It was only after the state government of Maharashtra announced the opening of cinema halls on October 22, 2021 that theatrical release announcements for some of the most anticipated, big-budget Bollywood films started to roll in one after another. After all, its capital city 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 decline in COVID spread across the country. Nevertheless, the trend of Hindi films releasing on streaming platforms isn’t going away. So 2021 still offered up a wide range of films to check out, at the theater or at home.
Here are our picks for the 10 best Bollywood films of 2021:
Although there’s now a wariness about watching Netflix India anthology films because they prove to be a mixed bag, there are a few reasons to check Ajeeb Daastaans out. The first one being the chapter starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari called Geeli Puchi. Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, a filmmaker who comes from a Dalit (formerly untouchable) background and has spoken about the lack of Dalit representation in Indian cinema, it tells the story of an evolving friendship between two women. Their complicated relationship addresses issues of caste, class and sexuality with an assured hand. Sharma is brilliant as always and Hydari gets to add some nuance to the pretty paramour roles she’s known for. Ankahi is an interesting take on the well-worn narrative of a fraying marriage, using deafness as a plot and craft device. The result is touching in parts—however, the lack of dialogue also means there’s occasional overwrought acting.
When Bunty Aur Babli came out in 2005, there was a freshness in the pairing of Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, two A-list actors playing small-time con artists who go bigger with each fraud they manage to pull off. There was smart writing, lilting songs and genuine chemistry between Mukherjee and Bachchan that gave the movie a deft touch. This sequel tries to recreate that magic. Saif Ali Khan replaces Bachchan as Bunty, but Mukherjee reprises her role as the original Babli. The two have been living a retired life, giving up their misadventures as scam artists. Turns out there is a new con artist duo in town, and they are threatening Bunty and Babli’s legacy. The two conning duos go head to head. The sequel doesn’t quite match the original’s magic, although the younger Bunty and Babli pair (Siddhant Chaturvedi and Sharvari Wagh) show some sparkle.
Hindi cinema is taking slow steps in creating narratives around the LGBTQ+ community, which can be seen as a step towards inclusion. You could call Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui another one of those steps, despite the many problems it presents. Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a beefed-up gym owner, with a bunch of gym rat friends and a meddlesome family. One day, Zumba instructor Manvi (Vaani Kapoor) saunters into his gym and life. Sparks fly, things get hot and heavy real fast. Except, Manvi is a trans woman, who has had sex reassignment surgery. This revelation has Manu go through a series of crises, while educating the audience about the challenges that Manvi has had to face. There are several issues to raise about Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui: Kapoor is a cis actor playing a trans character; while the movie show some awareness of trans issues, there are also several cringeworthy moments serving stereotypical ideas about queer identity; and, in the end, the movie uses Manvi’s story for Manu’s personal growth. As far as queer representation in Hindi movies go, it would be great to see more movies in the future where queer characters can simply exist, and not require their identity to drive the plot.
Haseen Dillruba is played out as a pulpy crime thriller, whose lens is firmly trained on lead actress Taapsee Pannu playing Rani, a newly married woman trying to figure her place in her husband’s home. However, its charm lies in following the supporting 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. The naïve Rishabh marries Rani, despite his mother’s protestations that Rani is too smart for him, because he’s smitten. Except it takes more than passing fancy to maintain a marriage, as Rani and Rishabh find out soon after the wedding is over. Throw in a beefcake distant relative, and the relationship becomes toxic. Someone dies. Who it is and how it happened forms the basis of the plot. While the film is entertaining enough, and some might see the plot twist from a mile away, the standout performances by the actors playing Rishabh’s parents add to the humor.
This is a bit of a cheat two-fer-one pick, especially since Pagglait released two months after Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. However, both stories covered similar ground. (There was also some controversy around the two similarly themed films, and whose idea may have come first—but both are distinct in their own way, and should be watched for their own merits.) The common factor in both films is the gathering of family to mourn the loss of a loved one. In the case of Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, it’s the patriarch of a family; while in Pagglait, it’s the young son. You could call Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi an ensemble production, relying on a whole cast of formidable character actors. It’s the directorial debut of Seema Pahwa, a theatre/TV/film stalwart, known for her performances in recent films such as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Bareilly Ki Barfi. Pagglait, meanwhile, is focused on the young widow, whose husband dies just five months after the marriage. Her parents and in-laws, extended family and best friend gather to mourn the loss and figure out next steps. There’s humor and pathos in both families as relationships are negotiated.
A much anticipated film by critically acclaimed director Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Shanghai), Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar has been described as a black comedy—which is familiar terrain for Banerjee. Expectations are challenged right from their names: The brooding and boorish Arjun Kapoor is Pinky, a cop temporarily relieved from duty; Parineeti Chopra is Sandeep, a polished banker who keeps her cards close to her chest. Pinky is tasked with kidnapping Sandeep, but plans go awry and both of them end up on the run. Along the way, sensibilities on class, gender, privilege and the urban-rural divide are challenged.
You’d be forgiven if you thought that this was a Hindi nature documentary masquerading as a fiction film. Amit Masurkar’s previous film Newton was a biting satire on Indian democracy by examining the election process in a remote village. In Sherni, he shows us the copious amount of research he’s done into wildlife conservation and tiger poaching—which can be tedious at times. Nevertheless, it was a welcome change to see Vidya Balan play a lead role with understated heft, as the forest officer in charge of a rural area prone to tiger attacks. While dealing with nature, she also has to deal with an office full of inept or corrupt colleagues and superiors, and manage her relationship with her husband mostly via video chat. There are allies in the field and academia, however. Who triumphs in the end: Man or nature? There are no easy answers.
Rohit Shetty has fine-tuned his formula of car chases and cop drama through previous movies Singham and Simmba. A remake of a 2011 Tamil film, Singham starred Ajay Devgn in the role of an honest cop, who regularly breaks the law in order to uphold it. The motto of Shetty’s films can be summed up as such: Loha lohe ko kaat-ta hai (loosely translated, iron cuts iron). Given the amount of corruption in the police force, justice is usually meted by bending the rules or downright ignoring them. Cops in Shetty’s universe would laugh uproariously at accusations of police brutality. Throw in some thrilling car chases, meme-worthy dialogue, as well as a soupcon of misogyny—you have a winning formula. Shetty reprised the same idea in Singham Returns (2014) and then Simmba (2018), switching out the lead role to actor Ranveer Singh, who plays a corrupt cop on a mission with unabashed glee in the latter film. The stakes are even higher in Sooryavanshi with Akshay Kumar now in the titular role, fighting Islamic terrorism. Stereotypes abound, the chase scenes more and more elaborate, and the dialogue is bombastic.
When she isn’t rabble-rousing on Twitter, Kangana Ranaut can be a good actress. Occasionally. She’s the main reason to watch Thalaivii, a biopic of the intriguing Tamil film star turned politician Jayalalitha. Is it problematic that a North Indian actress who can’t speak Tamil played such an iconic role? Ranaut would likely not even dignify that question with an answer. However, there are many reasons why she’s perfect for the role that required her to maintain a sense of aloof dignity and vulnerability. Thalaivii tells the story of the rise of an ingenue, who attaches herself to charismatic actor-turned-politician MGR (Arvind Swamy) and then takes on his mantle, much to the chagrin of MGR loyalists. Those expecting a factual representation will be disappointed. This evocation of the late ‘70s era of politics in the southern state of Tamil Nadu leading up to recent times is more a hagiography than a critical account.
Hindi cinema doesn’t do full justice to sports movies unless they’re about cricket. Even then, Bollywood’s scorecard on this front has been pretty dismal. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Toofaan is a mediocre attempt for a film set in the boxing ring that also addresses religious and class differences. Aziz is a small-time gangster turned boxer, who aspires to rise in the boxing ranks. To do so, he needs to train with Narayan Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), whom everyone calls Nana. Aziz is Muslim, Nana is Hindu and this film is set in contemporary India—so Nana doesn’t take kindly to Aziz romancing his daughter Ananya. Family and sports drama ensues. If you really want to see a contemporary boxing film that lands several punches, you’d be better served watching Sarpatta Parambarai, a Tamil period piece that addresses caste issues while delivering some knockout performances.
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.