2017 was a tepid year for the mainstream. The most anticipated films of the year turned out the biggest duds (Raees, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Tubelight). What came to the fore then (thanks also to SVoD platforms) were smaller, independent voices. 2017 was clearly a year for small films and filmmakers (with an obscure film like Newton now gearing up for the Oscar race). We may not have covered every good film in the indie space below but have tried to bring you some of the best the year had to offer.
Amit Masurkar’s Newton is a darkly comic examination of a frail democratic process. Rajkummar Rao spectacularly plays the titular character, a young idealist who does things by the book. His disciplinarian attitude lands him the duty of election officer in the conflict-torn region of the Maoists. Airlifted to the middle of a jungle, Newton is tasked to register the votes of 76 locals. Armed with rules and ideals, he finds himself at odds with the chaotic reality. Director Masurkar strikes a perfect balance between satirical humor and tense interplay. Masurkar subtly renders how there’s a lot to democracy than symbolic gestures of polling booth and voting machine. While Rao offers a standout performance, Pankaj Tripathi’s pragmatic and wearied military officer character was equally good. (By Arun Kumar)
2. Lapachhapi (Marathi)
Horror is an unapologetically ridiculed genre in Hindi cinema. The recently released Marathi horror-thriller Lapachhapi (2017) is among the handful of films which triumphantly thwart that perception. Director Vishal Furia’s debut feature manages to evoke genuine scares and chills, without compromising on the narrative or giving in to stereotypes. An engrossing plot from the get go, the film has everything going for itself. From the atmospherics to the sound design, the perfectly lit frames (courtesy cinematographer Chandan Kowli) to the brilliant cast, everything comes together to make this a successfully executed effort. (Full review by Mansi Dutta)
3. Tu Hai Mera Sunday
Tu Hai Mera Sunday revolves around a group of friends, from varied walks of life and ages, bound by their common love for football. The film endears us to all the characters (each of which is well written) acquainting us with their worlds – their everyday lives, relationships, fears, insecurities, daily struggles.
Right at the start, the film sets the mood and makes it clear what to expect but don’t be duped by its casual, leisurely pace. Packed with life lessons abound, the film subtly and effortlessly makes its point without getting preachy. The brilliantly done music (courtesy Amartya Rahut) brings out the mood of the film.
The charming little gem is also a sobering reminder to step back from the humdrum of our everyday lives and appreciate and admire the world around us. Tu Hai Mera Sunday is the kind of film you wish would never end. (By Mansi Dutta)
Vikramaditya Motwane, of Lootera and Udaan fame, finally graced the director’s seat again for the first time since 2013. In Trapped he gives us a taut survival thriller starring the talented Rajkummar Rao. It trails a man who gets stuck on the top floor of a Mumbai high-rise building and explores his ordeal and attempts at escape and survival. Whilst providing plenty of edge-of-your-seat thrills, Trapped makes for a intriguingly interactive experience as you try and solve the puzzle alongside Rao’s onscreen character, of just how to escape with the few household items he has to his avail. (By Suchin Mehrotra)
5. Mukti Bhawan aka Hotel Salvation
Shubhashish Bhutiani’s nuanced and enriching family drama is a profound meditation on life and death. Haunted by a dream Daya, a septuagenarian man, is convinced it’s his time to die. Following tradition, the old man donates a cow to the temple. He further insists on spending his last days on the banks of the Ganges. Daya, accompanied by his stressed son Rajiv, arrives at the hotel built to serve this specific purpose. In the days waiting for death, the father and son tentatively examine their past grievances. Although the plot outline seems a bit schmaltzy, Bhutiani’s delicate direction offers very mature snapshots of life’s simple joys and unalterable sorrows. Aided by well-rounded ensemble cast, Hotel Salvation pays fitting tribute to the city’s timelessness and hypnotic beauty. (By Arun Kumar)
While India is still grappling with the political and social reality of homosexuality, few films here dare to graze the subject. Rarer still are those that go beyond the challenges of coming out. A sensitively rendered gay drama, Loev explores the dynamics of love, friendship and intimacy between three men – Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh) Jai (Shiv Pandit) and Alex (Siddharth Menon). The focus isn’t on their sexual orientations and that’s set straight right from the first scene. A great film isn’t just about good content or story. It’s also in the telling. And that’s where Loev succeeds. The film is storytelling at its best — nuanced and seamless — aided also by the chemistry between the characters. Don’t miss it! (By Mansi Dutta)
7. Lipstick Under My Burkha
Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha offers four intricate, well-crafted stories which share common themes to shed light on the plight of women in India today. It unapologetically looks to educate and start a conversation about a painfully overlooked and widely accepted reality. The screenplay from Shrivastava and Suhani Kanwar strikes a curious tone which is as engaging (in parts, wildly entertaining) as it’s painful and harrowing. While it is the kind of film where the message takes precedence over the story, Shrivastava lets her characters and story do the talking without spreading her message bold and thick unlike films such as Aniruddha Roy Chowdhary‘s Pink. (By Suchin Mehrotra)
Life is mundane for 20-something Bangalore-based freelancer Shreepad Naik (aka Shree) until a trip to Chandigarh for a friend’s wedding shifts his perception of life and the world around him. Writer-director Sandeep Mohan’s film is a story of self-discovery, a journey inward and outward. A well-written film that’s equally visually spectacular with some breathtaking scenery and cinematography (courtesy Subhash Maskara) Shreelancer is an honest attempt at portraying a freelancer’s life while leaving us with some intriguing questions to ponder over how we go through our everyday lives and the choices we make. Arjun Radhakrishnan, the biggest find of 2017, overwhelms and endears in his effortless, refreshing portrayal of Shree. (By Mansi Dutta)
9. A Death in the Gunj
The title raises an occult curiosity which compels us to examine each character closely and probe their subtle behavioral changes, in a way to seek an obvious answer, and possible repercussion(s) of their every action. Director Konkana Sen Sharma smartly fiddles with your mind. She takes advantage of the opening scene and the title and infects our brains with suspicion around every little thing that could prove fatal. Like reckless bike riding after being drunk, picking old rifles for target practice, CGI wolf, a girl who goes missing, the dark closed rooms, and worse of all: the ever-changing moral force of human emotions and simmering pensive tension.
Gradually, sombreness creeps inside and mystery keeps you at the edge. The characters are sketched patiently and they develop with time in this slow-burning and melancholic drama. Even with minor flaws, the film is a brave effort by the first-time director to look at family dynamics while taking a microscopic look an introvert individual grieving over the loss of his father and failure in exams. (By Nafees Ahmed)
What did we miss? Feel free to leave your recommendations in the comments below.