In 2020, Hindi cinema had a tough time staying on par with its Southern counterparts.
Subhash K Jha picks his five best films made down south.
In her sophomore film -- the Malayalam masterpiece Moothon -- Director Geetu Mohandas (whose debut film Liars Dice is an undiscovered gem) has yoked two films together into a work of stunning impact.
On the surface, Moothon is a tale of a 15-year-child's search for his elder brother, who goes missing in Mumbai.
The male child, played by a female actor named Sanjana Dipu, travels to the city alone and gets sucked into its brutal underbelly with barely space for anyone to breathe.
Let me say this right here: Nivin Pauly is a revelation.
With this one performance -- actually, it's two performances so seamlessly fused together that they become completely unified -- Pauly joins the elitist circle of the most accomplished actors of our country.
His Akbar is the force of nature.
Thundering against the humanity that he has buried under the rubble of roughness, his performance epitomizes that musk of machismo that men are supposed to flaunt to be considered 'man enough'.
Miraculously, and with a fascinating fluency, Geetu Mohandas flips the coin, and takes us into a romance captured by the splashing waves of Lakshadweep in a flashback between Akbar and his mute soul-mate Amir (Roshan Matthew).
This is a love story so freed of gender restrictions that I wanted to stand up and applaud not just the supreme sensitivity of the director but also the indomitable bravery of the two actors.
In scenes that are reminiscent of Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, the two actors portray love with spellbinding immersive intensity.
When Nivin Paul and Roshan Matthew look at each other, they see neither man nor woman.
They see only love.
Kappela captures the Kerala countryside with a caressing glance that we get only in their homespun films.
The film is set in rural Kerala, though luckily there are no coconut trees and football players.
This nutty anti-romcom takes us on an unexpected rollercoaster ride... Rather, a bumpy bus ride where the film's young, inexperienced and rustic heroine Jessy (Anna Ben) almost loses everything, only to have her soul redeemed just in time.
I am afraid to give away the plot. Suffice it to say that for all my movie-viewing experience, I could have never guessed what Writer-Director Musthafa (believe it or not, this is the actor-turned-director's directorial debut) was leading to.
No, I never saw the twist coming.
For about 20 minutes of the second-half when the film's loutish, shamelessly parasitical hero Roy (Sreenath Bhasi) is introduced, I thought I was watching another film altogether.
But then the director, fully conscious of where he is going and with a grip on the moral graph of the three protagonists' destiny, manoeuvres the story through the stormy incidents with expertise.
There is not one idle moment in Kappela.
The director's eye for detail is one of the film's many virtues. In one sequence when Jessy gets the window seat of a bus in the pouring rain, I actually saw raindrops on her seat.
By the time the films screeches to a halt, three lives are changed irreversibly.
C U Soon (Malayalam)
Thank God for happy endings. Well, almost.
This thriller about an online dating plan gone horribly wrong, has a whole lot of balls, plus a steadily beating heart.
And it ends on a bright note. We need that.
The important detail that we must remember is that the 98-minute film has been shot on IPhones.
This is as smart a thriller as they come with some of Malayalam cinema's finest young talent pitching in with a conviction born out of isolation.
Not surprisingly, the well thought-out thriller simulates a taut tempo at a slow burn temperature.
Since the world is under lockdown, none of the characters are in a hurry to go anywhere.
The plot, done up entirely in a virtual format, takes its time to whip up a frenetic anxiety.
By the time we reach the devastating climax, there is no escaping from the film's vice-like grip on our senses.
A piano-based deceptively calm and soothing background score by Gopi Sunder goes a long way in getting our undivided attention as love-stuck Jimmy (Roshan Mathew) befriends the troubled Anu (Darshana Rajendran) in Dubai on the digital platform.
Remarkably, the entire romance and the horrific aftermath unfolds through images on computers and phones.
This is an ingenious invention born out of necessity as the film is shot in quarantine.
At the same time, that sense of virtual disengagement gives a muscular immediacy to the narrative.
The actors get into the mysterious, melancholic mood effortlessly. I could almost feel Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran's growing fondness.
Mathew, so brilliant recently in Moothon, Kappela and Choked, is growing into one of the most interesting actors in the country.
But here, it is Fahadh Faasil, who holds this robust thriller together.
Ka Pae Ranasingham (Tamil)
By the time the screams of the woman scorned filled the screen at the end, I was so shaken by the film's stirring depiction of bureaucratic empathy that I wanted to flee the scene.
Ka Pae Ranasingham offers no quick exits or easy solutions.
It traps you, pins you down to the protagonist Ariyanachi's hopeless battle with bureaucratic red-tapism to get her dead husband Ranasingham's body back from Dubai where he has died under mysterious circumstances.
It's not the mystery that freezes us in our seats.
It's the sheer frustration, rage and helplessness of watching a brave woman powerless in her bereavement and grief.
Though the plot tends to ramble, it never loses focus.
The central tragedy, so deep yet so flawed, will haunt you for a long time.
The image of Aishwarya Rajesh determinedly striding across the sweaty streets of Chennai armed with her baby, is so powerful, it decimates all misgivings as you become one with her struggle.
While Aishwarya steals the show, hats off to Sethupathi for agreeing to play her dead husband.
Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (Telugu)
A perky appetising potboiler.
In Allu Arjun's latest swag-suffused sojourn, he puts up a one-man show while all the other actors (including Tabu) are reduced to peripheral attractions.
As far as star vehicles go, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a masterclass of cine-seduction, with Allu Arvind presiding over the old-fashioned but engaging plot without overwhelming the proceedings.
There are episodes in the hero's exhibitionism (almost like one item song after another) when Arjun unleashes a kind of tantalising, crowd-pleasing tamasha that takes his inherently persuasive screen presence to dazzling heights of virtuosity.