J Hurtado’s 16 Favorite Indian Films of 2017 (With a Few Bonus Choices)

More than any other film this year, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga set the tone for the tumultuous year in Indian cinema. After winning the prestigious Hivos Tiger award upon its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, the film went on to play over 50 festivals around the world, bringing home the hardware from many of those events. However, back home Sasidharan was facing controversy, death threats, legal challenges, certificate refusal, and innumerable other controversies simply because of the title.

Not only is Sexy Durga one of the most important films of the year in terms of raging against the machine, it is also one of the best. I reviewed it for that world premiere screening and here’s an excerpt:

[I]n Sexy Durga we begin to see some of the results of this culture in which those to perpetrate the violence feel free to inflict their will upon others with impunity. The film is an unrelenting and intense thriller, a frightening film made all the more affecting by its proximity to the everyday reality of millions of women around the world, only this time it isn’t only women who have reason to be afraid.

Sexy Durga is a chilling and bold accomplishment in the evolution of the Indian thriller. While Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 took audiences on a tour through the dark mind of a serial killer looking for his soulmate, Sasidharan’s film takes us down the roads we all travel, and a fiercely grim ride it is. This is not a film about Durga and Kabeer, it is a film about you and me and our fears realized onscreen. It is astonishing in its bluntness and the fact that it needs no embellishment to make its point, but above all, it’s scary as hell and that’s real.

From one of the year’s smallest films, to the undisputed biggest cinematic effort India has ever undertaken. Baahubali: The Conclusion was everything it promised the world it would be. Grand on a scale that India has never seen, and yet full of the kind of moments that draw the audience into the relationships and emotions that fuel the best blockbusters, Baahubali: The Conclusion is a masterpiece.

I saw the film three times at the cinema, and would go again in a heartbeat. Here’s a clip from my review:

In Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, it would be easy to say that audiences should go see it for the visuals – they are frequently insane – or the action – also, frequently completely bonkers – but, really, it’s the total package that Rajamouli has put together that makes this film just an invigorating experience. He’s a storyteller first, and he and his writers do an excellent job not only making you care for these characters, but moving the story along at a quick enough pace that three hours with them doesn’t seem like long enough.

A cross between Lord of the Rings, classic musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, Kung Fu Hustle, and a superhero film without the spandex, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is an easy recommendation to film fans looking to expend their horizons. It’s a bit daunting because it does begin in media res immediately following the complex actions of the first film, but astute viewers will put together the pieces soon enough. Having seen many of Rajamouli’s films, I know that I can count on seeing at least a dozen things on screen that I’ve never seen before when he is in the director’s chair, and after seeing hundreds of films every year for years on end, that’s an exciting thought.

Several of the films on my list came out of left field for me, and perhaps non moreso than Arun Prabhu’s Aruvi. I had gone to the cinema to see another film, but Aruvi was starting immediately afterwards and since the cinema was a bit of a drive from home, I decided to make my trip worthwhile and do a double feature. Boy, am I glad I did.

Aruvi is the story of the titular young woman, played with fierce intensity by Aditi Balan, who has had a hard life and is looking to find a way to take back some of her agency from a society that has turned against her. In order to make her plan works, she and her transgender friend arrange to appear on a popular talk show with three men who’ve wronged her in the past. When Aruvi drops a particularly shocking bombshell on the whole crew, things go pear-shaped and all the while the world watches.

The film is tragic, comic, dramatic, ebullient, and uplifting, and Prabhu and his star handle each of these disparate tones beautifully. Balan is surrounded by a largely no-name cast of supporting characters who each have their own stories to tell, but never at the expense of the core story, which is very strong. I’m not a huge fan of the schmaltzy coda toward the end of the film, but the preceding two hours are more than worth the journey.

Unfortunately, this is one of those films that will probably be a bit hard to find. Following a brief run at festivals in India earlier this year, Aruvi released to Indian cinemas around the world in the way that most mainstream films from the subcontinent do, which means no advertising, no mainstream penetration, and no attention from anyone outside of the diaspora community. However, trust me, if the film becomes available in a legal fashion, I’ll be the first to shout it from the mountaintops. This is a great one.

India’s official Academy Award selection committee often makes puzzling choices for submission to the world’s biggest awards show, but this year they picked a great one, even if the film didn’t make the short list.

Amit V Masurkar’s Newton is a fantastic political satire set in the Maoist infested jungles of Chhattisgarh. Starring the man of the year, Rajkummar Rao, as the title character – a determined election offical commanded to ensure free and fair elections for a locality with 72 voters to account for – Newton is powerful in spite of what looks like a fairly minimal production size. Further proof that size doesn’t matter when it comes to quality cinema.

I reviewed Newton for AFI Fest earlier this year, here’s an excerpt:

Newton is a small feature. A relatively small cast populates the film for the vast majority of the run time, the sets and locations feel real and lived in, and the focus of the story is laser sharp. However, Marsurkar has managed to write and direct the film in such a way that, even though the context is very specifically Indian, it easily reaches beyond its setting and could get the world talking. Even though it’s a dark comedy and a satire, the actions, words, and characters are not that far from the truth, and perhaps it is easier to relate to them because they are a little bit left of center.

Recently selected as India’s submission to the Academy Awards for 2017, Newton is poised to make a bigger splash than many of its predecessors in that game simply because of its ability to relate on a human level. Masurkar’s characters are very human. In their foibles, their obsessions, and their passions, the men and women of Newton are us. Perhaps at times a nobler us, but us all the same, and a reminder that it doesn’t take a hero to make a difference.

Almost certainly the least seen of the films on my list is Varun Chowdhary’s Avichi, and yet it is one of the most exciting.

This story of two men traversing a deserted landscape in search of a reason to keep living is one of the most interesting and bold features of the year. A dialogue-free post-apocalyptic road movie existential thriller, Avichi is unlike anything I’ve seen out of India and the kind of film that truly gets my juices flowing. I reviewed the film from its world premiere at the Kolkata International Film Festival:

Avichi is not a perfect film. It’s a little rough around the edges, for sure. It’s a bit to clean visually when it should probably feel a bit more lived in, but it is absolutely beautiful and poignant, and – most impressively – unafraid to be what it is. At a touch over ninety minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, but also understands that its audience will be selective. After all, this is essentially a silent film, a market which isn’t exactly burning up the box office.

What writer/director/editor Chowdhury has accomplished with Avichi cannot be understated in an increasingly competitive environment for Indian independents which finds them fighting for screen space all across the country. Not only does this film challenge the expectations of its homeland, it does so in such a way that I’m impressed that it got made at all. As much as it dismays me to say this, I have grave doubts about Avichi‘s commercial future, but none about the future of its creators. From the amazing cinematography, to the incredible score, to the powerful acting performances, right on down the line to its impressive art direction, Avichi will be a powerful calling card for all of its creative talent.

It is very rare that India produces a straight horror film these days. While horror films are starting to find favor among moviegoing audiences, particularly in Tamil Nadu, almost all of them couch the terror in comedy, which is fine, but does get a bit tiring after a while.

Enter: Aval

Debutante director Milind Rau’s Tamil language horror film is one of the first straight horror films out of Tamil Nadu in recent memory, and while it certainly borrows a lot from western fright films (unashamedly, I might add), it’s a solid movie that proves this kind of movie can be made. Thanks are due, in large part, to the producers at Etaki Entertainment, foremost among them actor Siddharth, who also stars in the film. Etaki has now spearheaded two fantastic outside-the-box features in Tamil Nadu, this one and last year’s Jil Jung Juk, and if this is the kind of thing we can expect from them, I’m all ears.

I reviewed the film upon its release last month:

Aval is as close to a straight horror film as India has produced in any language in a long time, and while it isn’t perfect, it’s a wonderfully effective piece that made me jump in my seat more than once. Borrowing liberally from established genre classics while putting a topical Indian twist on the core subject matter works well for Rau and producer/star Siddharth in this story of an ancient evil returning to complete a ritual left undone.

Siddharth’s last project as a producer, Jil Jung Juk, was one of my favorite Indian films of 2016 and he’s made a name for himself as a performer and producer willing and eager to push the envelope. With Aval, he’s used his starpower well and put his money and face behind an unusual project that once again proves that the Tamil film industry and filmgoing public is the most adventurous in India. Aval is a film that doesn’t look like a standard Kollywood thriller, yet still manages to satisfy audiences because of its ability to tell a familair story in a new way. Aval is one of my favorite Indian films of the year so far, and is defintely worth checking out.

Back in 2015, Malayalam language director Lijo Jose Pellissery made a completely bonkers candy-colored gangster explosion called Double Barrel. While the film tanked at the box office and the producers trid to bury it and make everyone forget it ever happened, it made my top ten list of that year.

This year Pellissery came back with Angamaly Diaries, a riduclously ambitious project that featured 70 plus unknown performers in a more grounded story of love, violence, and jealousy among the pork traders of the town of Angamaly in Kerala. It may not sound like much, but Pellissery is a master at choreographing violence on a grand scale, and with his trademarked pitch black sense of humor, Angamaly Diaries became not only one of the year’s best reviewed films putting Pellissery on the A-list of up and coming Indian filmmakers, it also made a ton of money.

I reviewed the film when it released to cinemas in the US, here’s an excerpt:

Angamaly Diaries is one of those films that feels incohesive as you are watching it. Too many fights, too many characters, too much chaos, not enough structure. It isn’t until you walk away from the cinema, filled with the flashing lights and blaring sounds of a Kerala in the throes of progress, that it all begins to come together. There is method in the madness, and Lijo Jose Pellissery has harnessed this beast of a story into one of the most exciting and thrilling films of the last few years. It’s a touch too long, and there are a few too many romances for a film like this, but minor concerns aside, this is definitely a winner. 

Fortune favors the bold, and they don’t come much bolder than Pellissery. Whether it’s painting a candy colored world of gods and gangsters in Double Barrel, or attempting to harness the disorder of underground pork vendors in a small town in Kerala, Pellissery is willing and excited to take chances. They don’t always work, and they often lead to slightly messy and unrefined final product, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t exciting to watch and perhaps even more exciting to think about. Angamaly Diaries is a gem, I can’t wait to see what Pellissery does next.

Another filmmaker making a comeback in 2017 was Miss Lovely director, Ashim Ahluwalia. While Miss Lovely didn’t suffer the same lamentable fate as Double Barrel, it’s been 5 years since Ahluwalia made a feature, and this time around he was going big. The result is this fractured narrative of real-life Mumbai gangster don, Arun Gawli. The project was spearheaded by producer/star Arjun Rampal, and represents some of his best acting work to date. Ahluwalia’s vision of the underworld of ’80s Bombay, fuelled by his own memories from childhood, make this a one of a kind film that deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

I didn’t have the opportunity to review the film, but that was partly because I’d hoped to find a place to program the film at a few festivals, but that wasn’t to be, and the resulting mess soured me a bit on writing about it. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Daddy is one of the year’s best and definitely a film for Screen Anarchy readers. Violent, visually stunning, and bold, Daddy is a definite winner.

Like many of India’s best films, Daddy was not a box office hit. It was in and out of cinemas before many people even knew it existed and then quickly shuttled off to VOD servies. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can see the film through the Amazon Prime Video channel Heera for a small subscription fee. I definitely recommend it!

The biggest commercial disaster of 2017 in Bollywood was, without a doubt, director Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos.

After making one of the decade’s finest films with Barfi! a few years back, Basu was taken to task for borrowing from classic hollywood comedies in a way that the Indian film press saw as a bit too liberal. As a result, for his next feature he decided to go big in a way that no one could question, and as a result, made one of the year’s most ambitious films. A nonstop musical adventure across continents starring one of India’s finest young actors, Ranbir Kapoor, Jagga Jassos is a remarkable film experiment that did not deserve its untimely fate.

I reviewed the film upon its release:

A cross between Indiana Jones, Tintin, and Sherlock Holmes; Jagga Jasoos will feel familiar in its structure and themes, but it’s the way that Basu puts together the pieces that makes it utterly unique. Basu relies heavily on the performance of Ranbir Kapoor again after his wonderful performance in Barfi! and Kapoor does not disappoint. Ranbir was once touted as Bollywood’s next great talent, but he quickly fell from grace after a few high profile critical and box office failures, Jagga Jasoos should have his name back on the lips of film fans, regardless of the film’s commercial performance because he nails Jagga in a way that I can’t see any other performer doing.

In my experience, it’s always better to have too many ideas than not enough, and if Jagga Jasoos suffers from any faults, it is the overabundance of ideas. The film’s plot is labyrinthine, and it seems like new plot threads and story elements are added almost as quickly as Jagga’s stammer turns to song, however, once I relinquished the urge to set everything in it’s place and keep track of all of the characters and decided just to let the film wash over me, I was overwhelmed by the joy of it all. I sure don’t understand it, and I know that a number of culturally specific gags when flying over my head, but I also know that the huge number of gags I caught made me grin like an idiot, and that’s good enough for me.

This one might piss some people off (including the director and producers), but I saw it in 2017, so goddamit, it’s going on my list.

With Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), director Anurag Kashyap goes from strength to strength. Following his festival hit Raman Raghav 2.0, Mukkabaaz is a more subdued love story set in the world of competitive local boxing starring Vineet Kumar Singh and introducing Zoya Hussain as star-crossed lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Underneath it all, Mukkabaaz is a scathing indictment of the current (and longtime) culture of outrage and communal division in India.

Over the last few years in particular, India has become increasingly divided along communal and religious lines, with a hardline Hindu central power structure infecting the nation’s secular promise. As a result, violence has erupted across the country. Lynchings and murders for such varied crimes as eating or transporting beef to “love jihad” interreligious marriages, the country is at a crossroads, and Mukkabaaz explores that division and the way it affects the country on a micro level.

The film releases in India (and abroad?) on January 12th, but it’s stayed with me since I first saw it and it deserves a little bump here. Mukkabaaz is easily one of the year’s best films, and proof that Kashyap is a fearsome filmmaker.

From India’s best known contemporary filmmaker to a man who started his career on that filmmaker’s first film, the next film on the list is Devashish Makhija’s Ajji.

Makhija first came to my attention with his debut feature Oonga, which appeared on my 2013 list, but he actually got into the business doing research for Anurag Kashyap’s amazing debut film Black Friday. In the years since Oonga, Makhija has made numerous amazing short films that have won dozens of awards around the world. He’s on record as saying that he enjoys the creative freedom allowed in the short film world, but I’ve been poking at him to make another feature since 2013, and my prayers were answered.

Ajji is the story of an elderly woman whose 9 year old granddaughter is raped by the son of a powerful politician. When the cops can’t/won’t help her get justice, she decides that revenge is the next best thing. The result is a terrifying journey through the world of top-down corruption in India in which star Sushama Deshpande shines as the titluar Granny.

James Marsh saw the film at its world premiere in Busan this fall, here’s a snip:

A far cry from the glossy song and dance routines of Bollywood’s mainstream output, ajji presents a viewpoint of contemporary India as seen from the gutter. These people live on the bare essentials, surrounded by garbage, sewage and are all too often treated as such by those with any semblance of authority or privilege. 

 

In a culture where rape is fiercely prevalent and victims are silenced or ridiculed rather than supported and protected, ajji is a scream for justice and respect, a battlecry for humanity and equality. That it also delivers as a bold and shocking revenge thriller only further elevates ajji’s position as one of the must-see Asian indies of the year.

The next film on the list is one of the biggest suprises for me, and unfortunately the only film on my list by a female director this year. Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, is not only one of the boldest debut features out of India in a while, it’s also absolutely gorgeous to look at.

The Hungry debuted at TIFF this fall where I didn’t hear much about it, but it is another film that bypassed a traditional cinema release and went straight for SVOD, where it is now available on Amazon Prime and it is incredible. Honestly, I wish I’d had the chance to see thsi in the cinema because it is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year.

The film stars one of India’s best actors in Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding) as the patriarch of a commercial empire on the verge of a powerful merger that will take his immeasruable wealth to the next level. However, treachery and betrayal are afoot and a complicated series of deceptions and violence turn his life and his empire on their heads. From the opulent opening sequences of an all-out Indian wedding to the shocking conclusion that left my jaw agape, The Hungry is an incredible film that has me hungry for more, more, more from director Bornila Chatterjee.

The filmmaker for this next film was actually the editor of the first film on my list, Sexy Durga (whose director, in turn, edited this one), Jiju Antony’s Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani? (The Forsaken).This film hasn’t been seen by many, only managing a handful of festivals in India so far, but it’s a remarkable work of narrative inventiveness and bold plotting that deserves recognition.

The film tells the of a murderer in reverse, beginning with the night of the man’s execution and working its way backward through his life. The film is as much an indictment of the curcumstances that led to this impoverished boy becoming a murderous man as it is of the acts he committed to earn his way to the gallows. Honestly, this and Avichi occupy a similar space in my mind, films that will be hard to come by and difficult to see, but if I don’t shout about them, who will? Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (Sexy Durga) and Jiju Antony are a part of a new wave of filmmakers coming out of Kerala whose goal is to make quality cinema that affects the viewer long after they’ve left the cinema. With Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani?, I think Antony can say that this mission is accomplished.

Proof that Tamil cinema is still one of the most exciting mainstream film industries in India comes in the form of directing team Pushkar & Gayatri’s film, Vikram Vedha.

Vikram Vedha, which stars Tamil cinema’s thinking man’s superstar Vijay Sethupathy opposite the hunky Madhavan, is the story of a cop and a crook at each other’s throats, but who have more in common they either one of them realize.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a go-for-broke police officer whose anything-for-justice attitude has turned his entire crew into a vengeance machine who’ll stop at nothing to mete out justice as they see it. Whe Vikram sets his sights on the bigshot Vedha (Sethupathy), things don’t go the way he planned and Vedha takes him on a journey through his own history and conscience in a way that is gripping to watch.

Pushkar & Gayatri are a husband and wife directing team whose previous films, like Va Quarter Cutting, have been critically successful, but Vikram Vedha is their first bona fide blockbuster, and proof that once in a while the audience gets it right. The film is an exceptional example of mainstream filmmaking done well, with innovative writing, strong performances from all involved, and a propulsive soundtrack that adds to the proceedings. Vikram Vedha deserves its place on this list and I truly hope that it finds a way to an audience outside of Tamil Nadu and India, because it’s the kind of film that breeds converts.

Watch it!

…and the award for emerging cinema of the year in India 2017 goes to Kerala’s Malayalam language industry.

No other region in India had as many surprise critical successes as the Malayalam industry did, with two films on this list (and I can guarantee at least one more next year), this relatively small industry has been making huge waves recently and it beginning to compete favorably with the bigger budget films from around the country.

Director Dileesh Pothan made news last year in India when his first film, Maheshinte Prathikaaram, won the National Award for Malayalam language films, and in 2017 he came back strong with his sophomore feature Thondimuthalam Driksakshiyum (The Exhibits and the Eyewitness). The film is the story of a desparate couple in need of money who’ve decided to pawn the wife’s wedding chain, but on their way to the city the chain is snatched by a crook on the bus and all hell breaks loose.

The film addresses poverty, the controversy of inter-caste marriage, corruption at even the lowest levels of the justice system, and it does it all with a sense of humor and excellent performances from everyone involved, especially the “It” actor in Kerala, Fahadh Faasil, as the chain snatcher. Thondimuthalam Driksakshiyum is an excellent film that will hopefully find an audience, even though it’s already concluded its international cinema release and I haven’t found it available outside of India just yet. Director Pothan is soon to be seen in an acting role in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s next film, Ee.Ma.Yau, which I can confirm is spectactular and will be on my radar for 2018.

Last, but certainly not least, on my official list is director Sandeep Reddy’s Telugu language romantic drama, Arjun Reddy. The subject of much controversy surrounding its unsavory lead character, played to perfection by up-and-comer Vijay Deverakonda, Arjun Reddy took audiences and critics by storm when it released earlier this year.

Arjun Reddy focuses on the titular character, a booze-soaked medical student-cum-superstar doctor whose life is turned upside down when he loses the love of his life to communal controversy and intercaste discrimination. Make no mistake, the character of Arjun Reddy is an asshole, he’s a drunk, prone to violence, and has very little impulse control which leads into poor decision making and bad situations over and over again, but the film and filmmaker do an amazing job of observing him without making him into a hero. Instead, Arjun Reddy is a man perhaps worthy of sympathy, or perhaps even pity, but never adulation. This fine line is something that is very rarely attempted, let alone successfully accomplished in Telugu cinema, which is far more prome to hyperbole to sell its product. However, with Arjun Reddy, Deverakonda adds to the list of tragic and flawed “heroes” in Indian cinema history, and his performance in one for the ages.

Arjun Reddy is now available on Amazon Prime’s Heera channel, and I strongly recommend giving it a shot.

As promised, I wanted to throw in a few bonus choices that didn’t quite make the cut, but are definitely worth mentioning in a year where much of the news out of India has been negative.

1. Anarkali of Aarah – This story of a dancing girl determined to take her life back and make something of herself features some of the year’s strongest performances from newcomer Swara Bhaskar as Anarkali and one of the year’s VIP’s, Pankaj Tripathi. (Available on Netflix)

2. Sreelancer – A freelance adman follows a lead on a gig very far from home and gets much more than he bargained for. Director Sandeep Mohan is one of the most innovative filmmakers in India, and his latest film is an unlikely adventure worth seeking out.

3. Tikli & Laxmi Bomb – A group of prostitutes make a plan to take back the night in this debut feature from writer/director Aditya Kripalani. A solid film that takes a different look at sex workers than India has seen to date.

4. LOEV – Director Sudhanshu Saria’s gay romance is one that probably shouldn’t have been made, given the Indian government’s negative opinion toward homosexuality and the fact that the act of love is illegal in the country, but thank God he did. It’s an emotionally potent film that explores a side of gay relationships that doesn’t often get talked about. The film is definitely one well worth watching and is now available on Netflix.

5. Machines – Rahul Jain’s documentary observes the inner workings of Gujarati textile mills and the men who make them run. Far from fetishizing the titular machines, this is a very human story in which everyone is surprisingly open to tell their stories. Now available on Amazon Prime Video at least in the US.

6. Trapped – Rajkummar Rao anchors this one-hander from director Vikramaditya Motwane in which a salary man becomes trapped in a 30th floor flat of an abandoned building. Kind of like an urban Castaway, Trapped displays Rao’s prodigious talents in a story that could only happen in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai.

7. Gurgaon – Blood makes the grass grow in cinematographer Shanker Raman’s directorial debut film. When patriarch Pankaj Tripathi makes a choice to help his business succeed the result comes back to bite him and his family on the ass when a family member who suffered finally decides to take his revenge.

8. Dhuruvangal Paathinaru – One of the year’s boldest debuts, 21 year old director Karthick Naren spins a complicated tale of revenge that surprised everyone and ended up as one of Tamil cinema’s biggest critical hits of 2017.

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