13 Amazing Bollywood Movies for the First-Time Viewer

13 Amazing Bollywood Movies for the First-Time Viewer

Ask anyone what comes to mind when they hear the word "India," and one of the first three things will likely be Bollywood.

The country's love for cinema is renowned worldwide, and with good reason. India makes more films each year than any other nation, and Bollywood is just one part of the vast Indian film landscape. Loosely defined as the Hindi-language film industry set in or connected to Mumbai — the city's old name, Bombay, led to the riff on "Hollywood" — Bollywood is famous for its three-hour melodramas, kitschy song-and-dance numbers and larger-than-life superstars.

Unfortunately, its resolute idiosyncrasies also preclude easy access points for the curious novice. To ease the point of entry for Bollywood newbies, we've compiled a list of Bollywood films that will serve as an education for those interested. These films may not be Bollywood's best or most famous, but they provide a wide-ranging overview of what Bollywood can offer. That ought to be ideal for a start, right?

1. 'Awara/The Tramp' (1951, dir. Raj Kapoor)

Awara was rumored to have been Mao Zedong's favorite film, and its iconic chartbuster "Awara Hoon" his favorite song. Interested yet? This tale of a poor vagabond (played by the director) who is the banished son of a harsh judge (Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj's real-life father) was an inspiration for millions of people not just in the subcontinent, but also from the Arab world to the Soviet Union, perhaps thanks to its socialist themes. Featuring what is probably Indian cinema's first dream sequence, Awara was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1953. Time magazine recognized Raj Kapoor's work as one of the 10 great performances in cinema. And yes, the title (which translates as The Tramp) cements how heavily Raj Kapoor was inspired by Charlie Chaplin's iconic 1915 film of the same name.

2. 'Mother India' (1957, dir. Mehboob Khan)

In 1958, when Federico Fellini won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Nights of Cabiria, he did so by just one vote; Mother India had come within an inch of the top honor. To ensure the film was palatable to the Academy, the producers chopped off their own logo: It featured the communist hammer and sickle. This epic about a poor village woman who raises her sons through strife, natural and manmade, is filled with left-wing nationalist imagery. The "mother" can be seen as an icon for the newly emerging India. The film's legacy is such that Indian lyricist Javed Akhtar once commented, "All Hindi films come from Mother India."

3. 'Pyaasa/Thirsty' (1957, dir. Guru Dutt)

Fog invades the frame for much of actor-auteur Guru Dutt's masterpiece, as unlucky and unpublished poet Vijay walks through the streets of Calcutta. The wisps of vapor and the fairytale set constructions lend a dreamlike feel to Pyaasa’s visuals, in stark contrast to the nightmarish proceedings they depict. A stark tale of how society's self-centeredness and materialism can destroy someone inside out, this film leaves you with a smile only because of how well the romance between Dutt's poet and Waheeda Rehman's prostitute is essayed. It easily earns its place on Time's All-Time 100 list.

4. 'Mughal-e-Azam/The Emperor of the Mughals' (1960, dir. K. Asif)

This 197-minute epic about the forbidden love affair between a Mughal prince and a dancer in his father Emperor Akbar's court won over audiences with its beautiful soundtrack, lavish sets and heartbreaking performances. It can be rivalled in drama, tension, stakes, romance and action by only one other thing: its own production, which lasted at least 15 years. It had to be halted once because of the Partition in 1947. The lead actress, Madhubala, fainted on set often because of a congenital heart disease. (Having to walk weighed down by real iron chains didn't help.) The filming of one ambitious musical number nearly bankrupt the producers; it cost more than entire Bollywood films of the time. David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) consulted on the film and told the director to give up. He didn't.

5. 'Sholay/Embers' (1975, dir. Ramesh Sippy)

"The greatest star cast ever assembled — the greatest story ever told," shouted the posters, a claim few films would have the guts to make. Sholay makes that adulation seem well deserved. Loosely based on Seven Samurai and inspired by spaghetti Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sholay is the quintessential Bollywood epic, friendship, love, action, tragedy and comedy all brought together in a 198-minute mélange that doesn’t do anything in half measures. Lines from it have long since entered the lexicon, character names are forever attached to the actors embodying them and songs are still hummed everywhere. Actor and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur once remarked, "There has never been a more defining film on the Indian screen." He was right.

6. 'Deewaar/Wall' (1975, dir. Yash Chopra)

Deewaar is "absolutely key to Indian cinema," director Danny Boyle said while acknowledging the film's influence on the Academy Award-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire. Yash Chopra's crime drama about two poor brothers, one growing up to be an idealistic cop and the other a street-smart criminal, is a tale of archetypes. Yet it is told with incisive relevance to the Indian social and political climate during the '70s, when inflation and unemployment were rising and the divide between rich and poor widening. Amitabh Bachchan's powerful performance as the cynical elder brother cemented his status as the "Angry Young Man," while this exchange yielded one of Bollywood's most iconic lines of all time. Masala films (movies with mixed genres) had a new king.

7. 'Gol Maal/Hodgepodge' (1979, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee)

A young, middle-class man blurts out one lie in front of his eccentric boss to save his job, and this spirals downward into a series of hijinks. Gol Maal is a mild, good-natured comedy that revolves around ordinary characters with mundane concerns, while offering squeaky-clean laughs. Its raging success made an unlikely star out of its lead, Amol Palekar, who with his everyman looks and modest build was distinctly unlike reigning Bollywood superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra (Sholay). The director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, had successfully built a middle ground between the larger-than-life blockbusters and smaller-than-small arthouse films, going on to make several other hit comedies. Even today, umpteen Bollywood filmmakers try to emulate him.

8. 'Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge/The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride' (1994, dir. Aditya Chopra)

This is the only film on the list you can still see in theaters. Mumbai's Maratha Mandir has been screening DDLJ (as it's abbreviated by fans) continuously since its release in 1995. This was one of the first Bollywood films to appeal actively to the massive Indian diaspora residing in the West. The characters are NRIs (non-resident Indians) who fall in love while on a European vacation, but the boy must win over the girl's parents in India before they can marry. More cunningly engineered than a thriller, the film portrays how one's values and beliefs determine his "being Indian," not his place of residence. The two leads, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, became superstars overnight, as well as one of Indian cinema's most loved couples. Innumerable romcoms since have tried to match up.

9. 'Satya/Truth' (1998, dir. Ram Gopal Varma)

How influential Satya is to contemporary Bollywood can be gauged just by trying to count the number of imitators it spawned, some by Varma himself. And how great it is can be understood by seeing how inferior these imitators are. The "underworld," as Mumbai's mafia is called, was depressingly integral to the city at one point. The gangsters, their gangs and rivalries didn't spill over into real life as much as they just resided within it. Their connection to Bollywood was also shockingly real; some films were funded by the underworld. To see their lives as depicted in Satya was a landmark, a genuine revolution in Indian cinema. It birthed a new genre: Mumbai noir.

10. 'Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India' (2001, dir. Ashutosh Gowariker)

Lagaan is 3 hours and 45 minutes long. It is about a sport that most of the Western world doesn't even follow. In fact, when it was screened at the Festival del Film Locarno, the organizers had to publish the rules of cricket for attendees. Yet, the audience reportedly danced to A.R. Rahman's songs in the aisles of the Piazza Grande. Popular demand asked for it to be screened three additional times, and the festival awarded it the Prix du Public. This was just the beginning of a blazing trail that culminated with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Lagaan is the biggest Bollywood event of the 21st century, one that made Aamir Khan an indisputable superstar.

11. 'Luck by Chance' (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar)

Upon release, Luck by Chance failed to gather any steam at the box office. Reviews were positive, but didn't possess the kind of euphoria that draws attention to itself years later. So, why is it on this list? Zoya Akhtar's debut feature, a sweet journey of a struggling actor who wants to make it big in Bollywood, is a satire of the film industry and its way of life that is perceptive but not jaded. This is neither The Day of the Locust nor The Player; it is instead an ode to how much Bollywood and its demigod stars matter to the Indian public, for better or worse. The beautiful opening credits highlight this; they are as in awe of the magical land that is Bollywood as any Indian cinephile would be. 

12. 'Dev.D' (2009, dir. Anurag Kashyap)

When he was 17, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote a romantic novel called Devdas, which has since been recognized as a landmark in Indian literature. It has also been adapted for the screen numerous times, including a lavish 2002 version starring Shah Rukh Khan. This version moves the action from colonial-era Bengal to present-day Delhi. The peppy music and unabashed approach to sexuality raised eyebrows on release; the director went on to become a new voice in Indian cinema, different from the predictable Bollywood studios. A few years later, Cannes came calling for him as Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) premiered in the Directors' Fortnight series.

13. 'Dabangg/Audacious' (2010, dir. Abhinav Singh Kashyap)

By far the worst film in this list, yet its placement the most necessary because of how comprehensively Dabangg reengineered the masala film in the last five years. Salman Khan was the most inconsistent of the three Khans (Shah Rukh and Aamir being the other two) for a while, and his box office draw was in question. With this action comedy centered upon a lovable but macho cop, he crossed the billion-rupee milestone and created his career's most iconic character, forming a template that's become a bible for every Bollywood actor. Not just actors but directors like Prabhu Deva and Rohit Shetty have been chasing Dabangg’s success ever since.

Jahan Singh Bakshi, Runcil Rebello and Muhammed Deshmukh contributed immensely to this story.

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Laya Maheshwari

Laya Maheshwari is an Indian journalist who graduated from St. Xavier's College in Mumbai. He will now pursue his Master's from the London School of Economics. He loves reading and talking about cinema and culture. He has written for The LA Review of Books, The Times of Israel, Hindustan Times, RogerEbert.com and more.

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