The author looks at some of the best small-budget Hindi films of 2013.

The best films this year in Hindi cinema were characterised by originality, depth, verve, range and a remarkable self-confidence. The good news was that almost all these films were made on smaller budgets, often by young new film-makers who experimented with offbeat writing and techniques, and they also found audiences.

An unexpected love story of two lonely people in Mumbai who never meet, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox won the hearts of many, both in India and overseas. An ageing widower, lonely after his wife’s death, and a neglected young home-maker are drawn into a close bond, while exchanging daily notes in a lunchbox that ends up on the widower’s desk by mistake. The delicate portrayal of loneliness carries an underlying strand of the sadness of solitude in a crowded city.

A much more overt melancholy suffuses Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera, which builds its narrative from O' Henry’s 1906 short story ‘The Last Leaf’. The daughter of a landlord with a crumbling estate in India just after Independence is drawn passionately to a young man posing as an archaeologist. He turns out to be a deceiver who robs the landlord of his remaining wealth, leaving the older man so devastated and broken that he dies, leaving his daughter shattered. Yet when they meet again, the betrayed woman now awaiting death from TB, they find that they are still bound in a strange twisted love, which endures until both die trying to save the life of the other. The post-Independence period is impeccably recreated, as is the haunting emotional landscape of its tormented lead protagonists.

The integrity of the underlying politics pleasantly surprised me in Abhishek Kapoor’s engaging tale of male bonding under the stress of great historical upheaval in Kai Po Che. The film does not baulk from acknowledging that the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002 following the burning of a train in Godhra was engineered and pre-planned, or from delineating the deliberate fostering of anti-Muslim hatred that preceded and followed it. But Kapoor’s canvas is essentially humanist rather than political, as it portrays endearingly the unexpected attachment which grows across boundaries of class and religion between an apolitical young man dreaming to establish a cricket club and a Muslim slum boy with a rare inborn talent for cricket. Despite the mounting climate of hatred, the young man persists in following his emotional instincts, even though it costs him his friendships and ultimately his life.

Again, unanticipated political courage is displayed in the ensemble of short films Bombay Talkies. Its first segment Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh, directed by Karan Johar is a timely reminder of the torment of another minority in this country, sexual minorities with same-sex preferences. A young man angrily leaves home after his father violently reacts to the revelation that his son is gay. But as he continues to encounter prejudice, he is drawn ultimately into a destructive engagement with the lives of others. It skilfully deploys an old Hindi film song sung by a young girl begging on a railway bridge to evoke the anguish of impossible longing.

A film which was barely noticed and never got its due was Suhail Tatari’s Ankur Arora Murder Case. At one level it is a gritty exposure of the collapse of medical ethics in private hospitals, and a true-life case of the failed attempt to cover up the unconscionable neglect that led to a child’s death during an appendicitis surgery. But at another, it is an elegy to idealism, as a young doctor risks his marriage, career and future to help the child’s mother secure justice in the end.

But the finest film this year for me is undoubtedly Shahid, Hansal Mehta’s riveting rendition of a brave lawyer’s brief but utterly extraordinary life, which I have already described in these columns at some length. It combines compelling story-telling and authenticity of locale and atmosphere with unflinching political and ethical positions against criminal profiling of people because of their faith in the name of the war on terror. Rajkumar Yadav accomplishes the year’s best performance as the real-life lawyer who draws on steely resolve to fight cases of men falsely indicted as terrorists — which ultimately costs him his life — because he spent seven years of his youth in jail falsely charged with terror crimes.

The film is an incandescent statement on the idea of justice, but also encompasses courage, love and forgiving. The young man fights the gross injustice of seven years’ false incarceration with the resolve to educate himself so that he can fight for others caught in the same hopeless trap of a prejudiced criminal justice system. His bonds with his fiercely protective mother, his supportive brother, his wife who cannot bear the daily dangers of his life choices, and his lawyer friend who stands by him as he is attacked continuously illuminate the film’s deeply layered narrative. It is that rare kind of film that will endure in the moral archives of this nation.