Maybe they were not hyped enough. Or perhaps some of the reviews put you off. But these 2021 films certainly deserve a second glance.
1. Baawri Chhori: Though the pronounced influence of Vikas Behl’s Queen is everywhere discernible in this short-and-sweet little film, Bawri Chhori will nonetheless make you smile. It comes from the right place , a modest but genuine place, and it pulls no punches, as Radhika(Ahana Kumra) takes off from her smalltown in Punjab to London to wreak revenge on her husband who deserted her.Just like that! No money, no contacts, just a passport and loads of vengeful confidence to get even with the man who wronged her, Ahana Kumra plays the part with a controlled zest. Just because she is desi and emotional it doesn’t mean that she has to be loud and abrasive all the time, right?Right! Ahana plays the vengeance-seeking Punjabi wife with a restrained chutzpah.She anchors the show and she has solid support from an austere unpretentious screenplay which is written like as an adventure story with Radhika running into various desis in London who give her a warm bed, warm food and well…warmth. If only the real world was so friendly!
2. Meel Patthar: Some have compared Ivay Iyr’s road film to Nomad Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. The film that Milestone most resembles is Ognjen Glavonic’s haunting Bosnian drama The Load where the great Leon Lucev played a truck driver carrying cargo through dangerous territory.Not only does Milestone follow a similar trajectory it even has the trucker bonding with a young man who is eager to learn. Come to think of it, the leading man in The Load Leon Lucev and the principal actor in Milestone Suvinder Vicky bear a striking resemblance to one another.And they are both brilliant.I don’t know if director Ivan Iyr has anywhere acknowledged his debt to the Bosnian film or even acknowledged seeing it(great minds think alike, etc). But the protagonist Ghalib’s bleak brackish brutal existence echoes the Bosnian film all the way to its rather unexpected and thoroughly unconvincing ending.But before that Milestone contains many rewarding interludes which show the hand of a master creator who doesn’t fear silences and has the guts to face up to his hero’s feelings and failings .When we first meet Ghalib he seems broken but not damaged irreparably. We are given to understand that he has recently lost his wife who, we gather, stopped loving Ghalib after some kind of a betrayal which is too raw to talk about.
3. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar: After getting over the juvenile irony of the hero with a feminine name Pinky and the heroine with a masculine name Sandeep/Sandy the narrative rapidly stops getting impressed by its own uniqueness and stops laughing at its own jokes to deliver a rousing finale where Arjun Kapoor , in what must be considered a bold attempt to play against gender stereotyping, gets into an elaborate Kathakali-styled costume and makeup to facilitate his fugitive partner’s getaway.Of course Pinky and Sandeep are warring constantly. How could they not be, when she is a pregnant corporate banker on the run after her boss/lover turns against her. In a classic twist of the murderous knife, Pinky who is supposed to assassinate Sandy becomes her saviour. The film is shot at a scenic little town called Pitthoragarh on the Indo-Nepal border where Sandy and Pinky take refuge in a kindly couple Raghuvir Yadav and Neena Gupta’s place.Neither of the actors seems inclined to flesh out their sketchy roles. This is the most treacly aspect of the otherwise surprisingly clenched unsentimental drama.Parineeti Chopra delivers a finely tuned portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.Pregnant, pennyless, desperate and defeated, she is unlike any female hero we’ve seen in recent times. The same goes for Arjun who portrays the unselfconscious metro-sexual man with a quiet conviction. He is specially effective in the closing scenes where his feelings for Sandy bubble to the surface.Also watch out for Sukant Goel as an ostensible docile bank manager. He is a revelation.Admirably Kapoor and Chopra are never shown to be cuddling closer to one another. In one sequence Kapoor is shown cleaning Chopra’s blood after a violent miscarriage. It’s a brilliant moment of gender introspection done with a quiet sense of regret and loss. Sadly such moments show up in the erratic film and then vanish into bylanes as zigzagged as the town where the implosive saga unfolds.Sandeep & Pinky Faraar is nonetheless worth a watch. It should have been released on the digital platform where it has the potential of being a cult hit.
4. Skater Girl: 10 minutes into the film,and I was convinced this was Slumdog Millionaire on a skating board in Rajasthan.Then 45 minutes later something magical happened. She is called Waheeda Rehman. I don’t know how or where this enchantress, now in the winter of her life, showed up as a doppelganger of Gayatri Devi,telling us why she would fund a skatepark in Rajasthan.We appreciate. I have to admit by the end of it all , I was cheering and sobbing in a climax certainly inspired by Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham , when Prerna flees from her marriage mandap to participate in a skating championship where, hallelujah,the ethereal Waheeda Rehman shows up again. Now if she’s supporting the film, I am in.Besides the two main child actors the film has some really likeable actors like the chap who plays Jessica’s affable local guide and host Vikram(Ankit Rao).Ambrish Saxena and Swati Das are excellent as Prerna’s harried parents . But what was the need for a romantic side-plot where (low caste) Prerna is wooed by a Brahmin boy Subodh(Vinayak Gupta) who has the shiniest teeth since God invented Colgate.Skater Girl is effective when it avoids being schmaltzy and over-cute. When Prerna tells her mother that Jessica Madamji is from London the mother replies, “Yeh kaun sa goan hain?”Really? At the end we are told that the skatepark built in the Rajasthan village to shoot this film now stands permanently as a recreational nirvana for children in and around the venue.For this alone, I forgive the film its excessive cuteness. Besides, Waheedaji mentions that some day she will tell us her character’s back story.So I am looking forward to the sequel. But now I have to go. The skating board beckons.
5. Thalaivi: A bio-pic that tells the truth about its subject in an objective but never disrespectful tone. Hats off to writer K Vijayendra Prasad who proves himself the true Baahubali of screenwriting. He eulogizes the controversial chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha without turning the film into a sugary hagiography. It’s a complimentary to the subject matter, but not obsequious.As seen by the insightful team of Thalaivii, Jayalalilthaa is scheming and conniving, iron-clad in her determination to be – to use a definition applied to Mrs Indira Gandhi—the only man in her cabinet. But she is also a woman hopelessly and helplessly in love, with , who else, the 1950s and 60s’ Tamil matinee idol M G Ramachandran, played with such fragile flourish by Arvind Swami that if MGR were alive to see this bio-pic he would have wanted to be the way he’s played by the actor.I wonder what Jayalalithaa would have thought of this bio-pic! As portrayed by Kangana (in her most humane performance since Queen) Amma is atrophied by her ambitions and stumped by her love for the man who cannot love her back. Not in the way she wants. Her performance in several details reminded me of Kirthi Suresh in Mahaniti. But Kangana plays her actress-in-love-with-married-actor role with a lot more agonized vulnerability. She is so much in love that she would forsake her dreams to just be near her man. Once Jayalalithaa’s political ambitions kick in, the narrative assumes a kinetic force, palpable and unstoppable. Towards the end Ranaut actually begins to resemble Amma. Director A L Vijay exercises a firm grip over both the love story and the politics of Jayalalitha’s life. Her telephonic conversations with MGR just before his death, and the stunning cremation sequence where she gets jostled and molested, are outstanding in projecting an aura of doom and chaos. Kangana Ranaut goes through the film with a commanding exuberance, never excessive in her expressions of love and desire, always in the right proportions. Arvind Swami is as good, if not better.
6. Bhavai: Like a fulsome wholesome Gujarati thali, Bhavai(earlier entitled Raavan Leela which made a lot more sense) has a lot to offer us. It’s a surprisingly appetizing dish, pleasing to eye and the palate . And appealing to the mood of festivity that the Dussehra season awakens in all of us, whether we like it or not.Set in the bustling drama of a Ram Leela troupe in a village in Gujarat(the last time we entered the heart of a nautanki team it was in Shailendra’s ill-fated classic Teesri Kasam) this is a flamboyant-yet-austere stark-yet-spicy film swirling and dancing in the tides of topicality and temporality.If there is a quality of timelessness in the growing fondness between ‘Sita’ and ‘Raavan’ (last explored in Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, though in an entirely different context) there is also a headlinish twist in the tangy tale with the sudden invited appearance of radical Hindu elements jumping in to thwart the romance between ‘Raavan’ and ‘Sita’. The film is handsomely shot by cinematographer Chirantan Das who captures Kutch as region of disarming innocence. The music and songs(by Prasad Shaste and Shabbir Ahmed) add tremendously to the festive flavor.Not since Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron have I seen a director have so much fun at the Ram Leela.
7. Shiddat: Shiddat is about true love and the walls and hurdles of cynicism and moral policing that people in love have to face even today where caste community and bank balance determine marital alliances.The heart can go fly a kite.Jaggi as played by the wonderful Sunny Kaushal is all heart. Sunny, true to his name, is that spot of sunshine in our godforsaken grim grimy world , that epicenter of optimism which would like to us believe that true love still exists. So when he falls in love with the spirited swimmer Kartika(a typecast Radhika Madan) while training her to be a better sport(and also sharing a one-night with her) Sunny thinks it’s for keeps.When Kartika takes off to London to get married to the man of her wealthy parents’ choice, Sunny follows his dream to the wedding mandap.Almost. Shiddat is a terrific idea for a rom-com .Writers Shreedhar Raghavan , Dheeraj Rattan and Pooja Surti have packaged what seems to be the first true Bollywood rom-com in years. The characters sparkle with an ingrained vivacity.Even the supporting characters, like Kartika’s best friend(the Aruna Irani slot) will strike you as roles re-defining the equations and regulations of mainstream Hindi cinema .Shiddat shakes up the status quo, rearranges the tropes of a rom-com and comes up trumps. It is a zingy loopy sometimes crazy sometimes moving look at that thing called love as seen through different prisms and perspectives. The editing(A Sreekar Prasad) goes a long way in amplifying the plot’s mischievous manoeuvrings through a labyrinth of enticing ideas.There are some incisive comments on illegal migration and stowaways, apparentlyinspired by the Spanish film Adu directed by Salvador Calvo , smartly written into the plot. No, love doesn’t conquer. But it sure as hell lives up the philosophy of the film’s theme song Yamma yamma kya khubsoorat samaa, bass aaj ki raat hai zindagi kal hum kahan tum kahan.