2019 was not exactly a happy year for Hindi films as far as their quality versus returns ratio is concerned. Several of the films in this list, despite their merits, failed to do well at the box office. Our audiences have lapped up several films with disturbing expository tendencies. The message, it seems, needs to be hammered to their brains in order to make the generated positive word-of-mouth, it looks like. Anyhow, the silver lining is that there are still filmmakers who dare make films which open up a vivid kaleidoscope of stories which puts the film industry on par with their regional and international counterparts.

Below are the year’s finest Hindi language films ranked in reverse order:

10. Bala

There is something about Hindi filmdom’s fixation for syrupy small-town-based cinema with a golden (sometimes idealist) message. The genre is a surefire sellout but not all makers possess the ability to structure them right. That said, the poster boy of this very school of cinema, Ayushmann Khurrana has somehow mastered the art of acing this dicey template. His latest film Bala directed by Amar Kaushik chooses to look a little beyond the societal repercussions faced by a balding young man. It talks about a fairness cream salesman in Kanpur called Bala (Khurrana) and his journey to accept himself the way he is.

The humour in Bala is also spot-on even though it is a little loud and direct. I do not remember a single funny scene that misses the beat despite the film not being an out-and-out comedy. Dheerendra Kumar Gautam’s outburst, for example, is so wonderfully staged that it complete catches you unawares. Even the actor not-so-quietly reminds the likes of Kartik Aaryan on how to crack a monologue in style. The minuscule scene where Bala and his friends do a gig on Amitabh Bachchan’s dialogues is yet another terrific moment. Additionally, let’s just be thankful that Kaushik’s integration of dance routine is a lot more spontaneous than the way it was in his debut film. The pacing feels more in tune to the story even though the backdrop feels far less atmospheric. The cinematography (Anuj Rakesh Dhawan), functioning more on realistic tangents, is in tandem with the frames chosen by the editor (Hemanti Sarkar). The recurring montages where Bala tries on several remedies are neatly shot and cut even though the technique is age-old.

9. Photograph

A Ritesh Batra film is always worth the wait. You expect sensitivity, suspense and a fleeting air of mystery. His latest film Photograph makes no room to disappoint. Perhaps a wee bit underwhelming – which has a lot to do with our personal expectations from the maker – the film, true to its name is utterly vivid and photographic in nature. The characters do not speak their lungs out to make a point but their stories told through sub-stories and expressions are deeply intriguing.

Batra’s characters designs are finite while also giving us enough room for thoughts with respect to their psyches. Be it with Rafi’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) interaction with his grandmother or Miloni’s (Sanya Malhotra) with her maid, there is a lot that each relationship in the film brings to the table. The film scores extra brownie points as it closes in a telling, Ritesh Batra-esque fashion which is rewarding in more ways that one.

8. Chhichhore

Running for close to 150 minutes, Chhichhore’s masterstroke is in the way it has been edited (Charu Shree Roy). For a story which has two dissimilar tracks running in parallel, the film’s screenplay (Nitesh Tiwari, Nikhil Mehrotra, Piyush Gupta) binds them together with connections that gleam with great attention to detail. Amplified further by Roy’s fine choice of frames, Chhichhore seldom makes the present-day portions less significant amid all the commotion that the yesteryear one evokes. Secondly, the camera (Amalendu Chaudhary) composes both eras to optimum levels without being overly indulgent. The colours in the present-day portions are on the duller side whereas the campus days, though youthful, aren’t excessively vibrant. The textures, the mood and the character sketches feel organic and they co-exist in a setup that isn’t campy but lived-in.

Another area where Nitesh Tiwari interestingly scores is in his decision to keep the nostalgia bits to organic levels. We are, for sure, reminded of the early ‘90s hullabaloo. From making the best of life in a college hostel, godawful mess food, Gold Spot, high-waisted jeans, girls referred to as Halley’s Comet in engineering campuses – the film has it all. However, the film’s decision to not piggyback on pop-culture remnants is applaud-worthy. Chhichhore, for that matter, is more of a believable Student of the Year. No character is seen studying on this campus. We are not told about the characters and their grades. Yet with sports becoming one of its anchoring points, the film effectively knits together friendships, a relationship and a range of myriad of characters to its simple framework. That way, except parenting to an extent, Chhichhore does not delve deep into people issues. On second thoughts, there are barely any intricate problems for the characters to deal with. The battles are broad-stroked with the solutions being simple and straight out of self-help-books. The fundas may not always work but yet I didn’t quite mind the film as a well-intentioned, breezy, popcorn entertainer on a rainy Friday in Mumbai.

7. Judgementall Hai Kya

Judgementall Hai Kya which had recently replaced the word ‘mental’ in its title, owing to objections from mental health professionals, tries to justify the same with reasonable success. Still, the most amusing aspect about the film is in the fact that it pays less heed on how it is going to be perceived by the Bollywood audience which is used to being spoon-fed over picking bits and clues from its heavily knotted plot. In various ways, it reminds us of 2012’s gutsy Aiyyaa as well as 2007’s No Smoking. Like these films, Judgementall Hai Kya jumbles genres and conjures up a piece that is ceaselessly original while milking the skills of its actors and technicians to the optimum. Even though there are areas in the screenplay that demanded finer textures, it is indeed the Kanika Dhillon’s writing that renders the film what it is. It leaves a bunch of clues for us to be guessed and rightfully so. Just that with all the build-ups that the film packs in, it is a truly unsettling to see a climax that is so utterly unconvincing. The victory barely feels organic and the brief monologue that follows makes us roll our eyes, especially with the medical conditions of multiple characters that the film subliminally acknowledges. One wonders whether all of it germinated from the liability of becoming a more ‘commercially’ viable product. Or else Judgementall Hai Kya could have become a gold-standard benchmark for Indian cinema as a whole. That said, the film is a convention-bending effort still and Prakash Kovelamudi’s edgy storytelling and Kangana Ranaut’s quirky central act are bound to be discussed, years down the line.

6. Gully Boy

Gully Boy, for starters, is highly revelatory despite its customary underdog victory mould. However, to my surprise, the film effectively documents its lead character and his abused, unsettling existence in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum district to becoming one of the biggest names in India’s rap scene. Narrated sans jittery non-linear patterns, these portions were also essential in accustoming a regular viewer to the film’s crux which involves music as a channel of emotions. Also because rap in itself is no well-identified school of music that, probably, an average Indian would have grown up admiring as an art form. Therefore, I could only chuckle when the lead character’s aunt advises him, “If you want to do music only, then why not ‘ghazal’?

Gully Boy is a music-based film and as many would fear, rap may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The writers (Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti) might as well belong to Murad’s mistress’s cluster – those who party in uptown pubs and would have known cream artists from the world over. Through their acutely balanced screenplay (designed in consultation with real gully rappers) in place, the emotions seldom feel put-on as they touch the issues of those in Mumbai’s gritty underbellies. Zoya and Reema also pay rapt attention to individual character arcs. For instance, it upsets us gravely when the grandmother (Jyoti Subhash) approves of the misogyny that takes place around her. Still, the film gives us a moment to empathize with her too – her loss, her relief upon finding her dear ones back. In a carefully crafted end credit chapter, Gully Boy delivers closures – one by one. It might feel excessively in the fairy tale zone to many. To me, personally, there could not have been a better way to end the film with. And to all those who dig message-driven cinema, Gully Boy hits you right in the gut with lines as sly as, “Tera gaana tu nahi gaa sakta to main kaiko gaun?

5. The Sky Is Pink

A story is a story. It can be a sad one, an invigorating one or one that is exhilarating to the hilt. For starters, Shonali Ghosh’s film The Sky Is Pink has open conversations about the most bitter incidence in any person’s life – death. It openly, unapologetically talks about death, sometimes directly and otherwise through subtexts. The film deals with a well-to-do family’s struggle to sustain their lives around a deadly disease that is plaguing the youngest child Ayesha (Zaira Wasim).

First of all, it needs a great deal of empathy to effectively translate a story like The Sky Is Pink from paper to the celluloid. The film – even though stems from an area of extreme sorrow – gives the very theme a positive twist. The optimism in itself is not excessively sugar-coated with preachy lessons and melodrama which makes the interpersonal relationship appear a lot more complex and real.

While the performances are supremely balanced, the sole hiccup is with respect to the way they age. For sure, we know that Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar are known for their glam quotient but I would have preferred them being a little more real in the way they looked. This minor complaint aside, The Sky Is Pink is one of the most sensitive films to be released in 2019 and it is impossible to not sob uncontrollably in certain emotional moments and also smile our hearts out in instances that give us hope.

4. Article 15

In a plot that is centred on a twin Dalit murder and one missing case in rural Uttar Pradesh, Article 15 is about the Indian society’s intrinsically trickled-in caste dynamics, ways of power politics as well as the central protagonist’s coming-of-age. Sinha’s film packs a lot on its platter. For a writer who seldom practices ways of subtle storytelling, his screenplay is crowd-pleasing by design and is, hence, exceedingly tell-tale. Sinha knows that this is a story that ought to reach to a larger segment of cine-goers and he doesn’t mince words, literally. Every detail, every line that he wants us to know has been uttered and established in a direct and crystal clear fashion. At times, it comes across as if he is being way too unadventurous with the explosive material he has in place but with the impact that Article 15 generates, there’s little room for grievances.

The director’s storytelling style in the film is clearly a notch above his 2018 film Mulk. His writing seems to less on theatrics and, this time around, the extremes that the film touches are fewer. The film’s universe appears real to a very large extent and so are its inhabitants. Article 15’s twists do not make us wonder with disbelief but rather constructs a thought and the need for a change in the nation’s existing narrative.s While it is not a mandate for fiction features to become a medium for social awakening, films like Article 15 are completely worth the effort provided that they touch their core theme with remarkable honesty while also packing in a good load of commercial film entertainment.

3. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

It is a real deal when a filmmaker turns out a bigger pop culture enthusiast than all his audience members put together. Or else nothing justifies the way Vasan Bala puts together the crackling ode to modern cinema that his latest directorial venture Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is. What hits you like a truck amid watching the film is nostalgia. The right kind of nostalgia, that is.

One that celebrates its irreverent spoofy tint to great effects, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota takes it whacky title to literal use as the leading man Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, in an incredible debut) one who is insensitive to physical pain. Often seen clad in corduroy trousers, Surya derives his energy from nothing but water. Vasan Bala throws in a spectacular dose of Indian, American and Chinese martial arts cinema in his story set in the VHS era. He predictably skips the 2000s – probably because the era lacked in an intrinsic identity which didn’t trickle from the ‘90s or filter onto the 2010s. Bala’s characters are real-life archetypes of a classic commercial potboiler. Besides that, they also breed actual aspirations which a character in one such film would have inculcated.

The cinematography (Jay I. Patel) is stylish and a true tribute to every Bollywood and Hollywood potboilers we have seen thus far. Several of the aerial, top and wide-angle shots are fleeting reminders of certain bona fide superhero films from the pre-2000s era. The background score sprinkled with vintage numbers is worth all the whistles and also if you love action – complete with all its slow-motion devices and stock sounds – Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hoga will be a marvellous treat. Same goes for its humour which is pleasantly direct and largely dialogue-driven. Now, who doesn’t love a film that celebrates cinema as it confidently spoofs itself with remarkable flair and no regrets whatsoever! Take a bow, Vasan Bala.

2. Hamid

I absolutely dig films that sell feelings. Those which carry their hearts on their sleeves. That said, director Aijaz Khan’s Hamid is not as simplistic as one would assume it to be. It is in the way that he creates a simple, poignant arc of goodness around the tense political situation in Kashmir that the film wins us over. The film’s fable-like quality, reminiscent of 2016’s Dhanak, is one of its biggest assets considering the sensitivity of its premise. Actors Rasika Dugal, Talha Arshad Reshi and Vikas Kumar are given characters of such intensity that the writers reflect perspectives of a wide spectrum of Indian society through their profound viewpoints. The performances, the picturesque cinematography and the serene original score coupled with equally astute sound design contribute to making Hamid one of the best feature films of the year.

The sole question I had in mind was whether a larger scale and the presence of A-listers in the cast would have added the much-needed commercial wattage to this highly underrated film. For once, the film makes me wish how our cinema-loving audiences have had different criteria when it comes to deciding which films to seek entertainment in.

1. Sonchiriya

Indian cinema is devoid of equivalents to what they call westerns in Hollywood. Bandits are a thing of past and our filmmakers do not feel the need to capture their fascinating stories which contain great political and social relevance. One such rare feature film set in the Chambal ravines, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya tells us that there are ways to look at dacoits. We have seen them decorating roles of great valour in poems. We have also heard of them as brutal assassins who pose severe threats to society, especially affecting the wealthy. This way, there’s a sky’s difference between the two definitions – baaghi (rebels) and daaku (dacoit).

Set in the emergency period, Sonchiriya does not glamourize the bandits. It also avoids assigning halos to the officers who are on the prowl. Rather it offers perspectives and answers on several what’s and why’s – seen through the lens of caste supremacy, illiteracy, deep-rooted patriarchy, superstitions and enormous socio-economic gaps – each of which contributes in making the occupants of the barren heartlands who they are.

As the film closes, Chaubey makes it easy for us to empathize with every character in Sonchiriya for a fact that their worlds are not essentially black or white. With the final jolt just before the end credits, the film fiercely reasserts its philosophy, “The snake preys on the mice. And the snake is preyed upon by the vulture. That is how God has set the law of nature,” Indeed, Sonchiriya contains masterful screenwriting and is helmed by a filmmaker who deserves endless plaudits in an industry where mediocrity reigns supreme.

Special Mentions: War, Mardaani 2

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