This list of the memorable moments—from scenes and songs to single shots—in Indian cinema this year comes with a few caveats. It's not a list of the 10 best films of 2021—though it's almost that. It doesn't include films like Pebbles and Writing With Fire, which have played in festivals abroad but are not yet available to view in India. Two films on it, The Disciple and Milestone, are from 2020, but had their India release on OTT this year. Finally, the list doesn't reflect how completely this year has belonged to Malayalam and Tamil cinema; another list could be compiled with entries only from these two industries.
Pulao in ‘Geeli Pucchi' (from 'Ajeeb Daastaans')
Neeraj Ghaywan’s segment in Ajeeb Daastaans is one of the best sustained illustrations of how food helps enforce and perpetuate caste-based discrimination. Bharti (Konkona Sensharma), a machine worker in a factory, and newly hired accountant Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari) are eating lunch in the canteen. Priya offers Bharti a bite of pulao from her spoon. Bharti, who'd rejected Priya’s offer of food earlier in the film, shakes her head, then looks around a few times before taking the bite. These quick glances point to a lifetime of wariness: Priya doesn’t know that the woman eating her food, from her cutlery, is Dalit, but the other workers do. Later in the film, once Bharti’s caste is revealed, she’s given tea in a steel tumbler while Priya, her mother-in-law and husband have theirs in China cups. Yet that moment in the canteen is also an intimate connection forged, a way for Bharti—whose feelings for the new girl run deeper than friendship—to let Priya into her life. (Netflix)
All the dead in 'Sardar Udham'
At the heart of Shoojit Sircar's Sardar Udham is an excruciating recreation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. One unforgettable image comes after the killing and the rescue work. The camera pulls out slowly to reveal a field strewn with the dead, bodies still being stretchered off. The cinematic parallel here is, of course, the famous first shot of Gone with the Wind (1939). But for those of us watching it a few months after covid devastated Delhi, there was another, more immediate comparison: the late Danish Siddiqui’s searing photographs of cremation grounds and burning pyres, taken during the second wave. (Amazon Prime Video)
Romance turns political in 'Karnan'
Composer Santhosh Narayanan and director Mari Selvaraj demonstrate in Karnan, as they did in Pariyerum Perumal (2018), a knack for pointedly political song sequences. Thaattan Thattaan starts off as a straightforward romantic number. But then the focus shifts from Karnan (Dhanush) and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), and we hear folk singer Meenakshi Elayaraja. “Our ancestors lost the uplands," she laments. "Our forefathers lost the farmlands/We became wasteland/We became labour.” There’s a return to romance, but not before Karnan is told “You must triumph, child”—a reminder that while love and all is fine, his people come first. (Amazon Prime Video)
Hope in ‘Sherni’
Forest officer Vidya (Vidya Balan) and college professor Hassan (Vijay Raaz) look down upon a gigantic quarry. “This used to be dense forest here,” he says. “And now this copper mine.” The tiger they’re trying to save needs to get from one end of the chasm to the other. As they’re struck into silence by the enormity of the task, director Amit Masurkar offers a flicker of hope: in the centre of the frame, nestled in the flowers through which we see Hassan and Vidya, a solitary, industrious bee. (Amazon Prime Video)
The fight with Dancing Rose in ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’
No character this year was more memorable than boxer Dancing Rose in Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai. In fight movie terms, Rose is the junior boss the hero must defeat before battling the final boss. But Rose, played by Shabeer Kallarakkal, is anything but a second villain, stealing every moment he’s on screen. His clowning in the ring—he dances, jumps up on the ropes, even does a backflip—has no bearing on his abilities as a boxer, something protagonist Kabilan (Arya) realizes seconds into their fight. The two-round bout is a masterpiece of editing, sound and action revealing character. (Amazon Prime Video)
Walking out in 'The Great Indian Kitchen'
Towards the end of Jeo Baby’s film, Nimisha Sajayan’s unnamed protagonist finally snaps and walks out of her husband’s oppressive home. As she strides down the road purposefully, the camera tracks alongside. We see in the background women washing clothes, cooking, bathing their children, while men lounge around and read newspapers. It’s a subtle reminder that while we’ve just witnessed one woman throwing off the shackles of patriarchy, that action carries with it its own privilege. (Amazon Prime Video)
A considered proposal in 'Milestone'
Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) is a trucker from Punjab. His wife, Etali, died by suicide, and he’s back in his ancestral village to try and make amends to her father (Arun Aseng) and sister (Gaurika Bhatt). In front of the village council, he offers them one, then two lakhs. Both times, he’s rejected—but surprisingly, the sister clarifies it isn’t that the amount is too small. The council gives Ghalib 30 days to come up with something else. It’s a resonant idea: that the person who is, in some small measure, responsible for the tragedy not try and buy out his obligations, but actually put some thought into it and come up with a more personal gesture. (Netflix)
Hard truths in 'The Disciple'
Sharad (Aditya Modak) is at a pivotal moment, when it’s finally dawning on him that he might not make it as a classical singer. Instead of carrying forward the name of his gharana, he’s reduced to teaching schoolkids. When one of them approaches him along with his mother and asks if he should join a fusion band, Sharad snaps. “Let him join,” he tells the mother in a mild voice. “But if he does, he needn’t come back here.” He carries on, laying out in increasingly harsh terms how the child has little chance of being a classical singer anyway. His anger is, of course, fed from a well of self-loathing. But it’s also, in a strange way, a kindness, for Sharad knows better than anyone how difficult it is to make it in this world, especially if you aren't the most talented. (Netflix)
Arjun unlocked in 'Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar'
For about 110 minutes in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Arjun Kapoor punches above his weight, yet gives little indication why director Dibakar Banerjee thought of him for the part of the rough ex-cop who ends up on the run with a banking executive. But in the film’s last 10 minutes, he’s unlocked by a wonderfully risky sequence. To escape the cop who’s tracked him down to a town on the Nepal border, Pinky disguises himself as a woman, a chholiya wedding dancer accompanying the groom’s procession. Suddenly, tentativeness of character and actor are one. And when Pinky starts to move his hands and hips in time with the music, there’s a grace to Kapoor that I’ve never seen in his acting before. (Amazon Prime Video)
Nayattu is the leanest film of the year. There isn’t a wasted frame, nothing to distract from the pessimism of Shahi Kabir’s screenplay about three cops on the run after they inadvertently cause the death of a young Dalit man in a bike accident. The tone is set by an unusually grisly wedding song addressed to a ‘drunk octopus’: “He doesn’t give two hoots about her/he chops her up into pieces/until the knife’s sharpness wanes.” And a little later: “The knife glitters/and his wife grins in his dreams.” It’s an early warning that the arc of the universe bends towards chaos in Martin Prakkat’s film. (Netflix)