Many of us know that the only thing true about India is that no single element represents the whole of India – her wonders, complexities, contradictions and the diversity. And Indian Cinema certainly can not – only Hindi movies surely can not. Still, I believe that the stories we tell and the songs we sing are a great representation of the people we are.
Many of my non-desi (firang !) friends have asked me numerous times on recommendations on Indian movies they should watch. I have prepared this list to for such Indophiles as a primer into the world of mainly Hindi films over the ages. The focus is to introduce them to some of our best artists in this craft – directors and actors whose work has had a remarkable impression on their generation ( and the following ones).
These are films, which through their characters, dialogues and songs, reside in the sub conscience of many-million Hindi speaking Indians and who have helped influence the idiom of our language. That way they lie in the fertile portion of our common milieu which influences our dreams and passions and represents them at the same time. These films either established a genre, represent the best example from a genre or broke new ground in Indian cinema. That is why this list also straddles the spectrum from serious art-house cinema of Shyam Benegal to crassly pulp-fictiony commercial cinema from Manmohan Desai or Karan Johar.
You would notice that I have tried to keep away from film-makers like Mira Nair whose works foreign Indophiles get first exposed to any ways. Also, however honest and rightfully critical their work is of our life and heritage, it is also at some level an attempt to gain attention by selling either over-hyped exotica or much-dramatized penury. I do like these films as well but they do not confirm to my current spec of being able to influence our lives.
A few disclaimers before I unleash the list. The first disclaimer is that these are NOT the best Indian movies – no such list is ever objective and coming from an amateur like me, this is just a list of my favorites. The second disclaimer is that this list is, in no ways, complete since it excludes some legendary film makers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji N Karun and many more whose work I have not been suitably exposed to because of my linguistic limitations.
Another disclaimer/advice – especially for non-Indians – Have patience with the films – in each one of them you would see more melodrama than you would have seen in a whole Oscar Show reel, more songs than a Broadway show, most longer than an NFL Play-off – but have patience. Alas, you would perhaps miss the beauty of the language ( poetry, dialectal nuances to build characters, analogies) in many of these films but I do hope that the charm would still show through.
and the Final one : this list is overtly biased in Amitabh Bachchan’s favor – but I can’t help it…he is the Best !
So, here goes :
V Shantaram :
– Do Ankhen Barah Haath : From one of the early leaders of Indian film-craft comes this drama with a social message – to reform convicts with hard work and kindly guidance.
– Andaaz : Perhaps the first attempt at love triangle which was to become the central theme to many many Hindi films to come, this film pits legendary thespians Raj Kumar and Dilip Kumar in conflicting roles, early in their careers. This is also a good movie to watch the contrast in their acting styles.
– Mother India : One of the first big screen, big story movies with the central of ever-sacrificing mother with a saintly son and another gone awry.
Raj Kapoor : It is very difficult to chose a small sample from the works of the greatest show man India has seen. Yet, I have tried to keep the list to work from his golden era in B&W 1905s/60s with him as the Producer-Director-Actor
-Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behati hai
– Bandini : the moving love-story of a soft spoken convict woman and a young doctor on duty in the prison.
– Mughal-e-Azam : India’s first real Magnum Opus – took N years to make, had a stellar cast and extra-ordinary performances from Dilip Kumar, Madhubala & Prithvi Raj Kapoor. Is based on the legend of Crown Prince Salim’s ( Emperor Jehangir later, son of Emperor Akbar) romance with a courtesan Anarkali. You may want to pick the recently digitally remastered and colored version for the awe-inspiring sets and camera work, but Madhubala’s eternal beauty shines in the B&W frames much better.
Guru Dutt : Again, difficult to chose even from the limited amount of work this Director-Actor produced in his short life. Here’s an example of serious cinema about the tragedies and pressures in the show-business contrasted to a very light hearted romantic comedy
– Kagaz ke Phool
– Mrs & Mr 55
Dev Anand – India’s first real on-screen Casanova, did very well in creating his own inimical style and charisma ( some say, copied from a Hollywood star of 50s, I don’t know who)
– CID : One of the earliest thrillers
– Guide : Dev and his brother Vijay Anand’s take on R. K Narayan’s incredibly well-written eponymous novel. If you were a R K Narayan fan, as I am, you would not forgive the Anand brothers in murdering Narayan’s plot. However, that does not take away that it is a wonderful piece of story-telling, heart warming music, brilliant camera angles – in all a good film despite a prolonged and unnecessary climax.
Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi : Acting & Parallel Cinema Power Houses. Smita’s life and career were shortened by a merciless brain stroke while Naseer and Shabana have successfully helped make mainstream cinema respectful in art-circles and art-cinemas profitable at the box office.
– Mirch Masala
– Masoom : Director Shekhar Kapoor (Oscar winner Elizabeth ) adapts Eric Segal’s “Man Woman & Child” with heart warming performances by Shabana, Child Jugal Hansraj and a restrained one by Naseer.
– Jane Bhi Do Yaron : Black Comedy ; India’s best political satire yet
Hrishikesh Mukherjee : This recently deceased director’s strength lay in taking simple but heart warming stories with usually every day characters, little malice and find comedy/joy in almost everything – even in the story of a terminally ill cancer patient
– Anand : celebrates Rajesh Khanna’s stardom while Amitabh’s silent strength shines through.
Dilip Kumar Vs Amitabh Bachchan : Period.
Yash Chopra : the God of mature romances, poetry in dialogues and eternal melodies
-Kabhie Kabhie : excuse the last 30-45 minutes of the movie. This moview could be watched only for the sequence where the heroine ( Rakhi)’s old poet lover ( Amitabh) comes home to have a drink with the husband ( Shashi Kapoor)
Gulzar : This guys is basically a poet and a lyricist but has shown to be an extremely talented director as well
– Machis : Gulzar style take on the Punjab insurgency – non-preachy yet no pretence of a balanced point of view
Maniratnam – The best story teller of our times. Movies originally made in Tamil
– Nayakan : Mani drives another thespian Kamal Hassan to perhaps his career best performance. Story of a Tamil Underworld Don in Mumbai.
Masala – Pop culture, pulp fiction, mass cinema
-Sholay : and then there were none ! No other single movie, with the possible exception of Mughal-e-Azam, has been able to generate as big a fan following with each character and each frame/dialogue giving birth to timeless memories. The movie’s popularity and longevity can be gauged by the no. of spoofs it continues to inspire in popular culture – stand up acts, ads, MTV gigs, etc.
– Amar Akbar Anthony : Bollywood’s favorite theme of brothers separated when young, grow up to avenge their parents from the evil villain. Of course, the bonus of one of Amitabh’s most comic performances.
– Kal Ho Na Ho : Almost a perfect example of producer/director Karan Johar started genre of modern pop chocolate romances of young people in trendy DKNY & Tommy attires, supposedly representing modern India, where there is no villain in any frame. This one is directed by his protege Nikhil Adavani and is a loose remake of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand and celebrates Shahrukh Khan’s stardom as much the original celebrated Rajesh Khanna.
-Black: not original but perhaps one of the finest example of our modern cinema; loosely based on the story of Helen Keller – almost un-Bollywood like in its perfection. I can venture to say – Amitabh’s career best — and that is saying a lot.
– Eklavya : Last week’s release; one of the most original scripts that we have seen; almost Shakespearean though; competent performances. Watch it for the return of one of India’s most prodigious director after 7 years, his mastery at extracting the best from actors and technicians and his audacity to throw the hall in complete darkness for 3 minutes in midst of a chilling scene
– Bluffmaster : the younger Bachchan – Abhishek – comes of age in this con-man romance
– Maqbool : Director and Music Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Mac Beth in the netherworld of Mumbai crime mafia. Pl excuse the blasphemy but you could compare Pankaj Kapur’s (plays the old Don – “Abba ji”) performance with Brando’s in Godfather
-Lage Raho Munnabhai ( Munnabhai Part 2) : a refreshing take on the relevance of Gandhi in our modern life
– Lakshya : a coming of age story of boy during the Kargil war – completely humane look at soldiery but no jingoism, no Pak bashing despite the obvious anger at their actions
-Swades : has caused many a Non-resident desi professionals to rethink their personal and professional goals.
-Iqbal : The most charming attempt at marrying India’s 2 strongest passions – cricket and movies. Story of a deaf & dumb village guy whose dream is to play cricket professionally.
Indian Independance/Biopic : Not many credible movies on this, unfortunately – may be this history is too close for it to truthfully told yet. I have picked 2 movies which are biopics for 2 contrasting faces of Indian Independence struggle – both continue generating passions still – Gandhi perhaps more than Bhagat Singh
-Gandhi : This of course is not an Indian movie – made by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi played by Ben Kingsley, this movie brought the only Oscar an Indian has won on a movie project – Bhanu Atthaiya for Dress design ( Satyajit Ray won it for Lifetime Achievement). I have included this movie because no introduction to popular Indian culture can be complete without an introduction to Gandhi.
– The Legend of Bhagat Singh
Well, as I said, this list is not complete. So, my desi friends, please add on to the list – not merely your favorite films, but especially those which have represented and also inspired our collective imagination. Also, if you have been faced with similar questions – pl feel free to pass the list along.