Human interest stories, tales of unsung heroes, quirky noir, the year saw a variety of content from the Hindi film industry.
By Mayur Lookhar
In a year that is more about suspensions, deferments, delays, you wonder were enough film stories told to even merit appreciation? As bad a global pandemic is, but among the few positives it brought was that the Over-The-Top platforms were no longer looked upon as a step-cousin to movie theatres. Big or small, the pandemic busted any distinction as producers made a beeline for the OTT players, each eyeing a lucrative digital deal, while some simply longing for a release. Yes, some starry films chose to push their film back, but some were not shy to release it on OTT platforms. While you ought to empathize with film exhibitors, but watching most content on OTT networks made for convenient viewing, and reviewing .
We look back at the impressive Hindi films of 2020. We repeat, this list simply covers the best among those that Beyond Bollywood watched this year. We offer our apologies to any good film that missed our eye. It’s not for any lack of desire, but the year is such where life itself was more important than anything.
Without further ado, here’s our baker’s dozen.
13 Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior – director Om Raut
The biggest Bollywood box office hit of 2020. Actor, producer Ajay Devgn’s hundredth film earned a staggering Rs269 crore nett at the domestic box office [as reported by BoxOfficeIndia.com]. It’s not the money earned, but the historical, directed by Om Raut, scored high on entertainment value. The biopic on an unsung Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare [played by Ajay Devgn] was filled with high-octane action, gripping drama. Devgn and Saif Ali Khan reunited after 14 years, and much like in Omkara , it was the latter who overshadowed the former as the antagonist Udaybhan. Historical films are tough to crack, and often undergo intense scrutiny but Raut created a highly entertaining film that helped it not only light up the box office, but also earned wide respect.
12 AK vs AK – Vikramaditya Motwane
The word maverick is an often loosely used. Many a times, it’s the PR machinery that attribute such adjectives to a filmmaker. Phantom Films have enjoyed their moderate success, but more failures. Among its four co-founders, the man most worthy of the maverick tag is the underrated, unassuming Vikramaditya Motwane. The filmmaker roped in former business partner Anurag Kashyap and veteran actor Anil Kapoor in a black comedy titled after their initials. Both Kashyap and Kapoor played themselves. The nasty plot by actor Anurag Kashyap is borne on the despicable feeling of rejection. Kapoor exhibited the frustrations of a forlorn mainstream star nicely. Who would have though that years ago Kapoor rejecting Kashyap’s script [Allwyn Kalicharan] would form the base for Motwane to tell a thrilling director versus actor tussle story? Here was no marriage but a thrilling tussle between two individuals who represent two contrasting cinematic ideologies. Remarkably, it’s called a black comedy, but there is nothing really funny in the film. The many situations are filled with tension. If you hate both Kashyap and Kapoor, and then this was a film that exposed the bitter (perceived] truth about the two individuals. In a way, this was a comedy for the Kashyap and the Kapoor haters. Credit to both men who didn’t shy away from doing such a film. AK vs Ak was a rare gem from Netflix India.
11 Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl – Sharan Sharma
In a depressive year, we long to hear inspiring stories. First-time director Sharan Sharma gave us that through the biopic Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Based on the life of air force officer and former helicopter pilot Gunjan Saxena, the Dharma Productions film had Janhvi Kapoor playing the titular role. More than a war film, here was an aspirational tale that called upon every soul to dare to dream. Sharma beautifully explored the friendly father-daughter relationship, while the sibling rivalry [Kapoor-Angad Bedi] exposed the patriarchy. Sharma’s simple but fine writing and astute direction was backed by matured performance by Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi and Bedi. Yes, the Indian Air Force wasn’t pleased, besides it ignored the similar valour of Saxena’s Kargil colleague Sreevidya Rajan, but the Dharma film stood out as a standalone film.
10 Panga – Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
The Gunjan Saxena biopic was an aspirational story of a young girl, but Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga was a fine comeback story of a kabaddi athlete. The fiction paid tribute to working mothers, lauded their sacrifice and celebrated their never-say-die spirit. Kangana Ranaut regaled as Jaya Nigam, a 30 plus housewife who returns to sport after many years. Panga was all about battling our inner demons. As often, Ranaut steals the show in most of her films. But it was child artiste Yagya Bhasin who charmed us most as the jovial, spirited son of Jaya Nigam. Panga urges you to confront your inner demons head on.
9 Kadakh – Rajat Kapoor
An unheralded film on an unheralded OTT platform. Sony Liv began its revival with a slew of original films. Much before Scam 1992 [web series] stole our imagination, perhaps, it was director, actor Rajat Kapoor’s dark comedy Kadakh that drew one’s attention to the OTT network. An uninvited guest’s entry threatens to spoil the New Year’s Eve celebrations for Sunil [Ranvir Shorey], who ends up spending the evening trying to conceal the dark tragedy that took place in his home earlier. Kapoor’s film exposed the brittle nature of human relationships in a material world, and this was underlined by every character in the film. The impressive show by its cast, led by Shorey, helped Kapoor keep the lid on a pressure cooker scenario.
8 Shakuntala Devi – Anu Menon
We like our heroes to be all righteous, just, disciplined. However, flawed heroes don’t work much here. Director Anu Menon proved us wrong with the roller coaster life of former mental calculator and author Shakuntala Devi [1929-2013]. A genius at her passion [maths, calculations], Shakuntala Devi though struggled to get the personal equations rights. Who else but Vidya Balan to play the role of this unsung maverick, one who defied patriarchy to achieve her destiny. Menon’s film reminded us that often we end up doing the same thing, which we despise the most. Balan’s Shakuntala Devi was unabashed in her views, which worked dearly in her career, but it tested her relationship with her daughter Anupama [played by Sanya Malhotra] and estranged spouse Paritosh Banerji [Jisshu Sengupta]. Menon’s film made you marvel at the mathematical genius, but her broken bonds made you empathise with the mere mortal in Shakuntala Devi. Balan’s one-woman army show was the biggest driving factor behind this biopic.
7 Ludo – Anurag Basu
Castigated by critics, and even the late Rishi Kapoor, for the dud called Jagga Jasoos , director Anurag Basu got his shot at redemption with Ludo. This was no child’s play, but the noir dramedy hinged on the simple human need of affection. A builder’s murder by the dreaded don Satyendra Tripathi [Pankaj Tripathi] connects several characters from different corners of the society. Few of them are unlucky in love, few seek respect, money, love but like the four coins of a team in Ludo, each player simply longs to be in a happy space that they can call home. Basu’s intriguing screenplay and the management of the various characters was the highlight of Ludo. Save for Aditya Roy Kapoor, the rest of the ensemble cast were commendable in their acts. Fatima Sana Shaikh came like a breath of fresh air, while child artiste Inayat Verma floored you with her innocence, sharp wit. Ludo was also rich in its visual appeal.
6 Axone – Nicholas Kharkongor
Long battered for producing shoddy Hindi content, Netflix finally redeemed itself with the aromatic slice of life drama Axone. Pronounced as Akhuni, here was film that noy only hit onto on your palate, but it stirred your soul too. Meghalaya’s Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone touched upon the stereotyping of North East Indians in a city like Delhi. While it exposes the bigotry, but Kharkongor’s characters don’t harbour any hate towards the few bigots. There was some despair, but more cultural diversity to celebrate in this Netflix film. Bengali girl Sayani Gupta led the torch for our North East brethren as the feisty Nepalese girl Upasna. Axone was much praised for picking a horse for courses policy as we were exposed to genuine talents from the North East. – Lin Laishram, Lanuakum Ao, Tenzin Dalha, Asenla Jamir. If there’s an award for celebrating India’s cultural diversity, then Axone takes the cake here.
5 Gulabo Sitabo – Shoojit Sircar
He has a penchant for telling human interest stories. Shoojit Sircar’s latest slice of drama though took a lighter take on human greed. Like the puppeteer’s puppets Gulabo-Sitabo, Baankey [Ayushmann Khurrana] and Mirza [Amitabh Bachchan] are locked in a tussle over land. Both though forget that like Gulabo-Sitabo, their string of destiny lies in the hand of the octogenarian Fatima Begum [Farrukh Jaffar]. Sircar’s quirky story is ingrained in Lucknawi culture, that perhaps limited its pan India appeal. Credit though to Sircar for staying true to the region. A simple tale, but the stellar acts of its protagonists meant this Gulabo Sitabo kept you engaged through its time. In the divisive political atmosphere, Gulabo Sitabo stands out for its communal harmony.
4 Kaamyaab – Hardik Mehta
With a title like Kaamyaab, this film sure ought to succeed. But Kaamyaab tells the story of a forlorn side kick Sudheer [Sanjay Mishra] and his struggle to make an unlikely comeback, a dream to play a meaningful and a record 500 role at last. Named after a popular side kick in the 70s-80s, Kaamyaab was no biopic, but the trial and tribulations of Sudheer [Sanjay Mishra] mirrored the life of every supporting artiste the Indian film industry has seen. This is a country where fans are obsessed with stars, but artistes like Sudheer have no identity. Director Hardik Mehta’s heartening story paid tribute to the unsung heroes of Indian cinema. Kaamyaab rides on its telling tale, Mehta’s astute direction and a tour de force by the versatile Sanjay Mishra. The wide critical acclaim proves how content, not stats drive a film.
3 Raat Akeli Hai – Honey Trehan
By its relatively poor standards, Netflix did throw up few surprises from its India original. After Axone. We were left stunned by casting director-turned-director Honey Trehan’s riveting crime drama Raat Akeli Hai. Penned by Smita Singh, the noir follows a murder investigation by a fearless, righteous cop Jatil Yadav [Nawazuddin Siddiqui]. Singh’s taut screenplay, Trehan’s astute direction, crisp editing by A. Sreekar Prasad, deft cinematography and the stellar performances, led by Siddiqui made Raat Akeli Hai a thrilling crime drama. The genre is often considered an Achilles heel for Indian cinema, but the rich creative, production value embodied by Trehan and co, offers new hope for Indian noir.
2 Chintu Ka Birthday – Devanshu and Satyanshu Singh
Akshay Kumar’s Airlift  paid tribute to unsung Indian heroes who played an important role in the successful evacuation of over 100 thousand Indians stranded in war torn Iraq during the Gulf war. Four years later, unheralded director duo of Devanshu and Satyanshu Singh revisited the Gulf war in a human-interest drama with Chintu Ka Birthday. Stranded in war-torn Iraq, Bihari migrant Madan Tiwary [Vinay Pathak] wants to return to India but a Nepalese passport complicates things for the family. Despite the turmoil around him, Madan is adamant that he fulfils the wishes of his six-year-old son Chintu [Vedant Chibber] in celebrating his birthday. A few unexpected visitors threaten to cut short the low-key affair and the family runs the risk of falling apart. The heartening tale is a reminder of how humanity rises above war, call of duty, religious identities. Remarkably, this Zee5 film is produced by controversial comedy group All India Bakchod. The heartening story comes alive through stellar acts led by Pathak, Tillotama Shome, Seema Pahwa. The film’s child artistes Chibber and Bisha Chaturvedi are very impressive. The latter comes across as an uncut diamond, who is likely to only grow in stature with experience. Not many would have picked Chintu Ka Birthday to struck a deep chord with the audience. It sure deserves all the acclaim.
1 Thappad – Anubhav Sinha
True feminism can often be lost under the garb of materialism, sexual desires. We’ve seen that in some films where critics, fans perhaps went overboard in their appraisal. Anubhav Sinha though is a serious filmmaker. The success of no-nonsense films like Mulk , Article 15  have seen Sinha’s stock rise as a matured, social filmmaker. After tackling Islamophobia in Mulk, casteism in Article 15, Sinha put to test fragile human relationships, especially those that smack of patriarchy/ matriarchy. Sinha’s Thappad is a slap to such relationships. The protagonist Amrita [Taapsee Pannu] is slapped by her husband [Pavail Gulati] in a party. Until then, they seemed like a happy couple, but this one slap opened her eyes to the mundane, obligatory nature of her marriage. She files for divorce. In the process, Sinha and screenwriter Mrunmayee Lagoo take the lid off fragile human bonds. It’s not just the protagonists, but the duo tests long-lasting marriages, parents-daughter relationships. Thappad didn’t wow some, but not many films in 2020 threw many questions at you. Thappad did that constantly. The gripping screenplay is further enhanced by top notch performances led by Kumud Mishra, who plays Amrita’s father, Pannu, Tanvi Azmi, debutant Pavail Gulati, Maya Sarao, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan. Cinema is a medium by people, and sensible, sensitive human-interest stories would stand out over massy entertainment films. For us, Sinha’s soul stirring film deservingly takes the top spot in 2020.