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Rewind 2019: The 10 best Hindi films of the year


Whether it was the new musical language of Gully Boy, the sensitive touch of Hamid or the searing insight of Article 15, many Hindi films captured the pulse of a country in flux. Here is a look at 10 films that stood out for us.

Shriram Iyengar

The year 2019 was a year of courage and exploration for filmmakers across India. With 2018 setting the template for small-budget films high on content — think Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun, Pad Man and Raid — this year saw filmmakers go in for new narratives and emotional stories driven by strong characterization.

While Zoya Akhtar's underdog story Gully Boy rode on the wave of a powerful Ranveer Singh performance, it had some strong supporting characters in Alia Bhatt, Vijay Raaz and Vijay Varma. No question why the film became India's official entry to the Oscars, even if it failed to make the cut.

On the other hand was the stark realism of Article 15, directed by Anubhav Sinha, which captured the blatant corruption of power that pushes men to commit crimes that are beyond the realms of humanity. With powerful performances from Ayushmann Khurrana, Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa and Sayani Gupta, the film proved to be a dark horse at the National awards.

It was also a good year for procedural crime dramas, whether it was Article 15 or the festival favourite Soni, which was released on Netflix. The latter film tracks the journey of two female officers of the Delhi police as they face their own fears and biases while solving a rape case.

The human trauma of the Kashmir valley dominated the storyline of Hamid and No Fathers In Kashmir, two films set in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, which continues to remain locked down since August 2019.

With an eventful year having come to a close, Cinestaan.com got down to the task of ranking the best films that we caught in 2019. Read on.

10. Chhichhore

Indians, or, more correctly, educated Indians have always had a soft spot for college memories. From Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) to Student Of The Year 2 (2019), audiences have fallen hook line and sinker for any recreation, however fantastic, of these memories. In Nitesh Tiwari's hands, these memories found a more realistic, emotional treatment.

Chhichhore was a gem that captured memories, heartbreaks, envy, failure and separation in a way that students truly go through. Through the film's carefully built up back stories and multiple characters, Tiwari took the audience on a journey through some very familiar personal stories. With Sushant Singh Rajput, Varun Sharma and Tahir Raj Bhasin in top form, it was easy to relate to characters who were vulnerable, broken and finding their own ways even deep into adulthood. That is what made Chhichhore such a good film. It is not just the high ideals of art, but also the simple, emotional basics of storytelling.

Chhichhore review: Nitesh Tiwari delivers a heartwarming, entertaining gem

9. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

Somehow Indian superheroes get no respect. In the face of a global onslaught by the Marvel universe, Hindi cinema is slowly carving its own niche in the genre. Whether it was the subtle Bhavesh Joshi: Superhero (2018) or this wonderful gem by Vasan Bala, the audience is slowly waking up to the potential for success. Vasan Bala's film is a wonderful tribute to Hindi cinema itself with its multiple inside jokes and references and a fantastically rebellious narrative.

How do you explain a film that defies logic? A man who can feel no pain. A one-legged karate master. His wicked identical twin. Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota would have made Manmohan Desai proud with its clichés. With Abhimanyu Dassani making an impressive debut and Radhika Madan equally assured in just her second movie, the film shone at festivals. Gulshan Devaiah's double act was worth every bit of praise coming its way. Sadly, the film had so many insider references that quite a few in the audience felt left out. But that is what makes it such a hidden gem. Years later, it is quite possible that fans will pick this one out of the collection and think back on the times that were.

Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota review: Entertaining, fully filmi story of a young man with superhero abilities

8. Dream Girl

Whoever said commercial cinema cannot be critically successful never imagined the rise of Ayushmann Khurrana. The actor's ability to pick out scripts that are novel, populist, yet saturated with social relevance is remarkable. Dream Girl was another hit that arrived right in the midst of the actor's professional purple patch. But to say that Raaj Shaandilyaa's film was Khurrana's alone would be an injustice. It belongs as much to Vijay Raaz and Annu Kapoor, to Abhishek Banerjee and Manjot Singh. Above all, it belongs to Shaandilyaa's street-like humour that leaves you laughing in the aisles.

The writer-director fills the film with so many zingers and sit-com-like humour that it is hard to dislike. Whether you are a fan of Satyajit Ray or David Dhawan, the film will leave you laughing. Its humour is irreverent, real and immediately affecting. Then there is the wonderfully subtle layer of male vulnerability and gender bias that has been tackled in the film. Put these elements in the hands of supreme performers like Raaz, Kapoor and Khurrana and you have a volatile combination that takes the jackpot. With his debut, Shaandilyaa set himself and the audience a benchmark that he might not always reach. But there will never be any regrets about it. Neither for the audience that caught the film.

Dream Girl review: There's something about Ayushmann Khurrana's Pooja

7. Badla

Remakes might be the trend, but they don't often earn street cred. Sujoy Ghosh's Badla returned a surprise with its taut reproduction of the Spanish thriller Contratiempo (2016). With Taapsee Pannu and Amitabh Bachchan battling it out, the film had enough star power going for it. But what kept audiences hooked was the sharp screenplay. Ghosh's skill was already proven with Kahaani (2012), and he showed off with style in Badla. Crafted like an Agatha Christie novel, the film's twists and turns lead the audience into a constant game of self-doubt. Throw in Bachchan's gravitas and Pannu's combative presence and you have a story bubbling with intrigue. 

It was not just the thrill and the pace, but also the creation of characters. The skill of Badla lies in Ghosh's ability to transposition a very international storyline into an Indian context, without diminishing the presence of star power and commercial interest.

Badla review: Entertaining tale of revenge with expected twists and turns

6. No Fathers In Kashmir

Like Sonchiriya, perhaps worse, No Fathers In Kashmir was given a miss by a majority of the audience. But the film's impact on those who watched it cannot be denied. It is perhaps no coincidence that filmmakers trying to make sense of the seemingly endless conflict in Kashmir are doing so through children. They are the most affected, and the only ones trying to figure out an answer to it all. The film tracks the journey of a teenager from London who arrives in Kashmir with preconceived notions of the place and her slow understanding of the truth. From her back story to the depiction of life in the region and the sensitive, beautiful story of youngsters trying to make sense of it all, Ashvin Kumar's film is engrossing as it is revealing.

Three months after the film's release in April, the state of Jammu & Kashmir was abruptly converted into the Union territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir with the reading down of Article 370 of the Constitution, followed by a complete lockdown. In times like these, the film offers insight into the lives, the lessons and the questions posed by the future, a future represented by children.

No Fathers In Kashmir review: Stark reality of the valley through the eyes of two teenagers

5. Sonchiriya

Every year there is a film that is recognized by craftsmen and masters but not by the box office. But lack of box-office success does not necessarily diminish the quality of a film's craftsmanship. Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya was one such film. It strength lies in its holistic construction. Whether it is the story, the performances, or the cinematography, Sonchiriya is a treasure trove that students of cinema can keep mining. Set in the Emergency era, the film is a product of the Western genre, with the exception of its setting in the dreaded Chambal valley. As such, it is layered with the subtexts of caste violence and state oppression, garnished with the usual tales of greed and revenge. To boot, there are some fantastic performances from Manoj Bajpayee, Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar and Ranvir Shorey that make the tale worth watching.

Chaubey has previously ventured into the genre while writing with Vishal Bhardwaj on Omkara (2006) but manages to show his own skill here as a director with a beautifully composed film. Perhaps it was the timing of the film, or the length, or the clash of producer RSVP with multiplexes that saw commercial audiences shy away. Regardless, it continues to be a critics' favourite among other films in the year. And with good reason.

Sonchiriya review: Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar's gripping but deadly tale

4. Article 15

There have been very few films in Hindi cinema that could inspire change in society. The last to spark such a generational change was probably Rang De Basanti (2006). With Article 15, Anubhav Sinha tore open the masks of secularism that upper-caste India bases its claims on. Set in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the film captures the deepest hierarchy of caste that rules, controls and manages the functioning of so-called democratic institutions like the Indian civil services. Layered with subtext and powered by searing dialogues, the film was also shot in mesmerizing style. Despite the nature of its subject, the film's violence was not physical, but more emotional and ideological. 

Based on real events, the film touched too close to home for several in the audience. Led by now National award-winner Ayushmann Khurrana, the film had powerful performances on all fronts, from Manoj Pahwa's ruthlessly bigoted policeman to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub's vulnerable revolutionary and Sayani Gupta's fierce feminist. Despite them all, the film will be memorable for its story, one that every Indian is familiar with, whether she admits it or not.

Article 15 review: Restrained Ayushmann Khurrana drives Anubhav Sinha's brilliant, layered film

Special Mentions

Soni

Ivan Ayr's Soni might have been released directly on the streaming platform Netflix, but it deserves to reach every Indian. A thrilling police procedural drama, Ayr's film taps into two key issues plaguing the subcontinent — patriarchy and attacks on women. The story of two female police officers investigating a rape case, Soni digs into the biases and deep-set patriarchy within women themselves, their fears and fights against it, and succeeds with aplomb. Wonderfully shot and enacted, the film is a must-watch for anyone who is a fan of Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Kabir Singh.

Soni review: The cinematic police story gets a new dimension

Mission Mangal

Akshay Kumar might have grown in stature with every passing year, but it was the women who stole the limelight from him in this wonderful film about India's mission to Mars. Prime among them was Vidya Balan. A diva in her own right, the actress joined Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen and Sonakshi Sinha as they charmed their way through space aeronautics with layman terms. Jagan Shakti's film transformed the most important moment in India's space journey to a simple, entertaining and touching film about the people behind the scenes. It might not have had the heightened patriotism of Uri: The Surgical Strike or the crafted idealism of Article 15, but on its own Mission Mangal managed to translate the idea of a new India to its audience. What's more, it managed to do so in a palatable commercial manner.

Mission Mangal review: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan headline this jolly, enjoyable expedition to Mars

Uri: The Surgical Strike

Some brickbats might well be heading our way for putting a National award-winning film in an also-ran list, but such was the competition for the spots on the actual list. Aditya Dhar's film arrived on the back of rising patriotic fervour and rode the wave successfully. With the subtle, reserved Vicky Kaushal leading the way, the film captured and unravelled the mystery of a surgical strike, its risks, rewards and technology with cinematic flair. Throw in the untapped anger simmering among Indian audiences and you have a return on investment in excess of Rs200 crore.

With the film, Vicky Kaushal finally arrived as a poster-boy star alongside Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao. Besides that, the film gave us a tagline that spurred the nation. So with the new year here, we would like to ask: How's the josh?

Uri: The Surgical Strike review – Vicky Kaushal hits bullseye in maiden action flick

3. Section 375

At a time when faith in the judiciary is at an all-time low with people demanding encounter killings for crimes against women, Section 375 reminded us why the delicate balance of truth is so vital in matters of law. Ajay Bahl's follow-up from the stark BA Pass (2013) was a brilliantly incisive, carefully argued case fraught with legal complexities. The film creates tension and drama and reconstructs the difficult and complex ways lawyers have to use to find the truth through argument. Led by two fine performers in Akshaye Khanna and Richa Chadha, the narrative brings forth the clash between the moral and the legal, constantly questioning our biases and assumptions of what is right. In the same year when the #MeToo movement took some big hits and faded from centre stage, Section 375 offered a reminder why the fight does not end with the accusation but begins with it. And what a fierce fight it is!

Section 375 review: Well-executed courtroom drama that gives timely message

2. Hamid

At a time when speaking truth to power has become rare, it is fascinating that two of the films in this list deal with the most contentious issue of the year — Kashmir. Of these, Hamid stands out for its wonderfully subtle, human and sensitive take on the subject. The story revolves around a child whose father is one of the many people who go missing in the never-ending conflict in the region. Aijaz Khan tackles this very sensitive subject through the innocent eyes of a child. The film, beautifully shot (take a bow, John Wilmor), is buoyed by some fabulous performances as well. Rasika Dugal follows up her act as Safia in Manto (2018) with another moving performance as a mother trying to shield her child from the harsh truth while also trying to help him make sense of the world around him. Talha Arshad Reshi, the boy in the title role, is the one who captures our attention. He represents the innocence, the dismay and the broken hearts of the people that we all are.

Hamid review: Crisis of Kashmir is explored realistically through a child's eyes

1. Gully Boy

India's official entry to the 91st Academy Awards was among the early films of the year and had a strong buzz going for it. While the zinging soundtrack opened the eyes of the mainstream to the underground movement of hip-hop and rap, Zoya Akhtar's film was a work of carefully constructed craft. While it was the artistes who shone, for good reason, the film also unearthed characters like Vijay Varma's Moeen, Siddhant Chaturvedi's MC Sher, and Vijay Raaz's wonderfully complex and real father.

From its searing dialogues and moving story to the new musical language it explored, Gully Boy set a new rhythm that established Ranveer Singh as a true box-office star of the new generation.

Gully Boy review: Ranveer Singh explodes with a new sound in Zoya Akhtar's tale of hope

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Year in review