What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word Bollywood? Song and dance? Colours? Musicals? Please don’t say Slumdog Millionaire! Bollywood – the Hindi film industry – makes more films per year than Hollywood. However, you’ll be forgiven for not having heard of any because it’s more quantity than quality.
Like Hollywood, the passage of time has challenged directors to take on new scripts and audiences to be receptive to new ideas. You’ll see a very clear indication of that in the extensive list below, which features Academy Award and BAFTA nominated films, and even Grammy Award-winning artists.
Recent films are based on sentimental and patriotic real-life events, with some brilliant original scripts that would have fallen flat had they been released earlier. There’s also a strong focus on heroine-centric roles, which isn’t the case if you go back a decade.
Two of the biggest hits in the 00s were for films that touched a patriotic nerve in some regard. Rewind to the 1990s and this same recipe was dominated by family dramas and romantic films by dependable actors. Go back even further (a generation) and the secret ingredient was ‘masala films’ – combining drama, action, comedy and a predictable happy ending.
Here are 45 of the best Bollywood movies of all time (newest, first):
There’s a reason why you’ll spend precious money to watch a film based on a real-life event despite knowing the ending. It’s because if the director has done a good job, you’ll still be at the edge-of-your-seat, get riled up or even shed a tear despite knowing fully well that the actual event is long past. It also serves as a reminder to remember fallen heroes. If you walked into a cinema hall in February and wondered why people looked like they were exiting a funeral procession, it’s likely they just watched Neerja.
India tends to glorify men more than women. One of the bravest women the country has seen was Neerja Bhanot – a 23-year-old air hostess who sacrificed herself to save passengers from Palestinian terrorists on a hijacked Pan Am flight in Karachi (Pakistan) in 1986. Few from our generation remember this event, so the film served as a good reminder to pay due respect to a worthy civilian. It’s the only tribute film in this list and it’s so good that it recently became the highest-grossing heroine-centric film in Bollywood.
Lead actress Sonam Kapoor may not be anywhere near Bollywood’s leading ladies but in Neerja, she does an outstanding job of single-handedly carrying the film on her able shoulders. Neerja Bhanot was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra, Indian’s highest civilian award for bravery and valour. That said, the story was always going to be gripping but hats off to director Ram Madhvani, writer Saiwyn Quadras and Sonam Kapoor for not going over the top, tugging on the audience’s heartstrings in just the right measure, and coming up with an informative, engaging and stunning film in the process.
Like Neerja, Airlift resorts to retelling an inspirational story about a time long forgotten. It’s a brilliant, but simple retelling of the evacuation of over 100,000 Indians from Kuwait after the onset of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war.
A Kuwaiti businessman who has no interest in ever going back to India suddenly finds renewed fervour to help lead the largest-ever civilian evacuation amidst a war-torn country. There are twists at every turn, but veteran Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar does a splendid job of applying his powers of persuasion in time of duress by brokering deals with other governments and the elusive Indian government to bring his people home safely.
It bears a striking similarity with the Ben Affleck film Argo. Both films don’t offer high dramatic footage or the loss of life. Instead, both are simple stories where you’re constantly at the edge of seat wondering what’ll happen next. At the end of the film, I felt like I ran a marathon, even though I knew the outcome beforehand. Like with Neerja, there also were loads of people with wet eyelids toward the end. While the former was for the loss of life, for this film it was more than manner in which lives were saved.
Piku would have been a commercial failure had it released even five years back. I say this not because it’s a slow and testing film, but because the Bollywood audience sentiments have changed a lot in the last few years. People have learnt to be patient with movies, have accepted the fact that some films don’t have ‘item’ songs, hell, some don’t even have songs anymore. Bollywood audience sensibility has matured to a point where a simple story, told well can gently tug at the heartstrings of a million people. And sometimes honest is the best kind of cinema.
Piku is a simple Bengali girl living with her senile father Bhaskor, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (or at least that’s what he fears). The duo are forced to take a long road-trip from to his childhood home in Kolkata to resolve some property matters. Their driver (Jurrasic World’s Irfan Khan) injects both humour and charm into the strained father-daughter dynamic.
The film’s helmed by two of Bollywood’s most dependable actors – evergreen veteran Amitabh Bachchan and reigning Bollywood Queen, Deepika Padukone. Padukone is one of two Indian actresses ready to take India global with her Hollywood debut in 2017’s xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, alongside Vin Diesel, Nina Dobrev, Samuel L Jackson and Ruby Rose. The film is currently available on Netflix and I would highly recommend you watch it (with English subtitles, ofcourse).
It’s easy to confuse Bollywood (Hindi movies) as Indian cinema. However, Indian cinema consists of various others, including Telugu (often referred to Tollywood), Malayalam and Tamil cinema. There are also films in other regional languages, such as Marathi and Guajarati, which occasionally outshine Bollywood in terms of content. The good thing is that when one regional film does outstandingly well, other regions are quick to buy the rights and remake it.
Drishyam is one such example. The original Malayalam film (of the same name) became the highest grossing film in that language upon its release in 2013 and was subsequently remade into four Indian languages – Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi – all of which became huge commercial hits. This is a rare feat, but not surprising considering the premise consists of a brilliant, original script.
In this Hindi remake, Ajay Devgn has a simple family. His daughter goes on a school trip where someone takes a photo of her bathing and threatens to make it public unless she ‘does what he asks’. In a moment of panic, she ends up killing him and she and her mother bury the body. The problem is the dead boy is the son of the Inspector General. From here on, all their lives turn upside down. Devgn vows to protect his family, making it his mission to train his family to concoct the perfect story, destroy evidence and stay one step ahead of the cops who are hot on his trail.
After the murder is committed, the movie will leave you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Also, it’s one of those rare movies where you’re in a constant state of confusion as to whom to side with: a father protecting his family from an honest mistake, or a vicious cop who’ll stop at nothing until she finds her son’s killer.
In 2008, a girl named Aarushi Talwar was murdered in her bedroom in Noida, India. The prime suspect was the domestic help Hemraj, until he was found murdered on the building terrace a day later. Without much evidence or proof, the parents (both doctors) were accused. However, during the investigation the police flouted some basic rules, such as not cordoning off the crime scene area and not collecting evidence diligently. Just when one detective had almost got the killers to confess, he was reassigned - suggesting there was underhand foul play involved. To this day, it remains one of India’s biggest unsolved murder mysteries.
Last year, Talvar accurately depicted the flaws with India’s police and its judicial system - how senior officers shirk responsibility and come to conclusions without proper evidence, often letting the guilty go scot-free and punishing the innocent as a result of their callous ineptitude.
Given what a massive national case this was, it could have been easy for the film to become another badly-told story, but the way in which supercop (Irrfan Khan, again) unravels the crime by bending the rules, only to be told to leave when he’d almost caught the culprits red-handed was a great way to make a story you’ve read about seem interesting, while still exposing faults with the judicial bureaucracy at large.
For anyone that’s interested, here’s a brilliant first-hand account of the case from one of the relatives. The author probably sums it up the best when he says: How can a country have democracy and anarchy in equal measure? How can an IT powerhouse accept outdated forensics and investigative techniques? The answer is simple. There are many Indias.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015)
Bollywood’s biggest problem is not a lack of finances, dependable actors or directors, it’s the dearth of writers who can regularly churn out brilliant, original scripts. Most movies are either rip-offs from similar Hollywood scripts, remakes of older movies or sequels of ones that have done well commercially.
Rarely will you find a script that tells a captivating story from start to finish, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan definitely does that. Since the British left the country in 1947, India and Pakistan have always been rivals, but this movies takes a sensitive issue, combines it with a solid script and creates magic. It will leave you in tears.
One of Bollywoood’s most-loved stars Salman Khan plays a simple person trying to impress his future in-laws. During a ‘selfie’ dance sequence, he comes across a dumb girl from Pakistan, who looks to him for help. She came to India for her throat operation with her mother but got lost when her train left without her onboard. Horror ensues when the family he’s trying to impress finds out she’s from Pakistan (during a cricket match between the arch rivals), but Salman vows to cross the India-Pakistan border and return her home safely, risking his own life in the process.
In the India of yesteryear, if a woman got dumped on the eve of her wedding, she went into hibernation and it was societal taboo for her entire family for at least a few years, maybe even forever. However, Queen represents the modern Indian woman. Having never travelled outside her home city, Rani goes to Paris on her honeymoon…alone, chases thieves, travels the city, makes friends and learns that you don’t necessarily have to have a man in your life to have a great time.
At Amsterdam, she stays in a hostel with three guys from different countries and learns that genuine friendship transcends gender, geographical borders, language barriers and cultural differences. Lead actress Kangana Ranaut contributed with her own dialogues and she deservedly won a National Award for her metamorphosis of a reserved, dependent woman into an independent, spirited soul within the span of three (very entertaining) hours. It’s available on Netflix and it well worth a watch.
It’s one of the many coming-of-age films that have inspired a generation of Indians to travel, see the world and make the most of their youth – not succumb to the wishes of an earlier generation that would rather they get married by 26, have kids at 28 and continue paying off their loans thereafter.
Mary Kom (2014)
Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra might be only making waves in Hollywood recently. But Quantico’s leading actress and Baywatch’s new baddie honed her acting chops in Bollywood in over 50 movies after being crowned Miss World in 2000. In this National Award-winning role, she plays India’s most decorated pugilist Mary Kom who, despite her tiny frame, has taken the world of international woman’s boxing by storm.
She faced a lot of backlash when she was initially selected to play the part. Then again, it’s become common for every real-life Indian story or biography to be dissected, frowned upon and torn apart by some sections of the society and media. In fact, it’ll be a shock the day that doesn’t happen. True to form, Priyanka threw herself into training for the role and it shows on screen. Not only does she accurately portray Mary Kom’s ascent from unknown village girl to putting India’s name on the map, she also makes you feel her pain when her coach drops her after getting married and her long, arduous road back to glory after giving birth to twins.
In India where cricket is given all the importance, it’s refreshing to see a film about a lesser-known sport and even better to see a genuinely great athlete rewarded for her endurance, dedication and commitment. Mary Kom (the real one) will next be seen in the ring for the 2016 Rio Olympics where she’ll be hoping to better her London 2012 bronze medal, where she lost to eventual Gold medallist and British boxer, Nicola Adams.
The Lunchbox (2013)
Last week, I was watching Rick Stein’s India on the BBC. While shopping for ingredients, he stopped by the wayside staring intently at a mesh of wires, which he initially mistook for entangled tree branches. He then aptly described his perspective of India as those mesh of wires – a highly-complicated and intricate system, but a system where things work nonetheless.
One of the systems that functions in this way is the Indian dabbawallas - thousands of people who collect tiffin boxes prepared by individuals daily and then deliver them to their intended recipients (employees) at lunch time. In The Lunchbox, a dabbawalla mistakenly delivers the tiffin to the wrong recipient. This honest mistake leads to serendipity because it connects two simple people, who are both in need of a friend - a wife going through a bad marriage and a widower on the cusp of retirement. Unlike conventional Bollywood movies, this is a slow story that’s beautifully told through a series of back-and-forth letters delivered inside the lunchbox.
It’s also one of the only movies I know of where the two protagonists don’t ever communicate face-to-face. The (lost) art of writing heartfelt letters is not only enough to bring them together, it made this movie a resounding success both in India and abroad. Many critics rued the country for not sending it as the official entry for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category. A Vogue writer even commented that he felt it would have won after he saw it at Cannes.
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)
Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani is my ultimate feel-good Bollywood film. Most Bollywood movies with a young, good-looking cast have stories that pivot around love and friendship, but few are as well done as this. It has a great script, a stunning cast and is one of the last movies I remember where literally every song is worth listening to (most tracks just tend to be ‘fillers’).
A studious nerd goes against her parents’ wishes and takes a trip with three of her school friends. It doesn’t take her long to realise that she’s missed out on the best part of life, in pursuit of academic excellence. At the half-way point, she falls in love with the charming protagonist, only to discover he’s going to study in the US. When he returns years later for their best friend’s wedding, time has fractured the relationship between all four characters. While exploring the scenic city of Udaipur the two fall in love again, but he’s torn between his dream job in Paris and the girl he’s fallen for.
The best films featuring youth become commercially successful because they are well-told stories written in a way that anyone going to theatres can relate to, or aspire to be like. In the bespectacled Naina (Deepika Padukone, again), geeks were forced to take a break and look at the world whizzing past them. While the carefree and charming Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) proves that education counts for little when you have the gift of the gab and the passion to follow your dreams.
It’s easy to tell a love story when you have the best actor (Ranbir Kapoor) and actress (Priyanka Chopra) in the country. However, the task becomes doubly challenging when he’s deaf and dumb, and she’s autistic. It takes a brave director to helm such a script. Luckily, Bollywood has no dearth of those. Thankfully, you can safely rely on the breathtaking backdrop of the picturesque Darjeeling fill some of the void in the conversation, but that’s not taking anything away from a stellar cast who – like Charlie Chaplin – entertained us only through their actions.
A charming deaf-mute falls in love with a girl, only for her to get married to someone else because her parents couldn’t see their daughter with someone who wouldn’t be able to support her. He then decides to kidnap an autistic girl and ask for ransom to pay his father’s medical bills, but both their lives change forever as soon as their paths collide.
The film was helmed by Ranbir Kapoor, an actor that hails from Bollywood lineage and who was at the top of his game. Not once does he make you feel sorry or have pity on him. Instead, you aspire to be like him – always the charmer, always with a plan up your sleeve and never once complaining about the wrong hand life has dealt you.
Gangs Of Wassseypur (2012)
In many ways, Gangs Of Wasseypur (Parts 1 and 2) can be considered to be Bollywood’s equivalent of The Godfather. Director Anurag Kashyap has two other movies mentioned later in this feature, but this saga is clearly his most ambitious and - without a shadow of a doubt - his best work to date.
Both movies are cumulatively over 320 minutes long and portray the feud between mining families in a small village called Wasseypur stretching from the early 1940s to the mid-1990s. Kashyap shot the entire saga together but since no Indian theatre was willing to screen a five-hour-plus film, he had to divide it into two halves. It tells the story of betrayal and deceit between two families – each generation and family paying the price for the atrocities committed by its ancestors. As in the Godfather trilogy, the black sheep of the family goes on to command the pivotal role.
Add to this Kashyap’s brilliant direction of action sequences, gory deaths, liberal use of expletives and efficient use of characters, who each consider themselves invincible. It all ends with manslaughter so over the top, it can give any Hollywood classic (like Scarface) a run for its money. It’s the only film where I’ve hated every character, but loved the movie as a whole. Then again, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Kashyap intended.
I’ve watched innumerable Bollywood films over the last 23 years. Often, I’ll go back and re-watch a film because of its feel-good factor, its story or to relive certain scenes. However, Kahaani is the only Bollywood film that I needed to watch a second time – in order to connect the dots backwards. It’s something I haven’t needed to do since watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
A heavily pregnant woman (played by Vidya Balan) comes to Kolkata from London in search of her missing husband and is helped by a kind officer. Soon the Intelligence Bureau get involved in the hunt and there’s a deadly assassin on the loose, killing anyone who’s willing to help her. As these players interact and move across the chessboard, you’re sucked into the ensuing power-play at large.
Unlike most Bollywood movies, where you can safely go to the loo or grab a bite and still not miss much, here you need to pay close attention to every conversation to stitch together details of the convoluted plot. Also, the ending will leave you baffled. Neither is she pregnant, nor does she come to look for her missing husband. She’s just a ghost with a mission, comes, fulfils it and then disappears into thin air, handing the police some baffling evidence upon her exit.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara plays out like a tourism advert for Spain, featuring scenic locales and some of its annual cultural events that Indians previously didn’t know existed (such as the Tomatina festival in the video above). Add a decent script about three best friends and a stellar A-list cast and you’ve got yourself a hit. Another standout of the movie were the short philosophical lines composed by legendary composer Javed Akhtar and narrated by his son (Farhan) who plays a writer in the movie. His daughter Zoya directs.
‘You won’t get life again’ is the story of three best friends who decide to take a road-trip to Spain before one of them gets married. Each friend chooses one activity the others need to do – scuba diving, sky diving and running with bulls (The fiesta of San Fermin). During the journey one them finds love, the other finds his father who abandoned him as a child and the third realises he’s not really in love with his fiancé. It tells the story of friendship, love and the importance of taking a timely holiday to set your life’s priorities in order. It’ll easy make anyone’s top-five list of feel-good Bollywood films.
3 Idiots (2009)
This film exposes the gaping flaws in the Indian education system and is helmed by Bollywood’s most dependable actors since the last decade-and-a-half, Aamir Khan. He plays the role of an engineering student who’s naturally gifted at electronics. While studying at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country, he’s surprised to see people around him cramming for exams and wedded to their books in the relentless pursuit to please their professors.
Rancho (Khan) believes people should pursue excellence in whatever field their heart desires and not merely succumb to becoming an engineer or doctor merely because their family or society tells them to do (which is very true of India as a whole). It leads to him almost being expelled, falling in love with the professor’s daughter and even delivering his professor’s grandson in an empty classroom without any electricity (not only because he’s a genius, but because Indian films always have to end with drama).
Upon release, it became hugely popular all over the world, including the East and West and held the record for the highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time for four years. A Tamil version of the film also became a commercial success and there are ongoing talks about a Chinese remake by Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) and a Hollywood remake as well.
Dev D (2009)
In the last two decades Bollywood has been gifted with some talented directors who were willing to take a risk with their story, beating the convention of formulaic films that enviably guaranteed box office hits. Leading this fearless pack is Anurag Kashyap. To give you an idea of his nature, he openly cited “I am an atheist. Cinema is the only religion I believe in” – that after living in a highly religious country like India. His ideas are reflected in the films he makes and the risks he takes.
Take Dev D, it was his (modern and audacious) take on Devdas – one of India’s most classic love stories and a film that’s been remade more than 10 times in several different languages by notable Indian directors such as Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansaali. As much as India prides itself on being the land of the Kamasutra, until the last two years kissing was still seen as taboo on screen.
And here’s Kashyap in 2009 lavishly flaunting rules to create his own - showing sex, kissing, drugs and using psychedelic music to tell the story of a forlorn guy who’s overly sceptical of the girl he loves and overly ashamed of the girl he wants. It’s a dark, modern story told aesthetically and stylistically, not ashamed to hold up the mirror at Indian society and how its patriarchal society perceive relationships and its values.
Rock On!! (2008)
Many people consider Bollywood movies ‘musicals’, but they’re actually just like any Hollywood movie, with songs interspersed in between for good measure. These songs serve different purposes – they break the narrative, give the audience an ‘item number’ (usually a high-energy song featuring a skimpily-clad heroine, which is then played at various festivals and at parties). But some songs actually tell stories in themselves and that’s the part that Rock On!! gets spot-on.
India has a bigger rock scene than most people give it credit for and Rock On!! is the only Bollywood film I remember based purely on (brilliant) rock music. Four-piece band Magik win a talent hunt, which leads to a recording deal. The clauses in this contract lead to friction among the band and disperses its members. A decade later, a chance encounter leads to an opportunity of a reunion but it’s up to them to see whether they can leave their past difference behind and rediscover the magic (pun intended).
Actors generally lip sync their songs, but for this role, lead singer Farhan Akhtar actually learnt to play the guitar and sang his own songs. Accompanied by a stellar supporting cast, excellent editing and one of the best soundtracks in years, it was an experience for any musician or non-musician alike. It’s no surprise then that Rock On 2, which releases later this year, has become one of the most anticipated films of 2016.
A Wednesday (2008)
Bollywood often (blatantly) copies the West and constantly draws inspiration it. Therefore, it’s a pleasant surprise when a low budget film becomes a massive hit, owing largely to word-of-mouth publicity and leads to a Hollywood remake.
A policeman who’s about to retire narrates the frightful incident of events that unfolded on one afternoon (a Wednesday) where a man threatened to harm thousands of civilians if his demands of the release of four militants were not met. He then kills three of them and informs the police that they were responsible for carrying around the 2006 Mumbai train bombings that sent shockwaves throughout the country, so he was only avenging the loss of a nation. The policeman and the man meet briefly but the former doesn’t reveal his name, in order to not hurt religious sentiments. He says the incident cannot be found in written records, except for the ones who witnessed it and concluded by saying that he doesn’t regret anything that happened.
If the script sounds familiar it’s because the 2013 Ben Kingsley and Ben Cross film A Common Man is an official remake of A Wednesday.
Director Madhur Bhandarkar loves making films based on the realities of professions that are considered glamorous but are a mystery to those on the outside. In Fashion, he gives a detailed account of the cut-throat modelling industry - how its gains are short-lived, you’re dealing with people who’re out to get you at every turn and its notorious underbelly of drugs and promiscuity.
In some parts, it almost plays out like a well-told documentary of the rise, fall and comeback of one model - played stunningly by Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra, who herself went from being Miss World to finally being taken seriously for her acting chops.
It accurately portrays how people’s perceptions and attitudes toward you change based on your stature in society and how friendships are transient in a world where each person is only concerned about themselves. Drawing from previous inspiration, she and her co-star Kangana Ranaut were both awarded the National Award for the film. It was one of the first out-and-out women-centric Bollywood movies to achieve both widespread critical and commercial acclaim.
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