For the past couple of years, I have been publishing a watch list of Indian films. I am continuing that tradition for 2017.
2017 was an interesting year for Bollywood. Eagerly anticipated films like Rangoon, Tubelight, Jagga Jasoos, and Jab Harry Met Sejal tanked miserably at the box office. It might be the sign that the era of the “All Time Blockbuster” is dead. 2016 saw the rise of small cinema. 2017 saw that trend continue. Small films ended up being the biggest hits and most critically acclaimed. So despite a bleak year for film, there are plenty of films for the list.
While I have been unable to watch them all (legal streaming options are limited in the USA), this list is curated from word of mouth and feedback from trusted critics and sources.
Films are listed in order of release. IMDB ratings will fluctuate.
Underpublicized and unanticipated, The Ghazi Attack became one of the year’s first surprise hits. Despite a limited release, this Telugu/Hindi production gained a lot of steam through word of mouth. The film is a pulse-pounding naval submarine battle. It is built around the mysterious sinking of Pakistani submarine Ghazi near Vishakapatnam in 1971.
During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the Indian navy intercepts a message from the Pakistanis. The Ghazi, an advanced submarine far superior to the Indian S21 has been dispatched to the Indian Ocean. The Indian navy dispatches an S21 for a reconnaissance mission. Their task is to find out what Ghazi is up to and why it has been dispatched. However, the S21 under the command of Captain Ranvijay Singh disobeys orders and engages with the Ghazi. This leads to a destructive naval battle that ends up saving the INS Vikrant, an aircraft carrier that was essential for India to win the war.
2017 might also be known as the year of Rajkumar Rao. A stellar character actor, he delivered several critically acclaimed hits throughout the year.
Trapped was Rajkumar Rao’s first film of the year. Can just one character hold your attention for the duration of an entire film? James Franco did that with 127 hours. Rajkumar Rao does the same in Trapped. He plays Shaurya, an ordinary middle-class young man. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he finds himself locked in his new apartment. He is unable to escape or find help. The film follows his struggle to stay alive. Traumatized and depressed he resorts to eating cockroaches and pigeons. He gets more deranged and weak as the days go by. Will he ever be able to escape and regain his life?
Time Magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ as ‘person of the year’ for 2017. Anarkali of Aarah is the fictitious tale of a silence breaker in India. A strongly feminist flick it came out long before the social media movement and struck a chord with women across India.
Erotic folk dancers are popular in many North Indian states. One such dancer is Anarkali who hails from the town of Aarah in Bihar. She may be an erotic-dancer, but she has self-respect and pride. She refuses to let men use her as an object. No one can touch her without consent. So when a drunken politician publicly molests her at a show, she vows to seek justice. She risks her career and livelihood to take on a corrupt patriarchal system to obtain justice. While the film is far from being perfect, it is an inspiring narrative. Swara Bhaskar another rising character actor shines as the feisty Anarkali.
Historically, India does not make many female-centric flicks. Even when they do, it rarely is an action thriller. So when Shabana Khan, a breakaway minor character from the 2015 hit Baby, got her own film, it was the big deal.
Naam Shabana is an action thriller that follows the life and times of Shabana Khan. It follows a young Shabana from her recruitment and training through her first successful mission. Naam Shabana does falter a lot. The execution isn’t as taut as Baby. It also relies too much on Akshay Kumar the star of Baby. However, Taapsee Pannu holds her own as Shabana. She delivers yet another critically acclaimed performance after Pink. The fact that Bollywood produced an action thriller about a female spy makes Naam Shabana a big deal.
Baahubali: The Conclusion is the sequel to 2015 smash hit Baahubali: The Beginning. Both Baahubali films are fantasy fiction epics inspired by Indian mythology. They narrate the tale of Baahubali a fictional superhero of ancient India. This South Indian film smashed the North/South divide within India to become the year’s largest grossing film.
In this second installment, Mahendra Baahubali learns about how his father Amarendra Baahubali was killed and seeks revenge. If the first installment gave us the bad-ass Sivagami, this movie gives us the firebrand Devasena. It is actually the two women Sivagami and Devasena who serve as catalysts for the plot. Full of breathtaking cinematography, over the top stunts, and immaculate sets – Baahubali: The Conclusion is a must-see film of the year. It is also the rare film that flies in the face of the theory that the blockbuster era is dead.
Education in India has become an expensive rat race. It has become imperative for students to be enrolled in English Medium schools to guarantee success. Even kindergarten admissions have become a crazy circus.
Hindi Medium is a charming comedy that follows the misadventures of Raj Batra and his wife Mira. They are a wealthy family but had a Hindi Medium education. Now they jump through hoops and pull off all sorts of scams and schemes to get their beloved daughter admitted into a prestigious English Medium Institution. Stellar actor Irrfan Khan delights as Raj Batra. The film went on to become an unexpected hit.
McCluskiegunj is a small hill station in Jharkhand. It is fondly shortened as “Gunj”. Once upon a time, it was home to a thriving Anglo-Indian community. This picturesque town serves as the backdrop for the drama “A Death in the Gunj”
Konkona Sen Sharma is a critically acclaimed Bollywood actress with several critically acclaimed roles in films like Mr & Mrs. Iyer, Amu, Wake Up Sid, and Talvar. “A Death in the Gunj” is her director as a writer-director. This Bengali/English film follows a family enjoying an idyllic vacation in the Gunj before things go south. The flick boasts of a stellar ensemble cast of some of the most critically acclaimed character actors in Bollywood. They perfectly bring to life the family drama, secrets, and tensions in this chilling flick.
Lipstick Under My Burkha was the most controversial and feminist Indian film of 2017. After facing the threat of a ban or severe censorship, it eventually released in its entirety in July. The film went on to become another surprise hit.
The film follows the lives of four ordinary Indian women in Bhopal. Each of the women is entrapped in her life someway or the other. They all desire freedom, both sexually and from their mundane lives. It is a rare Indian film that explores female desire and sexuality. It is this bold move of humanizing women and putting them at the center of a narrative that offended conservative sensibilities. An ensemble cast of veteran actors like Konkona Sen Sharma & Ratna Pathak Shah along with some fresh faces brings this bold drama to life.
Toilet brought to life a serious problem in India that many people are unaware of. Many people like me grew up in cities where there is easy access to hygienic toilets. Unfortunately, in rural India, there is lack of access to toilets. Not only is there a lack of access, but efforts to build toilets are hampered by archaic religious beliefs.
This film follows the journey of a rural Indian man who falls in love with a woman from the neighboring village. He woos and marries her. However, their relationship falls apart when she discovers that his family does not have a toilet at home. Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar play the couple whose marriage is almost destroyed by the lack of toilets. The movie touches a lot of sensitive subjects like hygiene, superstition, blind faith and safety of women. Although slightly slow-paced and dull, this movie is worth it for addressing oft-ignored challenges in India.
A rebellious small town girl. An old book. A frustrated mom. An understanding father. Two suitors and a case of mistaken identities form the plot for this unassuming romantic comedy.
Bareilly Ki Barfi is a sweet simple love story that unfolds in small-town India. It is a no-frills film that was made and released without the usual pomp associated with film releases. Rajkumar Rao gives his second critically acclaimed performance of the year. He is accompanied by Ayushman Khurana and Kriti Sanon who form the other sides of this hilarious love triangle. The stellar star cast easily holds up the storyline. Their performances and strong word of mouth turned this low-key flick into a hit.
India tends to be a conservative country where sex is taboo. So one would think India is the last place to create a comedy about erectile dysfunction. Shubh Mangal Savdhan is a remake of a Tamil film that deals with this delicate issue.
The movie initially unfolds like an ordinary romantic comedy. Ayushman Khurana plays Mudit a shy guy who awkwardly courts Sugandha played by Bhumi Pednekar. The couple click, fall in love and are soon engaged to be married. But the movie quickly shifts gears when they discover Mudit suffers from erectile dysfunction. The film quickly turns into a comedy about the subject. One of the best triumphs of the movie is that it cleverly pokes fun about this sexual health issue. It does so in a sharp witty manner without ever coming off as raunchy or crude. This movie is worth a watch on account of the stellar subject matter and material.
Another critical and commercial success for Rajkumar Rao in 2017. Newton was India’s official entry to the Oscars for 2017. While it might not have made the final cut, it is a wondrous depiction of electoral challenges in the world’s largest democracy.
Newton follows the tale of Newton Kumar a scrupulous Indian government clerk. We embark with him on a wild ride into a region steeped in a conflict between armed Indian forces and Naxalites (Maoist rebels in India). His task is to conduct local polls. However, the locals know nothing about elections and his assigned guards don’t care about it. Despite the steep uphill task Newton is determined to hold honest and fair elections. The movie follows Newton’s hilarious misadventures in this noble pursuit.
Tu Hai Mera Sunday is the sweetest feel-good film you will ever see. It is the warm loving hug that everyone needs and deserves. This small budget limited release film was the pleasant surprise of the year that thrived on word of mouth. The film also got a boost by the presence of Barun Sobti, a popular face from Indian television.
The simple narrative follows the life of five friends in Bombay who gather at the beach Sunday for a game of football. Things go downhill when a local politician bans football on the beach. Already facing their own personal struggles at work or at home, these friends lose the activity that brought them joy and rejuvenated them. It is a meaningful film that compels us to reflect on the hectic pace of urban life. Open spaces and recreational areas are quickly disappearing in India. The movie reminds us of the importance of slowing down and unwinding.
Secret Superstar isn’t really a small film considering that it was produced and promoted by Aamir Khan. However, the film features a relatively fresh star cast and has a teenage Muslim girl as the protagonist. Although Aamir Khan plays an important guest role, the film belongs to Zaira Wasim who plays the protagonist.
The film follows the life of Insia, who has a passion for music. She yearns to be a musician. But she is held back by the strict conservative upbringing of her father Farookh. Insia’s mother Najma does her best to support her. Unfortunately, she is held back by her abusive husband and struggles to stand up against him. Zaira’s friend and support system is Chintan, a classmate who has a crush on her. The film very delicately deals with issues of domestic abuse, female infanticide, divorce in its narrative. It also very deftly shows a tender innocent relationship between two teens.
Bollywood is not known for its crime thrillers. Most movies tend to be over the top musicals. However, every now and then Bollywood produces an exceptional thriller. Gravely underpromoted and underappreciated, Ittefaq is one hell of a whodunnit.
Based on a 1969 film of the same name, Ittefaq gives a fresh twist to one of India’s most successful murder mysteries. Two people have been murdered. One victim is Catherine, the wife of novelist Vikram. The other is a lawyer Shekhar, the husband of a young homemaker Maya. Both Maya and Vikram have different stories and alibi. The film follows police inspector Dev Sharma as he interrogates the two to investigate the double murder. Trapped in a haze of conflicting truths and intentional misdirections, Dev has his work cut out to nail the killer. Full of tremendous performances and delicious twists, this film checks every box for a good crime thriller.
Tumhari Sulu is a family comedy which defied Indian stereotypes to become a hit. Older women or ‘aunties’ in India are uncool. Women in films have to be young, trendy, and sensuous. Tumhari Sulu breaks those norms and presents us an older housewife as the protagonist.
Sulu is Sulochana Dubey a simple housewife. She desires to have a career too but lack of education holds her back. Sulu, however, has a cheerful disposition and dogged personality. Her dreams come true when she gets a job as an RJ at a local radio station. The job does not come without its own domestic and personal challenges. How Sulu faces these challenges head-on and makes her mark in the world is the crux of the story. Vidya Balan proves that unglamorous older women can be cool and carry a film.
Ajji is a dark gritty interpretation of Red Riding Hood. It is a rape revenge drama. The experimental indie film is produced by Yoodlee films, a brand new production company dedicated to the art of cinema.
Ajji means grandmother in Marathi. This films Ajji is a frail and arthritic old woman who lives in squalor with her family. Her world revolves around her granddaughter Manda. When Manda is raped and dumped in the trash, the poor family just wants to move on and survive. But Ajji cannot bear to let it go. She desires justice. Ajji becomes an unconventional vigilante for justice.
While the USA debates climate science and withdraws from the Paris accord, India produces a gut-punching film about climate change. Based on true stories from drought-stricken areas and vanishing villages in India, the film paints a bleak picture of how climate change affects the world’s poor.
The film brings together two stellar actors representing two extremes of climate change. Sanjay Mishra plays a blind old man whose once fertile village is now a barren wasteland. Ranvir Shorey is a loan collector whose coastal village has been engulfed by the sea.
Cover Photo by Pietro Jeng from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/curve-industry-photography-vintage-65128/