The 10 Bollywood Films You Must See Before You Die
Generating more ticket sales than Hollywood each year, the Indian Hindi language film industry (known as Bollywood) is the most prolific in the world. Although Bollywood films have been a staple on Netflix since it debuted in 2010, they represent an ever-increasing slice of box office revenue in urban cinemas across Canada, where you’ll find them being screened alongside North American blockbusters—often with subtitles for those not fluent in Hindi.
According to filmwriter Gazal Dhaliwal, a rising star in the Hindi film industry, and co-writer of the critically-acclaimed Wajir, Qarib Qarib Singlle and Lipstick Under My Burkha, Bollywood films often pack surprises for new audiences. “They’re not all about song-and-dance, punctuated by over-the-top drama—although we totally relish that, if it’s done well!” she says. “There are also simpler, more nuanced films which are nothing short of classics.”
To give Canada’s ever-growing appetite for Hindi film some context—and to demystify its appeal for the uninitiated—we challenged Dhaliwal to create a list of must-watch Bollywood films.
“It’s beyond impossible to contain the magnitude of Bollywood’s magic in just 10 movies,” she warns, “But it should be able to give you a fair idea of what to expect if you’re venturing into the wonderland that is Bollywood.”
1. Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
“Probably the most iconic and grand period drama to ever come out of India. A film which took more than 10 years to be completed, Mughal-e-Azam tells the tale of a Mughal prince’s romance with a court dancer, which invites the wrath of the emperor, Akbar. The film’s dialogue, music, and the breathtaking chemistry of the leading couple have been etched in the minds of generations.”
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2. Sholay (1975)
“When you mix a classic Western with the vibrancy, drama, comedy and popular song-and-dance routine of Bollywood, you get the heady cocktail that is Sholay. With the biggest stars of India in the mid-’70s playing some of the most unforgettable characters of Hindi cinema, Sholay, even after four decades, remains completely relevant and an out-and-out entertainer.”
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3. Ijaazat (1987)
“This is a personal favourite and will probably not be found on any other roundup of best Bollywood movies. Written and directed by Gulzar, one of the finest poets Hindi cinema has been fortunate to have, Ijaazat is a tender, intimate film about a married couple’s struggle to deal with the man’s past lover, who continues to haunt them—both literally and metaphorically. The songs have evocative melodies and the characters are written with such love that you could almost touch them. Despite having seen it several times, I never make it through the end without tearing up.”
4. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
“Nothing could possibly go wrong given Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s winning blend: Forbidden love, an all-star cast with sensational chemistry, superhit music, and to top it all, an excellent script which weaves it all together. If you were to watch only one Indian film to get an idea of what most of us go to the movies for, let it be this one.”
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5. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
“Loosely inspired by the cheesy candyfloss teen romances of Hollywood, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is consummate ’90s Bollywood. It’s set in a make-believe world where everything is bright and shiny, every emotion is heightened, and (obviously) every song is a chartbuster. We Indians are suckers for romance (aren’t we all?) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai serves it in dollops. It doesn’t hurt that the same two superstars who got top billing in 1995’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge light up the screen in this one, too.”
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6. Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
“Dil Chahta Hai will always be remembered as a sort of a trendsetter; a film which brought a new language into Bollywood. For the first time, we were delivered an entertaining flick with great songs (goes without saying!) that showed us the lives of India’s urban youth and their unique, new-age problems. The 20- and 30-somethings in metropolitan India finally found they didn’t necessarily need to turn to Hollywood for their dose of relatable fun at the movies.”
7. Lagaan (2001)
“In my opinion, this is the most recent Bollywood classic in the period drama genre. Bringing together three things that Indians absolutely love—the sport of cricket, superstar Aamir Khan and patriotism—Lagaan is nothing short of epic. Set in 1893, the story focuses on an Indian village standing up against colonial cruelty by challenging the British to a cricket match. With this fascinating premise, it’s no wonder that it’s one of only three Bollywood films to have ever been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.”
8. Devdas (2002)
“Loved and hated by audiences in equal measure, Devdas is a magnum opus which is impossible to ignore. Adapted from a classic novel by the same name, the film’s magnificent sets, stunning costumes and glorious songs based on Indian classical music, Devdas is—if nothing else—a spectacle to behold. Undermined by claptrap dialogue and some theatrical, over-the-top performances, this one deserves to be on this list simply because of the grandeur of the filmmaker’s vision.”
9. 3 Idiots (2009)
“One of the most commercially-successful Bollywood films of all time, 3 Idiots smashed all previous box-office records on its 2009 release. Why such a hit? While being very much within the parameters of Bollywood movies, it broke totally new ground in storytelling, finding that elusive sweet spot between the real and fantastical. The characters, while aspirational, still seem like people we might know and be friends with. The humour is truly original, as is the filmmaker’s voice. A genuine contemporary classic.”
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10. Wake Up Sid (2009)
“Another film that you won’t find on everyone’s list, the reason I love Wake Up Sid is the simplicity with which it explores the modern relationships of urban youth. It’s also helped immensely by the fact that the lead actor, Ranbir Kapoor, is the finest performer in India today. At the core of the story is a sweet, heartfelt romance between a girl struggling to find her place in a new city and a boy struggling trying to find himself. There’s also a gentle underlying romance with the remarkable city which is not only my home, but the hub of the Hindi film industry itself: Mumbai.”
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