10. Go, Goa, Goe – 2013
Raj and Krishna DK’s zombie satire, Go Goa Gone, is a Film that deserves a zombie universe of its own (if Rohit Shetty’s horror films can have one then why not this?). Irreverent and trippy, with a hilariously on-point performance by Saif Ali Khan, the screwball-comedy slash slasher-film-satire got both the humour and the aesthetic right.
“Are you really Russian?” Anand Tiwari’s Bunny asks a blonde-haired Saif. After taking a momentary pause, he replies, “Delhi se hoon, Bh***od.” Classic. Nearly all the performances (including Kunal Khemu’s) were sharp but the winner of the movie was – the writers. There’s genuine spunk and wit in Raj and DK’s writing, the kind that’d make Edgar Wright give a smirk of approval.
9. Shaitaan – 2011
A hyper-stylisted thriller that functioned as a cautionary tale on the excesses of youth, Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitaan flaunted a decidedly noir aesthetic and complemented it with a dark wit that’d have made Kubrick proud.
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Assembling a motley bunch of debacuhced youngsters who are condemned to a night made of nightmares, Shaitaan introduced the industry to the talents of Neil Bhoopalam, Gulshan Devaiya, Shiv Pandit and Kirti Kulhari. Released in 2011, Shaitaan marked the beginning of dark Bollywood – not that dark films weren’t made earlier – but Nambiar’s film exposed the precariousness of the privileged Indian youth at a time when softball campus capers were still the norm and Ishq Wala Love was an accepted form of poetry.
Its wild, hallucinogenic visuals introduced a new form of storytelling with Prashant Pillai’s trippy soundtrack changing the score of house parties forever.
8. A Death in the Gunj – 2016
Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut took us to the quaint summer home of the Baskshi’s in McCluskiegunj, Jharkhand. The apparent construct of a well-to-do family soon begins to untwine as complex interpersonal family dynamics come into the fore. Caught in the centre is Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a recluse who’s often at the receiving end of jokes inflicted on him by his overbearing cousin Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Vikram (Ranveer Shorey).
Sen Sharma’s command over the mood and atmospherics is commendable. She manages to paint a portrait of a family vacation by way of a horror movie: even when nothing appears to be happening, there’s always a sense of impending doom. Sagar Desai’s haunting score and Sirsha Ray’s melancolic frames capture the moral decay in an ostensibly happy family where toxic masculinity and gendered roles may not be very apparent but exist nonetheless. It’s a terrific debut by a terrific actor, unafraid to go into spaces that Indian families often pretend don’t exist.
7. Lootera – 2013
Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera is a fever dream. It’s a doomsday romance directed with such scale, finesse and ambition, it almost feels that Varun (Ranveer Singh) and Paki’s (Sonakshi Sinha) love story has folklore origins. Which isn’t entirely inaccurate because the story is an adaptation of O Henry’s short story The Last Leaf, written almost a century ago.
After years, Hindi cinema gave us a love story worth cherishing, one where the silences speak more than the dialogue and leaves carry more weight than the branches they’re on. Watching the film felt like wrapping yourself with a thick blanket during a Delhi winter, a warm and giddy, sitting-by-the-fireplace-while-it-snows-outside experience.
It deviated from every conventional Bollywood trope and yet carries the aura of being a classic, the kind Guru Dutt would perhaps approve of. It features a remarkably understated Ranveer Singh and a beautifully vulnerable Sonakshi Sinha, a sweeping score by Amit Trivedi and haunting images worth wallpapering.
It’s a story that makes you weep silently, sad and defeated in the knowledge that the love stories we root for the most are the ones destined to fail.
6. Delhi Belly – 2011
Abhinay Deo and Akshat Verma’s Delhi Belly really went out with it. A dark comedy unlike any mainstream Hindi cinema had seen, Delhi Belly was a riot, a no-holds-barred adult fest that treated sexual humour with the dignified vulgarity it deserved. From a peppy soundtrack (Ram Sampath) and zingy one-liners, Delhi Belly sped through the vast and serpentine lanes of the Indian capital, introducing us to delightful characters and their even more delightful escapades.
With stellar performances by Imran Khan, Vir Das, Shehnaz Treasury and most importantly, Vijay Raaz – oh my god Vijay Raaz – Delhi Belly’s success meant that Indian comedy had finally cum of age. A success like it was never repeated again, further cementing its unique position in recent film history.
And orange juices were never the same again.
5. Fan – 2016
In Fan, a superstar is confronted with the worst perils of his own myth: an obsessed fan. A pretty simplistic, King of Comedy-inspired premise, sure. But what makes Maneesh Sharma’s drama subversive and inventive is that both star and fan are played by Shah Rukh Khan. There’s a sneaky, meta joke here: is the film arguing that perhaps Shah Rukh Khan is his own biggest fan? Peppered with high-octane chase sequences and genuine wit – Pehle fan star ke peeche bhaagta tha … ab star fan ke peeche bhaagega – Fan is an unsettling exploration of the dark side of fame and obsession, themes the leading man is all-too familiar with.
It’s a boldly philosophical adventure that, while condemning the horrors of stalking and unrequited affection, invites the viewer to ruminate about how fictional stars are, more often than not, a disappointment in reality and that cinematic idols are best relegated to fictional universes. The film didn’t quite work commercially but remains Khan’s most daring performance: one where he successfully segregates the fan and the star and yet, in some standout scenes, manages to confuse us into guessing who’s who.
4. Bombay Velvet – 2015
Revisiting Anurag Kashyap’s bittersweet love letter to Bombay of yore is like opening an old wound: it still pains. And yet, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer ambitiousness of Bombay Velvet, which was primarily a love story: between a street fighter and a jazz singer, between a sleepless loner and a city of dreams, between a filmmaker and an art form, between Kashyap and a jazz pianist he spent one memorable New York summer with, who the film is dedicated to.
With Bombay Velvet, Kashyap was sanctioned more money than he knew how to spend, he appointed two top stars and an entire city was erected in a village in Sri Lanka – you had to see it to believe it – under whose weight an American studio’s Indian arm would nearly crumble. Not unlike its eventual fate, there remains an air of tragedy about Bombay Velvet: it’s fantasy noir, exceptionally well-performed and has a climax that alone is worth sitting through the preceding chaos.
3. Ship of Theseus – 2013
Anand Gandhi erupted on the indie scene with this gutsy mindbender, a film that investigated individual belief systems and how they crumble under deeper intellectual scrutiny and, at times, when faced with mortal peril.
Through three intersecting storylines, a monk resistant to the idea of medicine (he’s been fighting against Big Pharma that experiments on animals), a blind photographer who feels she’s lost her intuitive sense of aesthetic after getting a cornea implant, a stock broker gets involved in an organ-harvesting racket, Ship of Theseus posed troubling questions of existentialism while offering no easy answers.
It’s a film that shifted the visual grammar of filmmaking in India, a kind of a prestige indie project that broke away from the echo chambers of a film festival and became part of mainstream discourse. Visually resplendent (Pankaj Kumar), Ship of Theseus, despite its didacticism, made potent points that provoked debate around independent choices and our wider responsibilities. It’s minimal aesthetic was a sharp contrast to the traditional Bollywood colour palette, making it stand apart as one of the bravest films of the decade.
2. Haider – 2014
At a time where militant nationalism has turned into a genre unto itself, it’s worth remembering Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider and celebrate the fact that it even got released. A reimagination of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bhardwaj chose to recontextualise the classic in military-occupied Kashmir and anchored his narrative through the perspective of a Kashmiri youth.
Other than a few docus, mainstream films around the troubled valley often uncritically reinforced the State’s doctrine. Haider subverted the state-sanctioned narrative, forcing viewers to confront the horrors inflicted by the Indian army on the locals.
Depicting scenes of torture, the disillusionment of the Kashmiri youth with India, and even depicting a song around the mass graves, Haider is perhaps the most important film of the past decade, a film that chronicles the difficult political reality with the rawness and authenticity that it deserves.
Today, Bhardwaj, who’s vocally criticised BJP for its majoritarian politics, would’ve been branded a Pak-loving anti-national-urban-naxal-commi for making a film like Haider.
1. Jagga Jasoos – 2017
Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos – with a career-best-non-plagiarised album by Pritam – injected Bollywood’s tired conventions with a refreshing new language, one excavated and improvised from the forgotten cemeteries of old Hollywood musicals. Basu audaciously played with form and theme and presented a Bollywood spectacle unlike anything Hindi cinema had seen before.
It was a project marred with delays and negative press and word on the street suggested that Basu was on edits weeks before the film’s release day but when the film dropped, it was received by many cinephiles with the wide-eyed wonder reserved for theme parks and underwater sojourns. Featuring Ranbir Kapoor as a stammering boy on the search for his missing father, Jagga Jasoos turned the quest into a delectable ride, the kind that made adults yearn for the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood.
Shot by Ravi Varman, who referenced European artists such as Rembrandt and van Gogh to compose the film’s evocative frames, Jagga Jasoos is pure cinematic poetry, a dazzling, blindingly gorgeous love letter to the art of film, one that isn’t afraid to tests the limits and the whims of cinema as it traverses and trains its romantic lens, from Bengal and Manipur to South Africa and Thailand.
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