Everything was badly hit in 2020. In a year where we spent most of our time inside the comfort of our homes, the cinema industry was reeling a grave loss too. Some film productions were shut mid-way, some were scrapped because there were not enough resources to put them out on the floors and some were indefinitely postponed as we no more had the means to see them in the exact way they were meant to be seen. Personally, I missed watching a Hindi film in the cinemas as much as I missed dissing them. The 10 Best Hindi Films Of 2020 list is thus an amalgamation of the least-bad ones this year. So much so that the last few titles on this list can be easily interchanged with each other or the ones that have made it to the honorable mentions.
Before we get to the list, I would like to clarify that Prateek Vats’s ‘Eeb Allay Ooo!,’ Devashish Makhija’s ‘Bhonsle‘ and Rohena Gera’s ‘Sir‘ were released to the general populace this year. The only reason they don’t feature here is their presence on my list of the best Hindi films of 2019. So, before you crib about them not being included here, kindly go through the list.
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Honorable Mentions: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari‘s ‘Panga’, an absorbing sports drama about motherhood and second chances spoiled by abhorrent editing choices. Anurag Kashyap‘s demonetization drama ‘Choked‘ where a story of a crumbling marriage gets sidelined by an overbearing socio-political metaphor. Nicholas Kharkongor’s ‘Axone,’ a delightful reworking of breaking stereotypes that ends up creating some of its own. Vikramaditya Motwane’s ‘AK vs AK,‘ which somehow gets lost in its seemingly clever meta-experiment. And Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Gulabo Sitabo,’ a feud between humans nature’s opportunistic gaze and materialistic wishes that leaves its characters ashtray when the themes get too heady.
An anti-fairytale at its very core, this feminist fable is arguably the most gorgeous looking thing to have come out of Hindi cinema all year. With lyricist Anvita Dutt at the helm, Bulbbul‘s flawed and occasionally problematic narrative is glossed over by technical wizardry like no other. The lensing, production design, and sound-mix cleverly weave a thread of folk-horror while grounding all the visual grandeur in a palpable and urgent tragedy.
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Following the fear of a man-eating ‘chudail (she-demon),’ the film – produced by Anushka Sharma’s bold and inventive Clean Slate Films production is essentially a poetic retelling of having to grow up in an environment that doesn’t allow you to grow but actually forces you into it. Powered by an enchanting performance by Tripti Dimri, Bulbbul might not manage to juggle through its purposely complex narrative that throws away two narrative strands, but the sheer will to hinge something like this on the screen must be applauded.
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The fact that Arati Kadav’s Cargo is a rarer bread in traditional Hindi cinema only goes to show how the Indian audience is still reluctant to accept things beyond their decadence. A sci-fi film in terms of its premise, but a truly existential, inventive, and to a stretch original oddity about life, death, and everything in between, Kadav’s debut feature film is what you truly call ‘out of the box.’
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Following the life of the Rakshasa(s) (demon agents) who basically form a flux between a person’s death and their afterlife, the servitude of reincarnation is used as the grounds for exploring more intimate and personal issues like loneliness, longing, self-doubt, and perseverance. While wobbly and inert in its exploration of said themes, the film is ably shouldered by believable performances from Shweta Tripathi and Vikrant Massey and a phenomenal production design by Mayur Sharma.
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While mostly pointless and lacking when it comes to knowing exactly how to place its array of characters in a threatening situation, Lootcase still managed to evoke laughter in a time when most of us needed it the most. Following a quaint plot of a man stumbling onto a suitcase full of cash, exactly when his life is becoming a sorry chore because of a lack of it, the film churns out genuine comedy out of a dozen caricatures that tickle your senses.
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Featuring an ensemble cast that could wrestle one another when it comes to comic timing, director Rajesh Krishnan uses familiar crime-caper tropes and a set of ill-fated goons (lookout for a fabulous NAT-GEO lover Vijay Raaz) to test the limits of a common-man whose luck shines when his bladder seems to be overflowing one fine night. It’s basically harmless fun at the movies.
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7. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
There’s nothing groundbreaking here in terms of a biopic, but Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl works entirely because it uses a potent underdog story to tell a tale of a girl rather than the larger than life characters that Bollywood often creates out of real people. Writer/Director Sharan Sharma creates a fictionalized account of a real-life hero but doesn’t necessarily shoe-horns it with triumphant, fist-thumping propaganda.
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Instead, he populates his film with a real, heartfelt coming-of-age tale of a girl trying to make it in a man’s world. With a clear eye for how to use melodrama and manipulation in the right amount, Sharma’s film is a bold move when it comes to canceling out the blatant sexism ingrained in Indian men. What truly remains and is worth recommending is his ability to do that and more with composed subtlety and grace.
Watch Gunjana Saxena: The Kargil Girl on Netflix
6. Serious Men
Based on Manu Joseph’s 2010 satirical novel, Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men is about a lower-middle-class Dalit Man who realizes that if he is not ‘making it big’ in some way, there’s no point in existence. So, he basically ends up coning the entire country into believing that his 10-year-old son is a mathematics prodigy.
It’s an interesting idea that is turned into a black comedy with mixed results. While its impacts is sort of diluted by a lack of conviction to its own proceedings, the themes of parents forcing their dreams onto their child and the underprivileged trying to snatch a piece of the cake, call for an interesting detour. While not all its ideas land, there is enough gravitas here for the thinkers out there. Also, watch out for Nawaz who is at once endearing and sinister here.
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5. Chintu Ka Birthday
With Chintu Ka Birthday directing duo Devanshu Kumar & Satyanshu Singh introduce us to a war-torn Baghdad. Thankfully, they don’t drone around the city to showcase the devastation of war or ploy the audience with body-counts as they whiff for air to breathe. This is a modest little film with an optimistic approach. The perils of war are of course spread all over the runtime, but the Tiwary family’s empathy and affection give this little film a beating heart.
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Backed by AIB, this sweet-natured anti-war film doesn’t exactly achieve the kind of impact it is going for. However, it’s modesty and exuberance for the titular event to happen by any means makes for a satisfying 80-minute diversion. One that makes you want to be a person with a bigger heart.
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Watch Chintu ka Birthday on Zee5
Set against the backdrop of the 2013 Vyapam Scam, Randeep Jha’s Halahal pairs together the ‘bad-cop’ and ‘grieving-parent’ narrative to tell an urgent and potent tale that is more layered than it initially lets on. Following the supposed suicide of his daughter, a father gets inconsequentially involved in a conspiracy that is too hard for his simplistic mindset to unravel. As more truths come to the surface, dangerous dead-ends and cross-examinations lead him into believing that there’s something truly wrong with how everything happened.
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Powered by two powerful performances at its center by Sachin Khedekar & Barun Sobti and a well-written crime story by Gangs of Wasseypur fame Zeishan Quadri, Halahal manages to raise eyebrows. It is not without its share of flaws but the almost satirical tone and the sheer audacity to mount something this intriguing gives it brownie points.
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In one of many beautiful moments in Hardik Mehta’s Kaamyaab – an ode to the character-actors of Bollywood; a desolate, heartbroken aspiring actress comes up to the senior actor’s apartment to find solace. They both discuss how life always seems to give them lemons when they are on the lookout for better things. The age gap between their philosophies is shown through their different rhymes on the same rhythm and in a moment both their griefs become one.
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There a few other sequences that manage to conjure up realistic situations out of a decidedly ‘happy’ tone that Mehta goes with. Some land some don’t. However, it is Sanjay Mishra who uplifts this material to a greater level with a sheer will and sort of meta-reflectiveness to his own life. The final sequence would make you wonder why you didn’t notice him in the smaller films he has been doing for years.
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Rajat Kapoor’s deliciously macabre tale of a dead body, hidden secrets, and the snaring ideals of privilege find their way into the Diwali party of a couple who are about to discover the cracks in their relationship and the behavior of the people around them.
Sharply written and brimming with tension, this self-proclaimed amoral tale with a deceptively simplistic story investigates the oddity of human behavior. Boasting an ensemble cast of indie favorites from the country, Kadakh has to be one of the most unusually satisfying watches of 2020.
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For a mainstream Bollywood drama, Thappad accomplishes the unspeakable. In quietly subtle moments of silence, it single-handedly points fingers at the collective patriarchy that seeps into every household and the men inside them. Anubhav Sinha’s film uses a simple hook of a slap triggering years and months of unrealized rage and oppression and then goes a step ahead to carefully unravel the truths that hide behind closed doors.
Featuring an ensemble cast that really gets behind the idea that floats throughout the narrative, the film becomes a plea and a wake-up call for all the wrong that society has been sweeping under the rug for such a long time. With a few minor missteps, Thappad becomes one of the most important and best Hindi films of 2020.
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