The best Hindi films of 2023: ‘12th Fail’ and ‘Jawan’ to ‘Rocky Aur Rani..’

Hindi cinema shuddered back to life in 2023. We finally had some genuine, unembarrassing hits. Propaganda films like The Kerala Story and Gadar 2 still reigned in theatres, but there was also Jawan, where Shah Rukh Khan had an intense heart-to-heart with the voting public (India goes to polls in 2024). Meanwhile, other actors and movies got an opportunity to shine. There were some tender, affectionate dramas, and that noisome beast in theatres called Animal. Here, in no particular order, are the 10 most memorable Hindi films of 2023…

Three of Us

Avinash Arun’s first directorial feature, Killa (2015), was a poignant tale of childhood and loss along the Konkan coast. Though adults, not children, take the centre stage in Three of Us, it’s a film immersed in Arun’s abiding themes: friendship, memory, the beauty and primacy of the natural world. Shailaja, reeling from early-onset dementia, revisits her childhood home in a Konkan village. She is accompanied by her husband, a kindly insurance salesman, and later joined by Pradeep, a diffident bank employee who was Shailaja’s childhood companion. Arun, too, seems to have returned, retracing the halcyon landscapes and difficult emotions that shaped him as a filmmaker.

Jaane Jaan

A still from ‘Jaane Jaan’

Another film, another Jaideep Ahlawat performance you cannot prize your eyes away from. Jaane Jaan was marketed as the streaming debut of Kareena Kapoor Khan, and the star (never bad) certainly takes the central role in Sujoy Ghosh’s mystery, a twisty howcatchem adapted from the Keigo Higashino novel The Devotion of Suspect X. There is an equally fine-tuned performance by Vijay Varma as a sharp-nosed cop. Yet it is Ahlawat, his sad eyes and hulking frame cutting ravishingly through the evening mist, who commands our fullest attention.

Also Read | Hindi cinema in 2023: When Bollywood unleashed its animal spirits

Goldfish

“Ma, do you remember making me eat a cigarette once?” Anamika enquires. “No, that never happened,” Sadhana responds defensively. Where tenderness marked one film about dementia, recrimination defines another. Set in London, Pushan Kripalani’s Goldfish is a vastly different film, tonally and emotionally, from Avinash Arun’s Three of Us. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) is forced to care for her ailing mother (Deepti Naval). The caustic barbs traded between mother and daughter feel stingingly real, and both Koechlin and Naval are terrific in their roles. The domestic drama is leavened by strains of Hindustani classical music and the clutch of south Asian eccentrics who dot the neighbourhood. There’s ample hope for the dysfunctional British dramedy. Just leave it to the Indians.

Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani

Karan Johar made the most searching film of 2023. His Rocky Aur Rani was a typically candied confection but with a sharp afterburn. Unabashed in its maximalist splendour — all Ferraris and chiffon sarees — the film allowed Johar to sneakily put his own fanbase in the dock, questioning the patriarchy, traditionalism and general judgy-ness of the urban upper class. Much of the film was carried on the very able shoulders of Ranveer Singh. In a year of unbridled toxic masculinity, Rocky Randhawa was one of the nicer guys thrown up by Bollywood: willing to learn and evolve, constitutionally amendable even though he has never read the Constitution.

Joram

A still from ‘Joram’

A still from ‘Joram’

Devashish Makhija’s Joram is easily admired for its bravery and urgency. Manoj Bajpayee plays Dasru, a tribal man on the run with his infant daughter. The dark deities of vengeance, fate and socio-economic disenfranchisement bear down on his cross-country trek to nowhere. The film takes a long, hard look at how the phantasm of development has ravaged a land and its people. It’s most remarkable, nonetheless, for the extraordinary restraint with which Makhija approaches his material. Sound designer Dhiman Karmakar makes music out of stillness: the slow rustle of wind in the meadows, the virginal gurgling of a forest brook. As scathing and brutal as any of Makhija’s past films, Joram comes alive in its moments of poetry.

12th Fail

APJ Abdul Kalam’s famous quote — “Dream is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep” — applies verbatim to Vikrant Massey’s Manoj, a poor young boy from Chambal determined to become an IPS officer. In his quest to crack the unforgiving Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) entrance exams, Manoj faces a multitude of hurdles, including, most stubbornly, his lack of proficiency in the English language. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film frequently reaches for the tear ducts, but its warmth and earnestness of spirit bear it along. 12th Fail had a splendid run in theatres and was declared a sleeper hit, though there was nothing sleepy about Massey’s agile, winsome performance.

Fire in the Mountains

Ajitpal Singh’s Sundance-premiered film is, among other things, a heartfelt tribute to women’s labour in rural India. Each day, Chandra (an incandescent Vinamrata Rai) harries down a slope to pinch customers for her homestay in Munsiyari, Uttarakhand; later, she joins the other womenfolk to cut grass and sing songs. Chandra’s dream is to have a road built to her house; it will boost business and help take her son, who has mysteriously stopped walking, to the doctor. Stunningly shot by Dominique Colin, Fire in the Mountains examines myth, superstition, and the economic independence of women. It has the full arc of a folk tale, beginning like a gentle fable before morphing into something dark and resonant.

Jawan

Shah Rukh Khan launched his own ‘Clean India’ campaign with Jawan. Atlee’s film, a massy action extravaganza with all its attendant silliness and sentimentality, surprised audiences with its bare-knuckle political commentary. The film took aim at crony capitalism, election fraud and — more subtly and respectfully — corruption in the armed forces. Audiences down south, accustomed to brave political commentary in their mainstream cinema, simply shrugged; their northern counterparts could not believe their eyes. The film cleaned up at the box office, finishing as the highest-grossing Indian film of 2023.

Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar

Still from ‘Pokhar ke Dunu Paar’

Still from ‘Pokhar ke Dunu Paar’
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Though set in Darbhanga, Bihar — the setting of memorable recent indie films like Dhuin and Gamak Ghar Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar spurns the wistfulness that often grips first-time directors from small towns. In Parth Saurabh’s clear-eyed debut feature, a runaway couple, beautifully played by Abhinav Jha and Tanaya Khan Jha, returns to their hometown amid the coronavirus pandemic. It is a moving portrait of a young love in limbo, both charming and realistic. In one scene, Sumit (Abhinav) faces his rightfully exasperated girlfriend. “Chaat pack karaye the tumhare liye (I got chaat for you),” he says by way of an apology, before crying.

Mast Mein Rehne Ka

Vijay Maurya’s comedy, about two unlikely couples whose lives intersect in Mumbai, has little use for arthouse pretensions. Neither is it, being a straight-to-digital release and featuring two blithesome sexagenarians in the lead, a fully commercial film. It is a simple slice-of-life with intermittent life lessons whose lightness of tone is reflected in its carefree filmmaking and crummy humour. Jackie Shroff and Neena Gupta make a lovely comic pair, and the film can be watched as a fun companion piece to their 2017 short Khujli.

Special mentions: Pathaan, Kathal – A Jackfruit Mystery, The Song of Scorpions

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