In the 1980s, a golden run on Doordarshan coupled with the video cassette boom resulted in audiences having greater choices, both in terms of what they wanted to watch and whom. Parallel star universes sprung up, populated by actors whose careers flourished even though they were rarely seen in films. In the 1990s, the movies responded by mounting spectacles too large to fit into a television set and by bathing actors in an even-brighter glow.
This year too, the contours of stardom shifted, but in two directions. Actors never usually considered for leading parts were cast in central roles in web series. Meanwhile, movie stars and filmmakers who would never have deigned to be on television added web series to their credits. Some of the Hindi film industry’s biggest names are now working in the streaming space, finding that their narrative approaches and concerns are better suited to a more personalised medium.
What if Covid-19 hadn’t happened at all? The moviegoing experience would have nevertheless been disappointing. Up until March, only a couple of noteworthy films had been released in theatres. Most of the large-screen productions that swiftly pivoted to streaming were found wanting. Their flaws showed up even more intensely in the intimacy of the home, where the fast-forward button could ruthlessly cut short mediocre material.
Ironically, a few of 2020’s most absorbing releases were meant to be streamed anyway, reminding us that Bollywood now has a subset of films that can be lucrative without ever reaching the theatres.
The chasm between cinema and the theatrical experience widened in other ways. These are two quite different things, as lovers of arthouse movies and documentaries have always known.
Cinephiles disappointed with the fake rush and false promise of experimentation provided by streaming fare sought refuge in the pirate-infested torrents of the internet and curated websites such as Mubi India. They had yearned to watch international classics and aesthetically rich movies on the big screen but, given the absence of dedicated arthouse theaters in India, had learnt to temper their expectations a long time ago.
For less picky viewers, the scales fell from the eyes in 2020. The joy of spending a couple of hours with strangers in a darkened hall was balanced with the knowledge that the films would be called Laxmii, Durgamati and Coolie No.1. There is a likelihood that when audiences return in full strength to theatres in 2021, some won’t be as patient or forgiving. Now more habituated to long-form narratives with evolved storylines and deeply written characters, these fans might find it easier to avoid the predictable mix of oomph-comedy-action-romance-songs.
Filmmakers might be compelled to maximise the theatrical experience to stay relevant – move up the measuring scale from L to XXL. They will have to account for a drastic change in the scale of engagement with the moving image. Streaming has made it smaller and cheaper and easier to access (and safer). What is cinema? This question will reverberate for years to come after the worst excesses of Covid-19 have vanished.
Some of the year’s better Hindi movies landed on the big screen. Others popped up on streaming services. There were also web series to remind us that fiction can take many forms. Here is our list of the best of 2020, in alphabetical order.
Movies (on the big and small screens)
AK vs AK
Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta-movie revolves around a crafty concept and stellar performances. What if Anurag Kashyap, disgusted with serial rejections and fed up of being unable to pursue his dream projects, turned to crime to achieve his goals? Would he avenge a perceived slight by Anil Kapoor by kidnapping the actor’s daughter and forcing him to act in his movie? The answers plays out over 109 breathless minutes.
The Netflix original film pits Kapoor against Kashyap and documentary against fiction. We see Kapoor as we never have before, are reminded of Kashyap’s acting skills, and witness an almost-persuasive masquerade.
Bulbbul has us from its opening image – a pair of feet dangling from a branch – all the way until its visual effects-laden denouement. Anvita Dutt’s compact and colour-coded yarn of cruelty and liberation braids together elements of Gothic fiction, folklore about witchery, and timeless anxieties about women who dare to challenge convention.
Evocatively lensed by Siddharth Diwan and atmospherically designed by Meenal Agarwal, the Netflix movie transports us to a once-upon-a-time world. The film centres around an unforgettable performance by Tripti Dimri, playing a landlord’s wife who is transformed by trauma from languid couch-hugger to soaring avenger.
Arati Kadav’s sci-fi film Cargo, which is being streamed on Netflix, scores for its sheer audacity and ingenuity. The movie is set in a future in which the anthropomorphised demon astronaut Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) and his new colleague Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) transport the newly dead to the afterlife. The themes are weighty – impermanence, mortality, loneliness, love failure – but are delivered with the same smoothness with which Prahastha’s spaceship glides through the galaxy. The sets and props, created on a minuscule budget, are a testament to Kadav’s imagination.
Eeb Allay Ooo!
Prateek Vats’s theatrically released dark comedy about the absurdities of contractual employment plays out in the nerve centre of the capital. Here, amidst imposing government offices, wanders a young man reluctantly trying to keep New Delhi’s notorious monkeys in the trees, where they belong. In the increasingly ridiculous battle between human and beast, the only way to win is to channel the inner simian.
Sharply written by Shubham and memorably enacted by lead actor Shardul Bhardwaj, Eeb Allay Ooo! explores its state-of-the-nation critique through observational humour and pitiless characterisation.
Made in 2019, Achal Mishra’s assured debut found its home on the arthouse cinema streaming platform Mubi India this year. Also written, edited and produced by Mishra, the Maithili-language Gamak Ghar examines the inexorable passage of time in a village in Bihar.
Set in Mishra’s ancestral house and featuring members of a family across three time zones, the film records the subtly changing rhythms of life as the years roll by. Beautifully shot in different aspect rations by Anand Bansal, the restrained and delicate narrative meshes documentary and fiction to produce a portrait at once elusive and tangible.
In the SonyLiv film Kadakh, Rajat Kapoor uses a suicide to deliver a meditation on morality and hypocrisy. It’s Diwali, a time for celebrations and fireworks. Sunil (Ranvir Shorey) gets a visit from the husband of the woman with whom he has had an affair. The husband pulls out a gun and blows his brains out. Sunil’s wife Malti (Mansi Multani) walks in just then and helps Sunil cover up the death. Soon after, the guests for the evening’s Diwali party arrive – a raucous, self-serving bunch whose own secrets spill out as the night wears on.
Kapoor’s screenplay expertly pulls this way and that as the guests exchange banter, have petty fights, reconcile and then squabble all over again. The increasingly unstable Sunil gets another shock when his ex-lover Chhaya (Palomi Ghosh) walks in. This superbly performed ensemble piece features top-notch work by Kapoor’s frequent collaborators, editor Suresh Pai and cinematographer Rafey Mahmood. Production designer Meenal Agarwal’s vivid wallpaper plays its own role in encouraging the eruption of hothouse passions.
Sudhir Mishra’s adaptation of Manu Joseph’s Serious Men wisely avoids the novel’s florid sub-plot about a May-December romance and focuses instead on its bitter core: a conversation about caste, aspiration and merit. Ayyan Mani (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the Dalit assistant of a supercilious Brahmin scientist (Nassar), scams the world into thinking that his 10-year-old son Adi (Aakshath Das) is a genius. Determined to claw his way out of his chawl, Ayyan pushes his son and his scam to the limit.
Steered by an astutely judged performance by Siddiqui, the Netflix movie retains the flip and cynical quality of Joseph’s source novel while also humanising Ayyan. Marked at birth and unable to defeat the inequity built into the caste system as an adult, Ayyan figures that the path ahead is necessarily crooked.
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
The year’s boldest movie emerged on the big screen, where the sight of two men kissing had the effect that it deserved. Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which he also wrote, sees Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar as lovers fighting for acceptance. Structured as a rom-com, the movie uses both sly and broad humour to deliver its welcome subversions.
Apart from crackling chemistry between the leads, the movie has strong performances by Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta as Aman’s horrified parents, Manu Rishi Chadha as Aman’s uncle, and Maanvi Gagroo as Aman’s sunglasses-sporting cousin Goggle.
Pushkar Mahabal’s drum-tight thriller Welcome Home was one of 2020’s biggest surprises. The SonyLiv film stars Kashmira Irani and Swarda Thigale as census enumerators who knock on a door behind which lies a house of horrors. The unblinking and unrelenting narrative features compelling performances by the increasingly desperate women and effective cinematography by Saee Bhope that brings out the darkness, literal and metaphorical.
Simply but powerfully narrated, Prakash Jha’s web series about a charlatan spiritual guru spins on smart casting, solid writing, and a refusal to be tawdry or sensationalist. Based on a story by Habib Faisal and written by Kuldip Ruhil Ujagar, Aashram’s two seasons were the best thing to turn up on MX Player this year.
Bobby Deol is perfectly placed to play Baba Nirala, the emperor of a kingdom built on lies, crimes and false piety. Among the stand-out performers are Chandan Roy Sanyal as Nirala’s chief enforcer, Aaditi Pohankar as Nirala’s blinded devotee, Darshan Kumar and Vikram Kochhar as police officers trying to expose the godman, and Tridha Chaudhary as one of the victims of the cult leader’s lust.
One of the year’s most absorbing shows emerged from across the border. The Zee5 series Churails revolves around a quartet of women who use a burqa boutique in Karachi as a front for a detective agency that exposes crimes and misdemeanours by men.
Directed and co-written by Asim Abbasi, the Pakistani feminist drama is slickly shot and produced and memorably performed by an ensemble cast, led by the fearless four Sarwat Gilani Mirza, Yara Rizvi, Nimra Bucha and Mehar Bano.
A clever idea, an excellent cast and superb production values provide the highs in Nikhil Rao’s web series on MX Player. High, written by Rao, Emil Thomas and Nishant Goyal, explores the fallout of the discovery of a wonder pill that can cure addiction. As a group of do-gooders tries to peddle the concoction in the open market, they run into gangsters and the evil queen of a pharma empire.
The actors who leave a mark include Akshay Oberoi, Ranvir Shorey, Mrinmayee Godbole, Shweta Basu Prasad and Madhur Mittal.
If there is one show that deserves a second season, it is Disney+ Hotstar’s Hundred. Directed by Ruchi Narain, Ashutosh Shah and Taher Shabbir and written by Narain, Shah and Abhishek Dubey, Hundred has finely drawn characters, lovely performances, impish humour, and a strong feminist streak.
The terminally ill Nethra (Rinku Rajguru) becomes an informer for an investigation led by police officer Saumya (Lara Dutta). Rinku Rajguru is a riot, while Lara Dutta is impressive as a schemer with an axe to grind and a boyfriend tucked away. The bond that develops between Nethra and dishy betting syndicate partner Shantanu (Rajeev Siddhartha) is among the year’s goofiest and most tender romances.
Jamtara – Sabka Number Aayega
This superbly cast, boldly directed and snappy narrative explores the lucrative but dodgy world of phishing scams and digital crimes. The Netflix series Jamtara – Sabka Number Aayega is helmed by Soumendra Padhi and stars Sparsh Shrivastava and Anshuman Pushkar as school dropouts who mastermind the get-rich-quick scams that bring unseen prosperity to Jamtara.
Amit Sial, Monika Panwar and Aksha Pardasany also star in a highly binge-able show about aspiration, greed, and the negative aspect of affluence. Udita Jhunjhunwala
Loosely adapted by Sudip Sharma from Tarun Tejpal’s 2010 novel The Story of My Assassins and directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware and Prosit Roy, Paatal Lok provides an unrelentingly grim and sprawling tour of a very Indian netherworld. Jaideep Ahlawat is in splendid form as a police officer who investigates the attempted murder of a television network owner. The would-be killers have been brutalised from a young age, and appear to be giving back as good as they got.
One of Amazon Prime Video’s most entertaining shows is a jolly good study of rural manners. Panchayat stars Jitendra Kumar as a deeply reluctant government official in a fictitious village in Uttar Pradesh. Chandan Kumar’s script and Deepak Kumar Mishra’s direction keeps the humour light and the obstacles easy to overcome, focusing instead on the finely etched characters. Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta stand out as a squabbling couple, while Jitendra Kumar is at his irascible best.
Hansal Mehta’s interest in biography and plots inspired by the headlines made him a natural fit for a chronicle of the rise and fall of the crooked stock trader Harshad Mehta. Mehta’s debut web series for SonyLiv, Scam 1992, catapulted to the top of the streaming charts with the same speed as a Harshad Mehta-recommended investment.
The smart screenplay by Sumit Purohit and Saurav Dey balances the small details with the big picture as it charts Mehta’s rise from the middle class to the stratosphere. Pratik Gandhi irresistibly plays the irrepressible and incorrigible broker who lived and died for the pursuit of profit by any means possible.