We will remember 2018 for the fact that all the three khans failed spectacularly at the box office. To add to that, they also garnered scathing criticism from film journalists. On the other hand, it was Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun, Sudani From Nigeria and other small budget films, that roared at the box office.

With the OTT platform making the wave, providing the easy access for cine-goers to the world cinema in the comfort of their homes, audiences are willing to take the effort to go cinema only when the film is worth their effort.

Unlike the Indian films of 2016 that saw commercial films with a strong narrative and craft, the scenario has changed in the last two years.  Here are 15 films from Indian cinema that I immensely liked, and loved a handful of them. The prominent miss from the list are Ratchasan, Eeda, 96 and Pariyerum Perumal, all the four films had issues that left me dissatisfied, not that these films are bad by any measure.

Honourable Mention

 Pataakha | Hindi | Vishal Bharadwaj

Pataakha [2018] Vishal Bharadwaj Courtesy @Film Companion
Pataakha [2018] Vishal Bharadwaj Courtesy @Film Companion

The most incredible thing about Pataakha is that in spite of simplistic and predictable plot, Vishal Bharadwaj manages to keep the film afloat. The juxtaposition of realistic setting in the hinterlands of rural India with the whimsical plotline, Bharadwaj narrates a timeless folktale, that is endearing and for the most part hilarious. In the spirit, it reminiscent of Marquez – the way events unfold is otherworldly despite the realistic setting.

The film comes with its share of flaws as well. The unidimensional plot and single note characters lack the complexity and intricacy that Bharadwaj is known for. Besides the obvious & on the nose metaphor and ‘not a single wrong note’ performance by the ensemble, Pataakha just manages to capitalize on the pool of talented artists involved.

 GulabJaam | Marathi | Sachin Kundalkar

Winner of two National Film Awards, Sachin Kundalkar’s GulabJaam narrates a story a Banker who quits his job to follow his dream – to learn Maharashtrian cooking and become a restaurateur. The film falls into the genre of “chase your dream” and still oozes an affection and charm that most of the film misses out while dramatising the “chase you dream” plot point in the films.  In spite of the familiar plot that has been done to death, GulabJaam stands out because of earnest performances and nuanced writing. The film primarily focuses on the art of cooking, and Sachin adds the spices of flawed individuals dealing with their problems, and how cooking helps them to heal.  The simmering chemistry between Siddharth and Sonali Kulkarni is endearing, even if the backstory of Sonali’s character feel over-thought but under-written.

Naal | Marathi | Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti

Cinematographer turned director Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti explores the restlessness and longing of a child, Chaitanya (Shrinivas Pokale), who discovers a life-altering truth that derails his life as he knows it. His biological mother is different than the one who has raised her in the house. His life comes crashing down to a point that he devises a plan to get to the bottom of it.

The narrative doesn’t meander doing immature antics in order to show the suffering of the child, rather Sudhakar’s narrative is subtly layered by drawing the parallel with a subplot of a calf and a buffalo, and Chaitanya’s father’s relationship with his ailing mother. To convey the afflicted pain on the behaviour of the child and make it tangible for an audience to connect with him largely depends on the performance, of course, direction and writing matters as well, and Shrinivas Pokale nails it by lending equal curiosity and naiveness to the character that reflects his vulnerability and unrest in his behaviour.

15. Mukkabaaz | Hindi | Anurag Kashyap

Packed with vigorous energy, stellar performances across the board and characters spouting rustic dialogues, Anurag Kashyap’s “paintra” in Mukkabaaz almost work in the hybrid genre film where he immaculately marries off Bollywood commercial component with gritty realistic elements true to his signature style. Idiosyncratic & rustic dialogues, spoken in authentic native Hindi, are laced with unforgettable charm reminiscing of Gangs Of Wasseypur, minus the abuses, that packs disgusting one-liners to humorous ones. The humour in the writing is organic, and it eases off the intense and gritty tone of the film.

Vineet Kumar Singh is a revelation here. His transformation from an amateur brawler to a bold lover to “Mike Tyson of Uttar Pradesh” is incredibly unfeigned. Mukkabaaz is dense, insightful though some scenes are theatrical and thoroughly cinematic. Anurag Kashyap lands a satisfying punch against the injustices and hypocrisies that keep India’s sporting underdogs exactly where they are. While he punches the last crude knock by ending the film saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. You can read the complete review here.

14. Savarakathi | Tamil | G. R. Adithya

Channelling the inspiration from Toshiro Mifune’s characters in Akira Kurosawa movies and sketching the character with a brush stroke resembling quirky comedic tone in Takeshi Kitano‘s films, Mysskin writes the characters that live & breath like us and still appear outlandish. Stepping out of his comfort zone, he takes up the challenge of writing and acting in a black comedy while retaining the aesthetics, irony-laden dialogues and stage techniques he is known for. The plot unravels during the course of a day. A barber’s life entangles with a thug who is out on Parole. Their encounter doesn’t end well for both of them. The performances, particularly the theatric performance of Mysskin, and overly dramatic acting of Shamna Kasim make the film worth a watch.

13. Tumbbad | Hindi | Rahi Anil Barve

Tumbbad - Soham Shah holding the lantern.
Tumbbad [Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi, Adesh Prasad] 2018

Mythology, that is neatly done, is used as an experimental platform to lay bare the extent of greed a man could go before learning that the world is too small for his greed to fulfil. The film explores Indian folklore recounting the story of the birth of Hastar, mildly put he is God of greed, and eventually how that folk instils the greed in the heart of a kid. The sharp writing of the film in the first half an hour is astounding and builds an eerie atmosphere that is seldom witnessed in Indian horror films.

Using the natural lights to fill the darkness, literally and metaphorically, every frame looks as gorgeous as the cantankerous rain that floods the thirsty God. The visuals are a delight to see, even when things start to falter in the second act, the visuals, kind of, distract you enough to not notice them. You can read the complete review of the film, covered at the Venice Film Festival.

12. Andhadhun | Hindi | Sriram Raghavan

Andhadhun is a riveting mash of black comedy and wicked thriller that has traces of neo-noir. Setting the film in the heart of Pune, it unfolds like a slow moving chess game – patiently sketching the characters, rending them a personality, and making us root for them in spite of grey shades they carry. A murder sets off the film in motion and stage is set for an engaging and thrilling second and third act.

But it is here that the narrative derails, paving a path for a subplot of organ harvesting racket that changes the course of the story. It doesn’t feel organic to the fate of blind pianist running away to save himself. All those characters involved in racket drive the plot and ‘create’ the room for revenge, rather it comes naturally. Raghavan doesn’t lose the grip totally and manages to revive the film in the third act involving the primary players and open ending. It is a significant complaint in a terrific film otherwise.

Andhadhun Featured in the 10 Best Hindi Films of 2018Check out the List here.

11. Namdev Bhau | Marathi/Hindi | Dar Gai

Namdev Bhau [2018] Dar Gai
Namdev Bhau [2018] Dar Gai

Mumbai is the city of dreams. The city that has something for everyone. Except for our titular character, a 60-something chauffeur, Namdev Bhau who is looking for one thing that the city can not provide him. Total tranquil silence. Exasperated from the incessant cacophony in his home, at the job and the city, he leaves for Ladakh to find silence and peace in the “Silence valley” He takes the solo journey with a sole objective – not dithered by his age or lack of his knowledge; he is so singularly focused on the quest to find the silence that jaw-dropping and picturesque beauty of Ladakh doesn’t interest him.

Young Writer-director Dar Gai narrates an observational philosophical story of Namdev in a search for silence, unexpectedly learns that attaining the spiritual peace would be far more daunting than looking for a silent place in the world. The sound designing and cinematography comes well together to create the irresistible landscape which doesn’t intrigue Namdev Bhau, thus strengthening the motif of his character further. You can read the complete review here.

10. Manto | Hindi | Nandita Das

Saadat Hasan Manto’s brutal, gut-wrenching and contentious five short stories are weaved together into the personal arc of Manto’s life, and his relationship with his family and friends. The meta-narrative structure allows Nandita Das to address the urgent issue of “freedom of expression” in India that is now relevant more than ever before.

Every frame bleeds of bitter truths of life, the moral decline and social stigma that is still plaguing the society. Aesthetical lyricism is at the display that captures the disposition of several characters. Though at times, the film feels uneven with multiple subplots crammed together, it is Nawazuddin’s internalised performance and Das’s sly writing that manages to capture Manto’s restlessness and emotional turmoil after the division of India. Nandita Das’s interview.

9. Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil | Hindi | Aadish Keluskar

Jaaon Kaha Bata Ae Dil 2018 [dir. Aadish Keluskar]
Jaaon Kaha Bata Ae Dil 2018 [dir. Aadish Keluskar]
Courtesy @Film Companion

The sophomore project of Aadish Keluskar, Jaaon Kaha Bata Ae Dil is a fervour fever of maddening love filling the romantic walk with unabashed and unflinching discourse about romance, politics and society. The interpersonal dynamics between two nameless characters (Khushboo Upadhyay and Rohit Kokate) is a beauty to behold – which often juggles between the sharp criticism of each other. Khushboo is mellow, kinder and soft-spoken while Rohit’s practical ideology borders cynicism, he is chauvinist and highly opinionated.

Aadish roots the drama in the real world facing the real-life crisis, and discussing relevant socio-politics at length. By the time we adjust to the acidic romantic milieu Aadish is creating, the narrative plunges into the darkest space of a relationship to an unprepared jaw-dropping climax that would be difficult to shrug off. Aadish’s transition from an aggressive divergent thinking film ‘Kaul’ to a pragmatic, no-frills romantic drama, assures us of a great film-maker in making. Rohit Kokate lives and breathes the character. He gives an exalting performance that would be hard to digest, and Upadhyay perfectly fits him like ying-yang and renders the vulnerability and heart to the film. Aadish Keluskar on Politics of his Anti-Romantic film. 

8. Vada Chennai | Tamil | Vetrimaaran

Vada Chennai

A sprawling and multi-threaded narrative having a non-linear structure and interjected with intense emotions of love, loyalty and betrayal, ‘Vada Chennai’ carries the traces of Vetrimaaran’s most accomplished film ‘Aadukalam’. An under-educated lead protagonist sees a future in sports but eventually, he gets embroiled in a local politics that takes him in the rustic and dark underbelly of Madurai [in Aadukalam] and North Chennai [in Vada Chennai]. Vetrimaaran is a prolific film-maker in sketching intricate and nuanced characters and grounding them in realism within its realm.

Vada Chennai does get muddled due to frequent change in the timeline and a plethora of characters thrown in the mixer who eventually contributes in the ambiguous morality of the lead characters and the repercussions of their actions. The strong foundation for the sequels has been laid, plenty of subplots are yet to be tied up neatly, the characters have already been etched in the mind, if not the heart. You can read the complete of the film here.

7. Badhaai Ho | Hindi | Amit Sharma

Badhaai Ho [2018] Courtesy @Scroll In
Badhaai Ho [2018] Courtesy @Scroll In

When a middle-aged woman discovers she is pregnant, her family is torn between the public discomfort due to social stigma and individual’s awkwardness. The only support she gets is from her husband who was initially reluctant to have this baby. This interesting narrative device could have turned into a bloated melodramatic embarrassment if not for its ingenious writing to wrap the sensitive drama in a semblance of humour and the clever character development, without compromising the very essence of it.

Amit Sharma never uses the quirky plot to mock the family in public and then cater the sympathy from their extraordinary circumstances. He observes the conflict among the family members and makes us ponder on the boundaries of progressiveness. The film is a laugh riot from the word go. The characters feel straight out of our neighbour. The smart writing reflects in its subtle charming sequences and the minimal expositions. If only the climax was not mushy and theatrical, and it not was handled tackily, unlike the rest of the film, ‘Baadhai Ho!’ could have been a near perfect film of the year.

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6. C/O Kancharapalem | Telugu | Ventakesh Maha

C/O Kancharapalem
C/O Kancharapalem

Brimming with the emotion of love and the innocence of falling in it, the multithreaded and observational narrative of C/O Kancharapalem weaves the stories of four different men of different ages experiencing the very emotion like; a child who buys clothes of the color his crushes love; a young hood securing job for his love; a worker in wine shop proposing with a cheap rum bottle; and a widow woman proposing a 49 years old clerk. The characters are ordinary but not their characterization. Their love story is undecorated -without any frills but not their love.

Ventakesh Maha casually slips in enough nuanced societal issues that ultimately shapes the lives of these vibrant but deeply grounded characters. He tackles classism, labour exploitation, gender prejudices and casteism without overdramatizing the events, and keeping the narrative internal – close to the characters, rather making the film about their struggle to tackle them.

5. Merku Thodarchi Malai | Tamil | Lenin Bharathi

Best Indian Films of 2018 6
Merku Thodarchi Malai [2018]

If there is any film from the list that you should watch right away, it should be cinematographer Theni Eswar and debutant director Lenin Bharathi’s ‘Merku Thodarchi Malai.’ The quotidian life of the landless labours is thrown in jeopardy when the political emergence conflicts with the personal politics, and, ultimately, ruin the harmonious living. The film reflects the inward turbulence of the lead protagonist that peaks to a violent incident, forever changing the fate of his life.

The film opens with a leisurely paced forty minutes shot of labours trekking uphill on ‘Western Ghat.’ It is one of the most beautifully photographed sequences you would see this year in Indian cinema. It is almost poetic until these labours carry a sack of cardamom downhill, on their back, which makes it elegiac. Some portion of the third act may feel out of sync, which could be possibly due to an abrupt moralistic change in the lead character to achieve the desired climax, it is nonetheless one of the most thoughtful films on the labour class.

4. Sudani From Nigeria | Malayalam | Zakariya Mohammed

Best Indian Films of 2018 5

Writer-director Zakariya Mohammed weaves a soul-stirring and thought-provoking humanitarian narrative in the back-drop of sports. Though the film is marketed as a sports drama, the real battle is off the football ground in ‘Sudani From Nigeria’. The film narrates the battle of two different individuals – Majeed, a football team Manager, harbours the resentment towards her mother who remarried, leaving him to sacrifice his studies; Samuel, a foreigner, is caught up between a physical accident that has thrown him off the ground and emotional turbulence of financial crisis back home.

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Debutant writer-director Zakariya approaches the story with the simplicity that is reminiscent of Iranian cinema, and yet he is able to successfully portray the most complex and profound emotions of a person – love and forgiveness. It is commendable how smoothly the tone of the film shifts gradually to touch upon the issues of refugees, though the film is not without the glitches. The action of Samuel, at times, feel forced to convey his empathy and rage.

3. Jonaki | Bengali | Aditya Vikram Sengupta

Best Indian Films of 2018 4

Indian writer/director Aditya Vikram Sengupta follows his mesmerizingly poetic debut-feature, Labour of Love with a stately, dream-like love story, filtered through a dying octogenarian woman’s decaying memories. Mr Sengupta’s Jonaki (‘Firefly’, 2018) is an incredibly idiosyncratic and personal film, in which the director offers surrealistic snapshots from the life of his beloved grandmother, who passed away at the age of 81 before lying in a comatose state for 4 days.

Sengupta combines the subsequent nightmares he had after his grandmother’s passing with what he envisages as the echoes of memories that might have afflicted her when she was in the coma. Vikram Sengupta’s formal experiments and treatment of normative space and time is unique in its own way. You can read the complete review of the film here.

2. October | Hindi | Shoojit Sircar

Best Indian Films of 2018 3

The writer-director duo of Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar are quaintly fascinated with the Human Anatomy. With their third collaboration, they venture into the human brain and its occasional, unreasonable acts of selflessness.  In comparison to the other two films, “October” is a toned down, meditative exploration of love, grief, and sadness that slowly seeps into each frame but never numbs you. Which is why you feel it completely, tenderly and with all your heart. You can read the complete review of the film here. 

October Featured in the 10 Best Hindi Films of 2018Check out the List here.

1. Ee.Ma.Yau | Malayalam | Lijo Jose Pellissery

Best Indian Films of 2018 2
Ee.Ma.Yau 2018 Courtesy @Indian Express

Lijo Jose Pellissery has mastered the art of blending the drama with quirky and eccentric humour that is less situational and more observational. The seeds were clearly sown in his flawed Double Barrel and further explored in Angamaly Diaries but with Ee.Ma.Ya, he really got hold of the balance between the humour and tragedy that makes him one of the few tragic-comedy film-makers in India who can pull off black comedy with ease, without succumbing to substandard comedy.

‘Ee.Ma.Yau’ revolves around a loving son – Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose) – trying to organise a grand funeral for his father with dignity and respect but things don’t go as per his plan. The funeral proceedings pave a path for idiosyncratic drama and observational humour that gradually turns into a circus, revealing the greater deal about the quirky characters in the town and their humanistic values.

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