The 5 Best Indian Films of 2022 That Weren’t RRR

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Raaj Kamal Films International/YouTube, Pen Movies/YouTube and T-Series/YouTube

One of the year’s biggest entertainment stories was RRR — or Rise. Roar. Revolt. — S.S. Rajamouli’s enrapturing Tollywood epic, which has broken through a western barrier that seemed impenetrable for Indian films, becoming a critical and commercial hit. A quintessential theatrical experience between its audacious dance number and raucous scenes of animal mauling, the Telugu-language period musical has also found global success online following its surprise streaming release in May via its Hindi dub on Netflix (and, to a lesser degree, its original version on the Indian streaming service Zee5). For many viewers outside South Asia, it was their first experience with an Indian movie of any kind, potentially opening the door to a wider exploration of the world’s largest film industry.

India’s nearly 2,000 annual productions are spread across several regional and language-specific subindustries. The Hindi-language Bollywood was the unprecedented financial leader until recently, when it was overtaken by industries in the nation’s south thanks in part to the dual Telugu and Tamil releases of Rajamouli’s own Baahubali duology (also available on Netflix). But while RRR typifies what some of the Indian mainstream has on tap — violent bombast, banger tunes, emotional sincerity, and sometimes-uncomfortable jingoism — this year has played host to a wide variety of great Indian pictures. Some play in the same sandbox as RRR, though they express their splendor and action in different modes. Others depart significantly in their style and politics, acting almost as counterweights to the perception of Indian films in the West as colorful, spectacle-first musical melodramas.

Of course, none of these movies were made with the express intent of changing that perception (even RRR wasn’t created with western viewers in mind), but since the curiosity now exists, a quick scroll through your chosen streaming service will likely turn up a litany of Indian movies you may not have noticed before. Five of the year’s best are now streaming on various platforms, and they each represent wildly different facets of Indian filmmaking from ongoing independent movements to mainstream sister industries with their own lengthy histories of stars and styles.


Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj
Language: Tamil

Vikram is a prime example of how even star-driven, over-the-top extravaganzas can feel nothing like RRR. The second entry in director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s shared black-ops universe — though you don’t need to have seen predecessor Kaithi to keep up — it’s a seedy action spectacle led by 68-year-old superstar Kamal Haasan, who plays an intriguing dual role of sorts (the less revealed beforehand, the better). With his signature buttery-smooth bravado in tow, he leads a string of conceptually original action scenes that explode Vikram’s crime-drama plot from within.

Haasan’s mysterious character crosses paths with black-ops officer Agent Amar (Fahadh Faasil), whose covert unit skirts the law in pursuit of drug kingpin Sandhanam (played by Vijay Sethupathi, one of the world’s most magnetic character actors in an especially zany role). However, this seemingly straightforward genre romp collides headfirst with a parallel tale of a masked, militarized cult seeking to wipe out corruption before all hell breaks loose in a series of tightly wound, white-knuckle set pieces. Cinematographer Girish Gangadharan’s camera crafts a lurid atmosphere as it follows each man down dark corridors and murky moral paths in one of the most ludicrously enjoyable movies of 2022.

Available to stream on Hulu

Gangubai Kathiawadi

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Language: Hindi

Starring Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn (who also appear in RRR), Gangubai Kathiawadi is the latest period musical from the purveyor of modern Bollywood’s most visually intoxicating works, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose stylized expressionism lends credence to the idea that places can be characters, too. A loose biopic based on the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai, it follows a young girl sold into prostitution, Ganga (Bhatt), and her subsequent 1960s rise to crime-boss madame and, eventually, pro–sex work politician.

Set in an ornate, heightened red-light district, it’s the kind of operatic character piece at which Bhatt excels, centered on a tough-as-nails woman with concealed vulnerabilities. Devgn, despite having a smaller role as a local gangster who takes Ganga under his wing, forms a vital part of the feminist credo of the film, which attempts to normalize and even valorize sex work — often demonized by Indian society — with surprising appeals to mainstream sensibilities (in the vein of Bollywood’s “social issues” filmmaking). Rather than trying to eke out a new place for sex workers in conservative society, it makes the convincing case that they are already a vital fixture.

Available to stream on Netflix


Director: Achal Mishra
Language: Maithili

Achal Mishra’s photography background seeps into each frame of Dhuin, his restrained, 50-minute filmic novella about a young stage actor during the pandemic. An emerging master of composition, Mishra’s carefully considered 4:3 vistas draw particular focus to unspoken social dynamics as protagonist Pankaj (Abhinav Jha) absorbs the quiet indignities often foisted upon young artists in a utilitarian world and even dishes them out himself on occasion.

A frigid mist sets in over the small town of Darbhanga. Soon, Pankaj’s dreams of moving to Mumbai turn similarly foggy, torn between his duty toward his elderly father — a worker displaced by COVID, a story Mishra wove from the struggles of an actor on his previous film, Gamak Ghar — and Pankaj’s realizations of his own artistic shortcomings the more he compares himself with his peers. Even in group scenes, Mishra’s camera rarely averts its gaze from Jha’s subtle performance, resulting in a quiet portrait of insecurity and the fragility of dreams beset by harsh realities.

Available to buy or rent on Vimeo


Director: Nagraj Manjule
Language: Hindi

One of the premier voices in Marathi-language cinema, Nagraj Manjule’s Bollywood breakout is a fitting biopic to watch in a World Cup year. Starring screen legend Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay Borade (based on Slum Soccer founder Vijay Barse), Jhund brings a unique flair to the Indian sports drama and leaves you wishing you could spend more time with its characters even after three whole hours.

With an ensemble of newcomers scouted from actual slums — and a few regulars from Manjule’s previous films, Fandry and Sairat — it’s led by a fiery first-time performance from Ankush Gedam as a listless youth who battles not only perception (of caste and economic circumstance) but the legal limits of personhood in a world where something as fundamental as identity requires money and paper. Manjule and cinematographer Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti imbue each movement with enormity — practically every second shot in the opening act is a dolly zoom — and each dialogue exchange with intimacy, building a stylish, propulsive, and resonant tale of frustrations channeled through sport.

Available to stream on Zee5

A Night of Knowing Nothing

Director: Payal Kapadia
Language: Bengali, Hindi

Ideologically and aesthetically, Payal Kapadia’s debut feature is the polar opposite of RRR, though it’s just as (if not more) exacting in its use of cinematic imagery. A haunting piece of docu-fiction, it weaves a dreamlike narrative about lost film reels found at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India — the director’s alma mater — discovered alongside love letters written by an anonymous student. As these mournful notes are read aloud, Kapadia combines this story with real footage of student protest and resistance against Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu government, revealing a lucid collage of life in modern India.

A tapestry born of light and physical texture (its digital impersonation of 16-mm. film grain is nothing short of magical), A Night of Knowing Nothing is a rousing example of cinema as activism and an avenue to confronting the deep, unavoidable entanglements between the personal and the political.

Available to stream on the Criterion Channel
The 5 Best Indian Films of 2022 That Weren’t RRR