Rewind 2023: Best Hindi films of the year

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From espionage tales to family dramas, inspiring underdog stories to films based on true stories. 2023 saw a variety of content that gripped our imagination.

By IndiaLevel Media

It’s not stars, but story that drives a film. The message was sent loud and clear in 2023 where not one star-led film made it to this list. Remember, just like Oh My God [2012], Akshay Kumar had an extended cameo in OMG 2 [2023].

As often it is the stories, and the execution that counts. A Shah Rukh Khan led the box office charge, but all three of his films didn’t convince us. The best cinematic art often comes from the humble stories backed by creativity and technical expertise. It’s near impossible for one soul to catch all the Hindi films. We missed out on director Sudhanshu Sharma’s acclaimed film Love-All. Blame that purely on its poor PR.

Nevertheless, we watched sizable number of films and were impressed by a quite a few. From espionage tales to family dramas, inspiring underdog stories to films based on true stories. 2023 saw a variety of content that gripped our imagination. Without further ado, we bring you Beyond Bollywood’s Hindi films of the year.

10 Mission Majnu – Shantanu Bagchi

Pathaan was the big theatrical Republic Day week release, but the quality, true patriotic film was the espionage thriller Mission Majnu on Netflix. Don’t be fooled by the name, Mission Majnu is simply the task assigned to R&AW agent Amandeep Gill [Sidharth Malhotra]. The Indian agent marries a blind Pakistani girl whose father makes uniforms for the Pakistani army. The film is said to be based on true events pertaining to Pakistan’s early attempts at becoming a nuclear nation. General public knowledge around this story is not exactly how things were shown in the film. Did director Shantanu Bagchi, and his writers Aseem Arrora, Sumit Batheja, Parveez Shaikh resort to any Rashomon narrative? The truth often lies somewhere between classified and declassified. Interestingly, one a particular day, Mission Majnu was the fourth most viewed film on Netflix in Pakistan. A Mission Majnu will evoke a debate, but you have to appreciate Bagchi for a fine thriller that offers a unique experience. Barely rated earlier, Sidharth Malhotra has won over his critics with a mature performance.

9 Lost – Aniruddha Roy Chowdhary

Media portrayals in Bollywood are often shocking and far from reality. That’s where Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Lost was an exception. The Pink [2016] director gave respect to the profession. His leading character Vidhi Sahani [Yami iGautam] had hunger for news, truth but she would never compromise on journalistic ethics, the 5 Ws and 1 H. Vidhi’s story helps to navigate the disappearance of a former student leader who is now accused of joining the Naxals. Is this a Left propaganda? Hell no.  In a pertinent scene, Vidhi’s grandfather [played by Pankaj Kapur] reminds her that there is space for all ideologies, but the moment there is violence, then it isn’t one and you become the very thing that you hate. Chowdhury’s film had its flaws, but Lost earned our respect for its objective thinking.  It would mark a turnaround for Gautam, who would go on to have a career defining 2023.

8 Khufiya – Vishal Bhardwaj

A Vishal Bhardwaj film about R&AW agents. His critics will smell sedition. There was one by the leading male protagonist Ravi Mohan [Ali Fazal], who is accused of turning his back on the nation. Though inspired by the book Escape to Nowhere, Bhardwaj and Netflix claimed that their film is largely a work of fiction. Buzz goes that that the book, and the film, is perhaps loosely inspired by the late controversial intelligence figure Rabindra Singh, who was under surveillance, but mysteriously fled to the US in 2004. Khufiya is about two halves. One where Ravi is under surveillance, and he soon learns of it. He kills few fellow agents before fleeing to the US. Khufiya is initially about tracking him down, but the second half largely turns into a family drama. 

Bhardwaj’s films tend to polarize views. Truth be told, he’s been off colour for some time. Khufiya was a reminder that he is far from finished. The fine story, different layers to it, and the all-round performance by his stellar cast went a long in earning Khufiya our respect. Another fine pick by Netflix this year.

7 Sajini Shinde Ka Viral Video – Mikhil Musale

Sajini Shinde [Radhika Madan], a humble Puneri girl is shamed after a personal video goes viral. It impacts her relationship with her dysfunctional family, and also dents her equation with her fiancé. Then she just disappears. A suicide note is found, but not the body.  Officer Bela Barot [Nimrat Kaur] is probing the case. She has to overcome cultural, gender, insider-outsider barriers to get to the bottom of the truth.  Sajini’s story exposes overall patriarchy, body shaming and the hypocrisy with those indulging into character assassination being the first to view Sajini’s viral video. The many layers are rolled into a fairly gripping screenplay, tinged with adequate humour and backed by top notch performances by the likes of Kaur, Subodh Bhave, Chinmay Mandlekar, Kiran Karmakar. 90s actress Bhagyashree too impressed in a pivotal role.  Young Sohum Majumdar was an absolute delight as the selfish fiancé of Sajini.   

6 12th Fail – Vidhu Vinod Chopra

A classic underdog tale of a man who triumphs against all odds. A first film by director Vidhu Vinod Chopra since the dud Shikara [2020].  Hardly any buzz, 12th Fail banked on word of the mouth to grow. Based on an incredibly true story, 12th Fail wasn’t just about a poor man’s rise, but his journey, success was a triumph for the millions across the globe who are written off.  This was quintessentially the India story. Manoj Kumar Sharma’s life is truly inspirational. Though far from perfect, 12th Fail excelled when it mattered most. The film truly comes alive in the pre-climax, followed by a goosebump inducing climax. 12th Fail is a story of despair, resilience, perseverance. Massey and young Medha Shankr’s brilliant performances drove this inspiring tale.

5 Tumse Na Ho Payega – Abhishek Sinha

Every filmmaker targets youth, but how many dare to bring out the real problems faced by them? Unheralded filmmaker Abhishek Sinha showed us how a toxic work environment cripples a sincere, hard-working employee. Adversity often brings out the best in the strong-willed soul. Based on the book How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-Founded a Million Dollar Company by Varun Agarwal, Sinha’s protagonist Gaurav [Ishwak Singh] loses his mundane job, and then turns the misery into an opportunity by starting a home-made food delivery business. The ascent is quick, and so is the descent, mainly caused due to the perils of big corporate investing in a start-up. Penned by Nitesh Tiwari, Tumse Na Ho Payega (You won’t be able to do it), is an inspiring tale of rising against all odds. It also drew our attention to the problems that start-up firms face in this country.

A brilliant story told through a fun screenplay and backed by an abled young cast – Ishwak Singh and Mahima Makwana.  The background score, largely played through the fine inner dialogue sequences, is hard to miss. From its tone to subtext, Tumse Na Ho Payega is a tale that every young person must watch. There’s also a message for the Doubting Thomases / Anu Aunties.

4 Kathal – Yashowardhan Mishra

Veteran writer Ashok Mishra came out of the shadows of his mentor Shyam Benegal to pen a brilliant satirical comedy Kathal, helmed by his first-time director son Yashowardhan. During an exclusive conversation with us after the trailer launch, Mishra senior mentioned that Hindi is a manufactured language and that if Bollywood wanted to succeed, it must tell stories in the rooted languages.  The region isn’t specified, but Mishra’s Kathal perhaps oscillates between UP and Central India states. 

A simple tale of a young Dalit cop Mahima Basor [Sanya Malhotra] being assigned the case to find a local politician’s missing Uncle Hong kathals [jackfruits]. Sounds silly, but if not retrieved, it can scupper MLA Munnalal Pateria’s political ambitions. Though reluctant, Basor diligently looks for the missing kathals. Along the way, she realizes that there is bigger issue to solve. Basor has to overcome social, caste, gender, biases to emerge triumphant. This is not just A Jackfruit Mystery, but the kathal trail leads to many disturbing Kathal-es. The Mishras also subtly highlight the issues plaguing humble, honest journalists in the country today. All the social messages brought out through a humourous screenplay. The Mishras sure understand their language, region and genuine social problems.

3 Gulmohar – Rahul V. Chittella

For an industry that has its legacy in telling romantic, family dramas, Bollywood struggles to tell such tales now. A Gulmohar naturally reminded us of the fragrance of family dramas, if told well. The Hindi General Entertainment Channels often resort to melodrama. Director Rahul V. Chittella, though, chose to tell his fabulous family drama Gulmohar via the Disney + Hotstar film. A simple tale of how a mother’s decision to sell the family villa has ramifications for the joint family. A certain disclosure leaves the eldest [adopted] son Arun Batra [Manoj Bajpayee] despondent. The beauty of Gulmohar is not just in the mother-son relationship, but Chittella’s film also gives an insight into the turmoil [both internal and external] of other characters as well. And this isn’t restricted to the Batras. Chittella shows his class by throwing light on the personal stories of the Gulmohar staff. Remarkably, even though the walls in the Gulmohar villa are beginning to crack, the family eventually finds strength to bare their hearts out. A Gulmohar urges you to accept the bitter truth. There may not be a solution but a Gulmohar reminds you that come what may, good families don’t break apart, and one must resist from any adverse, self destructive reaction

Brilliant writing, screenplay and blessed with a talented cast – both young and the old. Some top-notch performances by Bajpayee, Amol Palekar, Simran Rishi Bagga ensured that this Gulmohar would spread its fragrance for years.

2 OMG 2 – Amit Rai

Long delayed, there wasn’t much expectation around OMG 2, especially since it was coming at a time when Akshay Kumar has been badly struggling. The buzz around its controversial plot perhaps made one worried whether this film will see light of the day. It did go through its journey with the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification].  Few alterations/cuts later, OMG 2 surprisingly got an A Certificate. A film that talks about sex education surely ought to be made available for kids above 12.

Nevertheless, OMG 2 beat all barriers to emerge triumphant in its message. A new director in Amit Rai, an altogether new story, milieu, and Pankaj Tripathi among many faces who joined the franchise.  If one observes carefully, OMG 2 saw a complete change in philosophy vis-a-vis Oh My God [2012]. The latter was all about questioning the business of religion. OMG 2 banks on religion to help leading character Sharad Mudgal [Pankaj Tripathi] save his son’s future after the latter was suspended from school over alleged indecent conduct. For a man who abides tradition, middle class cultural values, Mudgal’s transition into a liberal father wasn’t overnight.  He sensitized the reel court, and the real world on the issue of lack of proper sex education. The tone, language was all dignified. Therein lies the victory of Amit Rai and OMG 2. This is a film that had a vital social message, and mixed with the right dose of drama, humour amd class acts.

1 Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai – Apoorv Singh Karki

Apoorv Singh Karki, a relatively young man who has risen through the ranks in a spate of few years. He was lauded for the TVF series Aspirants [2021-2023]. We were introduced to his talent with the inspirational family, feminist drama series Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt Ltd [2022]. It didn’t come as a surprise when Zee5 trusted him to helm Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai – a film based on the true events pertaining to the rape and conviction of fake godman Asumal Sirumalani Harpalani aka Bapu Asaram.  Perhaps fearing backlash, the makers opted for a digital release. The paid internet trolls failed to block justice, both in the real and the reel. The Manoj Bajpayee-starrer crime thriller received all round acclaim. The positive reviews prompted the makers to later have a limited theatrical release. The box office didn’t matter. Millions who had seen the film on Zee5 were blown away by the gripping story, screenplay, and outstanding performances, led by the master Manoj Bajpayee and a spirited show by the female protagonist young Adrija Sinha.

Karki showed great sensitivity at handling a tricky story. The film’s strong writing is half the battle won. Bandaa shone for its intense drama, dialogues, and gripping background score. It’s USP lied in the court room battle where Karki created a right mix of drama, realism to give the audience a wholesome experience. Popular awards do would be committing a cardinal sin by bracketing this film into critic’s category. Cinephile, masses, commoner, niche, critics! All that is immaterial. Any individual with basic sensitivity wouldn’t hesitate in calling Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai the best Bollywood film of the year.

SPECIAL MENTION

The Song of Scorpions – Anup Singh

We’ve appreciated individual performances, but it would be unfair to include a Rajasthani film in this Bollywood list. Unheralded filmmaker Anup Singh’s fable-like story shone for its visual arts, folksy music, and individual brilliance by the two leads – late Irrfan Khan and international artiste Golshifteh Farahani. It’s layered story required absolute attention as it can be interpreted differently. Maybe that’s how the writer-director wanted it. You need to be rooted, and have a taste for such slow-burn to appreciate the beauty, the poignancy of this bizarre story.

Lakadbaggha – Victor Mukherjee

This one narrowly missed the cut in our listicle. Though sluggish at times, but director Victor Mukherjee’s film rams home its message of compassion for all living beings.  It’s a vigilante film, but about a man who loves animals more than humans. The three-leading cast – Anshuman Jha, Paresh Pahuja, and Ridhi Dogra were very impressive, Lakadbaggha perhaps has the most impressive, longest scene when Arjun [Jha] meets his cop girl friend Akshara’s [Ridhi Dogra] cold brother Aryan [Paresh Pahuja] over dinner. Their debate leads to an uneasy atmosphere. Despite their contrasting views on animals, both have few things in common. They are equally intelligent, sophisticated, and perhaps loners. In addition to the brilliant long scene, Lakadbaggha also has the most gorgeous intimate scene – featuring Jha and Dogra. The film has its flaws, but credit to the director, and actor-producer Jha for thinking of such a film.  This noble thought deserves a special mention.

Rewind 2023: Best Hindi films of the year

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