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10 Films: Indian Cinema At Its Best

Last updated on: December 27, 2023 13:03 IST

Aseem Chhabra lists his favorite 2023 films -- a healthy blend of Bollywood, Hindi indies and some of the best work that is being done in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali cinema.

On one hand Indian cinema in 2023 could be defined by the return of Shah Rukh Khan -- starting with a big bang with Pathaan and ending with Dunki. In between he had a third film -- Jawan, which proved to be a blockbuster hit.

The year also ended with another explosive box office success -- Animal, perhaps the most divisive film of the year, which re-established Ranbir Kapoor's career that was going through a shaky phase.

But at the same time there were some well-made small films that were appreciated by audiences -- Three of Us (included in my best of Indian cinema of 2022 list) and Joram, which after a year-long festival run finally opened in theatres in India and the US.

Aseem Chhabra lists his favorite 2023 films -- a healthy blend of Bollywood, Hindi indies and some of the best work that is being done in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali cinema.

10. Shesh Pata (Bengali)

IMAGE: Prosenjit Chatterjee as Balmiki Sengupta in Shesh Pata.

In Director Atanu Ghosh's heartfelt drama, a troubled writer is commissioned by a publishing house to write a book about his late wife, a former actress who was murdered.

He has been paid a royalty advance, but the writer fails to deliver the chapters. So the publishing house adopts a tougher position by assigning a young debt collector to get the book delivered.

Prosenjit Chatterjee (his third collaboration with Ghosh), is terrific in the role of Balmiki Sengupta, a reclusive, aging, writer who is lost in the haze of memories and depression.

He has literally closed himself in his apartment when Sounak Hazra (Vikram Chatterjee), the debt collector, comes knocking on his door.

When Sengupta is still resistant, Hazra recruits an old acquaintance, Medha Roy (Gargi Roychowdhury). to push the writer to meet his commitment.

Shesh Pata is a tale about broken souls, whose paths cross because of business necessities. But once connected, they cannot seem to let go off each other.


9. Goldfish (English)

IMAGE: Deepti Naval as Sadhana Tripathi and Kalki Koechlin as Anamika Fields in Goldfish.

In his second feature Director Pushan Kripalani explores a strained mother-daughter relationship with two very fine actresses -- Deepti Naval as Sadhana Tripathi and Kalki Koechlin as Anamika Fields.

Anamika returns home to London, where Sadhana lives alone, suffering from early stage of dementia.

She is cared for by a group of neighbors including Bobby Persaud (Gordon Warnecke from My Beautiful Laundrette) and her mysterious love interest, a corner store owner Ashwin Raina (Rajit Kapoor).

For a while Anamika's return rattles Sadhana. And through some well executed dramatic scenes the two attempt to thrash out the past.

But ultimately the mother and daughter manage to keep hanging onto their ties, a connection that cannot totally break off.

Goldfish offers a lesson for us to forgive -- especially older parents -- and to let go the grudges we hold on to.


8. Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (Hindi)

IMAGE: Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.

In the post-pandemic world, Karan Johar frees himself from all the negativity he has faced to make his most outrageous, loud and hugely entertaining film.

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhat take charge of the musical drama playing Rocky Randhawa, heir to a massively successful laddoo empire, and Rani Chatterjee, a news anchor.

Johar's clever casting includes a team of veteran actors: Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi and Dharmendra, who looks really good back from retirement.

Everything is over-the-top in this world that Johar creates -- from the palatial Randhawa mansion (an actual structure in Noida) to a large Chatterjee house in Chittaranjan Park.

Such a structure does not exist in South Delhi, but all is forgivable in RARKPK as songs and humour play out, along with romance, and a clash of culture and family values.

Then towards the end in a highly subversive moment, Johar flips the gender quotient where he makes two men, including Singh, dance to the Dola Re Dola song during an elaborate Durga Puja scene. And one can see why Johar is Bollywood's master craftsman.

Available on Amazon Prime.


7. Aattam (Malayalam)

IMAGE: A scene from Aattam.

A 13-member theatre group prepares for its next performance when Anjaly, the sole woman in the team, reveals a shocking piece of information to one of her co-actors.

On a night after partying, a member of the team touched her inappropriately.

Aattam is a compelling #MeToo story but with many twists. And because of the way the story is structured -- a theatre company attempting to resolve a disturbing incident -- the film reminded me of Vijay Tendulkar's Marathi play (and later film) Shantata Court Chalu Aahe.

Anjaly plans on leaving the group instead of making a big issue out of the incident. But once the word spreads she loses control of her narrative as other actors in the troupe bring in their own biases and grudges into the conversations.

For his first feature, Anand Ekarshi, a theatre director, has cast theatre actors he has worked with for a while.

The writing and fine direction results in a disturbing chamber piece where there is no one protagonist and one person's need for justice becomes a collective concern.


6. Sapta Sagaradaache Ello: Side A & Side B (Kannada)

IMAGE: Rakshit Shetty as Manu and Rukmini Vasanth as Priya in Sapta Sagaradaache Ello: Side A & Side B.

Clocking at nearly five hours, director Hemanth M Rao's two-part Sapta Sagaradaache Ello feels likes an epic romantic novel on the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo.

In Side A, Manu (Rakshit Shetty) and Priya (Rukmini Vasanth), a middle-class couple, plan to get married and have a house on a beach. But their dreams are shattered when Manu is forced to confess to a hit and run crime he has not committed.

The promise to get Manu out on bail is reneged and he ends up spending 10 years in prison. By the time he is released, Priya has married another man, and Manu's nemesis from the prison is haunting him.

The time frame of five hours gives Rao enough space to focus on the romance between Manu and Priya, their struggles and regrets.

Side B, the second part, tracks the older Manu, now free from prison, a bitter, disappointed, yet hardened, man, who sets out to take revenge from those who have wronged him, while at the same time trying to ensure security for Priya and her family.

If there is any calmness in his life, it comes from Surabhi (a charming Chaithra J Achar), a sex worker he becomes friendly with.

Powered by wonderful performances Sapta Sagaradaache Ello follows the unexpected road, making it very satisfying entertainer.

Side A is available on Amazon Prime.


5. 12th Fail (Hindi)

IMAGE: Vikrant Massey in 12th Fail.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra has made a career out of big budget, popular Bollywood films, sometimes layered with a dose of realism.

But his recent works have been surprisingly different in tone, two small films -- Shikara, a romantic story set in the world of the dislocation of Kashmiri Pandits, and now his recent work 12th Fail, where he explores the struggles of middle class and small-town Indian youths aspiring to crack the challenging USPC examinations.

The film is based on a best-seller by Ashok Pathak -- the real-life story of an IPS officer Manoj Kumar Sharma, who comes from a poor farming family in Chambal.

The inspiring story is aided by wonderful performances, especially by a very earnest and likeable Vikrant Massey.

There is so much warmth in Massey's Sharma, everyday Indian, a man charting his destiny with sheer determination and a lot of hard work.

We are rooting for him to succeed as the film follows what appears to be a hard to believe story.

As underdog stories go, 12th Fail follows the formula perfectly. So even when you know how the story will pan out, you can't help getting tears in your eyes.

12th Fail will stream on Disney + Hotstar from December 29.


4. Pokhar Ke Duno Paar (Hindi/Maithili)

IMAGE: Tanaya Khan Jha as Priyanka in Pokhar Ke Duno Paar.

A young couple Sumit (Abhinav Jha) and Priyanka (Tanaya Khan Jha) elope to Delhi. But as times get tough they return back to their hometown Darbhanga, where conditions are far worse because of pandemic.

Director Parth Saurabh's film, part of the new wave of cinema emerging from Darbhanga (including Achal Mishra's Gamak Ghar, Dhuin), explores the relationship between a young man and woman during one of the most difficult times India faced in recent years.

Even without the pandemic it appears that Sumit and Priyanka would not have been able to manage.

She is estranged from her family because they do not approve of her partner. Sumit seems to have no job prospect.

Holed up in a musty, dark, room in a boy's hostel, the couple drink with friends, bicker, argue, but they also love each other.

Saurabh does not inform us where life will take his protagonists. But he does a remarkable job of presenting a real, gritty perspective of their lives - the loss of idealism of young love, the struggles, disappointments and disillusionment.

Available on MUBI India.


3. Maagh (The Winter Within) (Hindi/Kashmiri)

IMAGE: Zoya Hussain as Nargis in Maagh (The Winter Within).

It won audience awards in Busan, Nantes and Tours, but Aamir Bashir's Maagh, second part of the Kashmir film series the director had planned, (the first part, Harud was released in 2010) has hardly been seen in India, barring at festivals in Trivandrum and Dharamsala.

Gorgeously shot by Shanker Raman (also co-writer of the film with Bashir), Maagh is the story of a half-widow Nargis (Zoya Hussain) who carries the weight of her tragic life on her shoulders.

She barely smiles through the film, maintaining a calm demeanour as she goes through the day working for an upper-class family in Srinagar, and making regular visits to the police -- sometimes even bribing them and human rights lawyers, trying to find the whereabouts of her husband Manzoor (Manzoor Ahmad Bhat).

When she is fired from her job for getting mixed up with the police, Nargis returns to her father's home in the village. And she starts to preoccupy her waking hours weaving a brightly colored shawl her husband has started working on before he joined the armed resistance.

Maagh has texture and pacing of Iranian cinema, with quiet moments and wide-angle shots that show the valley draped in snow.

It is a heart wrenching film. But it is Indian cinema at its best.


2. Veduthalai Part 1 (Tamil)

IMAGE: Soori as Constable Kumaresan in Veduthalai Part 1.

Set in the remote jungles of Tamil Nadu, Vetrimaaran's Veduthalai Part 1 opens with a stunning seven minute-long shot where the cameras glides around a train explosion site, bodies strewn around, hundreds of extras coming in and out of the frame and ending with a compartment collapsing.

The accident has been caused by the People's Army headed by the mysterious leader Perumal 'Vaathiyaar' (Vijay Sethupathi).

The organisation opposes mining rights being given to a corporation.

But the first part of Veduthalai (part two will be released in 2024) belongs to Soori who plays the earnest constable Kumaresan, assigned to drive a jeep and supply meals to policemen working at check posts.

Vetrimaaran does not shy from showing corruption in the police force and the brutality they inflict on the villagers as they fight the People's Army.

Because the film is in two parts, there is room to breathe and even a love story develops between Kumaresan and a local villager Tamilarasi (Bhavani Sre).

The shootout through the narrow lanes of a village with amazing camerawork and editing brings a thrilling ending to the film's first part.

I cannot wait for the second part to hit the screens.

Available on ZEE5.


1. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (Malayalam/Tamil)

IMAGE: Mammootty as James in Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam.

After making some of the edgiest films in the last decade (including Angamaly Diaries, Ee. Ma. Yau and Jallikattu) Lijo Jose Pellissery turns to a quieter story, although once again populated with a large ensemble cast.

And in Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (Like an Afternoon Dream) Pellissery adds elements of surrealism and magic realism with inspiration from Luis Buñuel (especially The Exterminating Angel), Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even Federico Fellini.

Mammootty plays James, a guide who is travelling by bus with a group of Malayalis tourists. Then a strange phenomenon occurs.

As all the passengers are napping in the bus, James gets off in the middle of nowhere and walks a distance until he reaches a village in Tamil Nadu.

Suddenly James is speaking fluent Tamil, identifies himself as Sundaram, walks into a home as if he is the head of the household.

In the background, scenes and songs play on the radio and television sets from old Tamil films. The lyrics of the songs often reflect what James/Sundaram is experiencing.

Beautiful camerawork by Theni Eswar captures the village, its quiet streets that get rattled by the arrival of James and the other bus passengers.

Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is a lovely, enigmatic, film, the best work of Pellissary, one of the finest young Indian film-makers.

Available on Netflix.


Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/