The year that we leave behind was one of the darkest in the journey of our republic, a long night broken suddenly in the last fortnight of the year with the brilliant unexpected light of resistance founded on solidarity, love and hope.
Amidst the heady hope stirred by the spontaneous movement surging across the land, to claim a country not divided by hate and religious divides, led by India’s young people, I almost lost my annual date with The Wire with my listing of my favourite Hindi films of 2019. But between attending protests across the land and planning meetings, I bring together here my roll of the films which raised my spirits in a year in which my hope had begun to ebb.
2019 was a year in which India seemed to consolidate hard into a majoritarian republic of hate, the antithesis of humane and inclusive country for which our founding fathers and mothers had fought, and the reversal of our constitution built on principles of equality, justice, freedom and non-discrimination. The films which most spoke to me this last year were those which affirmed the compassion, humanism and justice of our legacy which we seemed to be wilfully forsaking.
In a year in which the lives and spirits of the people of Kashmir are being crushed by a constitutional coup and a savage military and internet crackdown which seems with no visible end, it is perhaps fitting that my favourite film of the year is one which seeks kindness, healing and resistance, amidst its painful truth-telling of lost childhoods of the brutalised, stricken and wounded Valley.
In an iridescent fable-like story, Aijaz Khan’s Hamid, a young boy grapples with his father’s disappearance one night in the hands of the security forces and his mother’s embittered agony which had grown tall like a wall between them that they both cannot cross.
The boy is told that his father has gone to Allah, and he is determined to speak to Allah and plead with him to send him back. He phones a number repeating the sacred 786 three times, and at the other end answers a lonely and angry CRPF soldier. The film is an exquisite and consistently compassionate rendering of the boy’s relationship with the soldier he thinks is Allah, and his mother whose grief has curdled into an anger against her son, and who cannot forsake the fragile hope that her husband will return home one day.
Each of the three in the sometimes unbearably painful conclusion of the film come to terms in their own ways with the reality of their lives. It is a film every Indian should see: it should be streamed in every classroom and television channel, for the possibility of empathy and solidarity emerging in an India substantially estranged from the immense suffering and injustice of the Kashmiri people.
The film is uncompromising in its depiction of lives mangled by the brutal militarisation of Kashmir, of the people forced to endure for decades the oppressive shadow of the gun. But it includes in its empathetic gaze also the soldiers tasked with enforcing a pitiless regime of repression. That director Aijaz Khan succeeds in drawing even the soldier into his circle of compassion as much as the boy and his mother awaiting the impossible return of the father and husband who the soldiers have eliminated, is a rare, luminous moral and aesthetic accomplishment.
Another outstanding film of the year which pierces right through the tangles of our layers of prejudice and indifference is Zoya Akhtar’s exhilarating Gully Boy.
The central protagonist is a Muslim boy, obviously from the underclass, raised in a slum in Mumbai. The film maps with observant precision and empathy the unconscionable inequalities that scar new India. In this backdrop, it tracks, cheers and celebrates the slow and often bumpy rise of the college boy from the Dharavi slum as a popular rapper. His story becomes emblematic of a huge demographic of restless dispossessed young Indians, who are surcharged with talent, potential and ambition, but denied opportunity, deprived of a chance. These are young Indians who refuse to be left behind any longer. The film’s theme song ‘Apna Time Aayega’ (My time will come) has become a resounding national slogan for young Indians spiritedly leaping across chasms of centuries-old denials, humiliation and injustice, to seize their rightful place under the sun.
But for me, the triumph of Akhtar’s film is in its portrayal of the moral landscape of the young rapper. He is ambitious, but never brattish or aggressive. There is an endearing and unexpected gentleness to his character, an abiding sense of responsibility to people around him. He is protective to his mother and brother as his abusive father brings home a second wife; there is tenderness in his bonds with his feisty and possessive girlfriend. He is always caring: in a beautiful understated scene, he wants to comfort a distraught young woman in the rear seat of the car he is driving, but holds back because he is her chauffeur.
The third film in my list this year is a searing, taut, visceral exploration of our social underbelly, of a social order which few Hindi films have been brave enough to interrogate. I can count Hindi films about the violence and atrocities which Dalit people continue to endure in new India on the fingers of one hand. This wilful blindness to the everyday reality of millions of dispossessed Indians trapped in the most disadvantaged castes has been unconscionable. Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 is crafted as a riveting crime drama about three young Dalit girls who are kidnapped and gang-raped. Two are found hanging from a tree. A young police officer leads a harrowing search for the third survivor, and for those responsible for the cruel gang-rapes and murder of the young girls. But the format of a crime drama is deployed as a brave and riveting vehicle for the forensic investigation of uncompromising caste inequalities and discrimination in new India.
This compelling film is a continuance of the cinema of empathy and solidarity initiated by Anubhav Sinha last year, with Mulk, an intensely moving portrayal of a Muslim family falling apart after one of its members becomes a suicide terrorist. But I preferred Mulk – which had topped my list of best films in these columns last year – because Mulk tries to tell us the story of dispossession and marginalisation from the inside: the main protagonists are the members of the Muslim family who are forced to bear the guilt and shame of their demonization by the state and their neighbours. When the patriarch says – ‘How can I prove my love for this country?’ you grieve in his anguish as your own.
Article 15 instead tells the story of Dalit oppression from outside, through the eyes of the young police officer who had studied in St Stephen’s College and descends on a rural India writhing in caste divisions and hatred. You learn with him the horrors and indignities of caste violence. But I would have greatly preferred if Sinha had, as in Mulk, made his central characters the families of the three kidnapped Dalit girls, and we were introduced to caste and untouchability through their experience of it, their voices and perspectives. Instead they remain marginal and mostly cardboard characters at the periphery rather than the centre of the film’s narrative.
My fourth selection is Ivan Ayr’s Soni, released through Netflix. Its portrayal of two women police officers in Delhi is deeply affecting. Separated widely in the police hierarchy, they are bound by an unspoken trust and understanding, as they negotiate their personal and professional lives. The junior of the two, Soni, is always on a short fuse, and plunges headlong into trouble repeatedly when, in a series of episodes, she roughs up a street goon, a drunk and arrogant naval officer, and finally a group of young men abusing drugs in a restaurant washroom.
Her senior Sandeep fights the system, and even her husband, a senior colleague, to protect her. This deceptively thin storyline works brilliantly in slow burn mode as a carefully observed and empathetic depiction of the many ways that casual patriarchy works in highly masculinist spaces like a police station, and the manner in which strong women both negotiate this and support each other. It is understated, free of diatribe, but staunch, truthful and unwavering.
We enter the new year in 2020 with greater hope than we have experienced for a long time, secure in the optimism and faith that our young people will restore our country to one which is equal, just and kind. In the idealism of the early decades after freedom, our cinema was a vehicle for affirming and celebrating our pluralism, our comfort with our multiple shared identities.
As the people of India today fight the toxic politics of hate which had created a million partitions in our hearts, I hope that many films we see in the year that lies ahead are founded on the idea of equal belonging and rights of people of diverse faiths, castes, ethnicities and language, and ultimately on empathy, compassion and the conviction of our common, shared humanity.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.