The first six months of the new decade have been the strangest. In January, protests raged across the country against a controversial new law that sought to assign citizenship based on religion. A few months later, in March, a large part of the crowd that had melted onto the streets had locked itself within the confines of their homes: unlike before, this time the virus was invisible but the disease that it spread was as contagious as hate.
Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed grief and trauma. We’re in mourning. Of not just lives lost but of a way of life lost. We’ve lost stars we loved dearly, whose art we looked upto to make sense of our lives. Some of us have lost friends and family and the experiences we promised ourselves this summer. In this interconnected morbidity, where we’re together in our isolation, the saddest bit is the quiet realisation that life as we knew it isn’t coming back. Not at least for the foreseeable future.
In times of such enormous uncertainty and overwhelming despair, we’ve found solace in the company of art: in music and literature, in comedy and cinema. We’ve turned to virtual parties and digital festivals to embed our realities with fictional narratives as we discover a world while navigating it, with no preexisting blueprint to guide us through.
Some of the hotly anticipated films delayed their arrival while others circumvented traditional exhibiting modes to go for a streaming release. If there was a common thread that tied together the overarching narrative of films and TV shows that stood out in the first half of this year, it would be marginalisation.
As India grappled with a traumatic humanitarian crisis that laid bare our broken systems, films about marginalised identities, whether religious, caste, class, gender or sexual, engulfed our screens, making us realise once more that art will help us power through this reality but not without making us witness it intimately.
Paatal Lok - Amazon Prime Video
In a span of 9 tightly-plotted episodes, this Anushka and Karnesh Sharma produced show paints a hauntingly acccurate portrait of modern India.
Directed by Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun, Paatal Lok features a performance of a lifetime by Jaideep Ahlawat who plays cop determined to prove a point to himself and to the institution whose uniform he adorns.
Paatal Lok sits at that uncomfortable intersection where two Indias collide. It dropped at a moment when this divide was perhaps most acutely visible - as one faction of India adjusted their seating to choreograph the perfect angle for a Zoom call, another one, abandoned by cities whose buildings they built and factories they ran, stuttered back in search of that elusive thing called home, with many dying along the way.
In a country fractured by majoritarian politics, the show investigates, with great specificity, the consequences of religious and caste supremacy, ideological imposition and institutionalised violence on those perched at the very margins of a rigidly hierarchal societal order. By using a low-ranking Delhi cop’s perspective as a conduit between the two Indias, Paatal Lok inverts the populist gaze. Here, it’s the left liberal intelligentsia who feels looked at and judged, their hollow and shape-shifting activism exposed as nothing but tools of self-aggrandisement.
While the show’s media subplot suffered from sketchy writing (saved by terrific performances), Paatal Lok was at its strongest when it employed a more inward-looking gaze, into the crimes and inside the minds of those committing them. Just what makes a monster? What provokes a young man to hammer out skulls and butcher bodies? The show narrativized a perspective that doesn’t get a chance to be seen, walking a tightrope of exploitation and depiction, without ever justifying the violence.
As Hathi Ram, after setting out on a treacherous journey (where he literally jumps into the wall of death) learns, the system is too intricately designed to be thwarted. It said that we don’t want to change the world because we want to see a changed world. We change the world because we want to change ourselves. Hathi Ram’s victory - if you can even call it that - doesn’t cause the slightest dent into the fortified walls of the power elite. But it convinces him that he’s worth a lot more than his pay-grade and the condescending gaze it comes with. For some fathers, that’s enough.
Eeb Allay Ooo!
Yet another film set in the capital, Prateek Vats Eeb Aallay Ooo is a hoot. It’s as joyous to watch as its title is to pronounce. And yet, beneath the satirical tone and a seemingly funny premise - a migrant man employed as a monkey-repeller in Lutyens’ Delhi - lies powerful commentary on the State and its indifferent relationship with its most vulnerable, marginalised citizens.
Vats captures the irony, the absurdity and the casual neglect and apathy with which migrant lives are received with in a country that deifies monkeys (Hanuman references are a recurring presence; starting from the name of the protagonist, Anjani) and demonises human beings.
Eeb Aalay Ooo also captures the unforgiving nature of Delhi and how the very least that it does in terms of employment is seemingly enough for someone who has seen, and has perhaps escaped from, even tougher conditions. So tough that a matchbox-sized house that Anjani shares with his sister and his brother-in-law, feels enough. But is it ever?
In depicting this episode, Vats trains his lens on an experience that has been quietly invisibilised from our cinema. The migrant, the mill worker, the factory employee, the angry young man, characters that once rebelled against the establishment have, in mainstream cinema, morphed into eager activists who issue valuable character certificates to the very architects of oppression.
Read against that context, Eeb Aallay Ooo! is a precious chronicle of our times. Its ending is a haunting indictment of our moral and spiritual failure (spoiler alert) - as Anjani melts into a crowd, morphing into the very primate he was enlisted to obviate, we see that his dehumanisation and indignation is complete. A city run by monkeys, after all, has no scope for anything as indulgent as humanity.
Kaamyaab - Netflix
One can never tire of watching a Sanjay Mishra performance. He excels in pauses. That lingering thought before he drops a line. In Hardik Mehta’s Kaamyaab, an ode to the multiple extras who populate a Bollywood movie set and make it one whole, we get to witness the full spectrum of Mishra’s astounding talent. It’s a performance that displaces and tops all his performances while also turning into a meta commentary on his career. Mishra, after all, is someone who’s getting his due only now.
Having slacked it out on the peripheries of Bollywood, so to speak, Mehta is able to conjure a believable version of the industry. The exhausting nature of a movie set, the silent tension that engulfs an audition, the overeager casting director (an impeccable Deepak Dobriyal) and ultimately, the loneliness of being an actor, especially after having seen the limelight only from a distance.
Kaamyaab’s victory lies in foregrounding and honouring the quiet struggles and forgotten successes (if they can be defined as such) of countless of those who descend into the city of stars with the dream of becoming one. At times, they succeed and when they do, some of them spend their lives hiding behind tinted car windows and dark sunglasses. At times when they don’t, they live. Like Sudheer reminds us when asked how he’s doing, “Bus enjoying life. Aur option hi kya hai?”
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan - Amazon Prime Video
By no means is this Hitesh Kewalya-directorial a perfect film but read against mainstream cinema’s history of caricaturing gay people and using the queer community as a source of ridicule, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is an honourable first step. Featuring Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar as gay lovers, the film laid out a blueprint within the paradigms of the mainstream on how to templatise a queer love story.
The effect? For those grappling with the complexities of coming out, the film offers a vocabulary, a reference point to normalise the conversation around homosexuality. Showing a popular leading man proudly donning a rainbow-hued cape sends out an emboldening message: our heroes can be gay and that’s quite alright.
Given that we don’t quite have a bank of similarly-themed movies to qualitatively measure this film against, the bar for a gay romance is already set low. The expectation? Bare minimum. For it to not be homophobic, especially unintentionally. And to avoid falling in the easy trap of making jokes at the expense of the sexuality of the characters. Both of which the film avoids.
As I wrote in my review, “the humour is always at the expense of those grappling with the ‘taboo’ of same-sex romance while the relationship between Kartik (Khurrana) and Aman (Jitendra Kumar) itself remains quietly dignified, never becoming a target of ridicule.”
Thappad - Amazon Prime Video
In a country where abuse is often treated as a dark expression of love and finds romanticised validation in pop-culture where it’s conflated with ‘passion’, Thappad is a film that cuts that dangerous narrative to size. It’s a deceptively simple film but one whose idea reverberates long after the lights come on.
The premise is simple: A homemaker in Delhi reassesses her seemingly happy marriage after her husband slaps her at a party in a moment of rage.
That moment, however, crystallises a deeper reality for Taapsee Pannu’s Amrita: the past injustices that she experienced but didn’t pause to reflect on have now become abundantly visible. The subsequent actions of her husband - where he apologises to the man who he originally fought with on the same night but doesn’t extend the same decency to his wife - make it even easier for Amrita to arrive at her final decision.
Told with great economy and exceptionally well-performed, Thappad is a biting indictment of male entitlement, the signs of which, the film argues, are visible right from the onset. By hingeing the entire narrative on a solitary incident, Anubhav Sinha and writer Mrunmayee Lagoo make a powerful, essential statement: letting the act pass would only embolden the aggressor. The film carefully avoids extending legitimacy to the reasoning behind the violence too. Because it understands that looking for an ‘explanation’ would indicate that there could be an explanation for Amrita to be slapped in the first place.
And still, it isn’t just Amrita’s story. There’s a woman more privileged than her -Netra (Maya Sarao) and one significantly less fortunate (Geetika Vidya), both of who confront abuse in the way they understand. Vidya’s character, unlike Amrita and Netra, doesn’t enjoy the luxury of seeking recourse in law. She responds to it the way she understands it: by mirroring the actions of her abusive husband.
However, the film’s best moment comes at the very end. It’s between Amrita’s father, played by a solid Kumud Mishra and Ratna Pathak Shah’s Sandhya. In this track, the father is progressive while his wife takes a conservative viewpoint. However, Sandhya had ambitions of pursuing music, which she gave up after marriage.
“Did I ever stop you?” the husband says, sure of his wokeness. “You didn’t encourage me to pursue it either.” The modesty, the humanity, the truth in that moment forces men to confront our own complicity in perpetuating a culture that’s designed to benefit us, at the expense of cutting short someone else’s dreams, desires and ambitions. Thappad is all-out excellent, the best film of 2020, a slap on misogyny and on films that romanticise it. More Amritas, less Kabir Singhs please.
Panchayat - Amazon Prime Video
If Panchayat was a movie released in theatres, it’d be the ‘sleeper hit’ of the year. The show, which feels like an updated-for-the-millennials version of a Doordarshan drama from the 80s, has a charming vibe and endearing performances, led by Jitendra Kumar, Raghubir Yadav, Chandan Roy and Neena Gupta. The characters these actors essay would feel right at home in a Hrishikesh Mukerjee film.
In an interesting spin, the story revolves around an unlikely reverse-migration. City-bred engineering graduate, Abhishek Tripathi, finds himself awake in the nights in the sleepy village of Phulera, where he gets a job as the secretary at the local Panchayat office. It’s not the job he wants, it’s the one that he gets and has to suffer.
However, make no mistake. Panchayat never fashions Tripathi as a saviour who’ll use his city swag and (misguided) urban superiority to save the village from drowning under the weight of its own buffoonery. Nope, he isn’t Mohan Bhargav, who the show takes a dig at. As a character, Tripathi is selfish. He wants to crack CAT and escape this reality where he’s lonely and frustrated, too exasperated to even change the ways of its inhabitants. If he does anything, it’s because he’s watching out for himself, not for a ‘larger cause.’
By capturing the monotony and minor wars that layer the lives of the people of Phulera, Panchayat offers a fascinating, richly observed character study of small-town India, presenting its absurdities and simplicity without condescension but with a quiet dignity and lived-in familiarity. For Amazon, it’s a triumph of sorts to have acquired it: this show is the polar opposite of Paatal Lok and yet it’s as authentic a tale of the Indian heartland as the other.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.