Beyond Bollywood: The 10 Best Indian Films You Missed In 2018

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There are, on average, nearly 2,000 new Indian films each year — about three times the American output. The mainstream Hindi film industry (or "Bollywood") is a small contributor to that figure, though it usually receives the most attention in both Western and Indian media. Given the vast array of languages, cultures and perspectives across the nation — rather than a single massive entity, India has dozens of parallel film industries differentiated by language — there exists a fascinating cinematic tapestry within its borders. It's perhaps embodied best by the career of actress Sridevi, who passed away this year at the age of 54 after starring in over 300 films in languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Malayalam.

Like Sridevi's vast and varied filmography, every corner of Indian cinema is worth discovering. Few films in question get the spotlight they deserve outside their own regions, if at all. India's 2018 Oscar entry, for instance, Rima Das' Village Rockstars, became both the first submission from the eastern state of Assam and the first in the Kamrupi dialect in the Award's six decade history, but the film was a box office disappointment. 

In metropolitan cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, mainstream releases like Shah Rukh Khan starrer Zero and Ranveer Singh vehicle Simmba tend to dominate screens in December, pushing out works that don't receive enough show times to begin with. Which isn't to say the mainstream is lacking in quality — horror film Tumbbad and period drama Padmaavat would have made this list were the criteria more general — but when it comes to art, there's never a bad time to go exploring.

Whether to find new styles and new forms of storytelling — or better yet, to challenge your instincts — stepping outside the prescribed norms of cinema can be a refreshing change, bringing with it a multitude of lived experiences. With that in mind, I hope some of these films find their way to your TV set, if not your local theatre.

Honourable mention: India/UK co-production The Hungry, Bornila Chatterjee's ultra-violent English and Hindi language adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, which made my list of the year's 20 best films from the Asian diaspora.

Honourable mention: Kumbh, Umesh Kulkarni's dialogue-free 30-minute documentary following two young, modern Indian men immersing themselves — as relative outsiders — in the tradition of the Hindu pilgrimage.

And now on to the list.

10. Ishu (Utpal Borpujari)

Language: Assamese

A film that breathes new life into the "grounded fairytale," Ishu is a children's adventure that strips away the fantasy and leaves only superstition. Young Ishu (Kapil Garo) wakes up one morning to find his aunt Ambika (Leishangthem Tonthoingambi Devi) missing without a trace. The neighbouring villagers suspect her of witchcraft — she's likely been banished, or worse — leaving it up to Ishu to track her down and clear her name, all on his own.

The film's margins are coloured by human ugliness. Ishu is surrounded by a violent and gullible lot who threaten his innocent worldview — he's a child who believes in the good in people, and simply in doing good — but the film isn't concerned with changing its main character or his outlook. Rather, it's a story of Ishu fighting to stay the same, retaining a sense of simplicity in a world gone mad, staying the course of a commendable moral compass. For young viewers, it's a thrilling rural adventure; for those more world-weary, it's a reminder of just how big even small acts of heroism can be. Abbas Kiarostami would be proud.

9. Noblemen (Vandana Kataria)

Language: English

In Vandana Kataria's Noblemen, the teenagers of "elite" boarding institution Noble Valley High are forced to exist in a world of backward morality: noble birth — being the son of a celebrity or politician — is a virtue, while looking to authority for assistance is the ultimate sin. Set against a school production of The Merchant of Venice, the film follows Shay (Ali Haji), a tenth-grader (or "tenthie") coming to grips with his homosexuality, as he draws the ire of the more privileged kids by earning the coveted role of Bassanio.

While the film starts out as a tale of mercy, enunciating its themes during the students' many Merchant rehearsals, it takes a dark turn when Shay's bullies — led by chiseled athlete Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir) — go too far, and then some. The film's neorealistic approach is interrupted, on occasion, by gorgeous tableaus, in which Arjun is flanked by his lackeys. He leans and sprawls and soaks in the attention as the film's attractive focal point, despite being its ugly antagonist. This is Shay's story, but Kataria frames Arjun with a particular curiosity. His insecurities turn him violent, most often against Shay, and in turn, Shay begins to bring down everyone in his orbit, including the few men equipped to offer him kindness of comfort. Tragic and enthralling, Noblemen is an explosive account of monsters creating monsters, and a cautionary tale about cycles of masculine violence. (Full review)

8. MA•AMA (Dominic Sangma)

Language: Garo

Riding a fine line between grounded and ethereal, MA•AMA is director Dominic Sangma's oblique meta-reconstruction of his late mother — a woman he never knew — through the memories of the rest of his family. His aged father, Philip Sangma, is at the center of his narrative, a work of fiction that skews ever so close to documentary. Philip, upon waking from a dream in which he searches frantically for his late wife, embarks on a spiritual journey to find answers about death.

As his son Dominic interviews him about his past, Philip travels from priest to priest in the hopes of finding out what people look like in the afterlife. Will his wife, who died decades ago, look the same as she once did? Or will she, like Philip, have aged — and will he recognize her? More than a search for a technicality, though, Philip's journey, as death knocks at his door, is one of confronting the past. A haunting, melodic work reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, MA•AMA follows one man's late-in-life spiritual awakening, brought on by both the crushing weight of mortality and, not unrelatedly, the spectre of lifelong regret.

7. Maacher Jhol (Abhishek Verma)

Language: Hindi

A short that deserves attention alongside the features, Maacher Jhol (or The Fish Curry) is a stylized, soulful piece that feels exact in its telling. Twenty-eight-year-old Lalit cooks his father's favourite seafood dish, toiling away over instructions from a radio show so the two can share a meal as Lalit comes out. Every frame is drawn by hand, glowing with promise from beyond the screen like backlit shadow puppetry. Even in moments of stillness, the erratic, repeating frames cycle back around every fraction of a second, as if trying to smooth over the tension.

Lalit ignores the discreet envelopes filled with snapshots of potential brides. He's in love with his roommate in secret, and daydreams of them swimming together and holding hands like carefree mermaids. That is, until he's repeatedly yanked back to reality by some searing pain. A snip at the barbershop. The spilling of hot oil. The possibility of his father's rejection. The conversation pivots around the eponymous dish, a cultural benchmark going back generations and binding the characters beyond time. It's an olive branch of sorts, offered first by Lalit to his father, and then, perhaps, by the father himself, as he decides whether or not to take the leftovers home to his wife. The dish is a question, as well as an answer, grounding a difficult conversation in something tangible and familiar — as if to ease the clash between tradition and modernity by centering tradition itself.

6. Sudani from Nigeria (Zakariya Mohammed)

Language: Malayalam

Few traditions feel truly universal; the two that come up in Sudani from Nigeria are funerals and football. The sport — called Soccer if you live in America — binds people beyond the spoken word, making it the perfect glue for a story of clashing cultures and learned kindness. Samuel Abiola Robinson, named for the actor playing him, is a Nigerian footballer at a small South Indian club. Nicknamed "Sudu" — he's assumed to be one the region's many Sudanese sportsmen — Samuel finds himself with a broken ankle. Helpless and with only a shirt on his back, he's laid up in bed under the care of Majeed (Soubin Shahir), the frantic, penniless team manager who can't seem to manage his personal like. The major hitch? Samuel and Majeed barely have a language in common.

While it begins as a comedic ode to quirks that bind humanity, Sudani from Nigeria soon settles on the frustrating aspects of the walls we've built. From miscommunications to the ugly bureaucracy surrounding immigration and asylum, the film places well-meaning characters in scenarios far too challenging to overcome alone. As his aging mother cares for Samuel, Majeed runs helter-skelter between doctors and immigration workers to figure out how to get Samuel to stay — and eventually, how to get him home. The myriad of red tape in their way prevents Samuel from living a normal life, but the film allows both him and Majeed to find little joys along the way, whether coming into contact with people who have their own stories to tell — or rather, stories to express beyond dialogue — or partaking in rituals of good sportsmanship as signs of love and respect. Eventually, it's living proof that cinema, too, can be a uniting force beyond words. (Available on Netflix)

5. Kaala (Pa. Ranjith)

Language: Tamil

Born from the Tamil tradition of over-the-top action movies starring Rajinikanth —a man whose stage name has its own stage name: Super Star Rajni! — Kaala uses the unparalleled star power of its lead to create a politically charged masterwork. Rajni, now 68 and leaning toward a career in politics, is still, by some miracle, a performer worthy of milk-bathed idols. Not to mention, all the action movie quirks and one-liners that continue to come his way, bestowed upon him by eager filmmakers who weren't even born when he started out. Here, however, director Pa. Ranjith reserves the expected operatic flourishes, crafting a story of class, caste and grassroots activism in Mumbai's sprawling Dharavi slum.

The film is bookended on one side by a Hip Hop number celebrating Dharavi — this is the only musical on the list, by the way — and on the other by the Hindu festival Holi, but with its vibrant colours replaced by black powder. Kaala (which, when translated, means "black" in many Indian languages) is both a celebration of oppressed communities, and an inversion of cinema's traditional ideas of darkness, both as visual motif and skin-tone. Kaala himself, Rajni's community leader protagonist, drapes him self in black as reclemation, in contrast to the film's villain (Nana Patekar) and his white-clad façade of purity. As the livelihood of its denizens is threatened by corporate builders, Dharavi comes together under Rajni's leadership, in a film that veers between fiery political drama, wistful "what if" romance — Kaala's former flame returns to help her people — and, of course, a gorgeously shot, ludicrously choreographed action movie with the usual Rajinikanth bang-for-your-buck. Ranjith and cinematographer Murali G. capture a locale that, both in Indian and Western cinema (see also: Slumdog Millionaire), has rarely been shown this lovingly. They explore its nooks, crannies, people and cultures, in what amounts to the most exciting Indian film this year. (Available on Amazon Prime)

4. Mayurakshi (Atanu Ghosh)

Language: Bengali

Mayurakshi is a heart-wrenching story about a middle-aged son, twice divorced Aryanil (Prosenjit Chatterjee), returning home from the U.S. to care for his aging father, widowed music composer Sushovan (Soumitra Chatterjee), whose memories begin to fade. Slow-moving without ever being lethargic, the film bides its time through precise editing that makes each and every beat land with a devastating thud. Sushovan keeps moving further into the past; to him, his son Aryanil is still in his college years, with his whole life ahead of him. If only.

As the former musician searches for a mysterious woman — the Mayurakshi of the title — he forces Aryanil's scattered middle-age and lifelong regrets into focus. It's a story told through reaction shots; both leading men deliver silent, resilient performances teetering on the edge of hopelessness. As Aryanil learns more about his father's condition, it strips Sushovan of his ability to retain facts, though it keeps the essence of his words, and their underlying life-lessons, intact. In struggling to deal with his father gradually slipping away, Aryanil is offered both one last chance to get to know him, and one last chance to take stock of the mess his life has become. Sushovan can hardly remember what he ate for lunch, but when he's out with his son, insisting on providing a background score to the life unfolding around him, one wonders if Aryanil is still capable of hearing the music. (Available on Netflix)

3. Bhasmasur (Nishil Sheth)

Language: Hindi

The story of a boy and his donkey, Bhasmasur is a poignant tale of innocence lost – or rather, innocence stolen through tough love. Ten-year-old Tipu (Mittal Chouhan), a mischievous imp in a drought-ridden Rajasthani village, is fiercely attached to his donkey, Bhasmasur. He dreams of riding the giant Ferris wheel in the city, free of care or concern. So when his father Dhaanu (Imran Rasheed) presents him with the opportunity, he readily accepts. The reason for Dhaanu's journey to the city, however, is to sell the donkey out of desperation.

Dhaanu is forced into constant, defeating awareness of his situation. Fellow farmers have been committing suicide all around him, and he's indebted to cruel and violent people. Selling Bhasmasur is no easy task – the attachment Tipu has to the animal makes it all the more difficult – but Dhaanu drags his son along for the arduous trip to toughen him up. Through the eyes of a child, director Nishil Sheth captures the beauty of rural India; Tipu is the perfect lens through which to watch the sunset. He has no reason to believe it won't rise again. Through Dhaanu however, Sheth captures rural hardship and desperation, with father and son forced to embody bitterly opposed ideas: the world as it seemed in childhood, and a harsh reality that awaits, making difficult even the most loving decisions.

2. Nude (Ravi Jadhav)

Language: Marathi

There's an enormity to every frame of Nude, the tale of a poor woman, Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) who turns to modelling for art students. Ravi Jadhav's tribute to art doubles as a tribute to the resilience of Indian women, though the irony of worshipping the femininity while commodifying on screen it is hardly lost on him. The film is as much a story of the importance of art — from the empathy it instills, to the sheer euphoria of personal expression — as it is a tale of the cost it extracts in a volatile political climate.

The more Yamuna comes out of her shell, melting shackles of tradition forged by generations of shame, the more her identity merges with the long history of art adoring the walls of the college. She transcends the physical, but her identity is still conditional — still within the frames of men. It's a dangerous existence, owing to widespread protests over nudity in art, yet the film refuses to harp on how men see Yamuna and her body. Jadhav, like Naseeruddin Shah's Malik (an analogue for real-life banished painter M.F. Husain) is more interested in posture as a window to Yamuna's soul. Even the well-meaning male student who befriends her (Om Bhutkar) is pushed intentionally to the sidelines, foregoing the idea of Yamuna the muse, and choosing Yamuna the fearless mother instead. Nude is, above all, a tender film, allowing its subjects to liberate themselves in body and soul, and it loves them deeply for it. (Full review)

1. Lathe Joshi (Mangesh Joshi)

Language: Marathi

Replaced by automation at his long-term job, Vijay Joshi (Chittaranjan Giri) finds himself left behind by an increasingly technological landscape. He's surrounded by machines and people helped by machines — his wife's hi-tech kitchen, his son's booming computer business, his mother's impending eye surgery, even his old boss' dialysis — but after thirty years of toiling over pistons by hand, Vijay doesn't have much recourse. The world, it seems, has forgotten him; all that's left to do is embrace it.

Lathe Joshi is complicated, for lack of a better term. Economic downturn often yields cultural response, but rather than telling a tale of finding new purpose amidst recession, writer-director Mangesh Joshi, himself a lathe machine worker once, crafts a story of progress and its inevitable fallout (a partial ode to film cutters in the digital age). Chittaranjan Giri, who had to learn to speak Marathi for the role, wanders aimlessly through a world Vijay recognizes less every day. A product of a masculine paradigm slowly fading into the past, Vijay has neither the means to move forward, nor the emotional tools to express the weight on his shoulders. It's as if the only thing left for him to do is die. Bleak as it might sound, his gradual journey towards preparing for a state of obsolescence — one that, eventually, comes for us all — brings with it a sense of comfort, quelling anxieties just as quickly as it triggers them. The machines around him fade, too; our technology, as if created in our own image, isn't made to last either. Perhaps the feeling of being outlived doesn't have to be lonely. (Full Review)