A Journey to India: The Bollywood Ten

A unique alternative Top Ten from guest contributor & Indian Cinema aficionado Sumer Dayal of The Larrikin Post.

First thing’s first – I hate the term ‘Bollywood’.

It’s ‘Indian Film Industry’ – Bollywood makes it sound like we are somehow secondary. Considering we have a greater output and viewership than our sister in the West, maybe Hollywood should be called Hollybay. But hey, let’s use Bollywood for convenience sake.

Movies in India are incredibly personal and have a heavy impact on society – so there is not a single Indian out there with the same top 10. Nevertheless, this is mine and I hope you all enjoy it and, even more, wish to comment!

1. Sholay (1975)

“Kitne Aadmi The?”

“How many men were there?”

One can still debate whether India inspired Sholay, or Sholay inspired India.

Ramesh Sippy’s epic masterpiece involves a retired police chief who recruits two ‘honourable crooks’ Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Viru (Dharmendra) he once locked up to help him battle the bandits, led by the evil Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), who killed his family and continue to threaten his village.

Sholay is cinematic genius. Place the greatest script ever written in Bollywood, add Sippy’s masterful direction and sprinkle the superstars of the era (AB and Dharam) who although naturally competing with each other decide to come together in this film, and you get the finest piece of work that thrills and excites.

Sippy is a master at creating tension, comparable to Hitchcock. As for writing, most films have a couple of lines that last – Sholay has entire sequences stamped upon the soul of India. “Kitne Aadmi The” is the single most memorable scene in almost a century of Bollywood. Every Indian can recite it by heart.

Beyond that, Gabbar Singh became the archetypal villain with a sense of realism that brings spaghetti westerns to mind. Jai and Viru’s bromance set the standard by which all male friendships were defined. Drunken proposals of love from the top of a water tower threatening suicide seemed to be a useful way to win over women.

Sholay does more than define a generation. It defines India.

One can still see elements of Sholay being copied and repackaged to this day. None however can ever match the brilliance of the original.

2. Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

“Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya”

“When one has love, what is there to fear?”

If we’re talking analogies, MEA is the mother of modern Indian films. It was the first big-budget blockbuster epic, but more importantly preserves the foundations of Indian cinematic style in a soft and beautiful romantic bubble.

A period piece set in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor), the film follows the story of Akbar’s son Prince Salim’s (Dilip Kumar) ill-fated love affair with the courtesan Anarkali (Madhubala).

MEA is perfect Bollywood – dialogues, songs, dances, emotion, grandeur and story, all of them come together for a wonderful spectacle. The acting is also brilliant for its time – whenever I hear the booming voice of Prithviraj Kapoor say “Anarkali” a shiver runs down my spine. Only Brando could match the majesty of the patriarch of the Kapoor dynasty. Similarly, Dilip Kumar is an Indian romantic legend and Mudhubala proves she was more than just her looks. The movie defines classic.

With MEA, take your time and savour the moment.

3. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995)

“Bade bade deshon mein, aisi choti choti baatein, hoti rehtin hain”

“In such big-big countries, such little- little things, just keep happening”

Aditya Chopra’s magnum opus.

The successor to Sholay’s popularity, DDLJ set the trend for romantic films that dominated the 90’s and turned Shah Rukh Khan into India’s next great superstar. His match with Kajol brought together arguably the greatest on-screen couple of Bollywood. People went absolutely crazy for it – the dialogue, the scenes, the songs and of course, Zurich.

The movie holds the record for longest running film in theatres. It can still be found in cinemas today.

Raj (SRK) and his friends meet Simran (Kajol) and her friends holidaying in Zurich and of course, hate each other’s guts. Slowly the hate turns into the looooove. Simran however, has been betrothed to a boy in India, and Raj runs after her and secretly infiltrates her household in order to win her, and her family, over.

SRK’s Raj changed the trend for Bollywood heroes – quick wit, attitude and boyish charm substituted the brawn and toughness of Dharmendra, Shotgun and Amitabh. Indian males were now lovers, not fighters, and it was their heart rather than their skill at beating up bad guys that attracted the ladies.

DDLJ remains the great romantic film of the modern age.

4. 3 Idiots (2009)

“Aaaaaaaallllll Izzzzzzzzz Weeeelllllllll!!!”

3 Idiots will go down as a timeless classic, such was the brilliance of this film. India was under its spell all year and “Aal Izz Well!” became the tagline for the decade.

Based upon the adventures of 3 engineering students as they try to survive university, their parents, their peers, their professors, and society’s expectations, the movie touches upon the issues that a young, ambitious, but grossly competitive country faces everyday.

3 Idiots tackles the Indian education system head on and handles the difficult theme of chasing success vs learning to be a capable human being in a manner never before seen. The movie is hilarious – the greatest comedy ever by far – but has its share of drama, tears and emotion (as any good Indian movie should).

Out of all the movies on this list, 3 Idiots is perhaps the most universal – even a non-Indian will relate to it and be left in stitches.

And the ending is perfect.

5. Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

“Hum hain naye, andaaz kyon ho puraana?”

“We are the new, why should we think like the old?”

Farhan Akhtar’s masterpiece.

DCH is my heart’s love, and for me the greatest film of all time. So many rules and traditions were broken by it that India barely understood what was happening. Suddenly, Bollywood was irreversibly changed and Farhan Akhtar became the new kingpin.

Following the lives of three friends as they leave College, DCH covers all the issues of ambition, love, sex, relationships, philosophy and life. For the very first time in history, a movie was focused entirely on the trials and tribulations of middle-to-upper-class Indian youth – the ones born with money, but still struggling to cope with life. No longer was it about rich vs poor or star-crossed lovers or hardcore alpha males. This was the real deal, and I mark it as the advent of realism.

Love and sexuality are particularly treated very candidly and not in the holistic visage of times past. It was the first movie to depict pre-marital sex and relationships as a life reality rather than something out of the ordinary.

This was new Indian Cinema for a new India – not just made to entertain, but to depict us for who we are. And when I’m 90 years old, and looking back at the one movie I truly connected with then it shall, and will forever be, DCH.

6. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

“Hum ek baar jite hain, ek baar marte hain, shaadi bhi ek baar hoti hai, aur pyar….ek hi baar hota hai”

 “We live just once, we die just once, we also marry only once and love…we fall in love just once”

The rise of Karan Johar.

KKHH perfected the art created by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. In fact, not since DDLJ had a movie been treated with such incredible fanfare. People used to have discussions about how many times they had seen it – the average was probably 13. If that doesn’t make a film a classic, I don’t know what does.

The story is a love triangle between two best friends Rahul (SRK) and Anjali (Kajol) and the new girl in college, Tina (Rani Mukherjee). It isn’t perfect cinematically but is quite well implemented, with a modern take on love that stands out from its contemporaries.

KKHH’s greatest impact was upon pop culture, and perhaps encapsulates the India of the 90’s – from fashion (Shah Rukh’s Polo t-shirt was the most valuable piece of product placement ever) to music, dance and youth culture. Rahul and Anjali’s signature handshake was replicated by millions across the country.

Unfortunately, the next 6 years would be dominated by KKHH replicas that were really a waste of time.

7. Anand (1971)

“Babumoshai…zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin”

“Babumoshai….life should be big, not long”

Anand is a beautiful film with a beautiful concept. Dying from cancer, Anand (Rajesh Khanna) wishes to live his life to the full before his inevitable demise. Those around him are constantly placed in emotional turmoil at the misfortune of this wonderful man who spreads joy wherever he goes, but Anand remains untouched. Amitabh Bachchan plays the doctor who becomes Anand’s best friend, and has his own life transformed.

In Hindi, “Anand” means happiness.

Anand is special because of its realism and handling of an incredibly touchy topic. Rajesh Khanna proves why he is one of the greats of India’s acting pantheon, and of course Amitabh is his legendary self.

In a country where the death of the protagonist would often lead to a film floundering in the box office (so much so that they would have to be brought back to life if the film was to succeed), Anand was not just accepted, but celebrated.

8. Don (1978)

“Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, namumkin hai”

“To capture Don is not just difficult, it is impossible”

India’s most beloved anti-hero, Don (Amitabh Bachchan) is killed in a police operation unbeknownst to all except the chief. The cops subsequently bring in a double to pose as Don in order to infiltrate his drug empire – although the two men aren’t quite so similar in their mannerisms to not cause some entertaining complications.

Don is the first time a Druglord, murderer, womaniser and generally bad dude became one of the country’s favourite characters. The movie reflected the character of Don himself – it had sass, panache and oozed sexuality. Helen’s dance of “Yeh Mera Dil” established her as one of the sexiest women in film without anyone treating her with disrespect. She became a role model to women still trying to find an identity in conservative society.

Don is good Bollywood, solid entertainment, and one of the best characters India’s produced.

9. Omkara (2006)

“Hamari jaat to khoob pehchani aapne vakeel saab, par apni beti ke dil ki baat nahi jaan sake, kathor”

“You recognised my caste very well lawyer-sir, but you never understood your daughter’s heart, insolent”

Technically Omkara should not make the list, but I know the editor of this site would truly appreciate what it represents, because Omkara stands as the greatest adaptation of Shakespeare’s work that I have ever witnessed.

Bollywood’s Othello, Omkara did that one thing other adaptations couldn’t – provide a truly believable context that not only honours, but actually adds to Shakespeare’s Moorish play. It has brilliant acting, excellent direction and true creativity in integrating India’s screwed up political climate with Shakespearean tragedy. Never have they been combined so well.

Plus, ‘Beedi Jalayle’ became one of the biggest songs of the year, and is a personal favourite.

10. Black (2005)

“The alphabets of the world start with A, B, C, D, E but yours start with B, L, A, C, K… Black”

Black is a work of art. A masterpiece.

Not for the faint-hearted, the movie follows the life of Michelle McNally – a deaf, mute and blind girl (Rani Mukherjee) – and her teacher Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) who brings light to her world of black. The movie has some of the most incredible illustrations of humanity ever on screen as Michelle goes from a distraught, animalistic quasi-human into a blossoming young woman under her teacher’s guide.

The scene where Michelle and Debraj discuss affection and love together is particularly beautiful.

Black is perfect for all tastes. You don’t need to have any knowledge of Indian culture, language or style. It is universal. It is also perfect from every angle – cinematography, direction, script, editing and the acting of the two superstars is out of this world.

One day, instead of feeding on orientalist perspectives, the world will see Black and realise that Indian cinema is capable of sheer artistic excellence.

Special mention: Dhoom 2 (2006)

Dhoom 2 is a ridiculous movie, purely based on entertainment. But God, it does it really really well.

It’s a new age Indian film – money, action, scenic locations, special effects, plus a bit of Rio de Janeiro makes it an international Bollywood extravaganza. It’s a lot fun, but in a really modern sort of way. Special credit must go to it for setting the trend of modern representations of sexuality in Indian cinema.

It’s awesome.


3 thoughts on “A Journey to India: The Bollywood Ten

  1. Why is it Hollywood constantly re churns and remakes Japanese films and leaves this rich cinematic tradition untouched? Perhaps we should be thankful for that!

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