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)

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