There were any number of gruelling action sequences in Indian films this year. The best set piece, though, was pure helium, a thing of invention and beauty that arrives midway through the second part of Mani Ratnam’s historical epic. A conspiracy is brewing to assassinate Chola prince Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi), who’s been living in a monastery in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. From the moment you hear A.R. Rahman’s ‘Soodanathu Rattham’, with its rumbling beat, and Deepthi Suresh’s keening vocal, you know something’s about to go down. A. Sreekar Prasad cuts between prayer hall and the teeming market outside, where, amid preparations for Varman’s ceremonial procession, Pandya assassins are flitting like ghosts, with Vallavaraiyan (Karthi) in pursuit. The build-up is so mesmerising you wish it would go on forever, though Karthi doing his best Errol Flynn is great fun too. It’s capped with a whispered instruction to an elephant—a perfect dramatic flourish.
Shailaja (Shefali Shah) is visiting her childhood town on the Konkan coast. She drops in to pay her respects to an old dance teacher, who asks her students to perform for the guest. When Shailaja demurs, the teacher says jokingly, “I want to see how much you remember.” If Shailaja—who is in the initial stages of dementia—is stung by the unknowing remark, she doesn’t show it. She watches impassively at first as the girls perform, then begins to enjoy the recital, Shah’s subtlety allowing us to register slight changes in Shailaja’s body language. The teacher insists Shailaja join the students, which she does. It all goes well until, mid-step, Shailaja seems to forget everything. Her response is to shrink away from the group, edge towards a corner, and try and hide behind a pillar—a child’s response to embarrassment, devastatingly apt for this adult moment.
One of the most radical ideas in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is the near-constant babble of Tamil film scenes and songs. A brilliant reconfiguring of a Greek chorus, it’s both a wry commentary and a clue to the unsaid feelings of the family who are shocked to have a complete stranger (Mammootty) turn up and act exactly like Sundaram, the man of the house who disappeared two years ago. Tamil speakers are best-placed to understand the many layers of allusion and reference. But the basic import isn’t difficult to grasp—like the beautiful moment where the false Sundaram comes to the realization that he isn’t who he thinks he is. His confusion and the family’s renewed grief are interspersed with dialogue from an old melodrama playing on TV, a scene where someone’s leaving home, possibly never to return.
What a difference a year makes. Shah Rukh Khan was anything but a safe bet at the start of 2023. His last film as lead actor, Zero, was in 2018, and you had to go back to 2016’s Dear Zindagi for a film of his that was universally liked. There was the drawn-out drug case (later thrown out) involving his son, Aryan, in 2021. Pathaan seems to play on this by having our first glimpse of Khan be a battered figure tied to a chair, surrounded by enemies. Their leader addresses him in Arabic, but Khan replies in Hindi. It finally dawns on the interrogator who the prisoner is. “Pathaan?” he says disbelievingly. “Zinda hai (is alive),” Khan growls, his face coming into view for the first time. A cracking action scene follows, but this is the moment I kept returning to this year, a comeback distilled to two words, raised to mythic proportions: a resurrection.
Screwball comedy is, above all, speed. The gags in Rocky and Rani’s first manic meeting—“Naam toh suna hoga… just like a Rahul”, his mixing up “objection” and “objectify”, the himbo pantomiming by Rocky’s friend (Abhinav Sharma)—are all funny, but what makes them sing is the breakneck speed at which they keep coming. It’s essential, then, to have an actor who’s a perfect storm (Ranveer Singh) paired with the best reacting performer in Hindi cinema (Alia Bhatt). Scenes like these dispense with the need for a courtship arc—you can see them become fascinated with each other in real time.
Manoj (Vikrant Massey), a poor boy from a village in Chambal, is desperate to ace the UPSC exams. The euphoria of passing the preliminary stage—itself a massive achievement—quickly turns to determination about the daunting finals. After racing through the streets of Delhi at night (he can’t afford a cab), Manoj manages to bluster his way into the house of Deep (Sam Mohan), who’d once mistaken him for a waiter when he was a star student, and is now a rising bureaucrat. He begs him for advice on how to qualify. Deep crisply tells him that his chances aren’t good; he talks so rapidly in English that Manoj has to ask him to slow down. He sets him a task—write about yourself in eight minutes. Manoj fumbles the assignment. “Tere se nahi hoga (you can’t do it),” Deep says calmly but with finality. All our sympathy is with Manoj, since we have seen his sincerity and his struggle against overwhelming odds. Yet we also know that Deep’s snap judgement is more realistic than cruel in a country where millions take the civil services exam every year and only a handful make it through. This scene is Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film in a nutshell, at once unabashedly emotional and mercilessly clear-eyed.
Sathya (Sivakarthikeyan), a timid comic artist, survives a near-death fall. He is left with a bizarre side-effect: a voice in his head narrating his every move in the manner of a comic book hero. It’s a huge annoyance, and gets him into trouble with a corrupt minister. But when the MLA’s goons arrive and start to beat him up, he realizes the voice-over has one crucial advantage: it arrives a few seconds before any event, allowing him to execute the “hero’s” moves just in time (this kind of ‘pre-vision’ is its own action movie trope). Suddenly, Sathya is evading and pummelling his attackers. But Sathya is a regular guy, and his confusion at his own success—and his constant apologising to his assailants—is hilarious. At one point, the narrator takes a poetic detour as a thug advances towards Sathya with a pole. “Get to the damn story, man,” he yells.
One of the most-discussed scenes in 2023, albeit a terrible one, is the one in Animal where Ranbir Kapoor asks his father to pretend to be him, while he plays his father. A far more incisive version of this scene appears in another film about a flawed parent and resentful child, Pushan Kripalani’s Goldfish. Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) makes her mother, Sadhana (Deepti Naval), play her in an effort to get to the root of their rocky relationship—many years ago, Sadhana had killed Anamika’s pet goldfish. Sadhana, who now has dementia, finally admits that although the fish was dead when she flushed it down the toilet, she told her daughter it was alive to hurt her. Anamika rewards this honesty by flushing the medicine she’s been dosing her mother’s water with to keep her in a pliant state. Then something surprising happens. “Sometimes I tell people I’m adopted,” Anamika says. “So do I,” Sadhana admits. There’s a beat, and mother and daughter burst out laughing.
In Achal Mishra’s second feature, Dhuin, an aspiring actor in Darbhanga, Pankaj (Abhinav Jha), is watching a tutorial on how to cry convincingly. He tries to keep track of the instructions—think of something sad, open your eyes wide, hold your breath. He lets out an experimental whimper, unsatisfied with the result. I was reminded of this scene while watching Jha in another film set in Darbhanga, Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar, directed by Parth Saurabh, co-writer on Dhuin. Sumit (Abhinav Jha) and his wife, Priyanka (Tanaya Khan Jha), are having one of their protracted arguments, which is cut short when he starts to weep profusely and, this time, convincingly. The overlapping nature of the films is evidence of close, fertile art film scene in Darbhanga, even though Mishra and Saurabh have their own distinct styles and attitudes.
Phulo Karma’s eyes scan the manual labourers she’s come to give handouts to, then fix on one man. Something in Smita Tambe’s calculating, unblinking gaze gives the MLA’s commonplace greeting to Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee)—“Ae bhai, kahaan ke ho?”—an unfathomable unease. Phulo’s subsequent actions justify this menace, but she’s no simple antagonist, just one of many characters bound in a web of grief and revenge in Devashish Makhija’s scathing chase film.
Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramukham opens around the Kochi harbour in the 1940s, unfolding in high-contrast black-and-white. In the pre-dawn murk, the men of the village grab their torches and pack themselves into a hall where they jostle for work tokens cruelly tossed into the crowd by the headman. We then see them unload boxes off a ship, carry them ashore, collect their meagre earnings, while a saxophone wails atonally on the soundtrack. The opening stretch, with its striking photography and leftist politics, brings to mind the great Malayalam director John Abraham, though Ravi’s film uses drama and action in a way that Abraham would never.
In Krishand’s mordantly comic Purusha Pretham, the discovery of a dead body throws an incompetent police precinct into turmoil. This is a shaggy dog procedural, with characters perpetually getting distracted from the task at hand, the narrative chaos underlined by rapid cutting, eccentric framing and a mocking score. Nothing exemplifies this better than the exhumation scene, where the actual work is interrupted by arguments about alocasia plants and orange juice, a missing body and a heart attack. It ends with a rap number summing up the futile efforts of the group, “EXHUMATION FAIL” plastered across the scene in bright colours.
Animal strains so hard—for effect, for shock value—yet the best thing in Sandeep Vanga Reddy’s film is an expert bit of music curation. Bobby Deol’s entry in the film is accompanied by an old Farsi number, ‘Jamaale Ghodoo’, on the soundtrack. The song was so catchy, and the wedding scene so playful after the laborious initial hour and a half, that fans had already tracked down the original version by an Iranian women’s choir the following day. There's an unexamined tension between song and scene—girlish voices serenading a wedding that ends in murder and rape.
It's rare to get a Hindi film that's serious about presenting martial arts. It's rarer to have someone as mild-looking and wispy as Anshuman Jha as action hero. And it's unheard of for an Indian action film to have a woman as the Big Bad. Towards the end of Victor Mukherjee's Lakadbaggha, Jha's vigilante animal-lover finds himself exchanging blows with a formidable fighter played by Eksha Kerung. Their bout is thoughtful, almost theoretical—and she gets the better of him the first time.