Adventure. That’s what I’m seeking in 2021. But since the pandemic continues to ravage the world, budgets are limited and travelling options few. So I plan to find adventure vicariously — through films and shows. I recommend that you also make this the year of living dangerously (in terms of entertainment only, please keep your masks on), which means eschewing the obvious, the comforting and the pre-packaged — material designed to seduce you with stars and industrial-strength PR machinery (I’m looking at you, Coolie No 1).
Instead, seek out stories featuring actors who don’t look like you, stories that are difficult or unsettling, plots that demand that you pay attention. Thousands of hours of narrative are available at your fingertips. Let’s resolve to confound the algorithms in 2021 by being less predictable. Here are a few titles you could start with:
Mank: Based on anecdotal evidence, I conclude that not enough people have watched Mank since it was released on Netflix in mid-November. Director David Fincher’s name generated excitement, but this is after all a black-and-white film about Hollywood in the ’30s, and the writing of Citizen Kane. In other words, a film only film nerds could excited about.
Yes, it helps if you know some of the back story of how the legendary writer Herman Mankiewicz aka Mank agonised over the screenplay of Citizen Kane, still considered among the greatest movies ever made; of his struggle with director Orson Welles; his battle with alcoholism and his own damaged psyche. But even if you don’t, this is a visually sumptuous, penetrating portrait of showbiz, politics and the selling of dreams. And Gary Oldman as Mank is superb.
Sound of Metal: I tried to get my son to watch this film but he abandoned it in 20 minutes. Too slow, was the verdict. I know that if I can’t sell it to my own family, I have a slim chance of convincing you, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Sometimes it’s not about instant gratification. Sometimes, you just need to wait and let the emotional undercurrents of a film grasp your gut. This movie also must be seen for one of the great performances of the year — Riz Ahmed, electrifying in the role of a drummer going deaf.
One Child Nation: One of the most thrilling things about streaming platforms is that we now have access to so many terrific documentaries. One that really hit me hard is One Child Nation (2019), about China’s one-child policy, which was instituted in 1979 and withdrawn in 2015. The directors, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, trace the far-reaching impact of the policy. With forced sterilisations, abortions, abandoned babies and human trafficking, this one is a tough sit. I felt rage as I watched. But it’s an essential lesson in what happens when the state attempts to control women’s bodies.
Jallikattu: The jury is still out on whether the Oscars should matter to us. I believe that anything that helps good cinema cross borders is wonderful. But whether or not you agree, watch Jallikattu, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s masterful take on mankind at its most primal. And I mean mankind literally. The women stand at the fringes while the men unleash destruction on nature and on each other. The images created in this work (a tip of the hat to DOP Girish Gangadharan) are indelible.
Eeb Allay Ooo!: This is the story of a professional monkey-repeller. Did you know that such a job existed? I didn’t. Anjani, a migrant worker, works just outside the corridors of power in Lutyens’ Delhi. But he is so marginalised that the monkeys he is trying to scare seems more in control than he is. Director Prateek Vats creates a deeply moving satire on the state of our nation. This was my favourite Hindi film of 2020.