Bollywood cinema, though an Indian production, is the largest distributor of movies in the world. Therefore, especially in recent times, there have been movies that have not only connected with the Indian population but with millions abroad as well. So, here is my top 10 list of Bollywood movies that I think can speak to everyone.
In no particular order:
Taare Zameen Par (Stars on Earth), 2007
Believe me when I say that I don’t cry during movies, but I was actually on the floor bawling the first time I saw this one. The movie is about an eight-year-old Ishaan Awasti, who just happens to be not your typical child. He consistently daydreams and loves to draw, paint, and solve puzzles; however, he’s inexplicably horrible in academics to the point where he’s about to go through the second grade for the third time. He’s consistently seen as lazy, socially awkward, and hopeless by his teachers, classmates, and family, and it isn’t until one art teacher finally starts to pay attention to Ishaan’s frustration that everyone discovers the truth behind Ishaan’s struggles in school. Heartbreaking and powerful, this movie was one of the first to shed light on learning disabilities among children. It’s an issue that’s people have heard of, but no one pays attention to it because they think that it will never affect them.
But what made this film so emotional to watch wasn’t the fact that not one was listening to Ishaan when they should have been, but the fact that it was so relatable. Everyone can see their family in Ishaan’s: his hardworking father who has high expectations for his children, his stay-at-home mother who works day and night helping Ishaan study only to be frustrated, and his high-achieving older brother who Ishaan is consistently compared to. We can all see our family reacting to Ishaan’s learning disability in the same exact way his family has, denying that there’s anything wrong with their child out of a belief that disability is a sign of weakness and attributing his poor performance in school to his laziness. Therefore, if you’re looking for a movie with a powerful message about a commonly overlooked problem, this is a movie for you.
Swades (Own Country), 2005
Seeing the movies that Shah Rukh Khan stars in these days, I can’t help be terribly disappointed in him, especially since he can really act and make profound movies like this one. The story follows a NASA scientist named Mohan Bhargava, who makes a visit to India on a quest to find the nanny he had growing up and bring her back to the United States. However, while living in the villages of India, Mohan becomes frustrated with the lack of development and progress in India. Soon, he comes to realize that these issues of development and education are much more complex than he thought them to be, and over the span of his stay, he starts to get more and more attached to his homeland. A movie that’s simple yet speaks volumes about the complexities of the major issues in India (with an amazing soundtrack), this is a movie worth watching when you want something to think about.
Lagaan (Taxation), 2001
Just as a warning, I have a lot of movies on this list with Aamir Khan in them (Taare Zameen Par was one of them), but this one probably is the best. This Oscar-nominated movie (yes, it’s that good) has a little of everything for everyone — action, sports, history, romance, plus let’s not forget that underdog plot line that we all love so much. Lagaan deals with a small village in what is today the state of Gujarat. The British officials in charge at the time challenge the locals to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they won’t have to pay a tax, but if they lose, they have to pay triple the tax. It’s up to the villagers alone to learn the game in time, until one Brit decides she’s going to help teach the locals. Even if you’re not a Bollywood fan per se, but you’re a movie fan in general, this is definitely a movie to put on your list.
Gangs of Wasseypur, Parts I and II, 2012/13
Let’s be honest, this movie got gypped. It deserved the Filmfare (India’s version of the Oscars), and it deserved to be India’s nomination for Best Foreign Film, but of course, it went to that dreadfully long, annoying, and overall shitty movie Barfi. The title pretty much sums up what this Cannes Official Selection, two-part, five and a half hour saga is all about: gangs in the village of Wasseypur, Jharkhand (but at the time this movie takes place, that village belonged to states of Bengal and then Bihar) who all have one mission in life–revenge. The plot follows the feud and power struggles of three Muslim mafia families—the Qureshis, the Khans, and the Panthans—who control the coal mining industry in Wasseypur over the span of three generations. Therefore, if you’re really into gangster movies, tons of gore, and a story that’s the epitome of authentic Indian cinema (unlike Barfi which copied music, cinematography, and scenes from Amelie and Charlie Chaplin films), then this movie is definitely worth six hours of your time.
3 Idiots, 2009
Probably one of the most commercially successful movies in Bollywood history, this movie didn’t only connect to millions in India, but millions abroad as well, gaining a large following in China. The story follows three friends as they survive through the struggles of attending the top engineering college in the country. Amidst all the pressure of being “the best” in order to ultimately gain the respect of society, it’s up to one of these friends to teach the other two to pursue what they love, to confront their futures head on, and, most importantly, to go after learning something new as opposed to going after a grade. In a society where ranks, percentages, and cramming have got everyone in a race to be first, this movie sheds light on the intense pressures millions of students face, the problems behind the Indian education system, and the causes behind the recent spikes in student suicide rates in India. This movie is worth watching if you’re looking for a powerful message as to the real reason we pursue higher education.
Kapoor and Sons Since 1921, 2016
(Turn on the English subtitles for this one, they actually work.)
When their grandfather has a heart attack, his two grandsons decide to pay a visit home after five years of staying abroad, and it’s then that we get a peak into the dysfunctional Kapoor family, a household where everyone holds resentment towards each other but has never actually addresses it. It is a family in which the parents are struggling to keep their marriage together, the family is bankrupt due to poor business, and sibling rivalry still lingers to the point where the family falls apart. It isn’t until everyone confronts these issues that the family can come together again. In a movie that’s both humorous and dramatic, Kapoor and Sons sheds light on a variety of issues that India’s youth face today, including child favoritism, homosexuality, sex and drugs, and just trying to connect with your family in general. If you’re looking for a movie that’s young and modern, this is a movie to think about watching.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Won’t Get Another Life) 2011
After this movie got released, I remember all my relatives in India taking trips to Spain. After seeing the beautiful scenery that this movie presented, who wouldn’t want to make a trip. Young and fresh (which Bollywood needs more of), this movie follows three friends who made a pact in college that they would travel to Spain for the bachelor party of the first one of them to get married. While in Spain, each one of them has to pick a place they want to visit and an adventure sport to do there, and the other two have to participate in it. Besides the beautiful scenery, amazing songs, and extraordinary cast, this movie teaches the three main protagonists and the audience to live life to fullest, make time for the small things in life that you truly enjoy, and to always keep your true friendships alive despite things like time and past conflicts that may create distance. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t have to do with social issues and is rather light, this is a movie worth checking out.
Rang De Basanti (Color it Saffron), 2006
Back to movies regarding social issues. This movie deals with the freedom fighters, from the ones who gave up their lives to make India free from the British to the ones who continue to fight contemporary corrupt politicians. It follows a woman from Britain who comes to Dehli to film a documentary about the British resistance movement in India. She meets a group of college students who initially have no interest in or appreciation for their nation’s past, but eventually start to take the ideals of the original freedom fighters to heart and start to fight for change of their own. This movie teaches its audience that we must appreciate and learn from our past, and that if a nation doesn’t become proactive about the problems it faces, then nothing is going to change.
DIl Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires), 2001
One of my all time favorites to the point where I’ve watched this about 15 times—and one where Aamir Khan isn’t trying to address some major social issue—this movie was truly a trendsetter in Bollywood cinema. Before this movie, there really wasn’t any movie that connected with India’s youth and tackled the concept of friendships and what happens to them over time when people move on with their lives. The plot is simple. It follows three childhood friends (what is it with me and movies with three friends?) who believe that they’re inseperable…until work, conflicts, and, more importantly, love do separate them. However, despite all of this, the three friends find themselves making amends at the end. For a movie that is hilarious and serious, is smartly written, has beautiful cinematography, and has one of the best opening sequences ever, Dil Chahta Hai is totally worth watching.
Ending the list with probably the least serious movie of the bunch, Queen is about a typical, simple Indian girl from Delhi who gets dumped on her wedding day and decides to live her life by going on her honeymoon by herself. The movie follows her as she experiences a world outside of home, resulting in a comedy that is unprecedented. The main character is naïve, awkward, and so innocent to the point where we can’t help but sympathize with her and laugh at her simultaneously. However, by the end, the protagonist realizes that she’s an independent person who’s capable of looking out for herself, and if her fiancé didn’t want her, it’s his loss, not hers.