India bookended its contribution to global cinema in the summer of 2022 with two expansive, indulgent, and star-studded movies. First, there was the Telegu-language historical epic RRR, which catapulted to fame earlier this year during its initial theatrical release, and gained even more attention when it started streaming on Netflix in May. For all its flaws, it’s one hell of an entertainer. No wonder it’s the country’s fourth highest-grossing movie of all time and a potential Oscar contender.
RRR’s unprecedented success only heightened anticipation for Brahmāstra: Part One—Shiva, releasing worldwide on September 9. The visually resplendent and big-budget Hindi-language film wraps a summer of major Indian releases that included the Forrest Gump adaptation Laal Singh Chaddha, Netflix’s critical hit Darlings, and the Tamil-language Thiruchitrambalam starring Dhanush, who made his Hollywood debut with The Gray Man. If you appreciate the precious gift of subtitles, here’s a quick look at the smorgasbord of high-quality new content—across various genres—available from Indian storytellers.
Written and directed by Ayan Mukerji, Brahmāstra marks the first installment of a planned trilogy that sets up its own cinematic universe called Astraverse. Set in the present day, the fantasy drama draws from ancient Indian mythologies and wisdom about the creation of the universe. Ranbir Kapoor plays a DJ named Shiva (also the name of an important God in Hindu culture) who can harness fire, and is strangely connected to a supernatural weapon that can destroy the world.
The ensemble includes exceptionally talented Alia Bhatt (who has a small role in RRR), with pan-India megastars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Nagarjuna throwing in cameos for good measure. Any comparisons to Marvel and DC’s shtick are inevitable since Brahmāstra is chock-full of CGI action sequences, group training montages, and a thorny villain on a rampaging mission. It’s vital to remember, though, that the ambitious concept pushes Bollywood (the Hindi film industry, not to be confused with movies in other Indian languages) out of its comfort zone. The result is a mixed but welcome change.
The grandiose scale is relatively fresh for Bollywood, unlike, say, 2015’s Telegu and Tamil movie Baahubali and its sequel (also helmed by RRR’s S.S. Rajamouli, by the way), which blends sci-fi action with an exploration of cultural heritage. Brahmāstra hinges on a potent love story (that doesn’t get enough build-up) and a larger-than-life adventure for Shiva, tapping into the faith and history of Indian civilization. The film and its hero’s guiding principle is “light wins over darkness,” which is the essence of Hindu festivals like Diwali and Dussehra, both of which prominently feature in the film’s first half. Though it beats you over the head with its preachiness and pedestrian dialogue, the almost three-hour Brahmāstra ultimately proves an enterprising effort.
Mukerji had been plotting the script for almost a decade, and the film was announced all the way back in 2017, with production starting a year later. Since then, co-stars Kapoor and Bhatt fell in love, got married, and are expecting a baby. Not to mention, a whole goddamn pandemic happened. That’s how long audiences have waited for the movie. Thankfully, it’s worth the wait.
Laal Singh Chaddha is also a project that took years to create. Leading star and producer Aamir Khan secured the Forrest Gump rights from Paramount in 2018, almost two decades after Atul Kulkarni first started adapting Eric Roth’s acclaimed screenplay, perfecting its rhythm to match India’s socio-political history and setting.
For fans of Forrest Gump, it’s easy to spot the overarching, over-sentimental similarities in both films. The comedic drama morphs Tom Hanks’ Forrest into Khan’s magnanimous and unassuming Laal Singh Chaddha, who often finds himself in the middle of weighty historical moments—in this case, the India-Pakistan Kargil War or multiple religious riots. Laal Singh Chaddha is excessively long, and Khan can’t match Hanks’ masterful performance. But the film’s tender approach to its themes is worthy of praise.
It deftly navigates Laal’s coming-of-age and heartbreaks, and tracks his entrepreneurial spirit against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving India that won its freedom in 1947 after 200 years under British rule. Laal Singh Chaddha’s commentary feels weak because it doesn’t enmesh its protagonist as deeply into political events. The choice of keeping him on their periphery instead does help his journey resonate even more. Additionally, the film delves into Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan)—a.k.a. a version of Forrest Gump’s Jenny—and her unflinching desire to pursue acting. Her harrowing arc elicits empathy, and fleshes out Laal Singh Chaddha’s emotional core.
Remaking Robert Zemeckis’ film is a challenge, but Khan and Kulkarni’s efforts pay off with a fresh story that mostly recaptures what made Forrest Gump an iconic and multiple Oscar-winner. After a theatrical release in August, the film will apparently stream on Netflix in October.
In comparison to the two aforementioned blockbusters, Thiruchitrambalam is a much more straightforward endeavor. The Tamil title centers on Thiruchitrambalam Jr., a.k.a. Pazham (Dhanush), whose search for love ends in two massive failures before he falls for his childhood best friend Shobana (Nithya Menen). Except she’s about to move to Canada forever, so of course, a classic rom-com-style airport chase follows. There is always something compelling about the power of simple and beautiful storytelling—which is exactly what this family drama delivers. Thiruchitrambalam is a wholesome escape, aided by Dhanush’s heartwarming performance as the charming boy next door. The neat insights into the struggles of everyday life transform it from an average flick into a grounded, joyful moviegoing experience. (Look around, we kind of need that right now).
It’s Alia Bhatt’s world, we’re just living in it. RRR and Brahmāstra are only two of the momentous movies she’s starred in this year (along with filming her Hollywood debut, Heart Of Stone). She kicked off 2022 with the gritty Gangubai Kathiawadi (streaming on Netflix), and she also leads Netflix India’s subversive original series Darlings. A smartly paced and directed thriller, it follows Badrunissa and her mother’s quest to seek revenge on her abusive husband. The film profoundly tackles sensitive subjects like domestic abuse and alcohol addiction with a growing sense of unease and tragedy. The serious risk-taking is balanced with much-needed bouts of levity, and with an ultra-realistic production design that helps fully flesh out Badru’s world. Darlings is a perfect follow-up to darkly comedic TV shows like AMC’s Kevin Can F**K Himself and Apple TV+’s Bad Sisters.
When you think of a Bollywood film, JugJugg Jeeyo is the picture you paint in your head: A loud, colorful, long movie featuring good-looking actors and several catchy song-and-dance sequences. The Raj Mehta-helmed drama lures you in with these entertaining essentials, using them as a guise for a mostly clear-eyed attempt to unpack the taboo topic of divorces in Indian families. Kukoo (Varun Dhawan) and Naina (Kiara Advani) are childhood sweethearts who are now married and living in Toronto. They return to their lavish Punjab, India, home for another wedding while trying to keep their impending separation a secret. In the process, they discover their parents’ picture-perfect life is a sham. JugJugg Jeeyo is an unexpected roller-coaster that, much like Darlings and Brahmāstra, takes risks in its genre. It falls short of landing its climax, but the Marriage Story-like dissection of central couples rings true regardless.
Biographical drama Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, filmed in Hindi, English, and Tamil, made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May before its July release. Directed by and starring R. Madhavan, it follows Indian Space Research Organization scientist Nambi Narayan, who was accused in a massive espionage case. The film explores his life from a Princeton Graduate and NASA employee to how the espionage charges changed the course of his life forever. Rocketry’s script has weak points, but Madhavan’s stealth camerawork and performance save it, and altogether it’s a poignant character study of a man dedicated to working for his nation’s progress.