Looking beyond what hits the big screens in India, there exists cinema that is at the periphery of the popular. This is cinema that is profound and deeply seeded in reality. It might often get overlooked or neglected for lack of discourse around it. So I took it upon myself to curate this list of lesser-talked about, under-appreciated gems — features, documentaries, mockumentaries for you to relish. These indigenous productions from the last few decades across languages and genres, are a must watch for every film lover.
This is, by no means, a limited list. We’re constantly uncovering and bringing you the best of Indian cinema. Make sure to bookmark Flickside for regular recommendations:
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1. Celluloid Man (2012)
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary revolving around film archivist P. K. Nair is a treasure trove for cinephiles. Founder of the National Film Archive of India and guardian of Indian cinema, P. K. Nair collected and preserved India’s heritage and history — one film at a time, in a country where art is not revered. Cellluloid Man is a rare Indian film to have screened across 50 film festivals worldwide. It has also won 2 National Awards including Best Biographical Film and Best Non-Feature Film Editing.
The narrative of the film is braided together by conjoining interviews of several film personalities that Nair influenced during the course of his career. Some of these include Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kamal Haasan, Jaya Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Sitara Devi, Santosh Sivan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, Mrinal Sen and Surama Ghatak. The many significant, unheard, untold stories of Indian cinema will continue to live through this landmark documentary. For fans of film, Celluloid Man is essential viewing.
2. The Cinema Travellers (2016)
The Cinema Travellers is a documentary centered around the dying tradition of travelling cinemas of India; it’s a story of balancing between holding on and letting go of traditions associated with films. It premiered as an official Selection at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and won the L’Œil d’or Special Mention: Le Prix du documentaire.
Another film on this list, one which is a powerful ode to cinema itself, it is about the last travelling cinemas of the world which have been preserved with care by a group of people. Although the task is burdensome and difficult, the love for cinema overpowers the difficulties for them. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya have helmed this beautiful, under-appreciated masterpiece.
3. 3 Deewarein (2003)
This Nagesh Kukunoor directorial is a Hindi language crime film that follows the story of three prisoners and a documentary filmmaker. It is while filming the reformation story of those three prisoners that the filmmaker finds some hope for her own troubled marriage. With a dynamic plot and sensitive treatment, this film proves the director’s mettle.
The film shined bright across film festivals including the 2003 International Film Festival of India, Kolkata Film Festival, Commonwealth Festival, Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles etc. This lesser-known gem also earned Kukunoor a Filmfare award for Best Story.
4. Bioscopewala (2017)
A modern and reconceptualised adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s story ‘Kabulliwala’, this film is a story of Rehmat Khan, a man who travels around in the city with his bioscope showing films to children. Here, the primary point of difference in the film is that our Kabuliwala goes from selling dry fruits, and thus successfully transitions to the bioscopewala who essentially sells movies.
Bioscopewala world premiered at the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival, and was overall well received by Indian critics. Besides being a materialization of all of our collective love for cinema, the film plays out well as it stars Danny Denzongpa in the lead role. With a simple, yet heartwarming story, it is a must watch for all film lovers.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
5. Antardwand (2010)
Antardwand is a film about a social malpractice rampant in Bihar even today. Groom kidnapping. Co-written, produced and directed by FTII alum Sushil Rajpal, it won the National Film Award for Best Film on Social Issues. Besides, filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and Rajkumar Hirani showed great support for it at the time of its release.
Featuring Raj Singh Chaudhary, Swati Sen, Vinay Pathak, Antardwand follows the journey of an IAS aspirant who is abducted by a local goon and forced to marry his daughter. It was a real-life incident that inspired Sushil Rajpal to make this film, he said in one his interviews.
Avijit Ghosh in his book, 40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed writes, “few, if any, Hindi movies have been able to project north Bihar as authentically as this movie by director Sushil Rajpal, who hails from eastern Uttar Pradesh…There is no flashiness in Antardwand; just a quiet conviction and unswerving commitment to the narrative. It is more regional and authentic than most Bhojpuri films.”
6. Hellaro (2019) – Gujarati
This one reminded me of Parched. Set in the arid lands of Gujarat and drawing from its folklore, Hellaro is a celebration of women. It uses garba, the Gujarati dance form, as a narrative device. Co-writer, director Abhishek Shah, in his unique storytelling style, takes on patriarchy and other social issues that plague Indian society. It was hugely successful for its realistic approach and effortless story.
Hellaro was hailed for its technique of embedding a pertinent message into the storytelling to bring about awareness in the masses and for its stellar performances. The film was honoured as the Best Feature Film at the 66th National Film Awards, the first Gujarati film to win one. All the 13 female actresses won the Special Jury Award for their performances.
It was also an official selection as the opening film at the Indian Panorama at the 50th IFFI.
7. The President is Coming (2009)
The President is Coming is a satirical mockumentary, based around President Bush’s visit to India in 2006. One young Indian will get a chance to shake hands with Bush. Who will it be? A PR agency is put to work to choose the ‘one.’ Six contestants, all absurd in their own ways, are shortlisted. Maya Roy, a novelist and social activist (Konkana Sen Sharma); Archana Kapoor, rich brat (Ira Dubey); Rohit Seth, a call centre accent trainer (Vivek Gomber); Kapil Dev Dholakia, the self-proclaimed stock market expert, who’s by-hearted every stock ticker listed on the NSE (Anand Tiwari); Ramesh S, the perennial pervert software engineer (Namit Das); Ajay Karlekar, our desi and racist activist (Satchit Puranit). What ensues is a hilarious tug of war between the contestants of making it to the finishing line.
The film came and went unnoticed but convincing performances from an ensemble cast and a remarkable debut from Kunaal Roy Kapoor make this a compelling watch.
8. Naseem (1995)
Set before the period of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this film, through its oscillations between the past and the present, tells a story of communal hatred while appealing for harmony and peace. A rather lesser known film from the director of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Naseem won Saeed Akhtar Mirza a National Award for Best Direction and Screenplay. The film also starred well-known Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi in a pivotal role.
Through a distanced and seemingly unconnected story told through flashbacks and parallels, it doesn’t just have a strongly embedded message but also revels in its storytelling to give the perspective of the frequently alienated side.
Where to Watch: YouTube
9. Supermen of Malegaon (2012)
Supermen Of Malegaon is a documentary that revolves around the passionate residents of Malegaon, who love the cinemas as much as we do. It is truly a trajectory through the filmmaking process that we undertake, navigating its highs and lows along-with the residents of Malegaon in a limited time frame of 65 minutes. A small town fraught with communal tensions, hardships and abject poverty, Malegaon is the hub of Bollywood escapism.
Director Faiza Ahmad Khan paints the human desire of escapism through cinema in a cinematic light through this documentary film quite remarkably. As the people earnestly seek refuge in the fantastical world of cinema, somewhere, we too seek refuge in their world. Despite the fact that it seems far away from reality, it is indeed in tandem with our world, and the film is an apt autobiography of India. It has won several awards across film festivals, and was critically well received as well. This journey through the microcosms of cinema is worth a watch.
Where to Watch: YouTube
10. Kothanodi (2015) – Assamese
Stunning, brilliant, allegorical. Assamese writer, filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi (The River of Fables) is a world where fables come alive and a river continues to flow. The river of fables. Stark and riveting and compelling to the gut. Storytelling that weaves in magical realism and mythmaking through cinema. A celebration of cinema as power-art. A triumph of minimalism and creative expression.
Hazarika’s debut feature is based on a compendium of folk tales compiled by Assamese literary giant Lakshminath Bezbaroa, titled ‘Burhi Aair Sadhu (Grandma’s Tales)’.
The four fables that feature in the film are: Tejimola, Champawati, Ou Kuwori (The Outenga Maiden) and Tawoir Xadhu (The Story of Tawoi). Kothanodi received a National Award in the category Best Feature Film in Assamese at the 63rd National Film Awards. Besides, it has traveled across several film festivals and is critically a well received piece of work.
Where to Watch: MovieSaints.com
This is cinema that feeds the soul; cinema that fosters hope. It is cinema like this that has the quality of keeping us afloat in these trying times.
By Sanghmitra Jethwani
(Additional writing by Sanjay Trehan)
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