Here are films, mainstream and indie, that have addressed less-oft discussed themes of social significance while delivering good cinema. From satire to humour, drama to thrill, these films have successfully played across genres to drive home the point. We bring you 9 most powerful social issue films from Bollywood, 2000 onwards (in no particular order):
1. Peepli Live (2010)
Director: Anushka Rizvi
Journalist-turned-filmmaker Anushka Rizvi’s debut feature explored farmer suicides and the government and media’s trivialisation of it. It brilliantly used satire to make a point. Backed by Aamir Khan, the film was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial successes. A solid script supported by remarkable performances (theatre artists Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav) and Rizvi’s skillful storytelling make Peepli Live a cinematic triumph.
2. Article 15 (2019)
Director: Anubhav Sinha
One of the best Hindi films of 2019, Article 15 is a fiercely intense and nuanced portrait of a country blinded by prejudices. The film is an unsparing, fearless attempt at depicting the grim, dark reality of 21st century India. For a country divided and discriminated on the basis of caste, this was a much-needed film, a wake-up call, particularly in times of growing polarisation. A well-written and a well-intentioned effort, Article 15 is an equally well made film. It’s incisive and hard-hitting in its treatment. So are the performances. Ayushmann Khurana’s restrained act seethes with unflinching resolve. The supporting cast rounds it out to perfection. Sayani Gupta is a revelation. Zeeshan Ayyub’s is a brief but class act.
Watch Article 15: Netflix
3. Swades (2004)
Director: Ashutosh Gowarikar
Gowariker started writing Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Swades at the same time as Lagaan. The latter released first and obviously left the critics and audiences wondering ‘What after Lagaan?’ Gowariker’s answer was down pat. Nothing better could have followed. Swades is inarguably, one of the best films of our times. However, it remains a disappointing fact that the film was a commercial failure.
A powerful socio-political commentary on issues from poverty to inequality and unemployment, Swades paints a realistic portrait of a country plagued and constrained by its regressive traditions and ideologies.
ShahRukh Khan as Mohan Bharghava shone in one of the career’s best performances, brilliantly bringing out the character’s internal conflicts. His held-back, understated style was a pleasant break from his larger-than-life onscreen persona.
Watch Swades on Amazon
4. Aligarh (2015)
Director: Hansal Mehta
Aligarh is a poignant, emotionally investing tale of a gay professor, who is sacked on charges of homosexuality, and his ensuing battle with the court and the society. The film is an earnest appeal to the conformist, orthodox society. It asks us to feel compassion and empathy rather than being the guardians of old, self-righteous doctrines.
After successful films like Shahid and Citylights, director-writer duo Hansal Mehta-Apurva Asrani turned in another successful work, their finest so far. But the credit for Aligarh’s success goes as much as to the leading man Manoj Bajpayee. Our Hindi films caricaturize queer characters. Bajpayee delivers what may well be the performance of his career (and the best we saw in 2016).
Where to Watch: Google Play, YouTube
5. My Brother Nikhil (2005)
This was a rare subject for its time. My Brother Nikhil delves deep into sensitive themes like HIV and homosexuality. It is an open appeal to the government to amend a law that allows it to isolate people diagnosed HIV positive. A successful swimmer loses everything he had because of this. Not only is his name dragged through the mud, he’s abandoned by family and friends at this crucial juncture of his life. The film captures, with gritty realism, the predicament of those who are diagnosed with a disease considered a taboo by society.
Watch My Brother Nikhil (Amazon), Netflix, Hotstar
6. Vicky Donor (2012)
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Humor can be a useful tool, if used appropriately and effectively. Vicky Donor was ground-breaking in how writer-director Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar presented a taboo subject like ‘infertility’ and a barely talked about one like ‘sperm donation’ in a light-hearted, effortless comedy, and in a language that resonated with both mainstream and non-traditional audiences. And Ayushmann Khurana was a pioneer of sorts for this new wave of cinema that discussed socially taboo topics — the fears and insecurities around them — using humour. Stellar performances, in particular from Dolly Ahluwalia (Dolly), Kamlesh Gill (the grandmother), Annu Kapoor (Dr. Chaddha), add to this crisply executed comedy drama.
Watch Vicky Donor (Amazon), Google Play, YouTube
7. Pink (2016)
Director: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury
It’s sad that an idea like Pink took this long to be told. A well-intentioned and a well-made social drama, it takes you by the scruff of the neck, immerses you into our reality and shakes you up in the process. A disquieting vignette of a society, Pink holds a mirror to everything that’s wrong with us. It shines a light on the vacuous values we live by to preen and preserve our social fabric. And men alone aren’t to be blamed, women stand equally complicit. A slow burn, Pink ruffles and rattles with its glaring observations.
Supported by powerful performances from Amitabh Bachchan, Tapsee Pannu, Piyush Mishra, Pink is necessary viewing.
Watch Pink (Amazon), Netflix, Hotstar
8. Masaan (2015)
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Masaan is a nuanced critique of the archaic, parochial traditions and mores of the Hindu society. Avinash Arun’s cinematography is beautiful and aptly captures the essence of Benaras. It deftly contrasts the external beauty of the city with its internal corruption and the hidden ugly face. The socio-cultural commentary is poignant and features some of the best performances on screen (Vicky Kaushal, Richa Chadda, Shweta Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Bhagwan Tiwari and Nikhil Sahni) which make Masaan an ultimate winner.
Where to Watch: Netflix, Hotstar
9. A Billion Color Story (2016)
Director: Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy
Narasimhamurthy’s debut feature is a thought-provoking piece, more so, relevant in today’s times of growing intolerance. The film trails an agnostic Hindu-Muslim couple subject to constant religious prejudice. It brings to light what it is like to live in a country scourged by racial, religious discrimination, hatred and violence. The narrative unfolds organically with the director never trying to manipulate viewers’ emotions. The treatment is refreshingly restrained and the tone never gets preachy. Performances are subtle, real and all heart but Dhruva Padmakumar (director’s son), as the narrator, is the real deal here. A Billion Color Story is a beautiful lesson in love and humanity.
Where to Watch: Netflix, YouTube
There we are! These are some of the best social issue films from Bollywood made in the recent times. Which of these are your favourites? Tell us your #Top3 in the comments below.
Excellent! My top 3 – Pink, Swades, Masaan