In a year that saw Salman Khan rise to stratospheric heights with back-to-back box office blockbusters (Ready, Bodyguard) and become the premiere power player in Hindi filmdom, most of the action was in the lower echelons. Here is a roundup of the better-made Hindi movies of 2011.

1. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara


Zoya Akhtar’s picture-perfect postcard, with a snapshot of three weeks that three desi boys (Hrithik Roshan, Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar) spend in Spain, was a delightful, adventurous, and well-made journey of discovery and self-discovery. In an age when electronic gadgets increasingly intrude on even the most private places and spaces in everyday lives if they are allowed to, this cell-phone free vacation proved to be an all-around feel-good trip. Yes, Katrina Kaif, the highest paid Hindi female actor was in on the fun also. The most lasting impression, however, was one heck of a carpe diem Euro-zone trip.


2. That Girl in Yellow Boots 
As a thought-provoking chapter on how far Hindi films have evolved in story-telling and capturing just the right setting, this Anurag Kashyap-Kalki Koechlin vehicle jumped leaps and bounds ahead of, not surprisingly, not only any Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan (RA.One) mega-releases, but also pretty much the rest of the pack. The story of a young British-Indian woman (Koechlin) who fronts at a seedy Mumbai massage parlor as she goes about searching for her lost father offered a superbly chronicled, complex sex-and-drugs world replete with uneasy questions and even more disturbing answers.

3. Haunted


In the grand scheme of things, Hindi horror entries always get a bum deal for being exploitative, cheaply made, and, well, plain silly. Vikram Bhatt’s scarefest Haunted proved that being exploitative (thanks to many a genre-standard title from over the years), cheaply made (a relatively small budget) and, at times, being just plain silly can add up to the best Hindi scary movie over the last several years.  It is also heaps of fun.

Released in both 2-D and headline-grabbing 3-D versions, Haunted offered in-your-face scares. The most chilling goose bumps can indeed result from the remote houses for sale where things go bump in the night!


4. Dhobi Ghat
Aamir Khan’s follow up to the sensational Peepli [Live] from 2010 was this satire of contemporary Mumbai, bringing together a handful of disparate characters whose bittersweet lives eventually, and sometimes horrifyingly, converge. Directed by Khan’s wife’s Kiran Rao in her filmmaking debut, Aamir Khan offered himself in a minor role and instead promoted Prateik Babbar as a laundry boy delivering more than clean saris to well-coifed Mumbai ladies. The plot also folds in a stifled housewife whose experiences emerge haltingly—and shockingly—from a series of home videos she left behind. Smart filmmaking techniques always win out!


5. Marathon Boy
In India, a land of extremes in the patchwork of global human experiences—longest hair anyone? longest finger nails anyone?—the docu-drama Marathon Boy offers a most fascinating story of a seven-year-old boy from West Bengal who, at the astonishingly tender age of four, shows promise as a long-distance runner. Even though made by British filmmaker Gemma Atwal, and therefore technically not an “Indian” movie, Marathon Boy is everything Slumdog Millionaire could not be—a celebration of the Indian spirit without giving up the Indian soul. Bravo!

6. Dum Maaro Dum


A well-made underworld caper is always a welcome entry. This reunion of Abhishek Bachchan with director Rohan Sippy continued the success they shared with Bluffmaster (2005). Set in Goa, with Bachchan playing a vice cop on the hot trail of a drug smuggling conspiracy—complete with inside informers and scantily-clad beach front pleasure seekers—Prateik Babbar again proved a scene-stealer as a U.S.-bound college student who gets snared in a criminal dragnet. Borrowing a title from the blockbuster R.D. Burman-Asha Bhosle song from 1971’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Sippy’s film also tossed up one of the best remakes of that iconic song.


7. Chillar Party

Uber-producer Ronnie Screwvala’s small-budget (in comparison to Disney’s Zokkomon) offering was an entertainer aimed squarely at kids. Co-directors Vikas Bahl and Nitesh Tiwari’s comedy zoomed in on an upper-middle class Mumbai subdivision where the focus of attention is a stray dog and its owner—a poor street urchin—who unwittingly cross paths with a local politician who will go to great lengths to force them out from the housing colony. Instead of giving up, a group of shorts-wearing, pint-sized colony residents—who have christened their “gang” Chillar Party—take up the cause to keep the dog and dog keeper on the colony’s premises. Their tale imparts a valuable lesson in tolerance, confronting bullies, and being enterprising in overcoming powerful adversaries.

8. Tanu Weds Manu


In a year that saw Kangana Ranaut scaling new highs (No Problem, Game, Ready) Tanu Weds Manu was her best outing. Kangana and Madhavan are members of opposing wedding parties in the same arranged marriage chess board. Ranaut’s Tanu, as a feisty, chain-smoking, decidedly non-virginal bride, is a groundbreaking new-age heroine that, for a change, is accepted matter-of-factly in the new India. The graph from Hum Aapke Hain Koun to Hum Tum toMere Brother Ki Dulhan to Tanu Weds Manu has signaled a significant evolution of stronger bridal female characters allowed to demonstrate limited real-world sensibilities. Progress!

9. Mere Brother Ki Dulhan


A year without at least one Yashraj romantic comedy is practically unheard of. Mere Brotherropes in Imran Khan who is accorded the laughs-heavy responsibility of finding a suitable bride for his brother (Pakistani singer-actor Ali Zafar) and zeroes in on a former college pal (Katrina Kaif) with unresolved former BFF issues. Significantly boosted by Sohail Sen’s catchy musical score, light and playful, director Ali Abbas Zafar’s film got decent mileage from comically re-playing an old plotline one more time.

10. Singham


The action-hero crown that Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt have relinquished has been inherited by Ajay Devgn very nicely, thank you. In this Hindi remake of his own Tamil language hit by the same name, director Rohan Shetty came up with the best action movie of the year. It was a worthy successor to the brawny cop dramas pioneered in the Bachchan mold and similar in feel to last year’s Once Upon A Time in Mumbai in its retro 1970s insignia. While Devgn nailed a ginormous box office with Golmaal 3, over the long run, Singham may serve as a better talent marker.

Minor rant: Because of tight print deadlines, some anticipated year end noteworthy titles are not included for consideration in this 2011 roundup. They include Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar, Puneet Issar’s post-9/11 drama I am Singh, Yashraj’s romantic comedyLadies vs. Ricky Bahl and Vidya Balan channeling the 1980s siren Silk Smitha in the Milan Luthria biopic Dirty Picture.
On to 2012. Happy Movie Going!

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.