Best Bollywood movies

The escapist formula commissioned by manager Manmohan Desai (‘Dharam Veer’, Roti’) peaked with this late 1970s film about three brothers — each named in the title — separated at birth.

Although the combination of cricket and colonialism seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, at first nobody would touch this script with a bat. Then star Aamir Khan took the lead role and its critical and box office success ushered in a new era of alternative subject matter and varied storytelling. ‘Lagaan’ is, thus far, the last mainstream Hindi film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

The big scene

The climactic cricket match saw audiences cheering on the villagers. The sports movie had arrived in Bollywood and ‘Chak De! India’, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ and ‘Mary Kom’ later followed in the trailblazing wake of ‘Lagaan’.

Film, Bollywood
Deewaar (1975)
Director: Yash Chopra

Cast: Shashi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Neetu Singh

Genre: Action, thriller, crime

Evoking ‘Mother India’ with its story of a good son pitched against a bad one and a mother caught between them, ‘Deewaar’ places an anti-hero centrestage. Amitabh Bachchan excels as the simmering Vijay, who turns to criminality to provide for his mum, while brother Ravi (Kapoor) becomes a cop. Inevitably, their paths must cross. ‘Deewaar’ was Bachchan’s first step on the road to mega-stardom and it epitomises his status as the bristling, angry young man railing against all around him.

The big scene

Inspector Ravi faces down gangster Vijay in his elder brother’s grand, ill-gotten house and declares that as long as Vijay is a criminal there is a ‘deewaar’ (wall) between them, and that their mum must choose between the two.

Film, Bollywood
Guide (1965)
Director: Vijay Anand

Cast: Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, Leela Chitnis

Genre: romance, drama, musical

Director Vijay Anand adapts RK Narayan’s English-language novel into a sprawling drama. ‘Guide’ tells of a man, Raju, who transforms from a tour guide in his youth into a great holy man later in life. The film is considered ahead of its time for showing its protagonists, Raju (Anand) and Rosie (Rehman), having an extra-marital affair, and also for presenting its lead character as an unscrupulous scumbag. Both were deeply unusual in a Hindi film of the time.

The big scene
Raju has an epiphany on his deathbed — a spiritual awakening where he realises that even though the body dies, the soul will never fade away.

Film, Bollywood
Pyaasa (1957)
Director: Guru Dutt

Cast: Guru Dutt, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman

Genre: drama, romance, musical

Filmmaker Guru Dutt, known for bringing tragic stories to celluloid, plays Vijay, a struggling writer whose two best friends happen to be a streetwalker and a masseuse. Vijay tries unsuccessfully to get his book of poems published and is later believed to have died in a train accident. A cunning publisher prints the book and makes a killing. Maestro composer SD Burman provides a stellar soundtrack, memorable for Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetic verses. With ‘Pyaasa’, Dutt established himself as a filmmaker who could effectively depict the reality of the world around him.

The big scene
When Vijay ‘returns from the dead’ at his own memorial. Dutt’s silhouette, with the flash of light around him flooding the dark auditorium, sticks in the memory.

Film, Bollywood
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Director: Aditya Chopra

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Amrish Puri

Genre: romance, comedy, family

Familiar themes of personal choice versus family responsibility, and of forbidden love, are remixed for the 1990s in this epic, era-defining romance. In London, Raj (Khan) is an immature young man, while straight-laced Simran (Kajol) is all set for a marriage arranged by her domineering father. She goes InterRailing in Europe, meets Raj and they fall in love against the backdrop of Swiss mountains. The popularity of the film (the title translates as’The brave-hearted will take the bride away’) is reflected in the fact that it has screened daily in Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir cinema for 19 years and counting. This ultimate romance also raised the bar impossibly high for guys chasing girls.

The big scene
The hit song ‘Tujhe Dekha To…’ sees Simran and Raj reunited in Punjab’s rolling fields, and its lingering gazes and passionate embraces are old school Bollywood at its finest. Raj’s line –‘Senorita bade bade desho me aisi choti choti baatein hoti rehti’ (‘Senorita, do not get worried by the small things’) — has crossed into daily usage. Indeed, no less a figure than Barack Obama quoted it during his inaugural visit to India in 2015.

Film, Drama
Mother India (1957)
Director: Mehboob Khan

Cast: Nargis, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt

Genre: drama

The first Hindi film to be nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Oscars, this is a heartbreaking story of the complexities of rural farming in newly independent India and the exploitation of farmers by their feudal landlords. It follows the hardships faced by Radha (Nargis), a village mother of three sons who is abandoned by her husband and forced to toil the paddy fields to survive. The film entrenched the idea of the pure, self-sacrificing mother figure as synonymous with the notion of an idealised Indian (Hindu) nation.

The big scene
When Radha’s rebellious son Birju (Dutt) shoots the lecherous evil landlord and kidnaps his daughter, she must take matters into her own hands to restore order.

Film, Bollywood
Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Director: K Asif

Cast: Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala

Genre: historical romance

Translated as ‘Emperor of the Mughals’ and set in the late sixteenth century in India’s Mughal period, this is the doomed story of Prince Saleem (Kumar), son of the ruling Emperor Akbar (Kapoor), who falls in love with dancing slave girl Anarkali (Madhubala). This is true epic filmmaking, with magnificent sets, huge battle scenes with hundreds of real elephants, elaborate costumes, an evergreen score and naturalistic acting. It remains a gorgeous evocation of a bygone era, and was one of the rare occasions when a film of the’Muslim societal’ genre (i.e. interested in Muslim people and culture) became a blockbuster in Hindu-centric India.

The big scene
This mostly black-and-white film suddenly bursts into colour when the classic’I have adored, so what’s there to fear?’ confrontational dance number begins.

Film, Action and adventure
Sholay (1975)
Director: Ramesh Sippy

Cast: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Amjad Khan

Genre: action, thriller, western

This cult masala western sees escaped convicts Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Bachchan) defend a village terrorised by bandits led by the maniacal Gabbar Singh (Khan). ‘Sholay’ has it all — epic dishum-dishum fight scenes, bromance, humor, unforgettable tunes, plot twists, thrilling dance sequences and amazing performances. The haunting score and Bollywood’s baddest villain would be the icing on a rollicking, all-action cake.

The big scene
Three bandits come back from a raid empty-handed to confront Gabbar’s ire: Gradually they endure trial by half-loaded gun (six chambers, three bullets) and Gabbar laughs . His guys join in and there is a collective relief-filled exhale — afterward Gabbar shoots anyway. The danger of a trip from Gabbar Singh has been used by parents to have children to bed on time since.