Monday, January 4, 2016

THE annavetticadgoes2themovies AWARDS: BEST INDIAN FILMS OF 2015

Before the film awards calendar takes off in our country, come lists by film critics of their choice of Best Films from the year gone by. This is mine. Keep in mind that this is a compilation of best Indian films released in 2015 from among those I watched; it covers fiction features in all languages, not documentaries.

Feel free to disagree – civilly, of course. After all, IMHO – as we say in this age of acronyms – the whole point of watching films is the fun of arguing over them with friends afterwards.

Here you go then: my list of Best Indian Films 2015.



Ottaal  (The Trap) / Malayalam 

If Alfonso Cuaron had decided to set Gravity in Kerala’s backwaters, Ottaal is what it might have been.

Veteran director Jayaraj’s film revolves around a bright-eyed little boy called Kuttapaayi, his relationship with his grandfather who is a duck keeper, and their bond with nature. It is the sort of film that can overwhelm you with its awareness of the immensity of Creation, a reminder of the little dots that we are – tiny yet significant – when seen in the context of the expanse of the universe. It is about innocence lost and exploited, a child cruelly plucked out of his placid surroundings to be chucked into the country’s labour force, as an allegory for the havoc humans wreak on the natural scheme of things.

Kuttanad is so scenic that an amateur could point a cellphone camera in any direction and capture loveliness, but cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan takes this handy beauty to another level altogether through his lens, delivering poetry in motion and stillness on screen. The unspoilt, untouched feel of the film is further enhanced by the effortlessness of the non-actors playing the leads, Ashanth K Sha as Kuttapaayi and Kumarakom Vasudevan (a fisherman in real life) as the old man.

Ottaal is derived from the 19th century Russian short story Vanka by Anton Chekhov. The film is so rooted in its surroundings, that few viewers would have figured out the foreign literary source if the filmmaker had not credited it. The acknowledgement is a reminder though that its rootedness is accompanied by a certain indefinable timelessness and placelessness that lends itself well to this universal theme.

After all, every age has had its enemies of innocence and harmony. Chekhov found them 130 years ago in a shoemaker’s establishment in Moscow. Jayaraj found his in the 21st century, stealing from the wetlands of Kuttanad. Beautiful.

(For a related article by the author, click here)

First Runner-Up:

Court / Marathi with Hindi, English, Gujarati

Court is debutant writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s slap in the face of India’s judicial processes, layered with insights about caste, class and gender.

A sewage worker in Mumbai dies and instead of investigating the terrible work conditions that led to his end, the government cries suicide, charging an inconvenient Dalit activist-singer with performing an inflammatory song that allegedly incited the poor man to take his own life. The bizarre yet believable story is augmented by an excellent cast and unobtrusive, supremely confident direction.

Imagine an Indian lower court being transposed to a non-sensational, non-gossipy Bigg Boss house where cameras stay switched on for 24 hours to record the proceedings – that is how incredibly realistic Court is. Tragic, thoughtful, touching.

(For the author’s original review of Court, click here)

Second Runner-Up:

Kaaka Muttai / Tamil 

A deceptively simple film about a couple of slum children in Chennai, M. Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai is as sad as it is curiously uplifting. The pivotal characters – as lovable as two little humans can get – nickname themselves Chinna Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg Jr) and Periya Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg Sr) after their unusual eating habits that see them stealing from birds’ nests. When a swish pizza outlet opens up right next to their slum, they begin craving those slices of cheese-laden promise that they have seen in television advertisements.

Their food quest sets off a chain of events that casts a spotlight on the horrendous class divides in our megapolises where hovels abut high-rise prosperity, luxe malls, homes and eateries, where the welfare of the poor is a mere tool in the hands of a city’s power-brokers.

Iyshwarya Rajesh is impeccable as the boys’ composed, hard-working mother. The little ones themselves, J. Vignesh and V. Ramesh, are cute as buttons and good actors to boot.

Kaaka Muttai is one of the sweetest, most charming commentaries on poverty, hypocrisy, self-respect and the human spirit that you will ever see.

Third Runner-Up:

Dum Laga Ke Haisha / Hindi 

A reductive description of Dum Laga Ke Haisha could be this: a good-looking boy, forced to marry a fat girl, mistreats her because he is repelled by her weight and his own inability to withstand family pressure. But being reductive would go against the very essence of writer-director Sharat Katariya’s marvelously uncommon film, which refuses to limit its heroine to her physicality. Sure, she is the antithesis of the stick figures that crowd today’s cinema and catwalks, but she is also a brand ambassador for resilience, education, aspirations and a sense of self-worth. Yes, her husband’s response to her proportions is a pivotal point of the film, but neither she nor the director’s gaze defines her by it.

Adding to the entertainment quotient of Dum Laga Ke… is its tribute to the music and dance of 1990s Hindi cinema, especially through the hero’s love for Kumar Sanu. In this context, the choreography in the final song is particularly enjoyable, as is actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s ability to transport us back two decades through his moves.

Debutant Bhumi Pednekar as the central character and Ayushmann as her under-confident spouse, shine despite being surrounded by a cast of very strong supporting actors. Their performances, like the film’s narrative, are pitch perfect.

(For the author’s original review of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, click here)


5: Talvar / Hindi

This fictionalised account of the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murder case, almost-documentary-like in its storytelling style, is chilling in its take on how the system could consume ordinary citizens to cover up its mistakes. Meghna Gulzar’s direction partnered by auteur Vishal Bhardwaj’s flawless writing throws new light on a double killing that rocked this nation in 2008.

There is a commendable matter-of-factness to the Rashomon-style narrative, which offers multiple accounts of the crime and its investigation, variously portraying the parents as guilty or innocent of the murders. The detached tone is sustained throughout, barring a few moments in a strand that holds the parents guilty, in which Neeraj Kabi indulges in some seemingly deliberate, farcical acting when he, as Aarushi’s father, discovers her body.

That being said, there is no doubt about who the film sides with and where it stands. Some people see this as a lack of objectivity. Since when did objectivity come to mean not having an opinion?

Talvar offers the sort of unrelenting, meticulous scrutiny given to the case by the few responsible journalists who covered it noiselessly in the midst of the cacophony unleashed by the rest of the media. It is a film about the gaping gulf between co-existing social classes, about the inherent problems in India’s criminal justice system and about news professionals gone berserk.

The stellar cast is led by Irrfan Khan who is, in a word, brilliant.

6: Pathemari / Malayalam

When he is at his best, Mammooty has the ability to reach into our weeping bosoms, tear out our hearts and rip them to tiny, tiny shreds. This is precisely what he does in Pathemari.

Director Salim Ahamed’s emotionally gripping film has the veteran playing Pallickal Narayanan, a man who spends 50 years of his life slaving away at menial jobs in Dubai to make life better for his family back home. The kudumbam does not know his struggles and for the most part, remains indifferent to his suffering.

As much as this is a film about immigrants, it is also about how patriarchy saps men of so much in its bid to dominate social power structures, to retain power and wealth in male hands. The film begs the question more people ought to ask: Why, oh why, do men fight so hard to preserve a back-breaking, potentially life-destroying system where they are the primary breadwinners of a family and women the care-givers? 

Though it wouldn’t have hurt the story to reduce the halo around Narayanan’s head just a tad bit, so much can be forgiven considering the emotional heft Ahamed achieves in this film. My heart broke for Pallickal Narayanan when I watched Pathemari. It aches now each time I think of him. What more can you ask of a film?

(For a related article by the author, click here)

7: Drishyam / Hindi and Papanasam / Tamil

When Malayalam director Jeethu Joseph made the Mohanlal-Meena-starrer Drishyam in 2013 (considered by many to be an uncredited adaptation of the Japanese novel The Devotion of Suspect X), it seemed unlikely that anyone would better it. And then someone did. Twice in 2015. One of those someones is Jeethu himself.

Director Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam improves upon the lovely original with a casting touch here and an acting moment there, in what is a legit Hindi remake of the Malayalam film. This is the story of two socially divergent worlds colliding, a crime of self-defence and an absolute genius of a cover-up. The architect of the whitewash is a small businessman in rural Goa (Ajay Devgn) who is out to protect his wife (Shriya Saran) and daughters from a police investigation.

The differences between the Malayalam and Hindi versions are barely discernible yet unmistakable. The wife here is portrayed as a stronger woman. As the film rolls along, she progresses from being a mere participant to the man’s partner in his plan. There is more liberalism too in their traditional household and their conversations with each other. Besides, the reduced age difference between the lead actors here automatically makes her appear more like his equal than his ward.

This Drishyam is, without a doubt, one of the best thrillers ever to emerge from the Hindi film industry.

Papanasam is Jeethu Joseph’s own Tamil remake of his Malayalam film. Starring veterans Kamal Haasan and Gautami – both superb – it released just weeks before the Hindi film. Although it is more faithful to the original’s conservatism than the Hindi film, the one element that puts it on an equal footing with the Bollywood interpretation is the central casting.

Unlike his contemporary Mohanlal, Kamal here is not acting with a woman who looks and is young enough to be his daughter. The generational proximity between him and Gautami makes theirs automatically come across as more of a partnership than the senior-junior dynamic between the leads in Malayalam, even though both stories feature conformist patriarchal set-ups.

The lead couple’s raging libido too gets an unspoken new dimension in the Tamil film because of the casting. Rarely are stars of Kamal’s seniority shown lusting after wives played by actresses their age. Equally rare are actresses in their 40s portraying women who are openly sexually active. The 14 years that separate Kamal and Gautami is not a small difference, but it is still a refreshing change from the two- and three-decade age gaps between him or his male peers and actresses they romance in commercial Indian cinema.

This unexpected progressiveness is somewhat marred by the completely needless couple of references to rape – however passing they may be – in Papanasam. It is a good thing that those distasteful few seconds whiz by towards the beginning of the film, before Papanasam settles down into being what it is meant to be: a socially perceptive, edge-of-the-seat suspense saga. That it could hold the attention of even a critic who had already seen two versions of the same story on screen, is a measure of its extreme effectiveness.

(For the author’s original review of the Hindi Drishyam, click here)

8: NH10 / Hindi

A brave, gritty thriller cum social exposition that marked actress Anushka Sharma’s debut as producer. Set in the part of Haryana that is just adjacent to Delhi’s posh suburban sibling Gurgaon, NH10 is a terrifyingly revelatory film.

There are worlds within worlds in this country, and just off the arterial National Highway No. 10 is a world where a professional woman in non-traditional clothing zipping past in an SUV with a husband she chose for herself is no less than an alien from outer space. It is this misogynistic space that Meera accidentally enters one day in Navdeep Singh’s tautly directed, breath-stoppingly told NH10.

The outstanding satellite cast is headlined by Darshan Kumaar whose second screen outing here shows him up to be a remarkably versatile talent. His first was as Priyanka Chopra’s low-key, supportive husband in 2014’s Mary Kom.

Anushka is a worthy fulcrum, inhabiting her character with a vengeance that her more bubbly roles have not necessarily allowed. Explosive and memorable.

(For the author’s original review of NH10, click here)

9: Piku / Hindi

An entrepreneur with a short temper, her father who is obsessed with his bowels and his beti, and an exasperated cab company owner – this odd trio forms the focus of the very unusual Piku. It is a risky film that pays off.

How often do we see a mainstream film anywhere in the world filled with poop humour that is ridiculous but not yucky, distasteful or immature? This is director Shoojit Sircar’s latest team-up with writer Juhi Chaturvedi. In Vicky Donor they pulled off an unexpectedly sensitive film about a sperm donor in which, as storytellers, they knew precisely what not to say to avoid being icky. This time they roll out a ream of potty jokes that do not diminish Piku’s gentle heart, its progressive, feminist core or its courage to speak up about a hugely taboo topic in this country, selfish parents.

Amitabh Bachchan is delicious as an affectionate stereotype of Bengalis, not a contemptuous caricature. Deepika Padukone as the titular heroine is her usual easy self before the camera. And Irrfan should now be anointed The Other King Khan.

Seriously. At least in the Hindi film awards scenario, it might be safe to permanently reserve a slot for him on annual nominations lists. That Piku, without warning, serves up crackling yet comfortable chemistry between him and Deepika is a testament to their talent as much as the intelligent writing.

I did long for some moments of quietude between the father and daughter in the film, but compensation for that grouse comes in the form of the many mellow conversations between the girl and Irrfan’s character.

One of the nice things about Shoojit is the manner in which he has generously ensured that Juhi has been equally celebrated for the successes of Vicky Donor and Piku. Theirs is a writer-director match made in heaven. Inshallah, for the sake of good cinema, may they work together repeatedly in future.

(For the author’s original review of Piku, click here)

10: Killa / Marathi

This has been a good year for films on children. What makes Ottaal, Kaaka Muttai and Killa stand out is that they are not condescending towards the little ones at the centre of their stories and they do not thrive on precociousness.

Killa is about a boy struggling with the loss of a much-loved father and the simultaneous pain of moving to a new town. It is a lyrical, slow-moving, ruminative film filled with moments of deep, deep affection and empathy between Chinmay, played by young Archit Deodhar, and his gutsy mother (Amruta Subhash).

The fine acting is complemented by Avinash Arun’s lovingly composed frames. This is Avinash’s first film as director, although he already has an impressive CV as a cinematographer that includes Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam (No. 6 on this list) and the much-lauded Masaan that is not on this list only because 2015 has been such a wonderful time for quality Indian cinema that there has been a rush of films to choose from. Killa – written by the director’s FTII junior Tushar Paranjape – is one of the little gemstones in the year’s accumulated wealth.

This article has also been published on Firstpost:

Photographs courtesy:

(1)    Ottaal poster:

(2)    Still from Court: Parull Gossain Associates

(3)    Kaaka Muttai poster:

(4)    Dum Laga Ke Haisha poster:

(5)    Talvar poster:

(6)    Pathemari poster:

(8)    Papanasam poster:

(9)    NH10 poster:


  1. Hi Anna. A very nice list... I judt had a question for you... if you don't mind, can you also tell which Indian documentaries or short films you saw and really liked thid year?

    1. Hi. Glad you liked the list :)

      Regarding your question, two of the best documentaries I watched this year were not Indian nor out in mainstream theatres: The Look of Silence (companion feature to an earlier much-acclaimed docu by the same director called The Act of Killing) and Wolfpack. I saw both at film festivals. Both were chilling.

      Of the Indian documentaries that I saw, there was Leslee Udwin's India's Daughter (not an Indian production, but on an Indian subject) which, you will recall, was banned in India; and a really nice one called Placebo by Abhay Kumar which the film maker does not intend to release in theatres, but to take to educational institutions across the country. I've reviewed both films so do read the reviews for more details.

      Hope that helps :)


  2. Hi Anna, thanks for the helpful reply. Haven't seen the films you have mentioned but will definitely try and watch. Happy 2016 :)

  3. Hi Anna
    Interesting list. I haven't seen the films in other regional languages but I felt there were two films that ought to have been in this list - Masaan & Badlapur. The latter, for me, was the finest film of the year.

    P.S.: Did you get the chance to watch Rajkahini (Bengali)?

    1. Glad you found the list interesting. I'm curious though - if you haven't seen the non-Hindi films here, which films would you drop to replace them with Masaan and Badlapur?

  4. @Anna - Any reasons why Premam (Malayalam movie) doesn't feature in the list?

    1. I didn't like Premam all that much, Ankit. Firstly, it was called Premam, yet all I saw in the film were crushes. Second, the character, his reactions to women and his idea of relationships did not evolve one teeny bit over the entire 14-15 year period of his life covered in the story, yet the film appears to suggest that there was an evolution. Third, while stalking is a reality in our society, I have a serious issue with films that actively normalise it as a legitimate form of courtship or trivialise it, and Premam certainly does both. More on the subject in these articles I've written on stalking over the years:

      (1) Raanjhanaa review:

      (2) When A Woman Says No / Hindu Businessline:

      and others you may find if you search for the word "stalking" on my blog.

      Hope I've answered your question satisfactorily.

      Regards, Anna

    2. Dear Anna,

      Thanks for the response. I read your book recently. I must say it was insightful and thought provoking.

      Though I may not entirely agree with your views on premam, I definitely find your opinion interesting. That is why discussing move is so much fun, on who takes what from the movie.



      PS: I fell in love with the character Malar in the movie.

    3. Hi Ankit,

      Glad you read and enjoyed my book :)

      I too liked the character of Malar in Premam and the actress who played her, Sai Pallavi. Think about it though - she is the only one of the three women in the film we actually got to know as a person, the other two were cardboard cut-outs that we watched from a distance through his eyes only. But who were they? What were their dreams? What were their thoughts on love and life? The writer didn't bother to acquaint us with any of that.

      There were other aspects of the film I liked - the stunning cinematography, music (I really really love that song Aluva Puzha), Nivin Pauly and Vinay Forrt. In the overall analysis though, the film did not work for me. We must agree to disagree :)

  5. Dear Anna,

    I agree that the characters of the other two women in the movie were not well fleshed out. Since, the story was told from a guy's perspective, I was able to relate to it better.

    Personally, I find the Malayalam movie industry to be way ahead of other film industries in India. From the scripts (Drishyam, Ustad hotel, Bangalore days, Charlie) to the actors (Dulquer Salman, Parvathy, Mohanlal, Nithya Menon), production value to the music, everything about the Malayalam movies is good. The budget at which the Malayalam movies are made is far lower than that of the hindi movies (in spite of the budget, the production value of the Malayalam movies is way ahead of that of the hindi movies).

    It would be nice if you can put up reviews of Malayalam movies. This will help a wider audience be aware of the quality and content driven movies that the Malayalam film industry churns out every year.


    Ankit Nahar