Indian cinema, of course, is about more than just Bollywood. As always, there were more Tamil and Telugu films released this year than Hindi. Meanwhile, while Marathi cinema's on-going renaissance of sorts continued, Bengali cinema also pushed out a few gems, as did the Malayalam film industry.
In recent years, regional films have been upping their game and making up for what some of them lack — in comparison to Bollywood — by way of budgets and star power (not applicable to the Tamil and Telugu industries, of course) with good cinematic content. Some of the best films in different Indian languages this year have a few things in common: they have been made by first-time directors, and many of them either don't have stars or feature stars in relatively subdued roles. Unfortunately, due to language barriers, it can safely be said that no regional film truly gets its due since they don't really find pan-India releases. Exceptions include dubbed versions of big Tamil or Telugu films, such as SS Rajamouli's Baahubali: The Beginning this year, whose Hindi version also fared exceptionally well at the box-office.
However, this year there seemed to be more general awareness of certain regional films in some of the metros, where critically acclaimed films such as Chaitanya Tamhane's Court (Marathi, with some Hindi, English, and Gujarati dialogues) and M Manikandan's Kaaka Muttai (Tamil) reached audiences outside of their home territories.
Here, therefore, is a list of notable regional films that released in theatres this year, separated by language, and compiled with suggestions from Baradwaj Rangan (film critic for The Hindu), Sudhish Kamath (former film critic for The Hindu; now a full-time filmmaker), Pratim D Gupta (film critic for The Telegraph and a filmmaker), Sethumadhavan (founder-editor of the film blog MadAboutMoviez), and Aniruddha Chatterjee (Kolkata-based screenwriter).
Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, by Vignesh Sivan
A black comedy-action film about a deaf woman (Nayanthara) seeking revenge against a gangster with the help of a 'rowdy' (Vijay Sethupati), Naanum Rowdy Dhaan was appreciated by critics and audiences alike.
O Kadhal Kanmani, by Mani Ratnam
Ratnam's 22nd directorial venture, a bilingual that also released in Telugu as OK Bangaram, is a youthful film of two Mumbai-based yuppies (technically yuccies) in a live-in relationship. Critics had their problems with it but praised its depiction of the subject; Rangan, in his annual round-up, called it "the classiest romance of the year".
Thani Oruvan, by Mohan Raja
Director Raja (dubbed 'Xerox Raja' by some sections of the media) is generally known as a remake specialist in Tamil cinema, which explains why critics and audiences have been surprised by his first original film. Starring Jayam Ravi, Nayanthara, and marking a triumphant return for Arvind Swamy (Roja, Bombay) as an antagonist, Thani Oruvan has been hailed as an intelligent thriller with satisfying pulp value.
Kaaka Muttai, by M Manikandan
One of the year's most loved Indian films, Manikandan's debut is a light-hearted story of two boys in a Chennai slum with one goal: to be able to walk into the new air-conditioned pizza parlour not far from their house and bite into a slice. With a story reminiscent of Iranian films by the likes of Majid Majidi, Kaaka Muttai was described by Rangan as being "part crowd-pleasing art film, part arty crowd-pleaser".
Papanasam, by Jeethu Joseph
This year saw two remakes of the same film: Joseph's own Malayalam thriller Drishyam, remade by Nishikanth Kamat with the same title in Hindi (starring Ajay Devgn and Tabu); and Papanasam in Tamil. This version, helmed by Joseph himself, earned strong reviews as well, with unanimous praise for Kamal Haasan's performance as a middle-class cable TV operator who goes to great lengths to protect his family.
Ennakul Oruvan , by Prasad Ramar
This remake of the impressive Kannada film Lucia (2013) by first-timer Ramar was remoulded into a more commercially palatable Tamil version starring Siddharth (Rang De Basanti). While it was criticised somewhat for abandoning its original's indie spirit, Ennakul Oruvan still managed to garner enough praise on the back of its unconventional, non-linear structure and concept.
Indru Netru Naalai, by R Ravi Kumar
A sci-fi comedy, Kumar's debut film is about a scientist (Arya) who invents a time machine in the year 2065 and sends it back to 2015, following which all hell breaks loose. Reviews praised the deft direction and deemed it a worthy entrant in an unusual genre for Indian cinema.
Kuttram Kadithal, by Bramma G
This year's National Award winner for best Tamil film, this debut feature is a drama that explores the inadequacies of the education system. Hailed for preserving simplicity even as it deals with a number of weighty themes, Kuttram Kadithal depicts a butterfly-effect-like chain of events that takes place after a young schoolboy innocently kisses his female classmate on her birthday.
Darling, by Sam Anton
More of a crowd-pleaser than a critics' darling, this one. A horror comedy featuring the acting debut of composer GV Prakash Kumar (AR Rahman's nephew), Darling earned a few positive reviews for its writing and performances. It is a remake of the Telugu film Prema Katha Chitram (2013).
Orange Mittai, by Biju Viswanath
A road movie about a young paramedic who gets closure about unresolved issues with his deceased father during a long ride to the hospital with an elderly heart patient, Orange Mittai premiered at this year's Busan International Film Festival and received universally positive reviews from Tamil movie critics.
Kirumi, by Anucharan
A thriller about a young man who becomes a police informant only to find his life turned upside-down, Kirumi has been praised for its low-key aesthetic and debutant Anucharan's canny understanding of the medium.
Rajathandhiram, by AG Amid
A sleeper hit, this heist thriller about three small-time crooks who attempt their first big job has been widely praised as one of this year's best in Tamil cinema. Once again, this is a debut feature.
Court, by Chaitanya Tamhane
This one's a no-brainer, of course. Debutant Tamhane's searing, wondrously confident courtroom drama about a folk singer accused of abetting a manhole worker's suicide may not have made it to the final short-list for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, but has garnered only unanimous praise from critics around the world. With 30 international awards (and a National Award) under its belt, it's safe to call Court a classic of Indian cinema.
Killa, by Avinash Arun
A charming story of boyhood and friendship, this award-winning film is one of the year's best. Director-cinematographer Arun (who also shot Masaan and the Hindi Drishyam this year) gave us indelible imagery and elicited fantastic performances from his child actors, with young Parth Bhalerao (Bhootnath Returns) being singled out by most reviews for his lovable scamp act.
Katyar Kaljat Ghusli, by Subodh Bhave
Cheesy but winsome, Bhave's ambitious period musical drama about a long-running feud between two Hindustani classical vocalists belonging to different gharanas and religions pulled out all the stops. Thankfully, it was all the more entertaining for it. While Marathi-speaking audiences may have doubtless enjoyed watching one of their favourite actors, Sachin Pilgaonkar, in a role that requires him to speak only in chaste Urdu, credit must be given to singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan's confident acting debut as well as the fabulous music.
Khwada, by Bhaurao Karhade
Karhade, a farmer from Ahmednagar, famously sold off his family's land to make this film about shepherds affected by land acquisition by the forest department. The gamble, which played out over nearly six years, paid off: the film won two National Awards, a Special Jury Prize for him and another for audiography. Some reviews criticised its climax, but all agreed that it was a sincere and courageous film to have made.
Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour Of Love), by Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Described as "a lyrical masterpiece", Sengupta's lovingly-crafted first feature released in theatres this year after picking up a respectable haul of awards, including one for direction at Venice and, subsequently, a National Award for best debut film. A dreamy, wordless film about a married couple in recession-hit Calcutta, Asha Jaoar Majhe has been universally praised for the beautiful camerawork by Mahendra Shetty (Udaan) and Sengupta, as well as the impressive sound design.
Nirbashito, by Churni Ganguly
Veteran actress Ganguly directs and stars in this film based loosely on the life of controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin. When sent into exile, the author is separated from her cat, and it is this separation that forms the backbone of this story. A number of liberties have been taken, but the film, which won two National Awards this year, has been praised for its uniformly excellent performances and making pertinent observations about freedom, exile, and artistic liberty.
Natoker Moto, by Debesh Chatterjee
A drama based on the tragic life of Bengali theatre actress Keya Chakraborty, Natoker Moto (which means 'like a play') earned lead actress Paoli Dam several accolades for her performance. Yes, this is the same actress who was in Hate Story (2012).
Belar Seshe, by Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee
More than three decades after they were seen together in Satyajit Ray's Ghare Baire (1984), Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta return in this drama that looks at an aged couple ending their marriage of 49 years, and how it affects their grown-up children as well as their respective families.
Qissa: The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost, by Anup Singh
A beautifully-shot film set in post-Partition Punjab, Singh's sophomore feature is about a young girl (played by Tillotama Shome) who is raised as a boy by her rigid and stern father (Irrfan Khan). Combining historical realism and surrealistic elements, the film was noted by critics for its performances and unconventional storyline.
Vidaaya, by P Sheshadri
A doyen of parallel Kannada cinema with multiple National Awards to his name, Sheshadri returned this year with yet another film that impressed critics. Audiences and critics appreciated his sensitive handling of an oft-explored subject: a man left in a vegetative state after a car accident requests euthanasia, and his reluctant wife becomes the target of a trial-by-media as a woman who is intent on killing her husband.
Rangitaranga, by Anup Bhandari
Ashutosh Gowariker has already announced a Hindi remake of this acclaimed mystery thriller. Directed by debutant Bhandari, Rangitaranga — which deals with black magic practices and crime in a fictional Karnataka village — did great business at the box-office and was lauded by audiences and critics alike for its strong story, performances, and cinematography.
Aatagara, by KM Chaitanya
This stylised, indie take on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None took 10 motley characters and placed them in the midst of a fictional reality show on a remote island. Critics agreed that the film, made by the director of the acclaimed Aa Dinagalu (2007), had enough bang for the audience's buck.
Kendasampige, by Duniya Soori
Soori is regarded as one of Kannada cinema's most stylish and exciting directors and his latest outing seems to have further cemented that reputation. Part romantic rich-girl-meets-poor-boy love story, part road movie, and part thriller, Kendasampige has been ranked as one of Soori's best works, with reviews singling out its realistic treatment and bang-on casting for praise.
Naanu Avanalla...Avalu, by BS Lingadevaru
Actor Sanchari Vijay won Best Actor at this year's National Awards for his portrayal of Living Smile Vidya, a transgender upon whose autobiography this film is based. Widely praised for its humanistic depiction of the transgender community, the film was initially boycotted by single-screens for its non-commercial subject; however, after support from top Kannada stars like Yash and Sudeep as well as filmmakers Ram Gopal Varma and Girish Kasaravalli, the standoff was quelled and the film ended up finding a respectable release.
Ottaal, by Jayaraj
Maverick Malayalam director Jayaraj helmed this present-day adaptation of Anton Chekhov's short story Vanka, which tells the story of a boy and his relationship with his grandfather. The film, which won several awards before its November release, was praised by critics for its subtlety and realism.
Pathemari, by Salim Ahamed
The National-Award-winning director of Adaminte Makan Abu (2011) returned this year with a film about a scenario that's rather common in Kerala: migration to the Gulf countries in search of better job opportunities. Superstar Mammootty garnered praise for his convincing 'everyman' turn, as did Ahamed and sound designer Resul Pookutty for their work.
Ennu Ninte Moideen, by RS Vimal
One of the year's biggest commercial successes, Ennu Ninte Moideen is based on the real-life story of star-crossed lovers Moideen and Kanchanamala, which took place in the '60s and '70s. Rangan, in his review of the film, observed: "We respond to the film because few among us have experienced a love so mythic — it's the amative equivalent of cheering for Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who conquered Everest."
Premam, by Alphonse Putharen
A massive box-office hit, Premam was hailed as a thoroughly entertaining coming-of-age musical comedy. Critics especially praised its characterisation, song sequences, and humour. Reportedly, the frenzy surrounding the film reached such heights that, after a screening in Kozhikode was halted mid-way due to a technical snag, a section of the audience turned violent and vandalised the theatre.
Nee-Na, by Lal Jose
Despite receiving mixed reviews, Nee-Na is said to be one of the year's better Malayalam films. A story about two women, Neena (Deepti Sati) and Nalini (Ann Augustine), both of whom are in love with Nalini's husband Vinay (Vijay Babu), it was appreciated for its music and performances.
Baahubali: The Beginning, by SS Rajamouli
The mother of all obvious choices. The biggest film in Indian cinema, made by perhaps the hottest director working in the industry today, Baahubali: The Beginning was hailed by audiences and critics as a spectacle unlike anything we've ever seen before. With revolutionary action scenes and CGI (for Indian cinema), it was made at a fraction of the budgets its Hollywood equivalents get to play with. Fans across the country, both old and newly-converted, are now eagerly awaiting its second installment to answer the question that has bothered every viewer: why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?
Bhale Bhale Magadivoy, by Maruthi
Dasari is generally known for his unabashedly commercial sensibilities and reliance on adult humour. However, in his latest outing, he surprised critics with an uncharacteristically clean laugh riot about an absent-minded young scientist in a relationship with a kuchipudi dancer that avoided some of his usual formulaic elements.
Srimanthudu, by Koratala Siva
Described as a typically Tollywood take on Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades (2004), this drama starring star Mahesh Babu and Shruti Haasan ended up becoming the second most successful Telugu film of all time. However, despite its overt commercial elements, this film — about a young heir to a business empire who ends up adopting his ancestral village — was lauded by critics for its relative restraint. It also had significant positive real-life impact, with several celebrities and bureaucrats in Andhra Pradesh reportedly taking inspiration from the film and adopting individual villages in order to help bring about development — something even the Prime Minister's Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana couldn't manage.