Subhash K Jha Selects His 8 Favourite Hindi Films Of 2021

It was a year of mixed responses, when films that belonged on the big screen went on the digital platform, for example, Toofan and Atrangi Re, and those that belonged on the digital domain slipped into cinemas, for example Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and Bunty Aur Babli 2. Here are my favourite Hindi films of the year.

1. Sardar Udham:
Released on Amazon Prime video, this was history,in more ways than one.Where were you on 13 April 1919 when the Jalianwala Bagh massacre happened? And where were you on 16 October 2021 when Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s remarkably mordant film about the Massacre, was released?Note the two historic dates. One when the historic event actually happened .And the other when the event that created history was recreated in a film that’s at once a comprehensive bio-pic and a sharp thriller about an assassination of a dubious political figure ,a la The day Of The Jackal.Indeed Frederick Forsyth meets Richard Attenborough in this astute, if over-long cinematic replication of an assassination that shook the world. The film is punctuated by bouts of indefinable pathos and yet Sircar, a master when it comes to temperate storytelling, exercises an incredible restrain over his potentially unwieldy narration that takes its protagonist here there and everywhere.From Sunam, a village in Punjab to Russia, to finally London where General O’Dwyer(Shaun Scott, well played) is now busy giving lectures on the glorious days of the British Raj and what a brave and noble deed he performed by ordering the Massacre… “to teach them a lesson.”For all its anti-British tone, Sardar Udham bravely refuses to demonize the Britishers.In fact one of the British interrogators of Udham, played by Stephen Hogan I so sympathetic to Udham’s crime that he almost ends up looking like a token of reconciliation. Also, I sometimes caught O’Dwyer looking stricken with guilt(or was I just imagining it) before he is assassinated, as he ought to be.True to its mercurial mood , Sardar Udham follows a capricious timeline. It starts with Udham Singh journeying from his village to London via Russia , then moves through early years where we are told rather airily that he was in love with a mute girl named Resham(Binita Sandhu). It ends with the recreation of the Jallianwala massacre.And this is where Shoojit Sircar’s film goes from being an admirable bio-pic to a certifiable masterpiece.The last 45-50 minutes of the lengthy(almost 2 ½ ours) film shows the carnage in all its sanguinary splendour. Sircar and his Udham, Vicky Kaushal, pull out all stops as bloodied wounded survivors of the massacre are carted to hospitals. The Massacre makes for a harrowing watch. But you can’t take your eyes off the orange-and-red fire and blood, splattered screen.Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay , director Sircar’s long-term collaborator is the second hero of the film. Avik’s lenses capture the London of the 1920s with an understated grace. Sircar neither overdoes the pungency nor undermines the immediacy of period details. Every period details looks just right.How did he do it? We will never know. The director himself would be hard put to explain the film’s pitch-perfect tone, the absolute eschewal of melodrama, the sparing scintillating use of Shantanu Moitra’s background score and the remarkable regard for preserving and yet liberating history’s mysteries with a visionary’s flourish as deft and delicate as the notes of Vande Mataram and just as affecting.

2. Toofaan: On July 16 Amazon Prime had a lot to be proud of . Two outstanding feature films Malik in Malayalam and Toofaan in Hindi, although the language in both cases is the least vital component in its vibrant validity and renewable vitality.Toofaan, I have to admit, starts off sluggishly . As the triumphant underdog’s saga of a goon from Dongri who becomes a national boxoffice champ, Toofaan takeson all the typical tropes of the sports genre: gruff coach, elitist decision-makers, supportive girlfriend and what –have-you.But then suddenly Toofan changes tracks to become something much more than a sports drama, something far more relevant moving and vital . It become a testament to the power and pain of love in a growingly intolerant society powered by toxic levels of prejudice and suspicion. Following the intercaste marriage of the boxer Aziz Ali and the love of his life Ananya Prabhu, the screenplay(Anjum Rajabali, Vijay Maurya) speaks to us in a language that’s at once ineradicably topical and deeply moving.On many occasions I found myself teary-eyed as we follow the craggy cruel path of the love story. Akhtar and Thakur bring a lot of warmth and empathy to their screen relationship. They understand love. More importantly they know what lies in store for their forbidden liaison. To our relief director Mehra doesn’t dwell on the ugly underbelly of communal anxieties. But yes, we do see the couple facing the hardships that arise when they cross into another community through marriage.Some of the familial interaction in the second-half are so translucently dramatic I was completely bowled over by the sheer sincerity and , yes, innocence of vision revealed in the unalloyed emotions . There is not a disingenuous bone in the body of the storytelling.Farhan Akhtar and Paresh Rawail deliver knock-out performances in this pugilistic drama. Rawail’s journey from rabid communalism to compassion and acceptance is convincing because , well, he is that kind of an actor. And given the integrity of the director’s vision no actor can afford to go wrong.The interactive scenes between Paresh Rawal and his little grand daughter are moving in a very oldfashioned way. More than anything else, Toofaan reminds us how far our cinema has moved away from its roots. Why are we so shy of crying, singing and dancing in our films? Toofaan is an unabashed tearjerker . But the emotions are never manipulated ,never insincere.I wish some of the brilliant supporting cast had more to do : Mohan Agashe(who as Paresh’s lifelong friend just fills the frames with a fund of fond emotions), Vijay Raaz(whose role begins and ends abruptly), Supriya Pathak(so charming but so little to do) and Hussain Dalal(playing Farhan’s bestie, watch him in the full-on lip-sync song—a first in a Rakeysh Mehra film—dancing with Farhan imitating all the celluloid greats) .But no one is shortchanged in this heartfelt melodrama filled with a kind of aching nostalgic yearning that I thought I would never see in mainstream Hindi cinema again.And yes, Mrunal Thakur the only important female character, holds her own in a film that is really about the men, their egos and their defeats, their conflicts and their inability to come to terms with socio-political changes individually and societally. Put this film on your-must see list this weekend . It is Rakeysh Mehra’s best since Rang De Basanti. And that’s saying a lot.

3. ’83: By the time the climactic photo-finish match at the posh Lords stadium unravels in all its historically astute glory, the audience is so invested in the film it feels like the entire slab of sports history has been effortlessly converted into the crisp currency of cinematic history.You don’t really have to be a cricket fanatic to understand how important the 1983 World cup victory was for India and Indians. Even Mrs Indira Gandhi, then ruling country with iron hands, realized how vital it was for our boys to bring that Cup back.Somewhere in the course of the undulating though well-balanced and authentic storytelling (script by Kabir Khan, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Vasan Bala) the formidable Mrs G is heard telling her cowering cabinet, “Let there be a television set in every home to watch the World Cup so that the nation’s attention can be diverted from political issues.”I don’t know how accurate these assumptions so nimbly knitted into Kabir Khan’s gamely yarn of the World Cup’s power and reach are. But the film makes you want to believe in its strikingly nationalist assumptions.There is a sense of imminent urgency and unquestionable credibility cutting through the sports drama, as though to celebrate and mock the sports tropes at the same time.We don’t really know if all the events so charmingly described in the film, leading up to the victory, actually happened. Even if some of this is conjectural creativity, there is absolutely no way one can question the narrative’s right to interpret sports history as it thinks right, as long as the final triumph is not diluted or compromised.An unflinching propriety manned by masterstrokes of effortless candour and underscored by Julius Packium’s crowd-friendly background score, run through the saga bringing back to us the great 1983 victory with a vividness we have not experienced before in any sports drama. Of course Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan and Shimit Amin’s Chak De were great films delineating the complex relationship between sports and politics in a nation where every citizen is a potential score keeper if not a game player .Kabir Khan cleverly kicks into India’s obsession with cricket and eventually turns an underdog saga into a triumphant tale unforeseen heroism. The casting of the cricketers, so crucial to the efficacy of the end-product, is almost impeccable. Jiva as Srikkant and Amy Wirk as Balwinder Sandhu are notably effective. Some of the other players specially Sunny Gavaskar and Sandeep Patil are not so well-played.Pankaj Tripathi as the team’s manager manages to be characteristically spot-on. But Deepika Padukone as Romi Kapil Dev is quite unnecessary.What works wonderfully in the film’s favour is the team’s commitment to getting it right. The matches look authentic. Cameo appearances by Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath do not appear gimmicky. No one is in this for attention. There is a sense of profound commitment underlining even the most crowdwooing moments, such as that recurring visual of a little boy with his father rooting for Kapil, or Boman Irani as a radio commentator sobbing at the end.This is not a film to be taken lightly. It is relevant and historic and yet it succeeds in not being selfimportant. Standing tall at the apex of the drama is Kapil Dev, the affable desi captain of the team, so kind and yet a born leader.I looked for Ranveer Singh in 83 . But I couldn’t find him.

4. Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui: This is quite simply the film everyone must see. It tell us about tolerance, and acceptance without getting preachy and screechy. Director Abhishek Kapoor manages the near-miraculous feat of keeping the tone blithe and buoyant even when the going between the couple gets really rough.There is a disarmingly fine-tuned moment of pathos running into humour without collision when the film’s lead pair has a showdown on the street of Chandigarh. Two cops, concerned about ‘Bahenji’ stop to inquire.You have to see the rest of the sequence to know what fluent screenwriting is all about.Director Abhishek Kapoor has in the past shown us his brilliant side in fits and starts in Rock On(the film that introduced Farhan Akhtar as an actor and singer) , Kai Po Che(the one that made Sushant Singh Rajput a movie star) and in Kedarnath( a smart ingenious idea felled by a clumsy climax).In the horribly mistitled Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui the writing(by Supratik Sen, Tushar Paranjpe) is clearly on the roll. It flows freely and fluently making space for chuckles and sobs without seeming to be doing anyone a favour.It is no coincidence that the film’s hero is a beefy brawny Big Moose,Manu a gym instructor who doesn’t think twice before making a fool of himself in public. Manu’s relationship with Maanvi begins with a fart. It cannot go anywhere but up from there. The dizzying romance is filled with clasps cuddles kisses and fucks…And oh yes, the songs which are not particularly likeable. But then who is listening? We have eyes and ears only for the work in progress.Director Abhishek Kapoor captures the rhapsodic turmoil of the electrically attracted couple with a purpose.When Maanvi’s big revelation about her gender comes, we know this clunky oafish walking-talking muscle machine will take time to come around.The aching sweetness and the numbing wait for the apology acceptance and reunion are filmed with a furious fluency. Except for a few overdone sequences of Manu’s two nosy sisters prying into his love life, the narration’s momentum never flags.I have always believed that a film with a strong social message can only work when the tools of storytelling are well oiled and fully alert and alive to the job on hand.Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui seldom falters in telling it like it is.Life is often cruel specially to those who are physically and emotionally constructed differently from the mainstream .And in real life, it may not be as easy to get the Manus of the world to accept the Manvis. But hell, at least a film such as this offers hope of an more inclusive society.And it does so with an infectious vivacity.Using the language of conventional storytelling director Abhishek Kapoor tells us all about accepting the unconventional.

5. Dhamaka: Netflix’s Dhamaka is a stinging slap in the face of sponsored journalism where money and not the conscience , and certainly not the welfare of humanity, guides the television anchor to scream blatant lies.All is well as long as the lies sell.And sell everything for TRPs.There is a defining moment in this tense tale of the teacher and the ‘taut’ where our conscience-stricken journalist-hero blurts out to his boss, “Yeh sach nahin hai.”“Haan , yeh news hai,” the boss reminds Arjun.The boss(fed into Arjun’s phone as ‘Ankita Boss’) is a hardnosed ruthless media vulture played with characteristic spunk by Amruta Subhash. She will do anything to get the TRPs rolling. Arjun Pathak, lately disgraced and demoted, is willing to play along , when a vigilante/terrorist/reformer( we can label him what we want depending on which side of the blown-up bridge we standing on) named Raghuvir Mahata calls in at the news channel Bharosa 24/7 with information that could be a game-changer in the media’s relationship with the newmaker,not to mention Arjun’s relationship with his conscience and also with his wife(Mrunal Thakur).It all seems too compactly packaged initially, with all the ingredients of Arjun Pathak’s downfall lined in one line of vision. But then Ram Madhvani decides to turn it all around. And as Pathak’s world falls apart(like the bridge blown up by the faceless aam aadmi on the phone) we realize , nothing is as it ‘screams’Behind every voice of protest is an unacknowledged unread mythology of pain suffering and humiliation. As I heard Raghuvir Mahata’s rage vent itself viscerally into threats of unmitigated violence I thought of the innocent tribal who was tortured to death in police custody in the recent Tamil film Jai Bhim.What if Rajakannu in Jai Bhim had survived? Wouldn’t he be that voice threatening to blow up the city in Dhamaka? Taking off as a terrorist-negotiator thriller, Ram Madhvani’s film moves into areas of storytelling where terrorism merges into opportunism and good intentions are regurgitated in a pukey mess. It is a powerful parable on injustice and discrimination delivered with brute force that spares us none of the violence that a situation of social inequality breeds and bleeds into a compromised nation.Besides Kartik Aaryan the other heroes of this tactile thriller are Monisha Baldawa-Amita Karia’s editing and Manu Anand’s cinematography . These master-technicians put a dizzying spin to the out-of-control lives of neurotic characters , playing live on television.The supporting performances specially by Amruta Subhash as the Boss and Soham Majumdar as the Voice, are bitch-perfect and pitch-perfect , respectively.

6. Atrangi Re: This is the best film Aanand Rai has made since Tanu Weds Manu,it left me in a swirl of feelings at the end. The one certainty that I came away with is this: we have never seen anything like this before.Writer Himanshu Sharma has penned a paean to that weird thing called love. There is pleasure and pain in that paean and there are couple of startling twists in the tale of twisted love which made me thankful for the certainty that art offers. There is no complication that cannot be fixed.Original hai, boss! Ekdum original. Akshay Kumar plays Sajjad a hero like never before.He is hero-worshipped by Sara Ali Khan’s feisty Bihari avatar Rinku in a way we’ve never seen before. Rinku’s love for Sajjad re-defines that whole commodious place where the Indian rom-com loves to bask, but hardly ever gets it right.This one does, and how! Every time Sara’s Rinku runs to hurl herself into Sajjad’s warm embrace a thousand unseen flowers bloom in the horizon. But sorry, the real hero of the film is not Sajjad. It is Vishu, the Tamilian softhearted doctor(who I suspect is Tamilian only because he’s played by the director’s favourite actor the Tamilian Dhanush).He is kidnapped groom who learns only too soon that coercion is the steppingstone to acceptance. Early in the plot Vishu shows himself to be heroic beyond the cinematic definition of the word. There is a botched-up engagement ceremony where Rinku is abused by the hosts. Vishu takes her hand and says, ‘Shaadi zabardasti hui hai lekin biwi hai.’ It is one of the most heroic moments I’ve seen in any recent film.Towards the end when one lie could have solved a very complex psychological situation ,Vishu sticks to the truth. But it’s a very strange truth about a lie that Rinku has been living with since her childhood.Atrangi Re is a wondrous unpredictable journey into the heart of love . It is skillfully written and delicately directed by a man who recognizes the nobility in every human being. This a story of enormous sacrifices . There are episodes where we the audience don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is also a deep-dive into mental trauma and illness brought on by events in the past that leave a deep scar.This is eventually a film about healing , filled with hope sunshine and laughter, Atrangi Re is a terrific way to end the year.

7. Paglaitt: It’s not easy to laugh in the face of death. But what to do when the newly-widowed Sandhya(Sanya Malhotra, in a career-changing performance) asks for an aerated drink when she should be grieving copiously and ostentatiously?Sandhya knows the ‘mourning’ shows the day.Sandhya has a problem. And a very disturbing one at that. She doesn’t feel a thing for her dead husband. Instead of grieving over his loss, as the teeming household of parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, nephew and nieces seem to be doing, Sandhya sneaks out of the house with her best friend Nazia(Shruti Sharma) pretending she needs a doctor , to have gol gappas.Pagglait is a striking provocative often poignant and amusing meditation about what is expected from the bereaved and what the bereaved actually feel. We had a very likeable film on this theme Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi a few months ago. Pagglait may outwardly look similar(after all, mourners cannot be any different in two different households,or can they?) .But the core of the films,its heart and its spirit are fiercely individualistic.This is a film on its trip, wilful and wonderful and teeming with characters made memorable by some of our best actors.When a young girl talks about her periods in front of the family ,the ever-dependable Raghuvir Yadav(a pastmaster at playing grumpy old men) retorts, “Aur dikhayo inko Padman.” To show the middle finger to tradition and convention especially in a house filled with mourners is not easy. Pagglait gets right the mood of suspended regret and unrepentant defiance as Sandhya sets off on a journey, first emotional then physical , to know herself. This self-searching is done with such scrambled ambiguity that we can’t help feeling protective about Sandhya.Throughout her 13-day journey , Old Lucknow remains a distant ally.A sleeping accomplice , if you will.Rafey Mahmood’s camera doesn’t miss a single smirk or frown on those familial faces. At the centre of the bustling jostling melee of mindless mourners is the question of Sandhya’s aborted marriage.Did Sandhya not ‘know’ her husband when he was alive because of her intellectual shallowness? Sandhya’s interaction with her dead husband Astik’s girlfriend Akansha(Sayani Gupta) suggests Sandhya never made an effort to get close to her husband.This “getting to know” process(blue being her dead husband’s favourite colour, Sandhya unaware of this vital fact, names blue as HER favourite at the end when she’s on her way to selfactualization) reminded me of Rituparno Ghosh’s Shob Charitro Kalponik.At times the plot seem top-heavy. Too many life-changing events follow in a rapid progression during just the 13 days of mourning. Luckily writer-director Umesh Bist balances out the spiral of domestic revelations in a calm cogent flow. Even when the characters overlap in their desires and disaffection , they somehow seem to never lose their identity.Some of the people who populate this drama of liberating disenchantment may be hard to place in the family hierarchy . But we all know how it is in a house of mourning. No one knows everybody. And most mourners are not there for any other reason but to gossip. As genuine mourners Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chadha, playing the dead man’s parents , and Chetan Sharma as his sibling, are absolutely bang-on. The rest of the cast isn’t far behind. Just a little lost in their moral grounding.

8. Haseen Dillruba: It’s interesting to see how an avant-garde writer like Kanika Dhillon is pushing the Hindi Film Heroine over the edge. She can now crave for things like non-vegetarian food and satisfying s*x without being slut-shamed . It’s okay to be a slut now.The new post-‘Covet’ guidelines are deliciously applicable to the heroine in Haseen Dillruba. Rani Tripathi, nee Kashyap, is the kind of hormonal heroine who gives the smalltown slut a bad name. In a sequence straight out of a pulp novel written by her favourite author Dinesh Pandit , Rani walks up to a girl who’s (innocently?) talking to her husband and confides that they(Rani and her husband) have had s*x only once since their marriage a month back and it ended in a squishy fiasco.“Lady to lady main aapko bataa rahi hoon,” Rani tells the disgusted girl(whoever she might be).This crass attempt at being brutally frank about her appetites, be it for s*x food or later murder, makes Rani an counter-deified oddity , an anomaly, a square among circles. She certainly doesn’t fit in as Rishu’s husband.Rishu! He is a problem. You see, he is not a wife beater or a sleazebag. He loves his wife to death,which in the context of the way the plot pans out , is quite an ironic description of Rishu’s …errr..undying passion for his unfaithful , untrustworthy, despicably unwifely wife.While the set -up is intriguing and seductive in its sleazy undertones, the detailing in the art direction of a riverbank fictionalized smalltown named Jwalapur(Allahabad? Varanasi?) is unsubtle: the wife’s two suitcases from her recent wedding are strategically placed next to the bed in the couple’s bedroom.The neatness mocks the mess that Rani and eventually her cornered husband make of their marriage.Jayakrishna Gummadi’s cinematography manoeuvres through the cramped space of a smalltown home stealthily searching out the sleaze.Rishu, the husband is problematic to the plot. His innate decency and his determination to be a good husband to his truant errant and eventually unfaithful wife puts the marital moral alignment into a fix. How to justify Rani’s lustful betrayal when her hormones start to act up? Or her earlier description of her husband as ‘phuski’ a two-minute-noodle insult that Rishu overhears.It is here that Rishu’s decency caves in. In the most savagely noire-comic passage of the narration Rishu is seen growing murderous towards his wife. As he tries to cause her grievous bodily harm , their marriage is self-healing. You know the one about hurting the most the one you love the most? Hold on to that thought as the Rani-Rishi marriage burns and crashes and repairs in a mode that is at once pulp-fictional and consciously sloppy.The plot is fraught with dangerous curves, as dangerous as Taapsee Pannu’s swinging walk as she defiantly steps out of her smalltown housewife’s orbit to fancy-cut her father-in-law(Daya Shankar Pandey) ’s hair,show the middle-finger to her bullying mother-in-law(Yamini Das) and fuck her husband’s beefy cousin(Harsvardhan Rane).Cop Aditya Shrivastava tries to make sense of the crime of passion, which outwardly seems as lurid as the novels of Rani’s favourite Dinesh Pundit.He is the voice of reason in an echo-chamber of treason.Like those pulp Hindi novels that were a staple part of train journeys in the 1970-80s, Haseen Dulruba entails an acquired taste to be enjoyed. Rani’s hormonal crimes are not easy to accept. She is fatal and flawed. But damn attractive.Taapsee delivers yet another titillating tongue—and-taang-in-cheek performance ,rendering Rani a slut hard to slot. Vikrant Massey as her dutiful husband is outstanding. He is his wife’s little lamb who turns into a man-eating lion when pushed to the wall. With a twitch of his mouth and a flicker of an eye Massey makes Rishu a nice reliable man who can transform into a creature of caprice . Harshavardhan Rane’s immoral hunk is a well-played stereotype.But the film belongs to writer Kanika Dhillon and director Vinil Mathew who create a universe so denuded of a moral centre you fear it will topple over the edge under the weight of its own giddy hormonal urges.

About The Author
Subhash K Jha

Subhash K. Jha is a veteran Indian film critic, journalist based in Patna, Bihar. He is currently film critic with leading daily The Times of India, Firstpost, Deccan chronicle and DNA News, besides TV channels Zee News and News18 India.

Comment Box

Related Post

Latest Stories