It was only after the state government of Maharashtra announced the opening of theaters on October 22, 2021, that theatrical release announcements of some of Bollywood’s most anticipated and big budget films have started to follow one another. After all, its capital Mumbai is home to the Hindi film industry. While the rest of the country had already opened theaters earlier in 2021, some at full capacity, Maharashtra allowed a half-capacity opening, noting the substantial drop in the spread of COVID across the country. Nonetheless, the trend for Hindi films to be released on streaming platforms is not going away. 2021 therefore still offered a wide choice of films to discover, at the cinema or at home.
Here is our pick of the 10 best Bollywood movies of 2021:
While there is now some suspicion in watching Netflix India anthology movies because they turn out to be a mixed bag, there are a few reasons to check it out. Ajeeb Daastaans outside. The first being the chapter starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari called Geeli Puchi. Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, a filmmaker from a Dalit background (formerly untouchable) who spoke about the lack of representation of Dalits in Indian cinema, it tells the story of an evolving friendship between two women. Their complicated relationship approaches questions of caste, class, and sexuality with a steady hand. Sharma is bright as always and Hydari adds some nuance to the cute love roles she is known for. Ankahi is an interesting take on the hackneyed tale of a fraying marriage, using deafness as a plot and handcrafted device. The result is touching in some parts, however, the lack of dialogue also means there is sometimes overworked acting.
When Bunty Aur Babli released in 2005, there was a freshness in the pairing of Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, two prominent actors playing petite crooks who get bigger with every cheat they manage to pull off. There was clever writing, singing songs and a real chemistry between Mukherjee and Bachchan that gave the film a skillful touch. This sequel tries to recreate that magic. Saif Ali Khan replaces Bachchan as Bunty, but Mukherjee returns to his role as the original Babli. The two have lived retired lives, abandoning their misadventures as crooks. Turns out there’s a new duo of crooks in town, and they’re threatening Bunty and Babli’s legacy. The two duos of crooks clash. The sequel doesn’t quite match the magic of the original, although the younger pair of Bunty and Babli (Siddhant Chaturvedi and Sharvari Wagh) show a bit of sparkle.
Hindi cinema is making slow progress in creating narratives around the LGBTQ + community, which can be seen as a step towards inclusion. You could call Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui another of these stages, despite the many problems it presents. Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a muscular gym owner, with a group of gym rat friends and an indiscreet family. One day, Zumba instructor Manvi (Vaani Kapoor) walks through his gym and his life. Sparks fly, things get hot and heavy very quickly. Except that Manvi is a trans woman, who has undergone gender reassignment surgery. This revelation takes Manu through a series of crises, while raising public awareness of the challenges Manvi has had to face. There are several issues to be raised about Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui: Kapoor is a cis actor playing a trans character; while the film shows some awareness of trans issues, there are also several newsworthy moments serving stereotypical ideas about queer identity; and, at the end, the film uses Manvi’s story for Manu’s personal growth. When it comes to queer representation in Hindi movies, it would be great to see more movies in the future where queer characters can just exist and not need their identities to drive the plot.
Haseen Dillruba is played as a luscious crime thriller, the focus of which is firmly on lead actress Taapsee Pannu playing Rani, a newly married woman trying to find her place in her husband’s house. However, her charm lies in following the side characters who play her in-laws. Rani marries Rishabh because he seems like a nice enough guy, especially when the guy she was dating didn’t seem to be interested in a long term commitment. Naive Rishabh marries Rani, despite his mother’s protests that Rani is too smart for him because he is in love. Except that it takes more than just fantasy to maintain a marriage, as Rani and Rishabh find out soon after the marriage ends. Add a distant relative to the beef and the relationship turns toxic. Someone dies. Who it is and how it happened forms the basis of the plot. While the movie is entertaining enough, and some may see the plot unfolding a mile and a half away, the stellar performances by the actors playing Rishabh’s parents add to the humor.
It’s a bit of a two-for-one cheat, especially since Pagged released two months later Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. However, the two stories covered similar ground. (There was also some controversy surrounding the two similarly themed films, and the idea may have come first, but the two are separate in their own way and should be watched for their own merits.) The Common Factor at both films is the family reunion to mourn the loss of a loved one. In the case of Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, he is the patriarch of a family; while in Pagged, this is the young son. You could call Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi an overall production, based on a whole cast of actors of formidable character. This is the film debut of Seema Pahwa, a theater, television and film star known for her performances in recent films such as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Bareilly Ki Barfi. Pagged, meanwhile, focuses on the young widow, whose husband dies just five months after marriage. Her parents and in-laws, extended family and best friend come together to mourn the loss and determine next steps. There is humor and pathos in both families as relationships are negotiated.
A highly anticipated film from critically acclaimed director Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Shanghai), Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar has been described as a dark comedy, which is familiar territory for Banerjee. Expectations are called into question from their names: the brooding and boorish Arjun Kapoor is Pinky, a cop temporarily relieved of his duties; Parineeti Chopra is Sandeep, a polite banker who keeps her cards close to her chest. Pinky is tasked with kidnapping Sandeep, but plans go wrong and the two end up on the run. Along the way, sensitivities about class, gender, privilege, and urban-rural divide are challenged.
You would be forgiven if you thought this was a Hindi nature documentary masquerading as a fictional film. Amit Masurkar’s previous film Newton was a biting satire on Indian democracy by examining the electoral process in a remote village. In Sherni, he shows us the amount of research he has done on wildlife conservation and tiger poaching, which can be tedious at times. Nonetheless, it was a welcome change to see Vidya Balan playing a leading role with understated weight, as the forestry officer in charge of a rural area prone to tiger attack. While dealing with nature, she also has to deal with an office full of incompetent or corrupt colleagues and superiors, and manage her relationship with her husband mainly through video chat. There are, however, allies on the ground and in academia. Who ultimately triumphs: man or nature? There are no easy answers.
Rohit Shetty has refined his formula for car chases and police drama through previous films Singham and Simmba. A remake of a 2011 Tamil movie, Singham played Ajay Devgn as an honest cop, who regularly breaks the law to uphold it. The motto of Shetty’s films can be summed up as follows: Loha lohe ko kaat-ta hai (loosely translated, iron cuts iron). Given the extent of corruption within the police force, justice is usually served by bending the rules or outright ignoring them. The cops in Shetty’s universe were laughing at the accusations of police brutality. Add in thrilling car chases, meme-like dialogue, and a soup of misogyny – you have a winning formula. Shetty took up the same idea in Singham’s return (2014) then Simmba (2018), replacing the lead role with actor Ranveer Singh, who plays a corrupt cop on a mission with unwavering glee in this latest film. The stakes are even higher in Sooryavanshi with Akshay Kumar now in the titular role, fighting against Islamic terrorism. Stereotypes abound, the chase scenes more and more elaborate, and the dialogues are bombastic.
When she’s quiet on Twitter, Kangana Ranaut can be a good actress. Occasionally. She is the main reason to watch Thalaïvie, a biopic of the intriguing Tamil movie star turned politician Jayalalitha. Is it problematic that an actress from North India who does not speak Tamil has played such an iconic role? Ranaut probably wouldn’t even honor that question with an answer. However, there are plenty of reasons why she’s perfect for the role that required her to keep a sense of dignity and vulnerability out of the way. Thalaïvie tells the story of the rise of an ingenuous, who becomes attached to the charismatic actor turned politician MGR (Arvind Swamy) and then takes his coat, to the chagrin of the faithful of MGR. Those who expect factual representation will be disappointed. This evocation of the political era of the late 1970s in the southern state of Tamil Nadu until recent times is more of a hagiography than a critical narrative.
Hindi cinema does not do full justice to sports films unless they are about cricket. Even then, Bollywood’s scoreboard on this front has been pretty dismal. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Toofaan is a poor attempt at a boxing ring set movie that also addresses religious and class differences. Aziz is a little gangster turned boxer who aspires to climb the boxing ladder. To do this, he has to train with Narayan Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), who everyone calls Nana. Aziz is a Muslim, Nana is a Hindu and this film is set in contemporary India. Nana therefore does not appreciate that Aziz tells about his romance with his daughter Ananya. A family and sports drama ensues. If you really want to see a contemporary boxing movie that delivers multiple punches, you better watch Sarpatta Parambarai, a Tamil-era piece that addresses caste issues while delivering breathtaking performances.
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life journalist in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie at the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi-language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find it on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of his guilty pleasures.