So you want to start watching Indian movies. Where to begin? The truth is, there is no one single starting point for such a wide and varied industry—or rather, series of interconnected industries, subdivided by region and language, producing nearly 2,000 films a year.
“Bollywood,” the moniker for the mainstream studio film industry that produces Hindi-language musicals, factors into the discussion often enough, though the term is sometimes used as a catchall for Indian cinema. There is, however, much more to the nation’s film output than that.
Indian cinema isn’t the kind of niche some like to think it is; on Netflix alone, you’re likely to find a wide berth of films from across the spectrums of style and regional origin. The streaming service’s U.S. library has, at the time of writing, a total of 726 films produced in India. Among the oldest of them is the period classic Mughal-E-Azam from 1960, though Netflix only features the film’s digitally colored version from 2004 (the original black and white is harder to find).
Lack of access is usually a hurdle to discovering new cinema from elsewhere, which is precisely why a service like Netflix has the ability to bridge cultural gaps. Here are ten great films in a variety of styles handpicked to provide an introduction to Indian cinema. They each have something different to say, both about India and its cinematic traditions, and they make for a great introduction before you decide to branch out and discover more Indian cinema on your own.
Fandry (directed by Nagraj Manjule)
An oblique romantic tale against a backdrop of caste inequality, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2014) is one of the best-directed debut features in recent memory. Protagonist Jabya, a young boy of lower social standing, dreams of his classmate Shalu a light-skinned upper caste girl, which sounds like the beginning of a Lady and the Tramp-esque tale about overcoming differences, but it soon shifts in focus to interrogate the social structures holding Jabya back. Some of India’s best neo-realist works come from the state of Maharashtra; Fandry in particular is influenced by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It’s a rural, working-class story told with visual simplicity, focusing on when and where Jabya is (or isn’t) allowed the freedom to move. It imbues its tale of longing with a righteous fury often unseen in mainstream Indian cinema, exploring the cost—to one’s soul and one’s very sense of being—of fighting oppression.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (directed by Ashutosh Gowariker)
Combining the worlds of the colonialism period-piece, the Bollywood musical, and the increasingly popular cricket movie, Lagaan (2001) was India’s last Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, and with good reason. Rife with soulful choreography and musical numbers steeped in religious imagery, the film brings together a cast of wonderful characters from the Indian farmland as they try to figure out the English game of cricket—a full-blown obsession in India today—in order to fight the British crown’s needlessly cruel increase in taxes. A fantasy framed as the lost pages of history, the film presents some of Indian cinema’s most memorable heroes (such as Aamir Khan’s fiery Bhuvan, who leads the charge against the British Raj) and some of its most dastardly villains (Paul Blackthorne of Arrow fame as the venomous Captain Andrew Russell) in order to craft an underdog sports story with the grandeur of a historical epic.
Loev (directed by Sudhanshu Saria)
Languages: English, Hindi
A queer mood-piece rescued from censorship in Indian theaters by Netflix, Loev (2017) exists at the unique cross section between independent road-movie and “N.R.I. nostalgia,” a mainstream pastiche that sees “Non-Resident Indians”—usually Indian immigrants in the Western world—longing for home or returning to it. Forgoing the usual trappings of either genre, the film places its main characters, independent music producer Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh, in his final role) and Mumbai-native NYU graduate Jai (Shiv Pandit) in what feels, at once, like a scenic weekend trip through the lush mountains of Mahabaleshwar, and a race against the clock before Jai’s return to America. Unfolding in English, Hindi, and a vernacular cross between the two (“Hinglish”), Loev presents a complicated portrait of urban Indian youth, grounded in characters sharing secret joys and hiding secret sorrows while they still have time to simply be.
Mayurakshi (directed by Atanu Ghosh)
Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali) is the Indian director who comes up most in Western academia. Atanu Ghosh’s work is both a fitting companion to Ray’s—they’re both neo-realist filmmakers from the state of West Bengal, and Ghosh no doubt grew up with Ray’s influence—but where they diverge, other than the time periods in which they worked, is their narrative focus. Where Ray’s characters usually looked forward, to the future, Mayurakshi (2017), a bittersweet tale of regret, finds a father and son shackled by the mistakes of their past. Divorced Aryanil (Prosenjit Chatterjee) ventures home from Chicago to care for his aging father Sushovan (Soumitra Chatterjee), a classical composer whose memories have begun to fade, leaving only events from decades prior. They’re fundamentally different people, but Sushovan’s worsening dementia inadvertently traps both men in Aryanil’s adolescence, as they’re forced to relive the hope of a bright future and the failure of disappointment, often in the same moment.
Om Shanti Om (directed by Farah Khan)
Perhaps the best (and most ludicrous!) answer to “Where to begin?,” the musical Om Shanti Om (2007) is both a parody and a celebration of the traditions of mainstream Bollywood. Taking place in the 70s at first, the film’s story eventually moves to modern day when both its main characters, film extra Om (Shah Rukh Khan, aka the King of Bollywood) and industry superstar Shanti (Deepika Padukone) are murdered. Don’t worry, that isn’t a spoiler. The duo is reincarnated, in keeping with long-running Bollywood tropes—the film’s title is taken from a song from the movie Karz (1980), which uses a similar premise—and soon, they regain memories from their past lives and begin to solve the mystery of their own deaths. Born from beliefs found in Hindu scripture, the reincarnation concept has become its own Indian cinematic trope over the decades, and it’s just one of many that Om Shanti Om incorporates. The film creates an entertaining tapestry of familiar imagery and evokes nostalgia for cinematic traditions that, at this point, may as well be their own religion.
Sarkar (directed by Ram Gopal Varma)
Two more elements typical of mainstream Indian cinema are the gangster picture and the Hollywood remake. Sarkar (2005) happens to be both. It takes its basic story and character dynamics from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and transposes them to the world of Indian politics. The film centers on one Subhash Nagre (Indian cinema staple Amitabh Bachchan), an analogue for controversial Maharashtra state politician Bal Thackeray. It also stars Bachchan’s own son Abhishek as the film’s Michael Corleone—there’s a 1:1 comparison for almost every Godfather character—though where it differs from Coppola’s classic is in its stylistic approach. Director Varma filters the original through a dizzying, claustrophobic lens, skewing perspective and preventing characters’ from escaping each other’s gaze. There’s an intensity to every scene that the original never needed, but it works perfectly in a remake that seeks to use familiar imagery to cut straight to the point, washing its characters in expressionistic shadow and creating a family soap-opera remix of an already operatic story.
Sudani from Nigeria (directed by Zakariya)
Forgoing the traditional fireworks of the Indian sports movie, Sudani from Nigeria (2018) digs deep between the layers of sports stories themselves, and unearths the reasons we love them. Sport, like religious and cultural tradition, connects us beyond race and language. Zakariya Mohammed’s comedy, which touches seriously upon the modern refugee crises, understands this intrinsically. Nigerian immigrant football (soccer) player Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson)—mistakenly thought to be yet another Sudanese player in the state of Kerala—is laid up in bed with a severe leg injury. He’s placed under the care of his poor club manager Majeed (Soubin Shahir), a man whose family life suffers because of his dedication to the game. There’s just one problem, though: Majeed and Samuel don’t speak a single common language. Both a comedy of errors and a heartfelt story about transcending boundaries, Sudani from Nigeria confronts both the anti-black racism prevalent in Indian society, and the national red tape that prevents immigrants from living lives of fulfillment, all set against a backdrop of well-meaning characters bound by an underfunded sport they love.
Sunrise (directed by Partho Sen-Gupta)
Indian independent cinema often brings with it an assumption of realism (also see: several films on this list!) but Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise (2014) defies those stylistic expectations. It’s a formalist thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s M; shadows dominate the walls and alleys of this French coproduction, in which deeply troubled police officer Lakshman Joshi (Adil Hussain, What Will People Say) is haunted by the kidnapping of his daughter Aruna. Lakshman, a man on a mission to free young girls from child trafficking, brushes up against both the criminals of Mumbai’s streets, and against the weight of his own failures. His demons manifest as nightmarish visions in the maze that is his city; just as dependent on dark corners as on the mysterious sounds lurking within them, Sunrise is a paranoia-inducing cinematic experience, grounded in a devastating character and performance piece.
Swades (directed by Ashutosh Gowariker)
The second Gowariker film on this list, Swades (2004), starring Shah Rukh Khan, could not be more different from Lagaan, its raucous predecessor. The film is the apotheosis of the aforementioned “N.R.I. Nostalgia” phenomenon, popularized by films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . . (2001) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), which also starred Shah Rukh Khan. Unlike those two films however, the majority of Swades (pronounced “Swuh-dase,” meaning “one’s own country”) takes place in India. NASA project manager Mohan (Khan, showing uncharacteristic restraint) returns to his native country and eventually betters the lives of those in hardship, rather than simply paying lip-service to vaguely nationalistic ideas. (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. . ., for instance, features a scene where British schoolchildren sing the Indian national anthem . Don’t ask.) Similar in emotional scope to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Swades sees its main character venturing to the village of the domestic worker who raised him. Peppered with sweet song and dance numbers about India’s wide-open heartland, the film is as much a musical about rediscovering one’s roots as it is about giving back to people and communities left behind.
Udaan (directed by Vikramaditya Motwane)
A cinematic descendant of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) is a poetic film from India’s own new wave, wherein the Hindi mainstream began drawing from a well of filmmakers with more “indie” sensibilities. Seventeen-year-old Rohan (Rajat Barmecha), abandoned at his boarding school by his stern, abusive businessman father (Ronit Roy), finds more comfort in writing stories than in the factory machines he was raised to operate and will eventually own. When Rohan is finally welcomed home, he discovers a six-year-old half-brother he didn’t know existed. Little Arjun, like Rohan before him, is being crushed and suffocated by his father’s alcoholism. Rohan is left stuck between a meandering school life and the harsh world his father built for him, but his future is yanked into sharp focus now that someone else—a helpless child, representing the hope and innocence he once lost—depends on him for a better life.
Udaan premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard, which highlights work by young and innovative filmmakers. While the section’s literal translation is “a certain glance,” it’s generally understood to mean “from another point of view.” A fitting label for an art form that connects us all. v