Rochona Majumdar, Associate Professor, Departments of Cinema and Media Studies, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, offers a rundown of her favorite films including reviews and recommendations.
While Bollywood films, those Indian/Hindi films most notably made in Mumbai, have become well known in many parts of the world in recent years, it is interesting to note that the moniker came into being in the 1970s. This timeframe was 20 years after the period commonly designated as the “Golden Age” of Hindi films in the 1950s.
Awara (“The Vagabond”) – 1951
The protagonist played by Raj Kapoor will remind you of Chaplin. This film features a song “Awara Hoon” composed by Shailendra and sung by Mukesh that together with Mera Joota Hai Japani (“My shoes are from Japan”) became something of informal national anthems in India.
Shri 420 (“Mr. 420”) – 1955
In addition to the song I mentioned above, these two films gave India one of its most adored on-screen couple, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. The cast and crew of a very large number of Hindi films included people who had recently migrated from Pakistan, a fact that made the Hindi film industry one of the most cosmopolitan in the country.
Pyaasa (“The Thirsty One”) – 1957
Directed by Guru Dutt, who is often compared with Orson Welles for his melodramatic style. A great film featuring the spectacularly beautiful Waheeda Rahman.
Saheb, Biwi, aur Ghulam (“The Master, Mistress, and the Servant”) – 1962
Based on a novel by the Bengal author Bimal Mitra this is an extraordinary film about the decline of a feudal gentry during the colonial period. Again featuring Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rahman the film’s real treat however is Meena Kumari as the youngest bride of the household. This film has a phenomenal soundtrack.
The Guide – 1965
Featuring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman, this is a complex tale of extramarital and inter-communal love based on a story by R.K. Narayan.
Mughal-e-Azam – 1960
This is an historical film, which I’ve included just for its sheer opulence. It gives you a taste of what original Bollywood moguls wanted to accomplish in the 1960s. If you can sit through it, watch it!
I am personally a huge fan of the ‘70s, so listing films from this decade is a challenge. Let me just say that this was the decade that gave India its most famous star, Amitabh Bachchan, who became the personification of “the angry young man.” The angry young man, many argue, arose as a response to massive failures of the postcolonial state. Some of Bachchan’s most important films include Sholay (1975), which is one of the best known Indian films of all times and is structured much like an American Western film. Other favorites from this era include Zanjeer (1973, “Shackles”), and Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977).
I will skip the 1980s because they were, in my opinion, one of the least interesting periods of Hindi cinema. Perhaps this is because Hindi films would reincarnate themselves as “Bollywood” in the next decade with an entirely new look, feel, production system, outreach, and content. This is also the beginning of crossover films.
1990s – Present
Most of the films I listed from the 1990s onward are available on Netflix.
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge
Students used to love this film because it brought back good, old-fashioned love in a diaspora setting.
Directed by Mira Nair, this beautiful film is a wonderful account of arranged marriage in urban India.
Fire – 1998
Often regarded as the first film addressing the issue of same-sex love in India, this film directed by Deepa Mehta encountered significant controversy both in India and the United States.
Lagaan – 2001
This film brings together cricket and colonialism, and was India’s entry to the Oscars.
One of my FAVORITE films featuring Vidya Balan, Kahaani is a fantastic thriller set in my city, Kolkata.
But, Bollywood does not exhaust the entirety of Indian cinema. If you enjoy art-house films then this may be your list. Please note the films that follow are in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Kannada. All of them are available on DVD.
Apu Trilogy: Days and Nights in the Forest; The Big City; The Lonely Wife
The Apu trilogy by filmmaker Satyajit Ray (Ray is regarded as the pioneer of Indian art cinema) is very poignant and may leave a lump in your throat. The trilology includes Days and Nights in the Forest (a brilliant film about a group of Kolkata youth who go for a vacation to a tribal region); The Big City (a superb early feminist film); and Charulata: The Lonely Wife (my personal favorite).
Films by Ritwik Ghatak
If Stayajit Ray is considered restrained, Ghatak was a maverick. You will see a lot of Soviet influence as well as the best of melodrama in him. I would recommend his Cloud Capped Stars that is now available in a Blu-Ray version.
Garam Hawa (“The Hot Winds”)
One of the few but extraordinary films about Partition that focuses on the aftermath and complexity of the event as experienced by a minority family.
Pattabhi Rama Reddy: Samskara
An extraordinary film based on U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara meaning “funeral rites.” It has a UChicago connection because the protagonist, Girish Karnad, has often lectured to our students in study abroad program.
36 Chowranghee Lane and Me and Mrs. Iyer
These films are by Aparna Sen are exceptional although she is much younger than any of the above but is still an extremely sophisticated and evocative filmmaker.