Rewind 2021: Not perfect, but the most impressive Bollywood films of the year

From celebrating sports icons to paying tribute to unsung heroes in death, rescue ops to unconventional romance, Bollywood has seen a variety of films this year.

By Mayur Lookhar

At the start of 2021, not many would have been confident of seeing marquee films. The Covid-19 pandemic worsened during summer and there was genuine fear around the fate of the film industry. Left with no option, most films opted for Over-The-top release. The digital platforms became the major source of entertainment.  Fortunately, the pandemic eased a bit, especially with a sizable chunk of the population getting vaccinated. Theatres opened and were greeted with few intriguing films.

The pandemic aside, it’s fair to say that 2021 wasn’t the best year for Bollywood.  How do you come up with a list where the word best doesn’t fit onto most films? There was no perfect film, but Bollywood seldom produces one.  Each film in this list had its strengths. Each had its flaws.  What can be assured is that none make it to our list on account of box-office, OTT views.  Despite its breathtaking cinematography, a film like 99 Songs didn’t make the cut.  We picked the ones that stayed true to its story.

Without further ado, we bring you not the perfect, but the most impressive films in Bollywood this year.

10 Saina – Amol Gupte

Much like its protagonist’s career, Saina had to cross few hurdles before it hit the screens.  The biographical film on India’s ace shuttler Saina Nehwal was announced few years ago with Shraddha Kapoor in the lead.  The film was shot partly before Shraddha Kapoor opted out citing commitments for Street Dancer 3D [2020], so claimed director Amol Gupte.  With all due respect to Kapoor, but there always was going to  be a question mark over her playing Nehwal.  It appeared that the film was shelved but then stepped in Parineeti Chopra, an actor still searching for a meaningful role since Ishaqzaade [2012].  We were still not convinced by her show in and as Saina. The hero of the film was the writer, director Gupte who braved to base his story around the coach v/s player conflict.  That was a huge surprise from Bollywood that tends to produce hagiography in the name of biographies. Credit to Saina Nehwal who felt comfortable telling her side of the story to this conflict without villainizing the great Pullela Gopichand.  A bit over dramatized, far from being a smash hit but Saina sent the right sporting message of inspiring the youth.

9 Chhorii – Vishal Furia, Vishal Kapoor

Those who watched the original Marathi film, still rate it better than the Hindi remake Chhorii.  Even if we watched the original, it is unlikely to change our perspective on Chhorii.   The two Vishals [Kapoor, Furia] combined to give us a fine social horror. Chhorii stands out for its gripping screenplay, able cast and technical efficiency. While Nushrratt Bharuccha got to play the most pivotal role of her young career . It is arguably the most respectful Hindi film in the social horror genre.

8 BellBottom – Aseem Arora, Ranjit M Tewari

It was the first big ticket release when cinema halls reopened across certain states. Critics gave it mixed reviews, and the limited screens would never give us a fair account of its performance.  Director Ranjit M Tewari’s BellBottom was simply about two halves. The first half average, while the second was a thrilling affair. Based on true events, BellBottom is more an espionage thriller than an action film. Although information out in public domain contradicts the events in the film, but writer Aseem Arora’s screenplay is both entertaining and believable.  A rare Akshay Kumar film where he impressed more with his brain than brawn.

7 Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui – Abhishek Kapoor, Supratik Sen, Tushar Paranjape

Based on a story by unheralded author Simran Sahni, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is arguably the most unique romantic drama in Bollywood.  Director Abhishek Kapoor and his co-writers Supratik Sen, Tushar Paranjape braved to touch upon gender bias through this unconventional romantic story.. Ayushmann Khurrana loves picking on taboo subjects, and this is perhaps his most bold choice.  The film condemns gender bias and body shaming.

Although a banal second half spoils the overall experience, but Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui gains respect for its brave tale, refreshing music and a career saving performance by Vaani Kapoor.

6 Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar – Dibakar Banerjee, Varun Grover

Penned by director Dibakar Banerjee and Varun Grover, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar left us first puzzled with its title. No Arjun Kapoor is not Sandeep. Nor Parineeti was Pinky.  It turned out to be the other way round. And neither was this a romantic road trip that we all perceived it to be.  And that is the beauty of this dark comedy that tests the moral compass of the haves and the have-nots. It busts perception about good and evil, explores human greed, examines traditional family bonds forcing you to question the world that it is. Brilliantly written, well shot, and backed by a rare impressive show by its leads – Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar has our respect.

5 Skater Girl – Manjari Makijany

 Streamed on Netflix, we were a bit surprised that original language was listed as English.  Set in rural Rajasthan, much of the language spoken here is Hindi. So why call it an English film.  Skater Girl turned out to be a hidden gem. Reportedly inspired by a true story, siblings Manjari and Vinati Makijany doled out a beautiful inspiring, feminist social drama in Skater Girl. A poor lowborn girl Prerna [Rachel Sanchita Gupta] finds a sense of liberty when she is rolling on her skateboard, gifted by British citizen Jessica [Amrit Maghera]. One look at its leads will attract you to this rooted story.  It dares you to dream but more importantly, the film subtly takes on the usual social ills – caste, gender discrimination, child marriage.  The sincerity of its story and its leading characters warms your heart and soul.

4 Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi – Seema Pahwa

The year began with a gem of a film in director Seema Pahwa’s Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. It captured the emotion, drama, humour around a death in a traditional Indian family. It strikes resonance with people of all classes. Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi examined human relationships through course of time, and its changing phases in a materialistic world.  The emotionally gripping story moved us, perhaps embarrassed some, and left most teary eyed.  A fine screenplay that was elevated by its talented cast that included the likes of Supriya Pathak, Naseeruddin Shah, Sarika Singh, Manoj Pahwa, Konkana Sen among others.

TOP 3

Now this is where it gets really difficult. Here are three films that has perhaps received maximum critical acclaim but none cheered by the masses. Each film had its few flaws but the magnitude of the event /conflict shook the ground.  After much deliberations, we placed them in this order. It is very likely that our choice would differ from many. Perhaps some may not even include them in their list. But here is our top three Hindi films of the year.

3 Sardar Udham – Shoojit Sircar, Shubhendu Bhattacharya

An unsung hero in history and even in cinema. There were couple of films earlier, but none could do justice to the unsung revolutionary Sardar Udham Singh.  At 162 minutes in duration, the film felt even longer after a slow burn hour and half. The film only comes alive in the last 40-45 minutes that too in the wake of death and destruction. The tragic scenes cut through you skin and bone, shaking your conscience, leaving you teary eyed and all numb at the end. But one-man Sardar Udham [Vicky Kaushal] stood through the destruction trying to find survivors. The bone chilling dramatized recreation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 is a reminder of British barbarism, the sacrifices our ancestors made for our freedom.  It leads to introspection whether we no longer value these sacrifices.  The tragic scenes here may be hard to watch for many, but director Shoojit Sircar, writer Shubhendu Bhattacharya rightly chose to show the true magnitude of the devastation.  Vicky Kaushal and Shaun Scott’s stellar show, Avik Mukhopadhyay’s stunning cinematography, film’s rich production design makes it hard to take your eyes off Sardar Udham. A fitting tribute to an unsung revolutionary.

2 Sherni – Aastha Tiku,  Amit Masurkar

National Award-winning director Amit Masurkar returned to the jungle, but this time to spread the Save the Tiger mission.  Possibly inspired by the tale of the man eater tigress Avni, Masurkar and his writer Aastha Tiku exposed all that monkey business around the man v/s wild conflict.  There were two tigresses in the film – one the animal, the other Vidya Vincent [Vidya Balan]. Both equally strong yet both equally weak to take on mankind.  A well told story with an impressive cast, led by Balan.  Masurkar’s film may be thin on conventional drama but they shine for their simplicity, realism. It is tough to find takers for such content among masses, but Masurkar’s film earns the respect of humble beings. A pertinent story, backed by neat screenplay, able cast and technically sound, Sherni was long going to be our pick for the best film of 2021 until…..

1 83 – Kabir Khan

Well, how can a film that received such widespread critical acclaim not be welcome much by the audience? For its big budget, the Ranveer Singh-starrer has been struggling to stay afloat at the box office.  Well, it’s not the first time that a critically acclaimed film hasn’t done much business. Poor films are passed off as mindless entertainers and some rake in millions, but not earn respect. That’s the nature of the beast called Bollywood.  There is no fixed formula for success.

Leave aside the budget, the box-office, but for this cricket loving writer 83 ticked most boxes. Based on Indian cricket team’s maiden limited over international World Cup triumph of 1983, director Kabir Khan and his writers Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Vasan Bala, and Sumit Arora succeeded in recreating a dramatized account of the historic triumph. Lauded for its fine detailing, technical expertise, we felt 83 had the adequate drama to draw whistles from the crowd.  Ranveer Singh was brilliant as then captain Kapil Dev, and while not many may have face value, but we felt the supporting cast was apt for their respective roles.  Yes, maybe Kabir Khan got a bit carried away in trying to win few brownies points across neighboring state but even through a conflict, Kabir Khan’s films are all about bringing people together.  83 is a celebration of the human spirit, Indian cultural diversity, a classic underdog story for the ages.  Be it as a cricket connoisseur or a simpleton, 83 kept us engaged all the way till that historic glorious moment.   

For the record, Lagaan [2001] didn’t set the box office on fire, but didn’t it make us proud by being nominated for the Oscars? Well, that might be a bridge too far for 83, but don’t be surprised if film bags most popular desi awards. And it tops our list.

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