I get it, there’s something a little presumptuous about deeming a mere ten films as the most remarkable and influential movies in a decade, and that too from a pretty substantial region with four unique film industries.
However, there is an important utility in identifying and listing movies that have pushed the boundaries of the medium over the span of the past decade. While this list cannot be universally definitive, it still allows us to have a glimpse of the various cinematic and socio-cultural interventions that films from a particular geography have been making. It also offers us an opportunity to reflect and understand how each of these regional cinemas have been influencing each other, as well as their collective place in Indian and world cinema.
Thanga Meenkal (‘Gold Fish’, 2013, Tamil)
In Tamil cinema, the father-daughter relationship is often explored only in the context of another man entering the equation in the form of the girl’s boyfriend or husband. So, essentially, the narrative gets reduced to a conflict between two men vying for the same woman’s attention. In contrast to this stereotypical pattern, Ram daringly unpacks the beauty and messiness of a father-daughter relationship in Thanga Meenkal (and also later in Peranbu, 2018). By portraying an unrealistically idealistic but helpless father in Thanga Meenkal, Ram empathetically pushes the audience to ponder on what truly makes for a good father.
Maheshinte Prathikaaram (‘Mahesh’s Revenge’, 2016, Malayalam)
Dileesh Pothan’s debut film opens with a tranquil river stream, and the story too proceeds to flow like one. The beauty of Pothan’s narration lies in how he weaves the geography of the location into the film as an intrinsic character (this holds true for his second film, 2017’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, or ‘The Mainour and the Witness’, as well). In Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Pothan brings in a short story-esque quality to the film that follows a few dramatic events in the life of very regular people. Exploring the loss and gain of love and honour through its vulnerable and cinematically atypical male characters, the movie portrays men with unusual sensitivity. The characters and the circumstances seem so real that by the end of the film, you can almost smell the earthy scent that emerges when rain falls on dry soil.
Madras (2014, Tamil)
Before Pa Ranjith captured the attention of the nation with his Rajinikanth starrers Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), he made this vibrant, nuanced and layered film on the lives and politics of working-class Dalit-Bahujans in Chennai. While most pop-cultural references to Chennai generally include the likes of Carnatic music sabhas, filter coffee or the Mylapore temple—which are all synonymous with the lives of Brahmin Savarnas—Ranjith’s movie allows the working class to reclaim the city that was built with their blood and sweat. Madras is particularly significant for how it infuses Ambedkarite politics into mainstream Tamil cinema. The movie surrealistically portrays an intimidating wall as both a living character and a symbol of political capital and demonstrates it as the point of conflict.
Adaminte Makan Abu (‘Abu, Son of Adam’, 2011, Malayalam)
Some of the most humanistic tales on the lives of Muslims have come from Malayalam cinema. In this film, Salim Ahamed follows the aspirations and struggles of an elderly Muslim couple who aspire to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Capturing the nuances of Kerala’s Malabar region, the film is a treatise on faith, hope, perseverance and compassion. Actor Salim Kumar who won the National Award for his role, delivers one of the best performances of his career. The movie’s climax statement on the beginning and ending of human pursuits is undeniably one of the most poetic closures.
Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (‘The Wolf and the Lamb’, 2013, Tamil)
Mysskin’s allegorical jungle tale is both primal and philosophical at the same time. In this immensely gripping film, where the roles of the hunter and the hunted are interchangeable, Mysskin nudges us to contemplate on the extreme violence and the extraordinary compassion that humans are capable of. The filmmaker himself stars as the ‘wolf’ and delivers one of the decade’s best monologue moments. Mysskin is a self-declared student and fan of Akira Kurosawa, and in Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum he gets as close to the Japanese filmmaker as possible. The song-less movie is further elevated by Ilayaraaja’s mind-blowing background score.
C/o Kancharapalem (2018, Telugu)
Set in the narrow lanes of Kancharapalem, a locality in Visakhapatnam, this indie film by Maha Venkatesh is all heart. The movie empathetically captures the unusual love stories of characters who are rarely found in the cinematic universe. Populated primarily by non-professional actors, the charm of the movie lies in how it is able to non-judgmentally look at all its characters. Apart from the quirkiness and the loveliness of the individual stories, the movie also manages to smoothly weave each strand into a wider socio-political context. The film’s whimsical soundtrack makes the narrative even more memorable. C/o Kancharapalem is solid proof of the fact that classics can be created even on a shoe-string budget with the right filmmakers at the helm. And if the words ‘lovely’ and ‘charming’ are overused in this note on the movie, it is only because the movie is such.
Kuttram Kadithal (‘The Punishment’, 2015, Tamil)
Bramma’s National Award-winning film is an intense meditation on sin, guilt, punishment and forgiveness. While the movie offers an important critique of the prevalent system of education, the most interesting aspect of Kuttram Kadithal is its portrayal of its woman protagonist. While much of Indian cinema is unable to think beyond sexual or other forms of violence whenever a central female character is involved, Bramma’s film poignantly follows the character of Merlin, a devout Christian and a school teacher (played by the terrific Radhika Prasidhha) as she grapples with an acute sense of guilt.
Aedan: Garden of Desire (2018, Malayalam)
In this film that reveals itself as a story within a story, Sanju Surendran flirts with the real and the surreal. Although set in a village in Kottayam, its characters could very well be from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Exploring the complexities of human emotions—lust, passion and jealousy—Surendran takes us through a story that is unhurried but gripping at the same time. The three criss-crossing stories are narrated with a lyrical visual quality that allows Surendran to contrast beauty and pain through desire and death.
Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (‘Love Too Shall Pass’, 2016, Tamil)
To bypass Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum (‘Gambling will Befall’, 2013) and make space for his second film might appear like a surprise choice. But if you closely look at how Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum beautifully explores and portrays the delicate space between friendship and romance, it might be easy to see why. In this slow-brewing tale that feels like a prequel to the romantic story that might follow, Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian deliver one of their most charming yet realistic performances. The scene where the two characters hug each other for the first time might be one of the subtlest yet most poignant moments in the Tamil romantic genre. While the film is a remake of the Korean movie My Dear Desperado, Kumarasamy effortlessly localizes it to the Tamil milieu and makes it his own.
Thithi (‘Funeral’, 2015, Kannada)
Capturing the story of four generations of men in a Gowda family, the secret to the efficacy of Ram Reddy’s film lies in how accurately screenwriter Ere Gowda understands the village Node Koppalu (Mandya district, Karnataka) and its people. The film captures the series of events that follow the death of the eldest ‘Century’ Gowda and the events are both realistic and absurdist at the same time. It involves the conflicting pursuits of the men from three subsequent generations in the family and the enthusiastic villagers who are hoping for an extravagant feast at the funeral. While the chaotic and philosophical nature of the film reminds one of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Thithi is firmly rooted in its regional socio-political setting. The convincing performances of the non-professional actors helps immensely in keeping the narrative very authentic.
Lucia (2013, Kannada)
OK, it might seem like cheating to push for an eleventh film in a list of ten films. But then again, for a film like Lucia that bends all existing cinematic rules, one should be allowed to bend the rules of a list as well. Pawan Kumar’s film about the parallel lives of its protagonist as an usher and a film star plays tricky mind games with the viewer and constantly shifts between the real and imagined worlds. In addition, the film offers an important commentary on the state of Kannada cinema and the death of single-screen theatres. Lucia will undoubtedly continue to remain an important film for pushing the boundaries of cinematic narratives.
Apart from the above listed films, there are some that deserve a special mention. In Tamil, this includes Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam (‘Playground’, 2011) for its Greek tragedy-like conflict; Selva Raghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan (‘One Man in a Thousand’, 2010) for its sheer craziness; Kamalakannan’s Madhubana Kadai (‘Liquor Store’, 2012) for its important critique on the State’s monopoly over liquor distribution; Halitha Shameem’s Poovarasam Peepee (‘Whistle Made Of Poovarasam Leaves’, 2014) for exploring the world of children; and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (‘The God on a Horse’, 2018) for capturing the violent reality of caste. In Malayalam, the other notable films are Rajeev Ravi’s lyrical Annayum Rasoolum (‘Anna and Rasool’, 2013), Aashiq Abu’s poignant Mayaanadhi (‘Mystic River’, 2017) and Zakariya Mohammed’s sports drama Sudani from Nigeria (2018).