10 essential modern Indian film directors

Your guide to a selection of some of the best new Indian filmmakers who have emerged this century, with a focus on directors working independently or in a realistic mode.

Meenakshi Shedde
Updated:

Anurag Kashyap

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Essential films

Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2 (2012), Black Friday (2004), Dev D (2009), Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016)

What’s special about him?

Anurag Kashyap is the king of indie Indian cinema, with a cult following in India and on international festival juries abroad. He is a restlessly prolific filmmaker, directing, producing, writing and acting in a range of films, including Hindi and Tamil titles and international co-productions, and backing a raft of new voices. Many of his films stylishly anatomise the darker reaches of the human psyche, and he has a taste for brutal violence.

His strongest films include Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2 (2012), a sprawling coal mafia saga; Ugly (2013), a dark thriller about a kidnapped child; and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), a savage cop-criminal thriller based on a real-life serial murderer (all of which were at the Cannes Film Festival). Dev D (2009), about an incorrigibly romantic loser, was at Venice, while Black Friday (2004), on the Bombay serial bomb blasts of 1993, was at Locarno. He has also produced/co-produced about 47 films, including Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna (2011), Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (Fly Away Solo, 2015), Richie Mehta’s India in a Day (2016) and Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2013).

Vishal Bhardwaj

Maqbool (2003)

Maqbool (2003)

Essential films

Maqbool (Macbeth, 2003), Omkara (Othello, 2006), Haider (Hamlet, 2014)

What’s special about him?

Vishal Bhardwaj must be one of the exceptional instances in world cinema of a music composer-turned-successful film director. Along with Mani Ratnam, he is one of the few Indian directors with a gift for marrying arthouse storytelling with mainstream song and dance, with tremendous panache.

Indian cinema is rife with Shakespeare adaptations, but Bhardwaj has made its finest – Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014) – often investing them with completely original, Indian nuances. For instance, Maqbool fundamentally differs from Macbeth, as here Macbeth murders Duncan primarily in order to continue his affair with Duncan’s mistress; his Omkara is set amid corrupt politics in Uttar Pradesh, while Haider is set in Kashmir, in the politically volatile face-off between the militia and insurgents. In addition to writing, directing and producing his own films, he has produced/co-produced Ishqiya (2010), Dedh Ishqiya (2014) and Talvar (2015), directed by others. He has composed music for his own films and those of others – Maachis (1996), Satya (1998), Paanch (2003), Ishqiya and his own latest film, Rangoon (2017).

Hansal Mehta

Aligarh (2015)

Aligarh (2015)

Essential films

Shahid (2012), Aligarh (2015)

What’s special about him?

Although Hansal Mehta made his film debut in 2000, his most memorable work has been since Shahid (2012), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s a biopic based on human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, who fought cases for the marginalised, including the Muslim minority, routinely accused of terrorism and imprisoned for years without trial or evidence. He was shot dead by right-wingers in real life. Shahid is a powerful and compelling film, and especially courageous for being made in a time of growing right-wing nationalism in India.

Next came CityLights (2014), an adaptation of the British film Metro Manila (2013), about villagers trapped in the big bad city. He followed up with Aligarh (2015), an equally courageous biopic on the true story of Professor Ramchandra Siras, who taught languages at Aligarh Muslim University. Suspended for being homosexual, he committed suicide. The film was at Busan. Manoj Bajpayee, who plays Professor Siras, and imbues his loneliness with a heartbreaking poignancy, won the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best actor. Mehta’s forthcoming films include Omerta, on a British terrorist, and Simran, on a housekeeper who gets addicted to crime.

Nagraj Manjule

Fandry (2013)

Fandry (2013)

Essential films

Sairat (Wild, 2016), Fandry (Pig, 2013)

What’s special about him?

There are many things that make Sairat (2016) a historic milestone in Indian cinema. A mainstream film in Marathi language, it set a rural teenage romance amid the savage realities of the caste system today. It swept us along with its rousing song and dance, so no one was prepared for that tragic climax that socked us in the solar plexus. It was only a second feature, which was selected at the Berlin Film Festival, yet it earned a box office revenue of Rs 110 crore according to movieboxofficecollection.com. This is remarkable for a regional Marathi film to beat big Bollywood starrers. Finally, people so loved this film about an inter-caste romance that they spontaneously set up Sairat Marriage Group in Maharashtra state, to help eloped couples who are under threat from their families.

While India has many films about caste in different languages, very few have been made drawn from the director’s personal experience: Manjule’s father broke stones to build roads for a living, and his biggest dream for his son was that “he would get a job in the shade”.

Manjule’s debut feature, Fandry (2013), which also dealt with an impossible inter-caste school romance, was at the London Film Festival, and won grand jury prizes at both the Mumbai Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Umesh Kulkarni

Vihir (2009)

Vihir (2009)

Essential films

Vihir (The Well, 2009), Deool (Temple, 2011), Valu (The Wild Bull, 2008)

What’s special about him?

Umesh Kulkarni’s tour de force Vihir (2009) establishes beyond doubt that he is one of India’s most gifted young directors. It’s a sophisticated, philosophical, coming-of-age film that explores the notion of death, as a sweet adolescent boy grapples with the death of his beloved cousin. The film was at the Berlin Film Festival, and, remarkably, top Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan’s company produced the film.

With Deool (2011), Kulkarni went mainstream, festooning his satire on the commercialisation of religion with song and dance. Valu (2008), his debut, is a satire about a man who arrives in a village to catch a bull that the villagers considered holy. Since his early shorts Garud, Girni (The Grinding Machine) and Three of Us, his films have been at festivals worldwide, and a retrospective of his work was held at the Clermont Ferrand festival in France. Apart from writing and producing many of his own films, he has produced features directed by others.

Rituparno Ghosh

Bariwali (2000)

Bariwali (2000)

Essential films

Bariwali (The Lady of the House, 2000), Dosar (The Companion, 2006), Unishe April (19 April, 1994)

What’s special about him?

Rituparno Ghosh was a flamboyant, daring and sophisticated Bengali filmmaker who died early aged 49 in 2013. One India’s finest and most provocative filmmakers in the post-Satyajit Ray generation, he was a prolific filmmaker, making 23 features in 21 years. One of India’s finest screenwriters, he was sharply observant about social mores and human relationships, our frailties and hypocrisies, and his dialogues were often delightfully bitchy. He also had a great gift for using music, including folk songs, songs by Rabindranath Tagore and western classical music.

While working primarily in Bengali – he also made films in Hindi and English – his global reputation at festivals worldwide is richly deserved. Many of his films were self-reflexive on the role of a filmmaker. Bariwali (2000) is an exquisite portrayal of a lonely widow briefly befriended by a filmmaker. Dosar (2006) is the uneasy truce after a woman realises that her husband has been cheating on her. Unishe April (1994) is about a mother and daughter reconciling after acknowledging that their partners have let them down. Ghosh has also addressed homosexual issues in later films, such as Arekti Premer Golpo (2010) and Chitrangada (2012), and in his screenplay for Memories in March (2010).

Kaushik Ganguly

Shabdo (2012)

Shabdo (2012)

Essential films

Shabdo (Sound, 2012), Chotoder Chobi (A Short Story, 2014), Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story, 2010)

What’s special about him?

Kaushik Ganguly has a gift for finding fascinating stories in the lives of little-heard, marginalised people. Among his finest films is Shabdo (2012), about a foley artist who provides sound effects for films, who is so obsessed with ambient sounds that he tunes out human voices, eventually losing his mental balance. Chotoder Chobi (2014) is a poignant love story between two dwarves in a circus. Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), co-directed with and starring Rituparno Ghosh, tackled multi-layered, nuanced gay love stories as a film within a film. The protagonist is a gay filmmaker having an affair with his married, bisexual cinematographer, and they are making a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri, a real-life traditional Jatra theatre artist, in which men play women’s roles and goddesses. The film took on too much, but it captures the small moments, the tenderness, heartbreak and stoicism beautifully. It was selected at the Berlin Film Festival.

Vetri Maaran

Visaaranai (2015)

Visaaranai (2015)

Essential films

Aadukalam (Arena, 2011), Visaaranai (Interrogation, 2015), Polladhavan (Ruthless Man, 2007)

What’s special about him?

Vetri Maaran is one of the most exciting voices in Tamil cinema today (for perspective: Tamil cinema, just one regional language of India’s 42 film languages, made 291 features in 2016, whereas the UK made just 209 features, including US-studio backed films, in the same year). His Visaaranai (2015), a violent story of how corrupt police exploit suspects, was India’s entry for the Oscar for best foreign language film. His Aadukalam (2011) is a sophisticated film set in the rural cockfighting business and hinges on the betrayal of a player by his mentor. It swept six National Awards, including best director, best screenplay and best actor for top Tamil star Dhanush.

Polladhavan (2007) was an entertaining film about a young man whose bike gets stolen, as he gets entangled with the local mafia. Apart from producing Visaaranai, Dhanush and he co-produced the delightful Kaakkaa Muttai (Crow’s Egg, 2014).

Karthik Subbaraj

Jigarthanda (2014)

Jigarthanda (2014)

Essential films

Jigarthanda (2014), Iraivi (Goddess, 2016), Pizza (2012)

What’s special about him?

Karthik Subbaraj is the cool dude of Tamil cinema, who is unafraid, quirky and straddles the tropes of western and Tamil cinema with panache. In Jigarthanda (meaning ‘cold-hearted’, but also a cold drink, 2014), a filmmaker forced by his producer to make a bloody gangster film researches a real-life mobster and realises that he must become a kind of gangster himself in order to make the film he wants. The self-reflexive film within a film uses crude and stylised violence, as Subbaraj pays tribute to Tarantino even as he seems to mocks him. Santhosh Narayanan’s music adds lashings of style.

Subbaraj’s debut film, Pizza (2012), a low-budget thriller about a pizza delivery man, was a hit. His most recent film, Iraivi (Goddess, 2016), is again a reflection of the dire straits of a filmmaker struggling to rescue his film from the producer. The three male protagonists end up stealing antiques, but the film also questions how this affects the women in their lives. It’s very daring and layered, even if not all of it works.

Rajeev Ravi

Kammatti Padam (2016)

Kammatti Padam (2016)

Essential films

Annayum Rasoolum (Anna and Rasool, 2013), Kammatti Padam (2016), Njan Steve Lopez (I Am Steve Lopez, 2014)

What’s special about him?

While Bollywood knows Rajeev Ravi as the cinematographer of Anurag Kashyap’s films, including Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2, Dev D and That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010), he has in fact developed a distinctive voice as a director of films in Malayalam language. These include Annayum Rasoolum (2013), the atmospherically shot Romeo-Juliet tragedy set in the seaside town of Kochi. He followed it up with Njan Steve Lopez (2014), about an innocent teenager who unwittingly gets caught up in crime.

His most recent film is Kammatti Padam (Watermelon Field, 2016), which unflinchingly lays bare how Dalits (low castes) in Ernakulam were used as bloody fodder by greedy real estate thugs – an issue framed by a story of childhood friends. He also shot Liar’s Dice (2013), directed by his actor-director wife Geethu Mohandas, which was India’s entry for the Oscar for best foreign language film. Ravi is also part of a technicians’ group called Collective Phase One, which produces arthouse cinema. Their first film was Kamal K.M.’s I.D. (2012).

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