India Features

2021’s Notable Debut Directors: First-Time Indian Filmmakers Who Explored New Storylines and Made a Mark

The year 2021 has seen a lot of content premiering on OTT platforms and in cinemas. In addition to commercial films, there has been a parallel exploration of other forms like anthologies, shorts, and indie films. It has also been a year where debutants have risen to the occasion and delivered interesting content in various genres, from political satire to period dramas. In fact, debutant PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal (Pebbles) was even selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars.


Silverscreen India has thus compiled this list of 2021’s most notable debutant filmmakers from across India.

Ashwin Gangaraju (Telugu)

A former associate of SS Rajamouli, Ashwin made his debut with Aakashavaani that primarily starred new faces alongside veteran actor Samuthirakani. The period drama about people living far away from civilisation opened to positive reception. It featured grand shots set in a remote forest. In a previous chat with Silverscreen India, Ashwin had said that besides Rajamouli, movies of Steven Spielberg and mythological stories were a major influence on him. He also mentioned that he has scripts that will extend the film’s universe.

With references to the zamindar rule, the movie is about the lifestyle of innocent people. Aakashvani  or All India Radio also plays an important role in the film that premiered on SonyLIV.


Vishvak Khanderao (Telugu)

Khanderao’s Skylab had a theatrical release recently and has been appreciated by critics for its unique treatment of an unusual subject. Starring Satya Dev, Nithya Menen and Rahul Ramakrishna, it is a period comedy-drama set in a village in Telangana against the backdrop of the Skylab incident.  Silverscreen India‘s Sankeertana called the film “well-made” in her review and added that it “celebrates stories, big and small.” On the filmmaker’s writing, she said, “The way Vishwak writes his characters reminded me of Jhandyala; how most of his characters are caricatures, yet fully-realised human beings. Here too, despite the dreamlike world-building, the characters are rounded. Their quirks never render them one-dimensional.”


Madonne Ashwin (Tamil)

Ashwin’s Mandela featured Yogi Babu in the lead role. The political satire stars the actor-comedian as a Dalit barber called Smile, who later adopts the name Mandela. Smile, who is otherwise ignored, gains prominence when his vote becomes the deal-breaker during caste-divided local elections. Mandela opened to positive reception, with Silverscreen India‘s review noting that it “begins terrifically, in a comic piece set around a newly-built toilet. The deadpan humour and the ethnographic punches hit the right notes.”

The filmmaker had told us ahead of Mandela‘s release that he is compelled to make people think about relevant issues with his movies.


Karthik S (Tamil)


Mughizh, directed by Karthik S, is just one hour long, but explores deep concepts of trauma, recovery, and coping. It revolves around a nuclear family – consisting of a father (Vijay Sethupathi), mother (Regina Cassandra) and their daughter (Sreeja Vijay Sethupathi) – and the dog that they adopt. Karthik had earlier told Silverscreen India that Mughizh is a children’s film with a realistic touch and can be characterised as a family’s journey.

Silverscreen India‘s review says his film is one filled with hope: “It offers hope to memories that stay long after the person/places associated with it are no longer there. It offers hope of seeing more character-driven daily-life stories. It also offers hope that Vijay Sethupathi (who produced the film) will never stop backing art in his own inimitable way.”


Nikhil Pherwani (Hindi)

Nikhil made his debut with Ahaan, a light-hearted film that starred debutant actor Abuli Mamaji in the titular role as a person with Down Syndrome. It is notable that Mamaji is an actor with Down Syndrome himself. In conversation with Silverscreen India, Pherwani had said that he felt a social responsibility to properly represent disorders and disabilities. He added that he wanted the film to shine a light on the under-representation of people like Mamaji in workspaces and cinema.

Ahaan had a week-long theatrical run before going to Netflix.


Tharun Moorthy (Malayalam)

Tharun’s debut film, the thriller Operation Java, not only garnered positive reviews but also ran successfully in theatres for 75 days. It features Balu Varghese and Lukman as two unemployed B Tech graduates who join the Kerala cyber cell as interns to help solve a series of cyber-crimes such as morphing, piracy, extortion and phishing.

A self-taught director from a performing-arts background, Tharun had told Silverscreen India earlier that while he did not assist any other filmmakers prior to his debut, he learnt set management and the production process by making ad-films. “I hope to make use of this medium [cinema] to convey thought-provoking messages that are relevant and relatable to the audience without forgoing its genuineness,” he added.


Chidambaram (Malayalam)

Chidambaram made his debut with the comedy-drama Jan.E.Man, which revolves around a protagonist who plans his own birthday party in a bid to stave off loneliness. However, things go haywire when his friend’s neighbour dies and the rest of the film is about whether he can have his celebration. With an IMDb rating of 8.5, the film was praised for its humour and for Chidambaram’s direction.


Kayoze Irani (Hindi)


An actor first, Irani, who has appeared in a handful of films including Student of the Year and Bombay Talkies, helmed the segment Ankahi in the anthology Ajeeb Daastaans.

Silverscreen India‘s review says the short gives us a “reason to marvel at two gifted actors –  Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul,” and adds, “The film is predictable, but it is beautifully divided into the talkie, busy marriage and the silent, sign language-filled affair between Natasha and Kabir (Kaul), a hearing and speech-impaired photographer.”


PS Vinothraj (Tamil)

As mentioned before, Vinothraj’s debut, Koozhangal (Pebbles), was India’s official selection to the Oscars 2022. While the film did not make it to the shortlist in the Best International Feature category, Vinothraj’s Pebbles still created ripples within Indian cinema. It also won the Tiger Competition Award at the 50th International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

Vinoth was inspired to make the film by the life of his elder sister, who was forced out of her house with her infant daughter, in the middle of the night, by her husband. “The incident made me angry, but I didn’t know how to respond to it. Pebbles came out of my exasperation,” he had said to us earlier.


Abhilash Shetty (Kannada)


Directed by Abhilash Shetty, the Kannada indie film Koli Taal, which translates to Chicken Curry, had its world premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival 2021. The 84-minute film is set against the backdrop of the Western Ghats in Karnataka and follows the life of an elderly couple who are excited about the arrival of their grandson from New Delhi. As they prepare to cook a chicken curry for dinner, their simple lives get disrupted when the chicken goes missing at the last moment.

Shetty, in an earlier conversation with us, said, “When it was time to make a feature film, I thought of doing one which is dear to me. This film gave me a chance to show the story, culture, and traditions of a village in the Western Ghats, something we don’t often see in films.” The filmmaker added that every character in the film is based on real people and said it was a conscious decision on his part to make an art-house film that is off-beat and realistic.


(With inputs from Chandhini R and Shrija Ganguly)