The 20 Best Indian Movies of 2021: 2021 was a terrific year at the movies, considering the standards that the new normal has set. It witnessed the intermittent opening of numerous festivals including Cannes in their offline form. Some of the biggest (and most delayed) blockbusters were restored to their original glory by the help of theatrical releases. While some of the most celebrated auteurs returned, the OTT and festival space ensured the rise of the newer entrants. Indian cinema’s mainstream glory was very much back this year – some of the finest work came from the most familiar in the industries. It was also a year for the rise of female stories – from portraits of repression to those of freedom, the stories had it all.
As with the last three years, this year too saw the rise and rise of Malayalam cinema. With Joji, Dileesh Pothan might have written his weakest film so far. But it was still a nuanced and well-observed spin on Macbeth in times of pandemic. Jeethu Joseph made a truly classy sequel to his brilliant first feature Drishyam, a resumption that stays nail-biting throughout despite overstaying its welcome. Bengali cinema has clearly not worked in feature-length format – only two unreleased films have made the cut. Hindi cinema emerged as a dull dud again – content ranged from tepid small-town colors to insipid Netflix anthologies. A little highlight, though, was Vasan Bala’s film Spotlight for anthology Ray. The film didn’t work for me the first time, but I was able to overlook the indulgences and enjoy its cinephilia and vibrancy the second time.
The year, though, saw a prominent rise in Tamil cinema. Mainstream filmmakers from a lower rung of society came up to tell brilliant revolutionary stories and enhanced an already good year for Indian cinema. Here are the twenty best Indian movies of 2021. Do mention your favorites in the comments.
Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa
Abhishek Chaubey has mastered the Hindi-belt storytelling. It derives its rustic emotional intelligence from Vishal Bhardwaj’s oeuvre, only with an equipped sense of originality. For the mediocre Satyajit Ray-inspired Netflix anthology, he finds a rather delightful way to integrate it. A period film focused on two men of a Shayari-loving wealthy Muslim milieu in UP, the film is a rather funny thriller.
A singer with kleptomaniac tendencies encounters the victim of one his thefts, but his restitution attempt doesn’t go as planned. While it requires a suspension of disbelief, it is more than made up for by Chaubey’s visual storytelling. He uses his stylistic flourishes to a great artistic effect. The biggest strength of the film, though, is its casting. While Manoj Bajpayee is extremely terrific, Gajraj Rao matches the performance step-by-step with his charm. Also, Raghubir Yadav steals the scene in a hilarious cameo!
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20. Ghosts of the Golden Groves
Black-and-white aesthetics are making a sharp comeback. Indie filmmakers Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen induce it to create a sense of horror in their duology Shonajhurir Bhoot. Based partly on Aniket Dutta’s own short story and partly on a Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay folktale, the film is a strange fusion of the past and the future. It uses the transparency of rural Bengal to blend it with the futuristic opaqueness, which makes for a strangely horrifying viewing experience for the viewer.
Characters getting allured towards a mystery and getting consumed by it is a recurring motif of Bengal’s local folklore. Sen and Dutta provide an almost modern update over it with their aesthetically appealing treatment. An ominous development into the overall drab picture of India’s horror genre, it’s a fantastic fantasy that deserves to be seen.
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Amit Masurkar’s return to filmmaking after nearly three years of his masterful sophomore film Newton is a delectable mix of art and activism. Sherni follows Vidya Vincent, a jaded forest officer leading a team of tiger trackers in the wilderness of Madhya Pradesh. A displaced tigress is ruining the peace of the local villagers, and Vidya intends to capture the creature. But her way awaits a lot of natural and more essentially man-made obstacles.
Deliberately snail-paced to capture your attention to the protagonist’s commitment to the cause, Sherni is truly subtle. It delivers a grounded, organic study of a dedicated female government employee. More importantly, though, it’s a focused breakdown (and takedown) of India’s inherently rotten bureaucracy. Workplace politics and its close relationship with casual sexism is explored as a first-hand character experience. The film also very much benefits from Vidya Balan’s exquisite leading performance. In the film, her presence becomes a female gaze. And it’s this that drives the film’s point.
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Cinema of statements is tricky. But cinema of caste statements can be even trickier. It’s a hard thing to operate caste in art without emerging with an imbalance. The best a filmmaker can do is to incline towards a viewpoint that essentially pinpoints towards the repressed. Madonne Ashwin does exactly that with Mandela. A character study of a Dalit barber who is abused with so many bad names that he has forgotten his original one, the film succeeds in more ways than one.
A potent satire on the stringent relationship between caste and India’s rural politics, Mandela is equally funny and charming. It uses a mainstream flavor for its comedy to drive home something larger and more uncomfortable. It is not too subtle, yes, but that makes its confrontations even more impactful. Yogi Babu is terrific in a leading role that needs an actor to ace the comedy of being oppressed. If nothing, this is a masterclass by one of the most wonderful character actors that we have today. But Mandela is also much, much more than that.
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Minimal, economic filmmaking is the new normal. And yet, somehow, we don’t see it happening enough in Indian cinema. On that note, Malayalam cinema has emerged as the flag bearer of such storytelling with its low-profile, almost DIY approach to vast stories. Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese has managed to give it a whole new spin with his efficient directorial debut. A story about a man visiting his father-in-law’s town during the first wave of COVID lockdown, the film morphs into something darker and unexpected.
However, even the strangest plot points have been treated with familial warmth and tenderness. The acoustic music never turns into something unsettling. You’ll be baffled by how slice-of-life the film remains even in the face of death. All of this has been aided by a particular focus on the background of the characters. Verdant, green Kerala scenery is organically placed into the narrative rather than playing a tourist card. The performances are excellent as well. While established performers like Biju Menon and Parvathy deliver, Sharaf U Dheen is brilliant in a role that demands little out of him. He completely inhabits the skin of this borderline scared character that we can completely identify with.
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16. Sarpatta Parambarai
Pa. Ranjith truly hits it out of the park with Sarpatta Parambarai. Essentially a character study of an underdog boxer’s rise, fall, and consequent rise to fame, the film has much more to pack. It takes a basic sports drama premise that is as entertaining as it is electrifying. Also, in the mix is a generational rivalry between two boxing clans in a Tamil Nadu village, serving as an engaging period piece. The commitment to the bit is fascinating – it doesn’t get lost in its rich period details and the minuscule story of its protagonist Kabilan unfolds at its own pace.
What impressed me the most about the film is how it resists making a statement. It uses its immersive spectacle to tell a subtle story about the downtrodden reclaiming their identity through the staircase of their passion. What also works here is the wonderful acting. Yes, Arya’s unintelligible mundanity makes him a wonderful mass hero later. However, my highlight was the charming Rangan Vaathiyar – Pasupathy Masilamani nails the role of a veteran in the game. Also, look out for the hilariously unique Dancing Rose – Shabeer Kallarakkal is on fire! And of course, come out applauding the solid vision of Pa. Ranjith.
I at times find myself guilty of overusing the word ‘subversive’ in my criticism. But that’s exactly what Mari Selvaraj’s sophomore feature is. Karnan, on the surface, is an out-and-out mass movie. It is a very masala-oriented character study of a community leader trying to help his kinfolk. However, that’s a rather shallow way to look at it if you’ve lived this as a reality in India. Karnan, actually, is a fierce and affecting call to arms. Through a fictional story, it weaves a tight real-life situation and encourages a rightful uprising to gain an identity and a sense of dignity.
Partly based on true incidents of police brutality in Tamil Nadu, the film highlights the sufferings of people as a first-hand account. The placement of familiar tropes works wonderfully to drive the broader spectrum home. Selvaraj successfully creates an extraordinarily mythical set-up for the story, with animals and even the names of characters as singular metaphors. One of the many definitive pleasures of the film is Dhanush’s terrific performance- he evokes both the rage and celebration of his community perfectly. This is truly the cinema of our times.
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14. Everything is Cinema
Don Palathara is an interesting filmmaker. He captures, and more importantly, observes the world like few indie talents in Indian cinema do. Darkness envelops his films’ world, yet the world itself hustles and bustles with contained energy and vibrancy. In spirit, Everything is Cinema might just be an incredibly vague comedy about a couple’s scarily natural tensions. Its Calcutta setting is just perfect to convey the strange Malayali sense of displacement between Chris and Anita. One is an overtly self-aware and arrogant indie filmmaker. Other is a self-obsessed actress passing her time in some way or the other.
Even with an additional knowledge of this being a fictional marriage story interlocked with a very real documentary, the film feels eerily urgent. It never loses hold over an almost lived-in reality. More importantly, it talks about art as a medium of conveying one kind of truth or the other. And it does that without succumbing to its at times indulgent writing. It’s certainly one of the best Indian films of the year.
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13. A Night of Knowing Nothing
Everyone living in democratic India at the moment witnesses themselves at the pedestal of politics, depending entirely upon which side of the frame you really are. Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing is an extremely uncomfortable and personal account of that. The predominantly short-form storyteller has presented a pointed, reflective film that isn’t for everyone certainly. There are portions that are particularly stretched and at times severely test your patience and attention. However, the fact that it tests the Indian youth’s understanding of love, being left out, to protest for a reason and be rational, is structured so delicately that it feels like a weaver interweaving his own silken fabric.
Payal incredibly, unapologetically uses her strange, affecting visual notes and found-footage tension. So, this documentation against oppression doesn’t just feel wholly palpable in its rage but also credible. It comes from a sense of place and emerges right from the heart. The narration is profoundly existential but also elemental in how every detail gets etched in our memory despite its only gradual, slow-burn allure. It’s also bound to get embroiled in controversy, primarily for presenting the Modi-era government as some kind of horror. What it remains then, is a powerful, important observation of the Indian youth and what it stands for, regardless of how right it is. It is as transcendental as its title- it shows rather than influences our thoughts.
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12. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
Dibakar Banerjee is one of the strongest social storytellers we have today. He reflects upon the Indian middle-class with empathy and richness of understanding that is not to be seen in most filmmakers of North India. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, even as a minor work, is a great example. Panning out as one long chase away from the clutches of the police, it is a rather sharp and sentient takedown of toxic masculinity. More importantly, it’s about the implications of this toxic masculinity.
The film, while focused on its thrilling element, remains thematically rich. It looks at two Indias (not the Vir Das kind necessarily). One is the sprawling upper-class one, full of dignitaries and darkness in its underbelly. The other is much less privileged but finds an unexpected light when it comes to relating with the political system. SAPF is also a complex and searing look at conventional gender roles. You can also look at it as a black comedy balancing both of its elements finely. Overall, it’s one of the best Indian movies of 2021.
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11. Shankar’s Fairies
Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies is an evocative portrait of a little woman. In her directorial debut, Majumdar looks at class-bound and exploitative India with a lot of nuances. She chooses the ‘less is more’ approach. This is because, she chooses the eyes of a six-year-old daughter of a bureaucrat to look at the life of her rural servant Shankar, who is also her storyteller. Thus, she manages to make a subtle statement without making it outright. In many ways, it resembles Achal Mishra’s debut masterpiece Gamak Ghar in how it looks at a wider picture with the potency of observation.
The best part of the film is that it never tries to evolve into something greater or extricate its boundaries to generate even more conflict or impact. Shankar’s Fairies does have a few issues, but they are mostly confined to the measured dialogue writing. It’s one of my favorite Indian films of the year, pure and earthbound in its values and potent in its outlook towards the ever-developing nation from a third world.
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There is no one way to look at auteur Lijo Jose Pelliserry’s latest. You either get used to its energy or you simply don’t. This, perhaps, very much explains the divisive reaction it got. I, personally, was thrilled by its structure that plays out like a feverish nightmare. There are films which give you a hang out of their quietness. In the same way, Lijo’s mad mastery has the ability to frustrate you by hurling Malayalam abuses. Eventually, this becomes a constant spiral that consumes you first and then its two leading characters. After that, there’s no looking back- the maddening climax is here.
Unlike his previous films, Churuli doesn’t find LJP making a socio-political statement. The corruption of police system is made apparent, but that’s pretty much it. It’s more focused on explicitly visual details which range from weird to beautiful. Overall though, they are simply horrific to watch. At their core lies a story of two men who try to make sense of the lawlessness in their new air. In the process, strange relationships are formed and explosives are thrusted. It’s one of the rare times when you don’t know how to make sense of the proceedings, but want to get immersed in them.
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9. Dug Dug
A flourishing and at times infectiously funny satire on faith and most importantly the impact inhabiting it, Ritwik Pareek’s Dug Dug is replete with the most striking use of colors blue and pink in Indian cinema. This Rajasthani film is based on the true story of the Om Banna temple which still enjoys seamlessly strange devotion of people in the National Highway-62, also known as Bullet Baba Ra Mandir. It’s a decidedly more contemporary flavor that Pareek goes with here. However, he deftly handles the indie psychedelic sensibilities with a mix of comedy and realism seen in the works of Wes Anderson or Quentin Dupieux.
Every frame strives to land a form of fascination in the viewer. And it succeeds. In the end, I was not just thinking of the catchphrase of the film, but also wanted to applaud the monumental effort taken by the makers in putting the film’s painterly mastery and particularly the first few and the last few shots into place. It’s one of the most successful Indian films in recent times and deserves every inch of your attention.
8. Joyful Mystery
Don Palathara, in his third film “1956, Central Travancore”, established himself as a strong contemporary filmmaker with a sharply political voice. With his latest film Joyful Mystery (Santhoshanthinte Onnam Rahasyam), he confirms a sharp eye for black comedic proceedings, and in the process, he gives us a movingly simple romantic comedy, which really perceives relationships as a coming-of-age story of two people, alongside each other. There’s no plot to speak of here: an unmarried couple argues and bickers on their way to the hospital. Maria’s (Rima Kallingal) body is showing signs of pregnancy. While this poses a threat to their love, none of them wants this child (if there is one). In the bickering, pasts and failures undress. Truths are told. And in the process, the mystifying secrets of the joy that is to be with someone, are deconstructed.
Joyful Mystery’s extremely funny progression is incorporated so naturally that it never comes off as a shock. The temper is thoroughly uniform throughout the film: the cinematography by Saji Babu is chillingly dark throughout, almost blanching the film of any other color. The tunes by Basil CJ are quite organic and are not designed to serve the moods of the film. The most striking feature, however, has to be the film’s structure- it has been filmed in the one-shot, a single undeviating take throughout its 85-minute running time. While not as visually breathtaking or grand as its recent counterpart from the West, Sam Mendes’s war-drama 1917, it’s way more moving and eloquent as a film.
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7. Minnal Murali
This is a personal opinion: I don’t think there has been even a ‘decent’ Indian superhero movie. There’s always an initial ray of hope, and then it’s all downhill. Having said that, Basil Joseph’s Minnal Murali works wonderfully. Joseph’s film is a practical achievement. The man has clearly committed himself to the cause of producing a wholly satisfying origin story, growing it in the backyard of his rural household. And he has harvested it with a delicacy previously unknown.
One can always come up with reasons to criticize an Indian filmmaking experiment, usually because a generic shoddiness clouds the experiment for the most part. Minnal Murali has all the ingredients of contemporary Malayalam cinema, with tenderness and minimalism that ought to be pretty familiar for anyone who has grown, in recent years, on the crops of Lijo Jose Pelliserry and Dileesh Pothan. However, Basil’s approach clearly dodges these conventions. He creates an intelligent and wholesome atmosphere before kicking in the action, and everything suited to the film’s mainstream platter.
Sameer Thahir’s cinematography is wonderfully focused on an interplay of lights and colors that has a very offhand vibrancy. But my takeaway from the film has to be the effortless freshness in the treatment- it trusts two debut writers to place the film’s stakes and narrative into place. This trust pays off with successful results because this is one of the most original scripts of Indian cinema.
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6. The Great Indian Kitchen
Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (Mahathaya Bharatiya Adukkala) is inarguably the most potent Indian film I’ve seen in a while. Starring Nimisha Sajayan and Sooraj Venrajamoodu (who were last seen as a couple in the masterful Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum), the film tells an everyday story: the girl doesn’t have a name. She is called molae (Malayalam term for daughter). Once a capable dance student, she is now cooking in the kitchen of her husband’s home. Thus, we have close-up shots of different kinds of meat and rice and flatbreads being prepared, in sharp contrast to the littered dining tables in which the men of the house eat.
The greatness of the film is not in the way in which it reverses the trope of showing an everyday reality. It’s a great film because it makes its authenticity a tool for powerful social storytelling. Director Jeo Baby writes a hard-hitting tale of a housewife’s resilience but never makes it too obvious. He cooks the emancipation in the earthen pots which are placed on the firewood to cook rice. He stores it in the container of pickles which are supposed to go to the pregnant sister-in-law. And then, he rams it with the vegetables in the dosai and adds it to flavour the black tea along with the cardamom. It’s almost a terrific horror film about the regular repression of women in the standard Indian household.
India’s official entry to the Academy awards, PS Vinothraj’s marvelous directorial debut Pebbles did not make it to the shortlist. However, I can’t help but say that it was a fitting entrant. This is a visually stunning film – there are wide-angle shots, tracking shots, brilliant first-hand revolving moments, and even handheld camera movements that anchor its literally warm frames. The scorching heat of the rural Madurai patches upon the vicious toxic masculinity, the tension between a couple and their eldest heir, still a child brimming with not too much of an understanding.
The fact that this film is a diary entry of sorts is not so much of a revelation as much as it is a natural extension. The round shape makes a constant motif in the film, and it, like most arresting pictures, doesn’t remain just a motif- it in fact doubles up as a cycle in continuation. It is a rich, grand film but its spotlight on poverty never aims to fetishize it.
It deals in local mentality – this comes from a filmmaker who thinks vocally about a sense of community. When people walk, they are thinking things in a very loud manner. In fact, they speak it out, even when no one to hear. That might serve as the film’s problem, but it’s all yours. It actually serves to elevate the film from its emptiness and play it out for excellence. And it succeeds, and it looks subtle all the way.
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Ivan Ayr, with only two films now (the other being the exceptional Soni), has proved himself to be a master of the extraordinarily simple lives of the working class in Northern India. Milestone, on the surface, simply is the character study of a trucker named Ghalib and his middle-aged dilemmas. But when you scratch that surface, the film grows much more personal. Ghalib becomes indifferent to the coldness of the film, his exhaustion becomes a part of our own experience. With the arrival of someone as young as Pash, his job starts to inform his sense of belonging more often than it already did.
It’s a precise, meditatively rooted film about the mechanism of men who are, at the point where Ghalib is, indifferent to the term working class. Ivan skillfully incorporates the locality of emotion with the nationality of politics. Signs of decay become a process of grief. Above everything, Milestone is a profound film about the relentlessness of desolation and what it does to people. The film is also helped by the extraordinary performance of Suvinder Vicky, who plays Ghalib with a lived-in ache and a sense of reality. It’s as effortless as a representation of effort can get.
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3. Once Upon A Time in Calcutta
Aaditya Vikram Sengupta’s third feature, OUATIC might be his most conventional. But it’s so entrenched in some sort of immersion that you won’t care about this boundary between the conventions being drawn. It’s a touching portrait of a city that masks its ruins with impressions of progression. The structure of the film might be comfortable but the reality it presses upon us is far from it.
The interplay of lights is both impactful and fascinating. Characters slightly and subtly ascend into hope and descend into death (which looms as an adornment for hope itself). And we know it all because the colors and the lights don’t exist there just because they should.
Love unfolds between characters such as Ela and Shishir, and Raja and his girlfriend. But love turns into an obsession as the dwellers of the city obsess themselves with figures of the past, most prominently Rabindranath Tagore. The irritation of the three film auteur for this Tagore-obsessed deficiency of literature is artistically observed with clever attention throughout, with Tagore busts and a remixed Tagore song playing important parts in themselves. Once Upon A Time in Calcutta doesn’t choose to dwell over the ruins. After all, escaping reality is not so much of an option as an illusion. Artistically painting the reality most certainly is. And that’s what Aditya achieves here.
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2. Sardar Udham
Sardar Udham moved me so much that I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was so moved. It’s a ferociously told story about what it’s like to protest, but also about what it’s like to do that by stepping out of the periphery. It approaches the sheer anatomy of a national movement with pinpoint precision. It essentially builds upon the revolution of a people by making it very relevantly suited to the revolution of our times. The film is also elevated by the extraordinary performance that Vicky Kaushal has pulled off here. He slips into the skin of the character with an intensity that almost assures you that there’s no looking back. The writing by Ritesh Shah and Subhendu Bhattacharya is immersive. It doesn’t try to sell you an agenda, or an assassination that caught a lightning sensation across the world.
Shoojit had been waiting since 2001 to make this film. It’s easily his most personal project, and quite rightly, his most impressive yet. It’s a film that enormously benefits (and surprises) with its quiet, austere, and at times meditative look towards a man who chose to pave the path out of his circumstances. We don’t see Udham Singh explicitly trying to prove his love for the nation through hardcore dialogue. His nationalism is expressed through his drunken words at a city square, his pursuit of equality and freedom over the concern for being a humanitarian and working for the rest of the world, his thundering descent towards the oppression of working class.
It’s not just about a revolutionary. It’s about his making too. While it doesn’t aim to do any course correction, it will work perfectly as that too. I didn’t expect that a Hindi biopic would cross the zone of competence and stimulate the most unhinged corners of its subject, and like this. Sardar Udham is the most essential film of the year, and it confirms Sircar as an auteur.
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1. Writing With Fire
When the end credits rolled over Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary, I was completely dumbstruck. It doesn’t just portray the reality of the Indian diaspora as it is, it truly confronts the system with the marginalized. Following the founding members of Khabar Lahariya, a singularly rural women-run newspaper based in Uttar Pradesh, the film dissects the caste and religious politics with a bluntness that has been previously unseen.
It’s a masterpiece because it looks through the bigger picture through the smaller things. It follows the beats of investigative storytelling for telling a story that’s extremely personal, both for the subjects and for the audience. It shows empowerment as an evolutionary process, and it seems to be telling a wonderful coming-of-age story that way. Writing With Fire has enough powerful gravitas to hold it as the best Indian film of the year.