The 20 Best Indian Movies of 2020
It would be quite tricky to describe how 2020 was for Indian movies. With almost every theater shut, the cinematic experience one craves as a cinephile was lacking the ecstasy. At the same time, some modest, independent features which never saw the light of the day in the past two years got their place in the major streaming platforms. Among regional industries, Malayalam cinema continues to break the clutter with its expansive narrative choices. It was also quite surprising for me to have so many Hindi films cutting through this list, despite it being quite a mediocre year for Hindi cinema, in general.
The lively restraint, and the sense of invention and interpretation, avoiding the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic that has plagued our ways of living, and the current fascist regime through which we are living, would be the aspect of Indian cinema that is going to stay with me the most. I would especially like to mention films such as Rohena Gera’s Sir, Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo!, Rohena Gera’s Sir, Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, and Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar, which featured among our list of the best Indian movies of 2019.
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At the same time, I would also like to state that this is an in-process list, and I’m yet to watch some of the critically acclaimed films. On that note, I would like to begin with my list of the 20 best Indian movies of 2020.
DETECTIVE | COMEDY DRAMA | BENGALI
Director- Joydip Mukherjee
Joydip Mukherjee’s adaptation of the famous pre-Bymokesh, pre-Feluda detective short story penned by Rabindranath Tagore, Detective isn’t half as thrilling or darkly comedic as the source material, but a silly, whimsical period update is engaging and pleasurable for the most part.
It of course lacks the subtlety and cultural voice of a Tagore story but the unapologetic socio-political, nationalistic voice is never compromised at the altar of lightness or whimsicality. By introducing subtexts of an empowered woman – a true liberal, widow remarriage, and homosexuality, it earns the self-indulgent writing because we have been subject to the on-the-nose, tedious textbook historical dramas for long. Coupled with the delightful leading performance delivered by Anirban Bhattacharya (who conveys the caricaturish nature of the character with the flair of a comic-book protagonist), the film succeeds in becoming a funny ode to the tension of Holmes and Henry.
Watch Detective online on HoiChoi
20. HALAHAL | CRIME DRAMA| HINDI
Director- Randeep Jha
From a narrative point-of-view, Halahal is nothing new. The Gurgaon highways and things going wrong by the night are familiar tropes both tried and tested. The writing is quite linear and straightforward, and you won’t have a hard time guessing the climax. But the story of a father who wants to know about the culprit of his dead daughter, and the greedy policeman helping lawlessly is a more gripping and angry film than it lets on.
Apart from addressing the rottenness of these lands powerfully, Jha quite systematically exhibits a chilling form of politics: one which chooses to meditate on the grief of a parent for his dear child. The film still won’t have worked for the manipulation is quite inherent and noticeable. But the intense cinematography aids the atmosphere with grit and gloom, making it work for most of the part. Sachin Khedekar is in reliably good form here but the relatively new Barun Sobti delivers a definingly murky, career-best performance. Here is a promising storyteller, and a promising actor, to look forward to.
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WATCH HALAHAL ON EROSNOW
19. RAAT AKELI HAI| WHODUNIT THRILLER| HINDI
Director- Honey Trehan
Honey Trehan, famously known as the casting director for independent features such as A Death in the Gunj makes an effective directorial debut with his Agatha Christie-esque thriller Raat Akeli Hai. Set in the badlands of Central Indi and starring an excellent ensemble cast led by a wonderful Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the film wasn’t a groundbreaking achievement like you would expect it to be. Instead, the film overshadowed the familiarity with the innovation and competence of its craft.
It isn’t one of the strongest genre pieces from Indian cinema and lacks the subtlety and nuance of those films, but as an ode to the badland crime saga, it works more than it should have because it perfectly meets the chaste confines of its potential. The social doctrine of the film is fairly boring in numerous instances. Also, as a social drama, it fails miserably. What it achieves though, is far more distinctive and exciting than anything it doesn’t. Using a water-tight screenplay written by Smita Singh, the film dismantles the toxic patriarchy of a male-dominated haveli. In the film, a man, the cop called Jatil Yadav is put at the center of events. But the intelligent, brazen women are the real protagonists.
Related to the Best Indian Movies of 2020: RAAT AKELI HAI  NETFLIX REVIEW: A WHODUNIT LESS CONCERNED WITH WHO DID IT.
Watch Raat Akeli Hai online on Netflix
18. CHINTU KA BIRTHDAY | CHAMBER PIECE | HINDI
Director- Satyanshu Singh, Devanshu Singh
Set in the backdrop of the US-Iraq war in 2004, ‘Chintu ka Birthday‘ is a sweet-natured anti-war film that 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. The film doesn’t expand to any location other than the settlement of the Tiwari family in Baghdad. This stems less from the intention of becoming a chamber piece and more from the budget constraints, but there’s a lot of affection and maturity in the ways in which the statement it desires to make is handled.
The superb performances, especially those delivered by a wonderful Tilottama Shome, the ever-dependable Seema Pahwa, and two beautiful kids Vedant Chhibber and Bisha Chaturvedi, channel the most out of a luscious, heartwarming narrative. At its heart, the film is also the coming-of-age narrative of a little Chintu who realizes that it is only through the human experience, that the optimism – or pessimism – are extracted. This is a cheerful tribute to the Hrishikesh Mukherjee school of storytelling.
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Watch Chintu Ka Birthday on Zee5
17. SOORARAI POTTRU | DRAMA| TAMIL
Director- Sudha Kongara
Sudha Kongara’s latest Diwali-release based on the life of the popular air captain GR Gopinath, Soorarai Pottru seemed like yet another festive vehicle for a big star. But the leading performance of the ‘superstar’ Suriya turned out to be a refreshing one. It was complemented by an inherently charming body language, an emotional compass that seldom falters, and a rage that feels humane and genuine.
It packs in some entertaining, glossy mass moments in an eventful biographical drama-style narrative and a truly atrocious antagonist – both of which are quite uneven. But the empathy and female gaze constructed through its screenplay is so consciously put that the film feels anything but safe. Through a running time of two-and-a-half hours, the film pushes the buttons smartly and in a hugely motivated manner. This results in a fun masala movie tailored for both the theaters and the OTT. Also, watch out for Aparna Balamurali’s fabulous performance, which not only does away from the traditional love-interest role but also makes the film’s female gaze come alive.
Watch Soorarai Pottru on Prime Video
16. BULBBUL| GOTHIC PERIOD DRAMA| HINDI
Director- Anvita Dutt
In the opening shot of Anvita Dutt’s fable Bulbbul, two little feet are suspended through a mango tree as a little child-bride takes notice of the wedding procession coming to fetch her into a world of oppressive patriarchy. 20 years later, the red color wakes to its full cognizance and soars into the sky, as the haunting tale of a churail (witch) becomes one of a blood-thirsty Goddess. But death is not what looms over the crimson-colored, grandly made period fantasy set in the Bengal presidency of the late-eighteenth century.
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Instead, this lyrical, lovely directorial debut relishes in the realm of feminism. The twirling hair, the sweeping costumes, and the melodrama-style expressiveness in acting allude to the film’s poetic reimagining of a cult tale and a lost heritage. The film has an uninspired ending which doesn’t work at all, but the on-the-whole impact is intensified by the electrifying performance of Tripti Dimri as the injured, winning protagonist Bulbbul.
WATCH BULBBUL ON NETFLIX
15. MIDDLE-CLASS MELODIES | COMEDY DRAMA | TELUGU
Director- Vinod Anantoju
I don’t think we have many dramas that relish the little things which make up the understated middle-class life of a small town. This charming little Telugu film starring Anand Devarakonda and Varsha Bollamma is an epic, vibrant ode to the middle-class things India’s small-town people identify with.
Set in a village near Guntur, the film follows Raghava Rao – a young man who wants to start a hotel in Guntur selling the local food with the special delicacy called Bombay Chutney that he believes is the most delicious chutney in the world. If it sounds like another film about a young boy and his modest aspirations in a modest environment, hang in there because the film never loses sight of its humor. Populated with ordinary life tensions and generously showered by moments of sweet brilliance, the film is carried off by a narrative that is amazingly in touch with the subplots it has. It feels just like the middle-class environment we all grew up in where everyone used to know everyone (which is still common in villages). The performances are essentially cogent, starting from the leads Anand Devarakonda and Varsha Bollamma who have such dignity and lack of vanity in their portrayal that their romance comes off as intimate. The same can be said about the father-son relationship of Raghava with his cantankerous father Kondala Rao (played by an excellent Goparaju Ramana).
The film highlights that this is never-ending chaos just like life but it also teaches the ways of living. It tells you to focus on the work, instead of fame, and to look beyond the frame with a progressive gaze. It serves some of it in an annoyingly overdramatic pattern – like the subplot of a chit fund scam. But those are just the clunky edges of a script that needed a little more sharpening. Perhaps the film’s exceeding running time serves it good because it helps to look through what the film achieves in a sincerely affecting manner and to overlook much that it doesn’t get right. This is one aromatic, flavorsome feel-good drama that will also go down for me as one of the better Indian movies of 2020.
Watch Middle-Class Melodies on Prime Video
14. KAAMYAAB| COMEDY DRAMA| HINDI
Director- Hardik Mehta
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.
WATCH KAAMYAAB ON NETFLIX
13. NIRONTOR | DRAMA| BENGALI
Director- Chandrasish Ray
In Chandrasish Ray’s Nirontor, the mountains and cities make for a constant contrast. The themes of a serene environment and a busy world come to play more often than you would expect. The mystery, a thrill, underlines the tone of the film as a whole. In fact, with that poster (and literally nothing else, not even a theatrical trailer), I expected a fast-paced thriller. However, it turns out to be a meditative, poetic drama about the evident generational gap two people often have.
It is one film that mines out disarming depth out of a seemingly simple structure of conversations. The film lacks solid production values and is somewhat forgettable too but its tranquility and the beautifully composed leading performances do add up to its success. It also says a lot about a film since a major Indian superstar stars in this modest little film.
Watch Nirontor on Zee5
12. KADAKH | BLACK COMEDY| HINDI
Director- Rajat Kapoor
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.
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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.
WATCH KADAKH ON SONYLIV
11. GUNJAN SAXENA: THE KARGIL GIRL | BIOGRAPHICAL DRAMA| HINDI
Director- Sharan Sharma
For a female biographical film, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl sets out to do what most Indian biopics failed to do – incorporating the entire persona of the enigmatic twenty-four-year-old girl as she became the first woman pilot of the Indian Air force and the first woman of India to fly in a war zone in less than two hours. This film isn’t investigative, rousing, or even subtle, but it is contemplative and restrained. It is touching and understated because the filmmaking is specifically bracing all the way.
As a mainstream film, this is not a perfect venture, but it is only refreshing that a film bankrolled by a big production house discusses casual office sexism without overreaching in the narrative. It’s always a progressive thing to say so. In a not-so-simplistic, modest but gloriously simple way, Gunjan Saxena addresses an important issue quite effectively. It is appreciable that a film portrays a warrior’s ambition without the top-notch jingoism/patriotism Bollywood always spoon-feeds us.
WATCH GUNJANA SAXENA: THE KARGIL GIRL ON NETFLIX
10. UMA MAHESWARA UGRA ROOPASYA | THRILLER| TELUGU
Director- Venkatesh Maha
After giving a brilliant original offering in the form of Care of Kancharapalem in 2018, Venkatesh Maha returns with his sophomore feature that is a mainstream Telugu remake of Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaaram. While it isn’t as perfectly satisfying as his debut and makes for a frame-to-frame reworking of the source material, the film might also be the best Indian remake film in a long time. The Dileesh Pothan touches are complemented by the masterful filmmaking choices of an unapologetically simple storyteller as Venkatesh Maha.
I’m not sure if I will return to this film again in near future – maybe I will, but the film shall stay with me for an enduring and unforgettably inventive premise it puts in and blends it with a well-penned screenplay. This is not just because the screenplay employs just the right amount of original authenticity, it is because the lead actor – Satyadev Kancharana stays true to the matter-of-factness that marked Fahadh Faasil’s performance in that film. A rare remake with immense entertainment value.
Watch Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya on Netflix
9. AYYAPPANUM KOSHIYUM | ACTION DRAMA| MALAYALAM
The late director Sachy’s last film Ayyappanum Koshiyum is an action film but what makes it unusual is that despite not stepping out of the mass territory, the film is socio-politically reflective. The nuances of the structure in the film meet your eye even when you watch it emptily for the purpose of pure pleasure. Running through three hours, the film is about a deadly clash between two components of law and order. A younger, arrogant ex-military officer and an outlaw who is currently a police officer. The plot is cleverly thrilling because both are ironically criminal in their tension, and it quietly seems to satire on the state of our nation with two men who would otherwise be real-life villains.
The screenplay pits an arrogant imbecile with an idealistic giant but it mocks the inherently trashy and toxic masculinity of both of them. While one is driven by self-boasting, the other is driven by a fierce ambition that would make no sense other than personal rage. But the greatest achievement here is that a film that lasts for more than 2.5 hours manages to give both men an equal perspective. You care for both Ayyappan Nair and Koshi Kurian. The actors playing them are also perfect. While Prithviraj fits well with Koshi, Biju Menon is equally strong as he channels the beast calmed by a uniform in Ayyappan. The other performers blend as much to the rural surroundings and the cinematography of Sudeep Elamon ably doing the job of creating a gruff and frantic world around the otherwise godly beauty of Ooty.
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Sometimes I did find myself losing patience because Sachy can’t keep a completely consistent tone throughout the narrative. Also, I found the dialogue comparing the men’s chase of vengeance with the difficulty of Haryana and Bihar unnecessary. The woman-empowerment attempts are questionable as well. But eventually, the film is straightforward, efficient, and most importantly, it grips you emotionally. That’s fine with me for a film that pretends to be an action entertainer but serves so much.
Watch Ayyappanum Koshiyum on Prime Video
8. KAPPELA | THRILLER| MALAYALAM
Director- Muhammad Musthafa
Many people who watched and read into this impressive first feature by filmmaker Muhammad Musthafa have argued that this film is quite simplistic and completely regressive in its structure. But I don’t see the point when there’s a terrific eye for visuals at play. With somber, painstakingly structured storytelling, what we are offered is a genuinely twisty, unpredictable, and smashing woman-empowering thriller. To boost the story, there are excellent performances delivered by Anna Ben, Roshan Mathew, and Srinath Bhasi.
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Okay, I might be wrong when I use the expression woman empowerment for this film as the whole male savior arc is simply unconvincing but as problematic as it is, within this ‘should-have-obeyed-your-parents’ thing is the fact that it exists only to serve the purpose of the narrative as a whole. That is to keep the pace tight and to use the running time efficiently. The last scene with Jessy, Mother Mary, and the pleasant Malabar cliff along with her village home pictures not only the last shot the film offers but also narrates the entire story with the conclusive female gaze. This isn’t just the story of a woman rescued by a man, it is a standalone tale of a woman’s redemption.
Watch Kappela online on Netflix
7. NASIR | DRAMA| TAMIL
Director- Arun Karthick
Arun Karthick’s 16mm wonder Nasir is the bravest Indian film in the most traditional sense of the word. Communal bigotry films are not new to Indian cinema. There are so many simplistic films about Islamophobia and with the marginalized as the central protagonist to deliver a message in the most manipulative (if also important) way possible. Nasir too takes a narrative that is not so complex on paper. But the structural tension and the achievements of an audacious screenplay makes you forgive an unforgiving, bitter experience for each of its problems.
Although I’m genuinely liking the number of Indian films I admired this year, Nasir is perhaps the only Indian film this year that kept my eyes glued to the screen. The film is brimming with powerful imagery and the naturalistic pauses it takes, invites its viewers to espouse and follow the real-time dimension of the film which I didn’t even feel with the Chaitanya Tamhane film Court (2015). Koumarane Valavane, who plays the titular character provides one of the year’s best male performances.
The film has a few insignificant problems but despite thoroughly investing in the journey I didn’t care for the film as much as I expected to. Ignore my trivial complaint and watch it.
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6. C U SOON.| THRILLER| MALAYALAM
Director- Mahesh Narayanan
C U Soon. achieves its ambitious, experimental structure on many levels. Brimming with a sense of craft and atmosphere, Mahesh Narayanan succeeds in pulling off a wholly immersive screen thriller. This film couldn’t have been timelier in its making and release. It’s a pandemic and we are all sitting in our homes spending most of our time on social media. Zoom Meetings, Facebook, YouTube have become as much a part of our lives as our family members.
All the same C U Soon is a pandemic entertainer set in the pre-Corona world. Moreover, despite being shot completely in residence (it was shot in Fahadh Faasil’s flats), the narrative is set in Dubai and has people working in offices, video chatting while driving through the roads, and a global racket (yes!). But it never for once feels like a visual gimmick. It is only fitting that the filmmaker uses a more mainstream route. For instance, when the characters text each other, a piece of situational and calming background music plays in the framework. Actually, this helps in creating a tight sense of atmosphere and once you start reading into the film (quite literally), you populate these screens yourself.
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The best thing about the screenplay is that it never loses its purpose. Most Indian experimental films tend to lack storytelling for the completion of their ‘experiment’. This Malayalam thriller is that rare beast that takes exceptional care of the technique and graphical efficiency while never for once losing sight of the central mystery. Despite there being a very important theme at its core, it never lectures things. I was both moved and disturbed by the central theme. A few stylistic choices don’t help because it’s simply irrelevant. Nevertheless, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise effective mainstream sprint.
Watch C U Soon. online on PRIME VIDEO
5. CAT STICKS | DRAMA| BENGALI
Director- Ronny Sen
The high experienced after consumption of brown sugar is full of colors. But since the debut film of independent filmmaker and photographer Ronny Sen has a socially sustained perspective, the film is bleached of color and chooses the ferocious black and white. In doing so, it becomes perhaps the best known black and white film to have come out of India in the 21st century. Cat Sticks has an undeniably negative undertone but the storytelling resists any button-pushing. The film is set by the night of Kolkata but the gamut is so expansive and gloomy that the surroundings are virtually unrecognizable. It is not easy to label it as a Bengali movie – there are sprinkles of Hindi (the staunch Kidderpore accent every Cacluttan is familiar with) – just like it’s not easy to label the film through any docket.
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It’s a highly personal picture – the dialogue is so uncontrolled and the cinematography is so saturated in its realism that the film hits the feel indispensable to documentary-filmmaking. However, there is a very ‘specific’, very ‘mainstream’ way in which the subplots work. Each one of them could become a dramatic thriller in its own right but the combination is a humane, empathetic, and meditative look at the young, wild, and free brown sugar saga it chooses to depict.
Also, it’s quite unusual, especially for an indie like this, to use an adaptable scenario and make a comment on the politics of religion too. This might have posed a problem but the screenplay handles it with so much sharpness and poise that it works. However, I won’t have minded if the film was a bit shorter and went a little dishonest to its intent – implying some messy warmness to the overall blunt narrative would have made the 1.5-hour running time work better than it does. But the honesty of intent makes the minor complaints quite adjustable and searing.
Watch Cat Sticks online on Mubi
4. UNMADIYUDE MARANAM | DOCU-DRAMA| MALAYALAM
Director- Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Unmadiyude Maranam is an angry film that comes from a very personal space. It never wishes to follow the traditional laws because that’s exactly what it wants to condemn. This is an absorbing and enchantingly ferocious film. At an age when the Censor Board cuts the cinematic wings by censoring them, this film dares to tell a story of an India where dreams are abolished to be dreamt.
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This is still a narrative film because it tells the story of “The Insane”, Unmadi, who dreams. When we first see him, and then subsequently, he is red, all naked. Due to his destructively imaginative dreams, he becomes another offering to the altar of India’s systematic police brutality. Through the lens of death and screengrabs of a life which most would abhor, along with the snippets of the same from the real events at the latest such as the Padmaavat row and the ban on Sanal’s own film called “Sexy Durga”, this film is a montage of different reels tied with seasoned dramatics. A brave, bracing move for Indian cinema and a story that deserves to be heard.
Watch Unmadiyude Maranam on MUBI
3. THAPPAD | DRAMA | HINDI
Director- Anubhav Sinha
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.
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Featuring an ensemble cast that 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 masterful Hindi films of 2020.
Watch Thappad on Prime Video
2. THE DISCIPLE | DRAMA| MARATHI
Director- Chaitanya Tamhane
Tamhane’s film is actually a multi-layered, multi-faceted character study that uses its strong sense of place to tell an essential tale about having to live with one’s mediocrity. The shades of melancholy that travel through the ambitious foresight of Tamhane’s narrative are astonishingly well-realized and thought of. As a filmmaker who is only two films old, the Marathi director shows an extraordinary flair for telling stories.
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The grounded reality that the film explores has been explored in numerous other films. However, this film – which spans around three decades of Sharad’s life revels in the fathomless philosophy that all of us eventually grow out of our self-made bubbles and dreamy ambitions to embrace the actualities of life. A life that keeps going no matter what.
1. STHALPURAN | DRAMA | MARATHI
Director- Akshay Indikar
Directed by the indie filmmaker Akshay Indikar, Sthalpuran is quite a suggestive title. Sthal is a place, space, to contemplate for the ideas to germinate, to die, and to become ripe. The film caters to the concept of space on a deeply personal level as it takes a slice from a little boy’s life – Dighu and his older sister Durga (which is clearly not the only Satyajit Ray reference in the film) as they seek to know why his father left suddenly. It caters to the chronicle of space in such a cramped situation because when it isn’t building the inherently warm, comforting atmosphere of the roaring seashore village where the film plays, it delves into the inner chambers – the yellow sheets of Dighu’s diary. But this is not the manipulative space in which the director takes us – instead, it’s a very visual medium an opportunity explored and not just exploited. The performances sync into the film’s nerve, and there is no acting. There are people, and there is space.
The expression of the fantasy elements is nailed by the minimalist cinematography and exquisite sound design. It minutely details the role and the nature of the crucial element in our childhood’s utter fascinations, wonders, and circles of thoughts. The running time in itself feels surreal because what the film sells is just the last minutes of the film. The simplicity of its dialogue and the Apu Trilogy-ish wisdom of the film’s narrative (as well as craft) works wonderfully well. The film maintains a consistent, stimulating rhythm and it pulses with sheer charming authenticity, making it the best Indian film of 2020.