This is a great time to be a Hindi film-watcher, especially if you like the offbeat. Not since the 'New Wave' filmmakers of the '80s have we had such a surge of filmmakers daring to make films off the beaten path.
This trend is of course different from then. The presence of NFDC to fund these films and no real commercial considerations resulted in a lot of 'important' films of uneven cinematic quality and limited mass appeal. However, it also saw the emergence of a lot of great filmmakers and actors.
However, the rise of "multiplex cinema" has resulted in a rise of a lot of brave filmmakers who are trying different things - spanning small dramas (Ahista Ahista, Dasvidaniya) and eccentric comedies (Bheja Fry) all the way to noir (Johnny Gaddaar, Manorama - Six feet Under) to the weird (Mithya) and plain bizarre (No Smoking and the upcoming Dev. D).
Importantly, these filmmakers are doing it in a self-sustaining way. They seem to be making enough money or generating enough interest from producers to get second and third films off the ground. The output of such films is only increasing. These films don't necessarily tackle weighty subjects but are accessible and surprisingly willing to subvert Bollywood tradition with no stars and limited to no songs.
At the center of this vortex appear a set of usual suspects. The first is a group of people I call the Rajat Kapoor clique. Somehow Mahesh Uncle from Dil Chahta Hai seems to be at the epicenter of a lot of unusual indie film activity - either as a producer, or as a director or in some supporting acting role. In leading and supporting roles around him are Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla and (surprise!) Neha Dhupia. For instance, Rajat Kapoor directed Mithya, while he makes an appearance in the Vinay Pathak-produced Dasvidaniya. Vinay and Ranvir show up and deliver solid performances in anything and everything involving the other two. Neha Dhupia turns up as the mandatory female interest in both Mithya and Dasvidaniya. Saurabh Shukla acts in supporting roles and is often involved with the script.
Another leading character is Abhay Deol. If I've rooted for some Indian film actor over the past couple of years, it has to be this guy. I remember picking up Socha Na Tha for a weekend watch on a whim and being completely impressed with the film. He's subsequently proven so fearless and sharp in his film choices that I wonder if he's really from the same family as Bobby Deol. Ahista Ahista, Ek Chalis ki Last Local, and Manorama were all films that had their high points. His acting is competent without being spectacular - but he can definitely carry a film. However (I'd like to believe that) his name attached to a film gives it cachet at least among a certain section of the audience.
As for writers and directors, we're in a bit of a glut aren't we? Dibaker Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye), Anurag Kashyap (he of the many banned films fame), Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar) and slightly more mainstream directors like Shimit Amin (Ab Tak Chhappan, Chak De...India) and Vishal Bharadwaj. And I missed out half a dozen more notable names.Whew.
I remember a time in the '90s when there were maybe two-three Hindi films worth watching in a whole year. A sore point with interesting non-mainstream films was access. I remember being so excited when they showed Santosh Sivan's Halo on DD on a saturday afternoon.
With multiplexes and easier access to DVDs, yes, being a desi film fan is so much better these days.
* This is from a very unscientific set of observations - I saw Mithya, Ek Chalis ki Last Local and Dasvidaniya all on DVD over the course of a week.