Dir: Lijo Jose Pellissery
This film marks three in a row for Malayalam director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose Double Barrel (2015) and Angamaly Diaries (2017) previously made it to my favorites lists in their respective years. Those films were more action and crime oriented, but both showed a mastery of controlled chaos that has become Pellissery’s trademark. Ee.Ma.Yau. is a pitch black comedy that explores the lives of a rural Christian family in coastal Kerala as they attempt to put on the grandest funeral anyone has ever seen. There to see the ceremony through to its end is Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose, writer of Angamaly Diaries), his friend Ayyappan (Vinayakan, star of Kammatipaadam), and Fr. Zachariah Parappurath (Dileesh Pothan, director of Thonidmuthalam Driksakshiyum), each of whom is embroiled in his own private whirlwind of chaos attempting to make this funeral the event to end all funerals.
Reminiscent of the great ensemble madness of Robert Altman, Pellissery’s direction and staging of this magnificent beast of a funeral is impeccable. I tend not to rank films on lists like these, but if I had to, Ee.Ma.Yau would be number one with a bullet. This is one of those masterpieces that is likely to go almost entirely unappreciated by the world outside of the Indian subcontinent and various diasporic communities simply because it had no publicity and no distribution outside of a captive audience of ex-pats. Hell, I don’t even know if or when it’ll make its way to home video or streaming services, but it is most definitely the kind of film that deserved more exposure than it got.
Dir: Nag Ashwin
I was more than a little ambivalent about stepping into the cinema for a three hour biopic about an Indian movie star from the ’50s about whom I knew nothing, but Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati proved that a risk worth taking. The film, a look into the life of South Indian superstar, Savitri, is a well-crafted film that focused on the woman behind the camera and the trials and tribulations of her life. There’s surprisingly little of her on screen film career featured in Mahanati, but Savitri as portrayed by the very talented Keerthi Suresh is a captivating and flawed character who, like many before and after her, worked incredibly hard to achieve her goals, only to be waylaid by those who might use her fame for their own fortune.
Suresh’s performance as Savitri and Dulquer Salmaan’s co-starring role as her on-again-off-again lover/husband/superstar Gemini Ganesan are wonderful foils to one another, helping to keep Mahanti from devolving into hagiography. The structure of the film, framed as the research of a cub reporter looking for a scoop, is a bit tired and perhaps not really necessary in order to get its point across, but it manages to mostly stay out of the way until the end. I’ve learned at this stage that Indian films, and Telugu language ones in particular, love flashbacks and any excuse to toss one in will not be ignored. This is likely the most mainstream film on my list, it was a big hit in cinemas and Mahanati now available on Amazon Prime Video in the United States. Well worth checking out.
Dirs: Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad
The finest Indian horror film in years continues to make impressions at festivals around the world after premiering at Venice Critics Week, then moving on to Fantastic Fest, Sitges, Morbido, Brooklyn Horror, and many, many more. I had the privilege of helping to program it for Fantastic Fest along with the team there and it went down a storm. Here’s a clip from my review out of Venice:
This story of a greed that stretches of eons and the way that it transforms and destroys the family burdened with it is a wonderfully fresh take on horror from a region whose cinematic history with the genre is checkered at best. Tumbbad features great performances from all of its relatively unknown leads, as well as solid technical chops that should help it break out of the South Asian film ghetto that so many films from India fall into after their festival debuts. A slow burn whose finale is wonderfully unexpected and yet fitting, Tumbbad is a great film and hopefully the start of a new trend in India.
Dir: Sriram Raghavan
Another repeat offender graces thsi year’s list with Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun. His previous feature, the excellent thriller Badlapur, was one of my favorites films of 2015, and Andhadhun shows that this veteran director knows how to make this kind of twisty genre gem better than almost anyone in India. Based on a French short film, Andhadhun stars current “it” boy of Hindi cinema, Ayushmann Khurranna as a blind pianist who gets trapped in a web of intrigue, deceit, and murder when he finds himself an unwitting witness to the cold blooded killing of a man at the hands of his philandering wife, played by powerhouse actress Tabu. Along for the ride is the always reliable Radhika Apte as Khurrana’s love interest/accomplice in trying to squirrel himself out of this conundrum.
Raghavan and co-writer Arjit Biswas (also of Badlapur) ladle on the twists in this marvelously constructed mystery thriller that will have you guessing, even after the credits have rolled. Twisty films are nothing new in Bollywood, in fact there are filmmakers whose entire careers have been built upon creating more and more unbelievable coincidences in order to gets butts in seats (*ahem*Abbas-Mastan*ahem), but no one does it like Raghavan, and Andhadhun is testament to the fact that one can follow Bollywood rules and still make a film suitable to wow audiences worldwide, which it can now do as it’s streaming on Netflix (go watch it!).
India’s true enfant terrible returned this year with his most cohesive and yet most antagonistic feature film yet. Garbage is the story of an internet troll who suddenly finds himself in real world contact with the victim of a viral revenge sex tape and how this collisions of his online and offline existence turns everyone’s lives upside down. I was lucky to see the film in advance of its world premiere at the Berlinale this year and had this to say in my review:
There’s no doubt that Garbage trades on shock value to make its points, and there’s also no doubt that it will hit many foreign audiences as too extreme to be real, but that’s part of its beauty. Much like Jafar Panahi, whose own work is banned in his homeland and yet celebrated around the world, Q’s latest work is the kind of film that needs to be seen and understood in context in order to truly make the kind of impact it deserves to make.
Leave it to Q, who has been on the front lines of the battle against censorship and self-censorship for years, to knock down the barricades that have kept cinema so safe in a nation that is so unsafe for cinema. This is the kind of disruption India needs, and the world needs to know that some Indian filmmakers are unafraid. Q is unafraid, and Garbage is proof positive that he is one of the most important working filmmakers in the world.
Garbage is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.
Dir: Ivan Ayr
One of my most amazing memories of 2018 was getting the chance to attend the biggest film festival in South Asia with the latest edition of the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and there I saw a couple of my favorites of the year, including Ivan Ayr’s Soni. This is a film that I had the privilege of watching a work-in-progress print of at the 2017 Film Bazaar film market and was very intrigued by its unique premise of a pair of women police butting heads in such a heavily male dominated workplace as law enforcement in India. The final product was exceptional. Gripping storytelling, well-rounded believable characters, and great acting by the two leads, Geetika Vidya and Saloni Batra. I wrote a bit about the film in my MAMI dispatch:
Ayr’s delicate treatment of the complex issues faced specifically by these women is admirable and keenly observed. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra do justice to these layered leading roles, giving the film a strong emotional core. Ohlyan’s Soni, the hot-headed street cop used as bait in “eve teasing” sting operations, is a fractured woman whose home life is torn apart after a relationship ends tragically. Timid in most aspects of her time out of the uniform, an explosive temper simmers just below the surface. Batra’s Kalpana, Soni’s boss, tries desperately to maintain a sense of balance between justice and the inherent corruption of an Indian police force crippled by political interference, always struggling to make the right choice, and often failing. The film is definitely worth a look and I hear it should be released on Netflix by the end of the year.
Turns out I was a little off on my prediction for the release, but Soni is scheduled to appear on Netflix worldwide this month
Lots of Hurtado favorites on this years list, and this year we have at least four directors making their third appearance. Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran is perhaps best known at this point for his 2016 film Visaranai (Interrogation), which was selected by India to represent the nation as that year’s Academy Awards submission. While it didn’t make the short list, it defintely made an impression and the director has only stepped up his game since then.
Vada Chennai is an epic piece of storytelling that explores the life of a Northern Chennai hoodlum and carom hustler by the name of Anbu. Anbu is played by pan-Indian star Dhanush, who also played the lead in Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam (which made my 2012 list), and his performance is staggeringly good. It seems like every year sees a new gem declared as India’s Best Gangster Film, and this year Vada Chennai was no different. Performances are exceptional, the storytelling engrossing, and the pacing impeccable. Even at nearly three hours, when the film ends with the promise of more to come, I was clawing at my seat to see the next installment. Vetrimaaran is one of the world’s finest filmmakers, and, alongside Anurag Kashyap and Lijo Jose Pellissery, empirical proof that India can make crime films that rival anything made anywhere in the world.
Dir: Devashish Makhija
Among the most affecting and bold films I saw thsi year was Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle. Only a year after his previous film, Ajji, premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, Makhija was back with this film, the story of a cop forced into retirement who seeks meaning to a life that has been spent serving others. When he’s forced to fend for himself, he finds that there isn’t much of himself to fend for, as his entire identity has been so wrapped up in his job. Officer Bhonsle finds himself in the middle of a scuffle between Maharashtrian hardliners and Bihari migrant workers in his apartment block that he wants no part of, but he may be the only solution to this bubbling cauldron of tension. A masterful performance by Manoj Bajpayee as the titular character anchors this astounding film, one that demands a lot of its audience and delivers on its promise in return.
I saw Bhonsle at MAMI and had this to say:
Bhonsle is a study in restraint and putting faith in one’s audience. It’s an exceptional film bolstered by a nearly silent performance from Manoj Bajpayee, one of India’s finest actors, who also stepped in to produce the film when things were looking dire during production. Bajpayee crafts a complete character from Makhija’s script almost entirely through physical action, or inaction, and we manage to get a very good sense of who he is. This is the filmic equivalent of the Pixies musical trademark of loud-quiet-loud, though in reverse where long stretches of the film are dedicated to silent observation, but then punctuated with a kind of intense violence that is made all the more shocking by what happens – or doesn’t – around it. Another exceptional film from Makhija.
The Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota)
Dir: Vasan Bala
Part Hong Kong action comedy, part Bollywood masala programmer, all fun, Vasan Bala’s sophomore feature is ten tons of awesome in a five pound sack. The story of a kid who grows up unable to feel pain and decides to become a vigilante hero is surprisingly touching in addition to the obvious genre beats that are all hit right on the head. I truly cannot wait for more of the world to see this film, I reviewed it after its award winning screening at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and had this to say:
When it’s not busy kicking your face into next Tuesday, The Man Who Feels No Pain is a big-hearted love letter to outsized action in the vein of Stephen Chow’s early ’90s gems. Humor is the name of the game here, and even though there is plenty of blood and a compound fracture or two, barely a scene goes by without a solid gag to remind you that we’re all here to have fun. Dasani’s on screen enthusiasm is the vessel for a lot of these gags, and it’s what makes the film work so well. Never taking itself too seriously, The Man Who Feels No Pain zigs and zags both tonally and in terms of plot and motivation that would be confusing and deflating in less confident hands, but Bala knows exactly what he wants and he and his team deliver in spades.
Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil (Freedom at Midnight)
Dir: Tinu Pappachan
This movie rules, and almost no one saw it. Swathantrhyam Ardharathriyil is one of the best and most stylish prison escape films you’ll ever see. A rural, romantic reinterpretation of The Shawshank Redemption, this film knocked me on my ass and I cannot wait to hear from more people who’ll enjoy it like I did. Directed by newcomer Tinu Pappachan, and co-produced by Lijo Jose Pellissery, the film’s pedigree is solid, but it is the stars, Antony Varghese (Angamaly Diaries), Vinayakan (Kammatipaadam), and Chemban Vinod Jose (Ee.Ma.Yau) who bring this magnificent bastard to life.
I saw the film in a nearly empty cinema in Dallas and had this to say:
India’s newest hot spot for thrilling filmmakers is churning out new and exciting films all the time, and the latest thriller to hit cinema screens in Tinu Pappachan’s Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil (Freedom at Midnight). Pappachan, making his first feature after working as an assistant on the films of Malayalam cinema’s current critical champion Lijo Jose Pellissery, is a force to reckon with. The film feels like the work of a hungry contender looking to make his mark, and with a crackling script by Dileep Kurian to work from, it definitely succeeds in making an impression as an incredibly solid thriller punctuated with brilliant action and storytelling.
Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil is currently streaming on Netflix under the English title, Freedom at Midnight.
Dir: Prasanth Varma
One of my favorite Indian films of the year was delivered in the dreaded January doldrums and I feared it may have been lost to the tides of time, however, I’m bringing Awe! back from the grave! A fascinating kaleidescope of a story that takes place inside of a single building, Awe! is one of the most adventurous mainstream Indian films I’ve seen in a while, and comign from the Telugu film industry, one that is very comfortable making formula pictures thankyouverymuch, that is incredibly impressive. A kind of fantasy, science fiction, romance, thriller hybrid, Awe! disappeared after a short theatrical run inspite of solid performances from A-list actors like Nani, Ravi Teja, Regina Cassandra, Kajal Agarwal, and others. I saw it on that initial run and had this to say:
The stories; that a young girl minding her mother’s cafe, an adopted scientist looking to connect with his birth family, a junkie barista trying to make a life for herself, a chef guided by the audible thoughts of a fish and his bonsai tree friend, a budding woman introducing her parents to her lesbian lover, and a cocky magician demanding respect from an unseen adversary, and a suicidal woman having what appears to be her last meal are all told as if they were completely separate entities until the intermission at which point it becomes apparent that the film has a larger goal.
Awe is the kind of bold filmmaking that regional Indian films need to break from the international perception of the staid, stolid song and dance picture. Awe is none of that. It’s not a hard hitting drama like last year’s breakout hit Arjun Reddy – which I loved wholeheartedly – and it’s not the massive financial success that was Baahubali 2, but it’s somewhere in-between. A film that satisfies not only the commercial film fans who want to go to the cinema and have a good time, but also those who demand that cinema move forward and progress.
Dir: Prasobh Vijayan
There is always at least one film on my list that has been treated unfairly and should’ve been seen by more people. Last year that film was the silent Apocalypse drama Avichi, this year it is debut director Prasobh Vijayan’s revenge thriller Lilli. I saw the film in progress at 2017’s NFDC Film Bazaar and offered up enough opinions and advace that I felt it would be inappropriate to formally review the film when it released in Kerala in September, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one my favorite films of the year.
A gripping and desparate tale of a pregnant woman abducted for ransom by a gang of hoodlums, Lilli is bold, gritty filmmaking that has a bit of a message behind its bloody madness. Set in the immediate wake of India’s devastating demonetization scheme in which 80% of the nation’s hard currency was declared invalid overnight, Lilli addresses the trickle down effects of politics gone wrong as well as presenting a thrilling tale of a woman who’ll do anything to save the unborn child inside of her.
Sadly, Lilli never screened outside of Kerala, and even though it garnered almost unanimous praise from critics, it didn’t quite received the kind of audience support it needed. Thankfully, the film has the potential for new life with a release on Netflix worldwide, and while it’s admittedly a bit rough around the edges, I think it’s the beginning of a very promising career for its director and I truly wish him the best.
Dir: Kabir Singh Chowdhry
I’m still not entirely sure what the fuck happened in Mehsampur, but the fact that it exists and keeps me thinking all these months later means it must’ve been something great. This hybrid documentary/drama circling the unsolved murder of Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila is so much more than meets the eye. What threatens to become a fart-sniffing example of art school decadence run amok turns out to be a toughtful treatise on voyeurism and complicity, or something, I’m still working it out.
Whatever it is, it’s compelling viewing and one hell of a bold step forward for Indian films. I have no idea what the future holds for Mehsampur, but I hope it finds a home so that people can see it, because it takes a whole lot of chances and that’s worth supporting. Here are a few words from my review:
Those looking for an answer to the question of who killed Chamkila may walk away from Mehsampur disappointed, but those interested in why people still care about this crime will likely come away with more. In fact, Mehsampur is among the most chilling avant-garde attempts I’ve seen out of India over the last decade, right up there with the work of Q who set the festival circuit on fire with his 2010 breakout hit Gandu. Mehsampur is no doubt even more obtuse than its predecessors, but it’s the kind of challenge that many moviegoers will appreciate.
The fact that a film like Mehsampur even exists and is playing in public is more than a little amazing. Chowdhry is a new and exciting talent, and Mehsampur is confounding and confusing, bold and vigorous, a film for film goers to puzzle over, and in this case, that’s a good thing.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero
Dir: Vikramaditya Motwane
I never expected to have two vigilante superhero films on my 2018 favorites list, but here we are. From the incredibly diverse director Vikram Aditya Motwane, and indie superstar writer Anurag Kashyap comes Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, the story of a man pushed to his limits who decides it’s time to fight back. The basic plot is not completely new, it’s been treated comedically in films like Kick Ass recently, but the cultural specifics make for a fresh look that is definitely worth checking out. I reviewed the film upon its release back in June and here is a snip from that piece:
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is a vigilante story unlike anything India has seen so far, and a message movie in which the message is integrated into the film in a way that isn’t preachy, but also manages to get the job done. With corruption a topic of daily conversation on the streets of every big city and small town in India, it’s no wonder that stories about it take up tons of space on the nation’s cinema screens, but none have managed to do so with quite the deft hand and excellent storytelling of Motwane’s latest.
Vikramadtiya Motwane is well on his way to becoming the next international marquee name out of India, alongside his producing partner Anurag Kashyap. What he possibly lacks in utter fearlessness, he more than makes up for in breadth of talent and an ability to take on a diverse selection of topics and genres, each with equal aplomb. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is another impressive outing for this filmmaker, and it definitely deserves some international recognition, so check it out, it might be playing on a screen near you.