The pandemic has been hard on all of the privileged ones. And the only thing that brought comfort and reassurance into our lives is cinema. 2020, perhaps, will go down in history and will be remembered as the year that taught us the significance of show business. Through this listicle, we revisit some of the best films in an otherwise bad year for cinema
(Note: The list has been curated based on the films the writer has seen)
Udhayanidhi Stalin in ‘Psycho’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
The year began with Mysskin’s fascinating return to Mysskin’s cinema with Psycho, which could well be described as a parable — of a psychopath Anguli’s (Rajkumar Pitchumani) redemptive path to salvation from his sins. The film pays a hat-tip to the 1960 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and revolves around Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin), an artiste with visual impairments, and his girlfriend Dhagini (Aditi Rao, who, according to Mysskin, is the Gautama Buddha of Psycho), who has been held captive by Anguli, in a slaughterhouse.
Psycho is a hard watch. It is not a film for moralists. And it is anything but a regular serial killer movie. The film plays with Buddist and Biblical subtexts and bats for what has become a recurring trope in Mysskin’s films: forgiveness. Mysskin’s remarkable achievement — if you discount the artistic merits in Psycho — weighs heavily on its sympathetic gaze at a serial killer, making him the protagonist of the film. Later, in an interview with The Hindu, Mysskin said that he wanted to “give an arc to a psychopath”.
A scene from ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Ayyappanum Koshiyum is deeply political. Yet, it is also madly entertaining, with its central characters in a constant state of fear of being tested for their masculinity, especially when their egos get bruised.
A seemingly trivial incident sets off a bomb of events involving two men in Ayyappanum Koshiyum (starring a fantastic duo in Prithviraj and Biju Menon), and the extent they go to satisfy their quest for control over the other. Filmmaker Sachy, who wrote Driving License, which rides on similar lines, taps into the insecurity that comes with male pride. The film reminded me of the Lebanese film Insult, also about two characters who suffer from a common disease of male arrogance. A lot has been said and written about this film. If you still haven’t watched it, the loss is yours.
Of the list, if I were to pick my favourite film of 2020, it would be Ayyappanum Koshiyum. That explains the short yet beautiful legacy of Sachy, who passed away earlier this year.
A scene from ‘Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Where do you even begin? Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Can we all agree that Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is one of the best masala films to have come out of Telugu cinema? That the foot fetish scenes are the weakest in a film that otherwise gives screenwriting lessons on masala cinema? That the fight scene where Allu Arjun rinses, cleanses and dry cleans the “strain” marks left on his sister’s dupatta, has got to be one of the most satisfying OTT sequences ever?
Can we all agree that Murali Sharma is the best that could have happened to this film, apart from Thaman, of course? That Sunil almost overshadows Allu Arjun when they dance to the Telugu rendition of ‘Dhak Dhak Karne Laga’? That Tabu tapping her foot in ‘Ramuloo Ramulaa’ is the cutest moment in the film? Can we agree that ‘Ramuloo Ramulaa’ is more dazzling than ‘Butta Bomma’?
Dulquer Salmaan and Kalyani Priyadarshan in ‘Varane Avashyamund’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Directed by debutant Anoop Sathyan, Varane Avashyamund is a film that doesn’t let you draw conclusions to how you react and rather, lets you revel in its sweetness. There are two storylines with two couples: Bibeesh (Dulquer Salmaan) and Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan), and Major Unnikrishnan (Suresh Gopi) and Neena (Shobana). If one were to nitpick, it is a film that is set in an ideal world, reaffirming ideal principles. But, that is not bad. Especially if it could be this pleasant a watch.
Varane Avashyamund is the kind of film that will make you smile and believe that everything is fine in the world.
A poster of ‘Dia’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Filmmaker KS Ashokan must be a Krzysztof Kieslowski fan. Or, he must have seen Three Colours: Blue; about a woman (played by the gorgeous Juliette Binoche) coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Like that film, Dia, too, is about heartbreak. Like Blue, we get a scene where the protagonist (Khushi Ravi) bruises her hand by dragging it along a stone wall. The film revolves around an introverted Dia and her romantic relationship(s).
Dia is a film that you would want to like, but end up hating. It is, for the most part, a well-made romantic drama. I remember one scene where Dia bids farewell to Adi (Pruthvi Ambaar) before giving a gentle hug. For some reason, it put a smile on my face and I thought: “This is a nice film,” if not for its atrocious climax that takes us for granted. Dia is still a sweet film.
A scene from ‘HIT’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
HIT: The First Case
This Sailesh Kolanu directorial is a clean thriller. The film follows the story of a police officer Vikram (Vishwak Sen) in the Homicide Intervention Team (HIT) and his relentless pursuit in finding the missing case of a girl, which would open a can of worms. Cut across two timelines, the narration goes back and forth, and gets everything right along its way. It is a film that sustains the tension throughout without settling for an easy route.
A scene from ‘Bulbbul’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
This Anvita Dutt-directorial has an eerie opening sequence that sets the tone for what is about to unfold. By genre conventions, you could say the film is a supernatural thriller, but the scenes that are actually chilling are those that show the violence perpetrated against Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri, whose face is hauntingly beautiful. Her face radiates calmness and pain, and is truly scary each time she smiles in the film).
You must be aware that patriarchy is the hottest subgenre in Bollywood. There have been several films that have questioned patriarchal notions and have helped bust a few. But why Bulbbul is a stand out is that, beneath its “layers”, Anvita Dutt creates a surrealistic mood that is akin to a Gothic horror, reminding you of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
A scene from ‘Sufiyum Sujatayum’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
I began writing this when the news broke that Naranipuzha Shanavas was declared brain dead on Wednesday. It is yet another devastating loss of a talent that showed great potential. His second feature Sufiyum Sujatayum is a transgressive romance and has the premise of Mouna Raagam: about a married woman getting over the memories of a long lost love. Sufiyum Sujatayum centres around the stillness romance of a Hindu girl Sujata (Aditi Rao Hydari), who has speech and hearing impairments, and a Sufi (Dev Mohan). If I am not wrong, Sufiyum Sujatayum has one of the boldest scenes that you wouldn’t normally find in an interfaith romance. It is when the girl dances to the adhan, Islamic call to prayer, by the Sufi. He is the music to her ears and vice versa.
The film’s best moments come in the first half, which, like its title, plays like a Sufi song. It’s quiet, pleasant and has a calming effect on you. Of course, the film has issues, especially the plot with her abrasive husband (Jayasurya) needed better scenes. But it is the kind of a film you would want to revisit on a lazy Sunday morning.
A poster of ‘Raat Akeli Hai’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Raat Akheli Hai
Perhaps the best Hindi film of 2020. They say you shouldn’t venture out in the dark, especially when you are alone. Most of Raat Akeli Hai unfurls in the dark and there is a reason why. This Honey Trehan directorial has a delicious setup for a noir: it begins with a murder at a wedding, and has a sprawling narrative that digs deep into the confines of a haveli. It starts off like a classic murder-mystery, but ventures into darker zones as the investigating officer Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) uncovers the many layers of patriarchy inside the haveli, and the many ‘whys’ of Raghuveer’s murder.
Though the locked-room mystery takes the entire first half, we get to learn more about Jatil Yadhav and his interconnected life with Radha (Radhika Apte), on whose wedding night Raghuveer gets shot. Raat Akeli Hai, if anything, has a great on-screen pair in Siddiqui and Apte. The tension that they share leave you wanting for more, and they put up a competent show.
My favourite scene of Siddiqui has got to be the one where he orders fried rice and the disappointing reaction that he gives, when his accompanying officer gets it wrong. Every. Single. Time. The film is a good remainder of how to make an extraordinary film out of an ordinary story, if you get the tone, texture and treatment right.
A scene from ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
I am a sucker for biopics that dramatise real-life events to suit the sensibilities of mainstream cinema. Naturally, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the dramatic beats of Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl — perhaps the most debated film of 2020, with regard to creative freedom — worked for me, for what it was and not for what it could have been.
The film dramatises Flight Lieutenant (retired) Gunjan Saxena’s early life and her valiant efforts as one of the first women officers to enter combat zone, when there were heightened tensions between Indian and Pakistani troops in Kargil. Had it been your regular Bollywood film, the focus would have been the warzone; it would have ended with forced patriotism and false messaging, among other things. Gunjan Saxena is not that film.
It is, in essence, a sweet story — of a girl realising her dream of securing a place in a patriarchal society that deems women “weak”. Which is why we get a scene when Gunjan (It is painful to watch Janhvi Kapoor in that scene) is ordered to arm wrestle with her batchmate by her commanding officer (Vineet Kumar Singh), to show how “weak” she is, women are. Which is why the film redeems itself towards the end with the arm wrestling scene, which is a tearjerker. It’s gentle yet powerful. That’s why masala matters. It is also one of those rare films that had a heartwarming portrayal of a father (a wonderful Pankaj Tripathi) and daughter relationship that felt real.
A still from ‘CU Soon’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
C U Soon
The film industry, like any other industry, was among the first to face the wrath of COVID-19. Within months into lockdown, there were reports that argued that the downfall of cinema was near. Everybody was left clueless. Amidst all the noises, a committed group of creative people came up with what could possibly be one of the best films of 2020. Rather, one of the best attempts in Indian cinema.
As they say, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And a film that brought that “lightness” in times of uncertainty was Mahesh Narayanan’s screen-based thriller, CU Soon, with a fantastic performance by Darshana Rajendran, who commands your tears in the scene where she calls up her sister. The film opens with Jimmy (Roshan Mathew) finding and eventually flirting with a girl named Anu (Darshana Rajendran) on a dating website. They both are Malayalis living in Dubai.
I remember my jaw dropping when the opening scene ended with the text: c u soon, which acts like a cue for the title sequence. Plus, it also has Fahadh Faasil playing, well, Fahadh Faasil as Kevin Thomas, a software engineer who joins his cousin Jimmy’s pursuit to find his missing girlfriend, Anu. Sure, the film might have had a convenient ending. But what mattered more than anything was the “intent” displayed by Mahesh Narayanan and team.
Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh in ‘Ka Pae Ranasingam’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Ka Pae Ranasingam
Another Tamil film by a debutant filmmaker. Another Tamil film that runs for three-hours. And another Tamil film that is never boring. There is something that is constantly happening in P Virumaandi’s Ka Pae Ranasingam, headlined by Aishwarya Rajesh, who, well, shoulders the film like a mass hero would do. The film is based on several real life incidents of a family and their endless measures in retrieving the body of their deceased relative/husband, who works as a migrant labourer in a foreign land. Vijay Sethupathi plays an extended cameo as Ranasingam, an activist who is married to Ariyanachi (Aishwarya Rajesh), but it is the latter’s show all the way. She is terrific in the climax, which is a nod to Amshan Kumar’s Manusangada.
One of the major criticisms that Ka Pae drew from critics was its length. But through the film’s duration, Virumaandi gives us a taste of reality, albeit without the usual messaging. Upon its release, there were comparisons to Mani Ratnam’s Roja, which, too, dealt with a woman defying all odds in search of her husband.
Suriya in a scene from ‘Soorarai Pottru’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
It would have been a shame had this Sudha Kongara-directorial failed to strike a chord. Beneath its surface, Soorarai Pottru is essentially a masala film that was destined to soar high — it is a classic case of the hero’s journey, structured in a way that makes him lose till the very last moment. Hence, the heightened emotions when the hero (Maara, played by a fantastic Suriya) completes his arc. But unlike the usual masala films where the heroine gets dwarfed in the hero’s journey, Bommi (a delightful Aparna Balamurali) gets an arc of her own, although you could argue that it is the most basic thing to expect in any film.
The film is a fictitious take on Air Deccan founder GR Gopinath’s Simply Fly, and dramatises real-life events to paint the odds stacked against one man, but refuses to throw light on the realities of caste and class struggle, with throwaway lines like “I want to break the cost barrier, but also the caste barrier” and “You are a socialite and I am a socialist”. Soorarai Pottru is one OTT release that needed to be watched on the big screen. It had power packed performances from Urvashi, Poo Ramu, Karunas and Kaali Venkat, and had a soaring soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar.
Everybody wanted Suriya to win. Everybody wanted Sudha Kongara to win. Which is why Soorarai Pottru ended up becoming a winning drama.
A poster of ‘Middle Class Melodies’ | Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video
Middle Class Melodies
Half the problem is solved if a filmmaker knows what he is doing. Another half is solved if a filmmaker knows to keep it simple. Sometimes, a film achieves a lot more by not doing anything. Middle Class Melodies is that film. It is a simple film about simple things — little things, if you may.
It is about a youngster (Raghava, played by Anand Deverakonda) trying to ‘escape’ from his family, to a city. It is about a girl (Sandhya, played by Varsha Bollamma) wanting to call her boyfriend “mama”. It is about a father (Kondalrao, a wonderful Goparaju Ramana) retrieving a piece of land that he sold for a lesser price. It is about someone who puts astrology over love. It is about a mango tree. It is about “Bombay chutney” — whatever that meant. It is about the middle class.
A scene from ‘Andhaghaaram’ | Photo Credit: Netflix
If ever there is a great example of a debutant filmmaker making a splash, being laboriously committed to executing what he conceived on paper, it is V Vignarajan for Andhaghaaram, whose production began in 2014, but was subsequently released on Netflix in November. Andhaghaaram means darkness and has a protagonist Selvam (Vinod Kishan), who lives in the dark. He is a loner and has visual impairments, and practises occultism to make quick money. There are two other narrative threads involving a psychiatrist named Dr Indiran (Kumar Natarajan) and a cricket coach Vinod (Arjun Das). Vignarajan cuts the film with a jumping timeline, with three interlinked stories and a common thread that becomes clearer as the story progresses. Yes, it is confusing at parts, but not a single scene is badly constructed.
Andhaghaaram, for the most part, plays out like part-mystery, part-supernatural thriller and has the duration that would make today’s audience go: “Are you kidding me?” It’s not the duration that is the biggest problem; it didn’t have enough meat to sustain your attention for three hours.
That said, if ever there is a great example of an exceptional piece of filmmaking from a debutant filmmaker, it is Andhaghaaram. Every scene is painfully put together with great control over filmmaking language — watch out for those gorgeous wide shots, the favouritest being the one involving Selvam and Pooja (Pooja Ramachandran) walking towards the camera. Andhaghaaram makes you sit up and take notice of its filmmaker.
(The best of indie films: Arun Karthick’s Nasir, Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo!, Anand Ravichandran’s Sethum Aayiram Pon and Vijay Jayapal’s Nirvana Inn)
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