Top Movies: 2021

Drishyam 2: The Resumption

Writer-director Jeethu Joseph pulls what would’ve been ordained a cinematic impossibility: a deeply satiating follow-up to his twisty 2013 drama. It’s only at its stunning end do you realize what he’s pulled off. And it’s not just wool over your unblinking eyes that were waiting to catch that one sleight of hand that’d give his game away. Headlined by Mohanlal (in a subterranean, nuanced act), the story’s one of elusive redemption and constant web-spinning. Being a father means never letting one’s guard down. Even after Joseph signs off on Drishyam 2(Streaming on Prime)


In director Dileesh Pothan’s Shakespearean take on an oppressive patriarchal setup that stews in a curry of pungent discontent, familial revolt simmers under a fecund plantation soil that’s run with an iron fist by the father—Sunny PN charging into his role with the ferocity of a ravaging bull—whose red rag is the puny and glutton for punitive action, Joji. Played with Chaplinesque rage and vicious and immature impunity by Fahadh Faasil, the movie—and his character—is a stunning sketch in work of murderous plans. Until an airgun blows it all away. (Streaming on Prime)


This 2019 movie that finally came directly to streaming in 2021 is set in the chlorophyllic canvas of interior Konkan in Maharashtra, India. Writer-director Abhijeet Mohan Warang creates a touching, rousing ode to folk-theater and the artists who don the greasepaint against pecuniary odds. Interposing the magic of mythological stories with the grating struggles of everyday life, the story’s backbone is the halting, unspoken bond between a seventh-grader (played with a glow of earnestness and innocent grit by Samay Tambe) and his father, a sculptor and a moonlighting stage actor—Prasad Oak superbly mixing sautéed atavism with palettes of weary modern-day struggle. Sometimes the demons that heroes slay onstage are but an organic projection of their inner wars. (Streaming on Prime)

Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar

Director Dibakar Banerjee swaps traditional gender roles (and titular names) in his moody road excursion that involves corporate malfeasance, murderous cops, and Sandeep and Pinky—played, respectively, with a sparkling inner strength by Parineeti Chopra, and a hunkering mass of empathy by Arjun Kapoor. Wrapping the story in financial duplicity that’s powered by masculine powers and egos, the movie digs deep to bring gender chasms into stunning relief. Plus, his 4-minute opening is terrific, employing magical aural mixes and a haunting santoor piece (Banerjee composed the background score as well) that’s as pleasurable as it is disturbing. Much like the movie. (Streaming on Prime)


The movie’s title translates to Who Knows?, and director Sanu John Varghese moves this beauty glacially, splitting icy coverings to reveal relationships that, though intimate, may not be completely informed of each other. As it turns out, it’s just as well. Because as the movie progresses at the pace of life, the three pivotal roles (played with au naturel grace by Parvathy ThiruvothuSharafudheen, and Biju Menon) evolve into much more than what you thought they were. Plus, if one of the characters hums a Hindi song (Ye Raatein, Ye Mausam Nadi Ka Kinara), elsewhere, Varghese slides in a connection between composer Salil Choudhary’s 1954 Hindi duet and his 1980 Malayalam film number ever so simply. Be it film songs or relationships, you simply can’t escape the past. (Streaming on Prime)

The Disciple

Director Chaitanya Tamhane expounds the hopeless quest for perfection in mastery, a template that’s part-myth, part-truth, and propounded by those who either rake in the moolah or the misery. The disciple’s played by Aditya Modak with quiet, meditative desperation, scaling misery instead of the musical notes he’s set out to conquer. Riding on the soft melodies of Hindustani classical music, the director also notes the off-key digressions of hypocrisy and allure of fame, making you question the balance between money and true learning. Like the disciple, we all find perfection. But not within ourselves. (Streaming on Netflix)


Set in the yawning darkness of a single, murderous night, this chilling thriller is relentless in its grip and tension. It also relies on metaphors—the house inside which a majority of the story unspools may be a house of god; it could also be each one of us on the inside—to paint the struggle between religious radicalism and humane behavior, between the right and the righteous, between extremes and those in the middle, pulled in both directions. Director Manu Warrier coats his masterful outing with incandescent orange and then bleak blues, none of which assuage your fears. The movie had to end sometime, but the poisonous messaging and violence—as politicians worldwide have so ably demonstrated—continue unabated. (Streaming on Prime)

Sardar Udham

Director Shoojit Sircar creates an unforgettable, haunting composite of one of India’s least-known revolutionaries, the man who bid his time and then some to register his protest with gunfire aimed at the one who approved a massacre that inevitably finds a couple of sentences in Indian history textbooks, before they focus on what famous freedom fighters did to protest this mass murder. The director sets this right. For, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre isn’t dry reporting in books, nor is it a date to be remembered to answer drier examination papers. It’s what set Udham on the path he did, and Vicky Kaushal in the titular role turns in his career-best here, understated and yet profoundly, truly, forever troubled. Using the final 30 minutes of his movie to depict the massacre and its immediate aftermath, Sircar throws you amidst slick plasma and an unspeakable horror to ensure that you are too. (Streaming on Prime)


A sweet, caramelized—but never gooey—movie that looks at a father’s relationship with his sons that’s cleaved by generational gaps exacerbated by smartphones and smarter alecky behavior, viz., primarily the elder son (played by Sreenath Bhasi so effectively, you’re disgusted—until you realize you’re being no different with your parents.) Director Rojin Thomas adds delightful scenes that sparkle because they ring so close home. There’s a plot from the past that breaks your heart, but it’s Indrans’ performance as the father that’s truly the cause for those tears. Challenged by modern technology to catch up with his sons, hungry for their approval, quietly carrying on his chores, the father does everything to keep up. What he has—and every home needs—and no smartphone does, is love, empathy, and truckloads of caring. This is one movie that’ll keep you warm and make you miss your parents, even if they’re sitting next to you. Resist the urge to WhatsApp them. Accept their friendship—not the social media variety—instead. (Streaming on Prime)


Quietly gorgeous in its reach, troubling in its scope, and as haunting as the fumes of the piano score that stalk it, director Rebecca Hall’s debut sticks you with a long time after its passing on your screen. Traversing the journey of two friends (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in enigmatic, tight-rope acts of rebellion, anger, desire, and ambition) in 1920s NYC, the movie’s a troubling take on the phenom of passing off as white, what fuels it, and the horrible consequences of it all. There’s a price to be paid to try and return to what makes you the most comfortable in—and with—your skin. That, plus the burden of passing equals Endsville.

The Power of the Dog

As lush as the mountains that surround its canvas, director Jane Campion’s stunning take on Thomas Savage’s novel is a sizzling look at the relationship between a tetchy ranch-owner (Benedict Cumberbatch, as unfriendly and gravelly as the dusty roads his character rides on) and a gangly, effeminate, and unwelcome addition to his family (Kodi Smit-McPhee, concealing fire and brimstone behind those slanty eyes). Between these two, a newlywed couple (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst adding, respectively, thoughtfulness and a tremulous erosion of personality) form the lava boundary of the story that keeps bubbling acidic fumes across the movie’s resplendent setting. Even when on fire, that lava’s understated.

All images owned by the producers.