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Special – The best of Hindi cinema 2011-20

The second decade of the third millennium CE saw the evolution of mainstream Hindi cinema gather pace, delivering some different and delightful features. Here is our pick of the lot.

The Cinestaan Team

Putting together a 'best of' list is never easy. Assembling one such list from a decade past is harder yet. There were some lively discussions (held online, owing to the pandemic) wherein some films were unanimous choices while others were fiercely argued about. Many made it to the long list but couldn’t make the final cut, even after much argument among the team members.

In the end, this list of the best Hindi movies released between 2011 and 2020 is bound to trigger more debate as each preference is, in the final analysis, subjective. But what is undeniable is that each of these films has made its mark over the years and is a milestone in the evolution of modern Hindi cinema.

Without further ado, then, here is our list, with the best right up front! Go through it and let us know in the Comments below what you think.

1. Gangs Of Wasseypur (Part I and II) (2012)

Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious, sprawling saga of revenge and lawlessness that spans three generations is required viewing for any fan of Hindi cinema and even the casual viewer. Spread across two films with a cumulative runtime of over 320 minutes, the gangster tale begins in pre-Independence Bihar and ends in the new millennium.

Characters like Sardar Khan, Faisal Khan and Ramadhir Singh have cemented their place in Hindi cinema's pantheon while their portrayers have become legendary thanks to their involvement in the crime drama. For much of the large ensemble cast, Gangs Of Wasseypur was their breakout role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadha, Pankaj Tripathi, Jaideep Ahlawat and many others have gone on to big projects thanks to their parts in this film. Meanwhile, Manoj Bajpayee and filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia turned in tour de force performances as fierce rivals who would go to any length for power.

Auditioned 15,000 actors in 14 months for Gangs Of Wasseypur films: Mukesh Chhabra

Besides the gripping story of vengeance penned by Kashyap, Zeishan Qadri, Akhilesh and Sachin Ladia — Guneet Monga, one of the producers of the saga, told Cinestaan.com that the "super-solid" script was what drove the team to embark on the journey of bringing it to the screen — Gangs Of Wasseypur boasted of new sound with Sneha Khanwalker’s composition. ‘O Womaniya’ and ‘Keh Ke Loonga’ are instant standouts. Rajeev Ravi's cinematography and Shweta Venkat Mathew's editing highlighted the fraught war being fought in dark, cramped alleys and the violent power play between the families as each grappled for their time at the top.

Kashyap’s magnum opus was screened at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2012 prior to its Indian release. The feedback was immensely motivating, Monga said. The film was chosen last year by The Guardian newspaper as the only Indian film in its list of 100 Best Films of the 21st century. It came in at number 59, above Hollywood films such as Lost In Translation (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and No Country For Old Men (2007). "Stylish, visceral film-making, violent and hard-hitting, it’s got a valid claim to be India’s answer to The Godfather," critic Andrew Pulver wrote. We strongly agree.

Gangs Of Wasseypur Parts I and II are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Voot Select and Jio Cinema.

2. Gully Boy (2019)

Critics, and some members of the Hindi audience, used to say that filmmaker Zoya Akhtar only made films dealing with the problems of the rich. With Gully Boy, Zoya proved her critics wrong and how. The wonderfully rich coming-of-age story follows aspiring rapper Murad who fights an internal and external battle to follow his dreams and share his talent with the world.

Inspired by the real-life stories of rappers DIVINE and Naezy, Gully Boy is a celebration of Indian hip-hop and rap. As the filmmaker told Cinestaan.com, "One never really knows how a film will turn out or be received, but I did know I had tapped a unique and special urban reality when I did a workshop with 50 rappers before the shoot. They were all in their 20s, all talented, all truthful and all raring to go!"

The film's 18 track album features lyrics and music from the who’s who of the hip-hop/rap world, making instant hits of songs like 'Apna Time Aayega', 'Asli Hip-Hop' and 'Azadi'. Actor Ranveer Singh, who landed yet another role to showcase his immense talent, fit Murad like the proverbial glove: insecure when required, pensive when discouraged, and hopeful when it counted the most.

Alia Bhatt, as Safeena, Murad’s spunky girlfriend, lit up the screen. She was supportive and the perfect better half to Murad and his dreams. The rest of the cast, from Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz and Amruta Subhash to Kalki Koechlin and breakthrough star Siddhant Chaturvedi, all shone in the supporting parts they play.

Gully Boy, set and shot in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, showcases the bustling city’s wide class expanse. Murad, the son of a chauffeur, is repeatedly reminded of his limits and station. Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti set up a scene in which Murad checks out a bathroom in Sky’s home which is likely as big as his entire kholi (room) in the slum. Vijay Maurya’s dialogues balanced both worlds with aplomb without losing the flavour and essence of Mumbai.

In a way, I am Murad. Words liberated me: Vijay Maurya on crafting the magic of Gully Boy's dialogues

The musical swept the 65th Filmfare Awards with 13 prizes, calling attention to the various departments, from production design to cinematography, which elevated the film. Gully Boy had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019 and was chosen to represent India at the Oscars in the Best International Feature category last year. With Gully Boy, the chant of Apna Time Aayega, meaning our time will come, became an axiom of hope.

Amazon Prime Video is now streaming Gully Boy.

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

3. Dangal (2016)

With Lagaan (2001), Aamir Khan gave us a sports film for the ages. So it was only fitting that the actor topped the Oscar-nominated film with another rousing sports drama that focused attention on real-life success stories from the state of Haryana, often seen as a bastion of male chauvinism, and women's wrestling.

Former athlete Mahavir Phogat is determined to bring a gold medal in wrestling for India, and when he is unable to deliver, he turns to his daughters to achieve the goal. At first, they are resistant to his methods (cleverly portrayed in the song ‘Haanikaarak Bapu’), but slowly they come around to his winning ways. It’s no spoiler to say that Phogat’s daughters make him proud and then some.

Dangal, inspired by the Phogat family, ticks off the necessary tropes of a sports film, from a training montage to conflicts between coach and athletes, but writer-director Nitesh Tiwari elevates it by keeping the focus on the family. Tiwari and his writers Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain and Nikhil Mehrotra set up a dangal off the mat, with a father’s stubborn insistence for perfection and the ultimate sporting trope, going up against his daughters trying to find their own individuality.

Scoring gold: How sports films became popular in India

Khan, once again, transformed his body as an out-of-shape wrestler and mentor to his daughter. His father-knows-best is a take we have seen before in Indian cinema, but Khan brought his own touch with an easy lesson in female empowerment. Dangal also gave us three new stars with actresses Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra holding their own as the adult Geeta and Babita, while National award-winner Zaira Wasim was impressive as the young Geeta.

It is no wonder that the film was a blockbuster hit and solidified Khan's star status at the Chinese box office as well. The sports drama is a marvellous family film as well, lacing in a subtle class on the power of determination and hard work. Pritam’s soaring soundtrack, with a powerful title track, aids this empowering message of belief. If you don’t find yourself moved by the final minutes of the feature when the all-important match takes place, then it is perhaps time to get yourself checked.

Netflix is now Dangal.

Dangal review: Aamir Khan and his daughters score a win

4. The Lunchbox (2013)

For his directorial debut, filmmaker Ritesh Batra delivered a uniquely Mumbai story, an unusual love story that unfolds through a tiffin delivered wrongly through its vast dabbawala (tiffin-carrier delivery) network. Thanks to this serendipitous mistake, accountant Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) and housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) find each other and begin to ease their loneliness in life.

The story takes place in an old-fashioned manner, through hand-written letters in a lunchbox. In today’s fast-paced world, the feature is a lovely, nostalgic reminder of times past. Saajan is on the verge of retiring and is training his overeager replacement (a delightful Nawazuddin Siddiqui), while Ila is neglected by her cheating husband. Together, in the letters they write to each other, they reveal things they dare not tell others.

Khan, already known internationally for his roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life Of Pi (2012), sealed his status as one of India’s best actors with his quiet, remote turn as Saajan. The critically acclaimed film was also a breakthrough for actress Nimrat Kaur, who went on to land several key roles in international television. Batra had a deft hand in the gentle romance that was more focused on its characters and its milieu than any groundbreaking technique.

Ritesh Batra on The Lunchbox: Every film is an exercise for the next one

The Lunchbox received more international attention with the Grand Rail d'Or (Critics Week Viewers Choice award) after it was screened at the International Critics' Week at the Cannes festival in 2013 and was nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language at the BAFTAs in 2015. As producer Guneet Monga said, the thunderous applause the film received at its Cannes premiere "instilled umpteen faith in all of us" and opened many gates for a film that was not the top pick in India.

Controversially, but perhaps not surprisingly, the film wasn’t selected as India’s entry to the Oscars that year. Despite the slight, it remains an unabashed favourite for many, and with Khan’s untimely death during the pandemic-induced lockdown last year, a reminder of what we have lost. As Batra told Cinestaan.com, "I remember every day on set, more so now, since we lost Irrfan. A lot of things came back. We spent a lot of time trying to find things. You write the script and you try to shoot it, but you also try to take what your actors are giving you."

The filmmaker said what Irrfan brought to the character of Saajan and the performance was very special. "He would talk about his uncle a lot, whom he lived with when he came to Mumbai," he said. "He brought a lot to the role, personally. That I could tell from the first day."

Netflix is now streaming The Lunchbox.

5. Masaan (2015)

Neeraj Ghaywan, who assisted Anurag Kashyap on Gangs Of Wasseypur, made his directorial debut with the striking Masaan, an insightful drama set in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, about love, grief and, yes, death. It made a splash after its premiere at Cannes, winning the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) and Promising Future awards in the Un Certain Regard category.

The feature follows Devi (Richa Chadha) grieving the suicide of her boyfriend after a sting by the local police and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) who has fallen in love for the first time with classmate Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi Sharma). Both characters deal with a traumatic event in their lives and find the courage to grieve, heal and eventually move past it.

Written by Varun Grover, the National award-winning film treated its characters with care and understanding even when they were in the depths of despair. Grover highlighted poetry through Shaalu and employed a poem by Dushyant Kumar into the gorgeously composed song ‘Tu Kisi Rail Si’.

5 years of Masaan: It was a really brave film that reflected India's reality, says actress Richa Chadha

The film is remembered today for the layered performances by Chadha and Sanjay Mishra and for the lovely romance enacted by Tripathi Sharma and Kaushal. The actor was especially noticed for his absorbing performance of a young man who occasionally works at the cremation ghats in Banaras. His drunken scene confessing his sorrows to his friends is startling for addressing its raw pain.

However, during the making of the film, Ghaywan was continuously assailed by self-doubt. "When you are making a film, especially if it's your first, the only thought you have is 'I hope this film gets made and released'," he recalled. "Even after I edited the film I was worried I might have made a really bad film that would probably ruin the careers of everyone associated with it. Then I showed it to some of my friends who are not afraid to tell me to my face if I have made a bad film. When they said I have made a good film I was a little relieved. And slowly, after a few screenings, I realized I have made a decent film!"

With remarkable cinematography by Avinash Arun, the film highlighted small-town India in a way we hadn’t seen before. Ghaywan is yet to direct his second feature; he directed the short film Juice in 2017 and co-directed the second season of the Netflix web-series Sacred Games in 2019. But we keenly await what he has to offer next on the big screen.

Masaan is now available on Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar and Jio Cinema.

6. Andhadhun (2018)

A blind pianist Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana) learns not to cross scheming widow Simi (Tabu) in Sriram Raghavan’s thrilling dark comedy. Akash has an idyllic existence playing the piano at a restaurant owned by the father of his girlfriend Sophie (Radhika Apte). Then he meets yesteryear star Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan), who wants him to play for his and Simi’s anniversary. Instead, he inadvertently stumbles upon a murder scene.

The taut suspense, written by Sriram, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti, Yogesh Chandekar and Hemanth M Rao, was loosely inspired by the French short film The Piano Tuner. But Sriram and his team took Akash and Simi on a wild trip all their own as they try to extricate themselves from a web of lies and murder.

Tabu was pitch perfect as the not-exactly-grieving widow who wants to tie up all the loose ends and begin living life with her lover. Khurrana as the duplicitous pianist is equally charged as a man trying to escape a mess of his own making. The actor shared the National award for his performance with Vicky Kaushal for Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019).

Andhadhun also featured some noteworthy turns by Apte, Dhawan, Zakir Hussain, Chhaya Kadam, Ashwini Kalsekar and Manav Vij. The piano pieces by Daniel B George set the mood, as did the breezy earworms by Amit Trivedi, including ‘Naina Da Kya Kasoor’.

With its unpredictable turns and twisty narrative, Andhadhun kept us on the edge of the seat till the very last scene. With characters betraying each other at every corner, you will have a hard time guessing the motives of this wild account. As the director told Cinestaan.com, "The most important thing for me was the end for which we were worried. We hoped people would come out and trust us and think how it all happened [in the plot]. And that actually happened. On the flip side, people could have found it confusing and unreal. But I was very happy that the audience took to that. And there were all those reactions on YouTube, something that has never happened. I enjoyed that for a while."

Andhadhun is now available on Netflix and Jio Cinema.

Andhadhun review: Ayushmann Khurrana, Tabu revel in this symphony of mysteries

7. Vicky Donor (2012)

With his very first film, Ayushmann Khurrana was pushing boundaries. Before he was discussing erectile dysfunction and acting in a mainstream gay romance, he was a sperm donor in Shoojit Sircar’s entertaining second film, Vicky Donor, which the director confided "felt like a restart button for me; I began again with Vicky Donor".

The Delhi-set comedy was the feature writing debut of Juhi Chaturvedi and the beginning of her collaboration with Sircar. The hilarious screenplay captured the chaos of the formerly unemployed Vicky who discovers the high life after being a high-demand sperm donor who is recruited by Dr Chaddha (Annu Kapoor). Vicky’s secret life threatens to get exposed after he falls for Ashmina (Yami Gautam) and plans his life with her.

Screenwriting is like a little conversation you have with yourself: Juhi Chaturvedi

Both Khurrana and Yami Gautam made impressive debuts, launching their careers effectively. Khurrana also showed off his musical skills, singing, co-writing and composing the hit track, 'Pani Da Rang'. Dolly Ahluwalia and Kamlesh Gill as Vicky's mother and grandmother, respectively, were standouts.

Aside from its spot-on comedic takes, Sircar took up the previously taboo subjects of sperm donation and infertility and brought them neatly into the family sphere without shame, leading the way for other filmmakers. Sircar admitted he had not expected the audience to like and accept the concept so much. "I made the film but I did not know there will be such a discussion on it," he said, thanking his entire team for the fun flavour.

Vicky Donor is now available on Jio Cinema and Eros Now.

8. Newton (2017)

The late Robert F Kennedy once said, "Democracy is messy, and it's hard. It's never easy." Amit Masurkar's self-righteous protagonist Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) discovers this in the course of his tour of duty as an election official sent to an obscure hamlet in the jungles of Chhattisgarh where the Naxalite rebels are an ever-present threat.

Another critically acclaimed film that gained notice at the Berlin International Film Festival after its world premiere, Newton is a satire that is both realistic and optimistic about the democratic process. "I was interested in exploring the gap between democratic principles and the way democracy is practised," Masurkar told Cinestaan.com.

Rajkummar Rao’s Newton comes across all kinds of people on his journey, from fellow election officials Malko (Anjali Patil) and Loknath (Raghuvir Yadav) to CRPF assistant commandant Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) charged with doing his duty well. Needless to say, he showed his range yet again as the principled young man.

The cast, led by the reliable Rajkummar Rao, was excellent and the film is punctuated with many witty and salient dialogues by Masurkar and co-writer Mayank Tewari. One such exchange features Sanjay Mishra's election instructor schooling Newton on his repeated arrogance over his honesty and rigidity.

The dark comedy was selected as India's entry to the 90th Academy Awards and picked up two National awards, including for Best Feature Film in Hindi.

Amazon Prime Video is now streaming Newton.

Newton review: Rajkummar, Pankaj Tripathi excel in superficial triumph of electoral democracy

9. Haider (2014)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s third adaptation of William Shakespeare’s works resulted in the deeply riveting Haider. An intriguing adaption of Hamlet, the feature was set against the backdrop of Kashmir and its conflicted politics, highlighting the disappearance of its citizens and the prevalence of violence in the region.

Shahid Kapoor playing the titular character delivered a tour de force, with Bhardwaj regulars like Tabu as Haider’s mother Ghazala and Irrfan Khan as Roohdar turning in their usual brilliance. Kay Kay Menon and Shraddha Kapoor also had pivotal roles in the drama.

The multi-faceted filmmaker has a knack for his masterful takes on literary classics, and his version of Hamlet was no different. The dark, intense feature tackled subjects and issues that probably wouldn’t pass muster in today's politically fraught climes, making it Bhardwaj’s gutsiest film.

It is a filmmaker's duty to talk about times we are living in: Vishal Bhardwaj at Habitat Film Festival

Bhardwaj’s Haider was bold, striking and made a statement with its unflinching look at the disruption of daily life and martial rule in Kashmir. With his cast surrendering themselves to his vision, Haider is both searing and impactful.

Haider is available on Netflix and Zee5.

10. Piku (2015)

With a headstrong daughter accompanying her hypochondriac father on a road trip from Delhi to Kolkata, Shoojit Sircar’s domestic dramedy is all about the small but important moments in life. Cantankerous widower Bhashkor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) lives with his daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone) in Delhi and is constantly updating her about his daily ailments.

Piku’s life revolves around looking after her father and when the occasion arises to take care of a matter regarding the sale of their ancestral house in Kolkata, both travel together, accompanied by car-rental company owner Rana (Irrfan Khan). There is a running joke in the film that no one can take on Piku, but Rana proves to be a worthy opponent to both father and daughter. As the director told Cinestaan.com, "I wish Irrfan were with us [to see Piku featured in a best-of-the-decade list]. He would have felt very great to see his film being appreciated thus."

Had a huge open canvas in front of me: Anupam Roy on scoring the music for Piku

Sircar’s film, created around Juhi Chaturvedi’s perceptive screenplay, hits the notes of an evolving relationship between parent and grown-up child. The director also nails the minutiae of daily life in both Delhi and Kolkata and the scenes involving the three stars are pure magic. "Piku is absolutely special for me," Sircar said. "I feel it is universal. It's every family's story. That's why it has such a shelf life and it will continue to have. You can relate to Piku as a person, to her father, friends and life."

Bachchan won his third National award for his role in Piku and the film all but clinched Padukone’s position as a top star with a second Filmfare award for Best Actress. Piku discussed infirmity and relationships in the same breath, while maintaining its humour and affection for its characters.

SonyLIV is now streaming Piku.

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