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)

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