2017 has now come and gone, and it was a turbulent year for cinema in India with neverending battles between the Indian authorities and the artists trying to make something special.
The CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) saw dozens of controversies erupt very publically in a way that has become the norm over the last few years. About halfway through the year the head of that organization, Pahlaj Nihalani was relieved of his post and replaced by poet and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, and for a brief moment there was optimism among the working artists of India.
Unfortunately, that optimism was short lived as Joshi's version of the Board turned out to be just as archaic in demanding cuts and often refusing certification to numberous films, essentially denying them any chance to release and recoup their budgets. Films were refused certificates for reasons as varied as being too "lady-oriented" (Lipstick Under My Burkha), too politically volatile (An Insignificant Man), dealing with homosexuality in too frank a manner (Ka Bodyscapes), too potentially offensive to the sentiments of a region (Padmavati), and - in one of the most high profile cases of the year - because the title was too agitating (Sexy Durga).
While most of these films eventually found commercial release, a few are still pending and the last one - which figures highly on my list - has been shown a few times in India but has had its certification revoked. These are trying times for creatives and India, and it's no wonder that this was one of the worst years for commercial cinema in recent memory in terms of quality. Producers hedge their bets by making safe, sanitized dreck and the trend shows no sign of slowing just yet.
However, I am not here to bury Indian cinema, but to praise it. And in the spirit of celebrating the many victories of quality cinema over the objections of the powers that be, here is my list of sixteen favorite films across India (with a few bonus choices, just in case you're feeling adventurous).
James Marsh contributed to this story.
More than any other film this year, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga set the tone for the tumultuous year in Indian cinema. After winning the prestigious Hivos Tiger award upon its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, the film went on to play over 50 festivals around the world, bringing home the hardware from many of those events. However, back home Sasidharan was facing controversy, death threats, legal challenges, certificate refusal, and innumerable other controversies simply because of the title.
Not only is Sexy Durga one of the most important films of the year in terms of raging against the machine, it is also one of the best. I reviewed it for that world premiere screening and here's an excerpt:
[I]n Sexy Durga we begin to see some of the results of this culture in which those to perpetrate the violence feel free to inflict their will upon others with impunity. The film is an unrelenting and intense thriller, a frightening film made all the more affecting by its proximity to the everyday reality of millions of women around the world, only this time it isn't only women who have reason to be afraid.
Sexy Durga is a chilling and bold accomplishment in the evolution of the Indian thriller. While Anurag Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0 took audiences on a tour through the dark mind of a serial killer looking for his soulmate, Sasidharan's film takes us down the roads we all travel, and a fiercely grim ride it is. This is not a film about Durga and Kabeer, it is a film about you and me and our fears realized onscreen. It is astonishing in its bluntness and the fact that it needs no embellishment to make its point, but above all, it's scary as hell and that's real.