2013 marks 100 years of Indian cinema. This selection of classics about the Mumbai mafia, the game of cricket, evil villains and engineering students suggests there’s more to Bollywood than singing and dancing.
Awaara (Raj Kapoor, 1951)
Starring legendary director Raj Kapoor and the luminous Nargis, Awaara (The Tramp) tackles the divide between rich and poor and asks if one’s character is determined by nature or nurture. Awaara is notable for Raj Kapoor’s Chaplinesque tramp, evergreen songs, the classic Kapoor/Nargis pairing (the actor’s favourite leading lady on and off screen) and for its spectacular nine minute dream sequence. Thanks to its socialist theme, Awaara achieved cult status in Russia and China and was said to be Mao Tse Tung’s all-time favourite film.
Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975)
Sholay (Embers) is the perfect film for beginners of Bollywood because it needs minimal cultural explanation. The film’s brilliant script, memorable dialogue, mega star cast and technical excellence are still revered. Influenced by films like How the West Was Won and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sholay tells the story of ex-cons Veeru and Jai (played by the legendary Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) who are hired by a retired police officer to capture the notorious bandit Gabbar Singh, arguably the greatest villain in Bollywood’s history.
Satya (Ram Gopal Verma, 1998)
Although a relatively recent film, Satya (Truth) is already hailed as a contemporary classic. Made on a shoestring budget, the film became a surprise box office hit, winning critical acclaim for its tight script, captivating performances and gritty depiction of urban violence in Mumbai. Satya takes its name from the central character, an immigrant seeking his fortune in Mumbai who finds himself caught up in the city’s underworld. The film is regarded as the first (and best) of an Indian Gangster Trilogy – Company (2002) made by the same director, and D (2005) which he produced, being the first two. The trilogy is recognised for introducing a new genre of film making and has marked Ram Gopal Verma as the ‘master of Mumbai noir’. Danny Boyle also cited Satya as directly inspiring his own portrayal of the Mumbai underworld in Slumdog Millionaire.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)
Actor/producer Aamir Khan made an entire film with the game of cricket at its centre - the match itself took up almost half of the near four hour film! Set in British India in 1893, Lagaan takes its name from an agricultural tax levied by the British. A drought ridden village tries to rid itself of the oppressive tax after being challenged by the British masters to a game of cricket. But the village must first unite and learn to play the game. Several British actors starred in this epic, even delivering dialogues in Hindi. Lagaan went on to earn a best foreign film Oscar nomination in 2002, only the second Indian film ever to do so (the 1957 classic, Mother India, also worth watching, was the first).
3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani, 2009)
This glorious comedy stars Aamir Khan, an actor currently celebrating 25 years in the industry. His second appearance in this list speaks volumes about his versatility. 3 Idiots became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, so don’t be fooled by the offbeat title! The film charts the journey of three engineering students who form a lasting bond after their constant clashes with an obstructive college dean. The portrayal of the incredible pressures faced by Indian college goers, resonated with China’s notoriously overworked students to such an extent, that some Chinese universities actually recommended 3 Idiots as a form of stress relief in the classroom.
Irna Qureshi is curator of the Bollywood Icons exhibition which runs at the National Media Museum until 16th June 2013. She also blogs about the influence of classic Indian films on her British Muslim upbringing.