For whatever it was worth, 2022 was indisputably the year of RRR. As star-driven Hindi movies struggled to pull in the crowds, monster hits from the south stepped into the breach and made a massive amount of hay. Besides the SS. Rajamouli blockbuster that went on to capture the imagination of the West, KGF: Chapter Two and Kantara raked in big bucks at the expense of a slew of Mumbai movies that sank without a trace.
Amidst the brouhaha over the ascendancy of southern cinema and the dwindling fortunes of the Hindi industry, many quieter releases of 2022 did not receive the attention they deserved. That is not to say that these little cinematic gems went entirely unnoticed but, in an ideal world, these works would have been talked up a great deal more.
This list is solely of films released theatrically or on streaming platforms during the year gone by. It does not include titles unveiled at festivals. Nor does the list have wonderful films like Pada and Ariyippu because, thanks to their star casts, they were more than mere flashes on the radar when they landed on the streamers.
Ten releases that demonstrated in 2022 that there is more to cinema than box office collections:
RRR appropriates the narrative of tribal and Dalit rights to serve the cause of status quoist cinema. Nagraj Manjule’s pulsating Jhund does the exact opposite. It jettisons the tyranny of established storytelling modes predicated on conventional image-making and notions of entertainment. Featuring Amitabh Bachchan and a host of amateur actors, the three-hour film failed at the box office, but it showed exactly how the theme of caste and class oppression can be handled without being parlayed into vacuous, superficial spectacle. Not only does Jhund upend sports movie devices, it also dismantles the two key mythologies that drive commercial Hindi cinema – one stems from the great Hindu epics, the other from the formulaic filmic constricts. The story of a sports teacher who grooms a bunch of feisty, dispossessed slum dwellers into fighting fit footballers possesses raw power and authenticity.
Streaming on Zee5
The fourth feature from filmmaker-cinematographer M. Manikandan (Kakkaa Muttai), Kadaisi Vivasayi (The Last Farmer) is an amazingly wise and illuminating piece of cinema. The Tamil-language film takes the audience into the heart of a drought-stricken rural Tamil Nadu. Here, an octogenarian farmer, the last agriculturist standing in a village where tillers have lost all their cultivable land, has to deliver the symbolic first grain for a temple ceremony. But before he can harvest the paddy that he has planted, the taciturn old man is jailed on a false charge. Kadaisi Vivasayi, featuring 85-year-old real-life farmer Nallandi in the lead role alongside Vijay Sethupathi and Yogi Babu, is a moving portrait of a community that has fallen prey to a lopsided, livelihood-curtailing development model. The film reveals more about humanity and the times we live in than RRR and KGF put together ever can.
Streaming on SonyLIV
A political drama that makes no bones about its beliefs, debutante Indhu V.S.’s 19(1)(a) – the film gets it title from the article in the Constitution of India that guarantee freedom of speech and expression – does not holler and hector to get its point across. Aided by perfectly modulated performances from her two key actors – Nithya Menen and Vijay Sethupathi – the writer-director delivers a commentary on the perils of airing one’s ideology in a climate that militates against the liberty of writers to speak their minds. Menen plays a photocopy shop owner whose uneventful life is sent into a tailspin when a Tamil writer leaves the manuscript of an unpublished Malayalam novel with her and never returns. The Malayalam-language 19(1)(a) employs genteel, unhurried means to explore individual aspirations, thwarted dreams, the duality of creation and activism and the power of words to survive majoritarian threats.
Streaming on Disney+Hotstar
Form and substance coalesce in striking harmony in first-time director Abhinandan Dutta’s Bengali film Ananta. The film captures urban ennui through sounds, images and gestures orchestrated to underline the passage of time and the aching act of waiting. Ananta focuses on the daily chores of a jobless young man who has inherited an ancestral house that sustains him financially and a schoolteacher who lives with an alcoholic father. Both are emotionally trapped individuals. The former is resigned to his fate; the latter dreams of escape. The present weighs heavy on the two even as memories of the past offer a hint of solace. A lyrical, tender rumination on loss and longing, Ananta has a rich soundtrack. Nothing seems to happen and yet Ananta inexorably draws you into a world that, like time, is skin to a flowing stream. You can feel it but cannot grasp it.
Streaming on Zee5
Matto Ki Saikil
Directed by debutant M. Gani and featuring filmmaker Prakash Jha in the lead, Matto Ki Saikil is a moving tale of an impoverished daily wage earner who resides in a nondescript village off the city of Mathura. A limited release and a lukewarm response from the ticket-buying public did not allow this tale of a worker and his decrepit bicycle to go very far. But the film went a long way in depicting the repercussions of pauperization on those who do not possess the social capital to crawl out of a life of privation. With the aid of a restrained voice and stylistic subtlety, Matto Ki Saikil examines the multiple faultlines that beset a deeply divided society where insurmountable chasms separate the rich and poor, the mighty and the weak and the brazen and the meek.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
One of the most unusual cinematic essays of not only 2022 but of all time, Iravin Nizhal (Shadow of the Night) is a single-shot film that pulls off an ambitious feat. Seasoned actor-writer-director Radhakrishnan Parthiban infuses the experiment of energy, pace and technical pizzazz. The narrative spans half a century and pans out across multiple locations. It revolves around a 50-year-old man dealing with mental and emotional distress as his tragic past threatens to catch up with him. A little over an hour and a half long, Iravin Nizhal is a crackerjack movie experience that avoids gimmicks even as it plunges headlong into uncharted territory. Parthiban, who also plays the lead role, thrives on the risks that the film entails and comes out of it with an emotional, colour-spangled, riotous film that has the potential of acquiring cult status.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
In an Odisha village, an old man addicted to pornography rents DVDs from a local shop and watches them with his mates. Nothing unusual until he stumbles upon Jean-Luc Godard. His friends are unimpressed, but the old man is hooked to the new kind of cinema. He resolves to organize a festival of Godard’s films in the village. But, needless to say, there is many a slip between a cup and the lip. These slips and the discoveries and epiphanies that flow out of them are the jigsaw pieces that writer-director Amartya Bhattacharya use to craft a wonderfully quirky tribute to one of the greatest and most iconoclastic masters of cinema. The film honours the spirit of Godard’s work in substance and spirit while it captures the idiosyncrasies of life in a conservative neck of the woods. An exceptional achievement.
Streaming on Amazon Prime in North America
In the mould-breaking Bengali film, Ballabhpurer Roopkatha, actor Anirban Bhattacharya’s first narrative feature as a director, Brecht meets Banchharam (Manoj Mitra’s play Sajano Bagan, which Tapan Sinha adapted for the big screen as Banchharamer Bagan 42 years ago) in a splendid yet tangential union. The result is an insanely entertaining adaptation of one of Badal Sarkar’s early plays. With a cast of actors drawn from theatre, where Bhattacharya still has his feet firmly planted, the director crafts a comedy that blends the spontaneity of a live proscenium performance and the measured artifice of cinematic sleights. Ballabhpurer Roopkotha, a certified commercial success in Bengal, would have found takers nationwide with a little push. Its story – a debt-ridden scion of a royal family plans to sell off his crumbling palace and repay his creditors but a closely-guarded secret threatens to drive away potential buyers – is rooted in a specific milieu but is thematically universal. Fine performances, brilliant cinematography and production design, and a haunting background score make this one of the most accomplished commercial films to come of Kolkata in years.
Streams on hoichoi from early 2023
Filmed entirely in Arunachal Pradesh, Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya falls back on the body-horror genre to craft a narrative that delivers an environmental conservation message without tripping on the cliches that come with the territory. Its human-animal conflict theme and its take on cultural and linguistic divides are delivered with humour, wit and empathy. Bhediya makes ample room for scepticism but blends an entertaining core with a substantial degree of earnestness. Lead actor Varun Dhawan leaps out of his comfort zone to play a shape-shifting protagonist in a setting that is real and tangible on one hand and the fanciful and febrile on the other. The intermingling of narrative forms and purposes yields surprisingly felicitous results. In a year in which Bollywood delivered an unending stream of mediocre movies, Bhediya was a whiff of fresh air – a commercial film that had things to say and did so without tying itself up in knots.
To stream on Jio Cinema soon
An Action Hero
Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero is a surprise package that delivers much more than audiences would have expected. The Ayushmann Khurrana-Jaideep Ahlawat starrer taps the conventions of a revenge tale to construct a lively and entertaining commentary on notions of heroism, the nature of movie stardom, the scourge of media overreach and distortions of reality in a world where truth is invariably buried under an avalanche of noise, images and hysteria. In the guise of a thriller, An Action Hero held up a mirror to Mumbai movies and the masses that consume them and are consumed by them. A sly and stylish action film that, with a wink here and a nudge there, playfully encourages the audience to peer beyond the surface and separate the chaff that the mass media and movie industry produce in the name of grain. The deliciously inventive film did not get the expected response at the box office. The loss was entirely ours.
Not streaming yet
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