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Best Indian films of 2021: Karnan and Sherni to The Disciple and The Great Indian Kitchen

The minutiae of oppressive structures, such as patriarchy, caste system, or institutionalised political corruption were running themes in many of the best Indian films. 
Best Indian films of 2021: Karnan and Sherni to The Disciple and The Great Indian Kitchen
Dhanush plays the titular hero in writer-director Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan.

Last Updated: 09.50 PM, Dec 31, 2021

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Malayalam cinema’s bull run with the most interesting Indian films continued in 2021. Tamil filmmakers weren’t far behind, showing deftness in combining mainstream filmmaking with high concepts and social issues. In comparison, quality Hindi films were few and far between.

The minutiae of oppressive structures, such as patriarchy, caste system, or institutionalised political corruption, and how individuals fight them, were running themes in many of the best Indian films this year as listed below. Not to worry, some lighter films have also made the cut.

Note: The list only includes films that were premiered on streaming platforms this year or 2021 theatrical releases that can now be streamed online.

Minnal Murali (Malayalam)

Where to watch: Netflix

Instead of trying to compete with Hollywood superhero extravaganzas, director Basil Joseph and his writers, Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew, go hyper-local by setting their costumed crusader saga in a semi-rural town. Charming performances, good-natured humour, and technical finesse make Minnal Murali one of the year’s most entertaining films.

Also watch: Tamil time-loop thriller Maanaadu, streaming on SonyLIV, is another example of a Hollywood-style action entertainer successfully made local.

Tovino Thomas in and as Minnal Murali.
Tovino Thomas in and as Minnal Murali.

Joji (Malayalam)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Everyone’s favourite Malayalam star Fahadh Faasil plays a strangely timid and feline Macbeth in this Dileesh Pothan-Syam Pushkaran joint. This is Pothan and Faasil’s third collaboration after the acclaimed successes Maheshinte Prathikaaram, also written by Pushkaran, and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.

Also watch: Malayalam gangster drama Malik, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is a one-man show starring Fahadh Faasil in the Godfather/Nayakan zone.

Fahadh Faasil in and as Joji.
Fahadh Faasil in and as Joji.

Sherni (Hindi)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Newton director Amit Masurkar returns with another story of a committed Indian government official who just wants to do her job correctly but is stifled by local politics, ground realities, and the everlasting inefficiency of the bureaucratic machine. Vidya Balan gives a restrained performance as a forest department officer facing a man-eating tigress problem in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh.

Vidya Balan as Vidya Vincent in Sherni.
Vidya Balan as Vidya Vincent in Sherni.

Meel Patthar (Hindi, Punjabi)

Where to watch: Netflix

It’s a bleak, desolate world out there for workaholic truck driver Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky) and his young protege Pash (Lakshvir Saran), as they drive towards an uncertain future while economic precarity looms large. As the lonely and world-weary Ghalib, Suvinder Vicky’s face and gait carries the weight of the world in Ivan Ayr’s existential drama.

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Nayattu (Malayalam)

Where to watch: Netflix

Three cops are on the run from their own after they accidentally kill a man close to a powerful group whose support is crucial to the upcoming elections. Ex-cop-turned-screenwriter Shahi Kabir paints a bleak picture of the police world, where the bottom line is to stick to the orders of your superiors, and doing the right thing can cost one’s life and career.

Kunchako Boban, Joju George and Nimisha Sajayan in Nayattu.
Kunchako Boban, Joju George and Nimisha Sajayan in Nayattu.

Karnan (Tamil)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Writer-director Mari Selvaraj’s second film follows a Dalit village, led by Dhanush’s titular hero, clashing with their upper-caste neighbours and the police force that serves as their proxies. Karnan’s rage and drive for justice fuels the 159-minute film, powered by Santhosh Narayanan’s superb music. Selvaraj’s use of animals and mythic symbols is noteworthy.

Also watch: Multiple Tamil films in 2021 tackled caste-based oppression. Add the equally fierce Jai Bhim, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, to the watchlist. Also, check out the Netflix release Mandela, in which two political factions move heaven and earth to secure the crucial vote of one Dalit barber.

Sarpatta Parambarai (Tamil)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Pa Ranjith’s boxing drama is a sweaty, brawny and rambunctious movie set in 1970s’ North Chennai, when guts and glory in the squared circle settled scores between warring communities. The colourful characters include terpischorean boxer Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal) and jaunty boxing enthusiast Daddy (John Vijay).

Arya and Pasupathy in Sarpatta Parambarai.
Arya and Pasupathy in Sarpatta Parambarai.

Kaanekkane (Malayalam)

Where to watch: SonyLIV

An elderly gent (Suraj Venjaramoodu) is doggedly investigating the hit-and-run case that caused her daughter’s death. Secrets and tensions pile up when he finds new evidence that involves his son-in-law (Tovino Thomas) and his new wife (Aishwarya Lekshmi).

Also watch: Another trio of an older man, a young man, and his wife, grapple with silence and secrets in Malayalam film Aarkkariyam, streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Suraj Venjaramoodu in Kaanekkane.
Suraj Venjaramoodu in Kaanekkane.

Cinema Bandi (Telugu)

Where to watch: Netflix

In Praveen Kandregula’s cheerful first film, a village auto driver finds a high-end camera and gets the idea of making big bucks by directing an indie film. A wedding photographer is the cameraman, the local barber is the hero, and his angry vegetable vendor girlfriend the heroine.

Also watch: For another incredible directorial debut, but of a totally different kind, watch Tamil thriller Kayamai Kadakka on MovieSaints.

Lord of the Orphans (English, Bengali)

Where to watch: MovieSaints

Cinematographer Ranjan Palit looks back on five generations of his family in his strange and haunting first film as director. Memories and ghosts abound in Palit’s film that fluidly moves between fiction, documentary, and experimental film.

Also watch: Family is also the focus in the diametrically opposite Malayalam comedy drama Home, which addresses generation gap, and technology spoiling genuine human relationships.

Adil Hussain in Lord of the Orphans.
Adil Hussain in Lord of the Orphans.

Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (Malayalam)

Where to watch: MUBI

Perhaps the only film that can be called romantic in the list. Don Palathara’s single-take movie looks at the unravelling of a young urban couple’s relationship as they discuss an unplanned pregnancy in a car’s front seat for 85 minutes.

Jithin Puthenchery and Rima Kallingal in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam.
Jithin Puthenchery and Rima Kallingal in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam.

The Disciple (Marathi)

Where to watch: Netflix

Films about heroes, geniuses and overachievers aplenty. What about the rest, who spend a lifetime chasing greatness but fail? Chaitanya Tamhane’s second film looks at Indian classical music’s hallowed inner chamber, in which the devoted Sharad (Aditya Modak) wants to shine, but he is simply not good enough.

A still from The Disciple.
A still from The Disciple.

The Great Indian Kitchen (Malayalam)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

An educated dancer (Nimisha Sajayan) is pushed to the edge as regressive in-laws, an insensitive husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu), and the mundane repetitiveness of round-the-clock chores gnaw away at her sense of identity and self-respect. The firecracker climax is one of the year’s most satisfying final acts in Indian film.

Also watch: Three more stories of Indian women fighting patriarchy in director Vasanth’s Tamil anthology film Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, streaming on SonyLIV.

Suraj Venjaramoodu (left) and Nimisha Sajayan (center) in The Great Indian Kitchen.
Suraj Venjaramoodu (left) and Nimisha Sajayan (center) in The Great Indian Kitchen.

Sardar Udham (Hindi)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Shoojit Sircar’s rigorously researched and painstakingly detailed biopic about the Indian freedom fighter stars Vicky Kaushal as the titular hero. It is among the rare Indian freedom fighter films that highlight the contribution of the Communists to our fight for independence.

Vicky Kaushal in and as Sardar Udham.
Vicky Kaushal in and as Sardar Udham.

Master (Tamil)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

In Lokesh Kangaraj’s action entertainer, Tamil superstar Vijay is doing what he does best. But for a change, he has an equally strong villain (Vijay Sethupathi), a screenplay filled with twists and turns, and a seriousness not found in the average hero-worshipping Tamil mass movie.

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