With more than 800 films produced each year it’s nearly impossible to compile a simple Top Ten list of Bollywood films. But certain titles either serve as landmarks or are excellent representations of the archetypal Bollywood film. This list, in alphabetical order, serves as a primer, although it is limited to more mainstream fare – the lavish productions that come to mind when hearing the word Bollywood.
Dir: Manmohan Desai
A madcap comedy of errors, this 1977 hit is a perfect introduction to the masala film, a blend of multiple genres that results in something for everyone. This comedy-action-romance tells of three brothers accidentally separated while children, who are each raised in a different religion (Christian, Hindu, and Muslim). A host of hilarious complications ensue, culminating in the family’s reunification.
2. Bobby (1973)
Dir: Raj Kapoor
This Romeo and Juliet tale was a strong comeback for veteran actor and director Raj Kapoor after his previous film Mera Naam Joker flopped at the box-office. It is also one of the earliest teen-romance dramas, and the model for countless films that followed. His first directorial effort in which he doesn’t appear in front of the camera, the film is built around his son Rishi, but is most famous for introducing India to the beautiful Dimple Kapadia, just 16 at the time. A simple story about the son of a wealthy Hindu businessman who falls for the daughter of a Catholic fisherman, it is full of wild ‘70s fashion and a now-famous soundtrack by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Anand Bakshi.
Dir: Yash Chopra
The premise is simple—two brothers, one a successful gangster, and the other a cop. It’s a familiar Bollywood framework, but this 1975 epic was so popular that it ran for more than 100 weeks straight. Told in flashback, it resonated with audiences for its depiction of a family torn apart and its critical take on corruption within the state. One of the first Bollywood films to feature an anti-hero, it’s also notable for its relative lack of musical numbers.
Dir: Raja Nawathe
This suspense thriller in which eight people stranded on an island are picked off by their mysterious host isn’t a great film in terms of plot. However, it is included for a particular sequence which ranks as one of the best musical numbers in Bollywood history. During a nightclub scene we hear the song "Jaan Pehchaan Ho", sung by the legendary Mohammed Rafi. A blend of east and west musical influences, including twangy electric surf-guitar, mariachi-like brass section and, of course, strings, it has a distinct 60s sound. Dancer Laxmi Chhaya, in a form-fitting gold dress is a wonder to behold. The scene was made famous in 2001, appearing in the opening credits of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.
Dir: Sooraj Barjatya
Popularized in the ‘80s, the family film genre reached new heights in this epic, idealized portrait of a happy family that became one of the highest grossing films of all time. Though it’s over three hours long, features more than a dozen musical numbers and has a wafer-thin plot, it struck the right chord with audiences. A wholesome film, it depicts life’s many rituals including birth, marriage and death, all set to musical numbers, naturally. The entire film can be viewed online, via the link above.
Dir: Subhash Ghai
Steeped in controversy, this romantic-thriller tells of Ballu, an escaped assassin who falls in love with a prison warden working undercover as a dancer in order to capture him. Though the plot is peppered with holes and heavy-handed religious overtones, the film was a huge success for its controversial elements. Some found the song lyrics of “Choli Ke Peeche” (“Underneath my Blouse”) obscene, but the real scandal was the arrest of star Sanjay Dutt on charges of terrorism. Its success is proof there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Dir: Kamal Amrohi
Set in the early 20th century Pakeezah follows the sad life of courtesan Sahibjaan, who falls in love with forestry officer Salim, who also happens to be her father’s nephew. An extremely stylized work, even by Bollywood standards, its attention to detail regarding courtesan culture and nostalgic leanings no doubt contributed to its success. The film took 14 years to reach completion, owing in part to the divorce of star Meena Kumari and director Amrohi, as well as her alcoholism, which took her life months after the film’s release.
Dir: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Like Deewaar, this gangster film finds two brothers on opposite sides of the law, yet there’s a complexity here that’s rare for Bollywood. In order to finance his younger brother Karan’s education, Kishen joins a gang run by Anna, a psychopath who killed his own family. Upon returning to India, Karan witnesses the death of his best friend by Anna’s gang and vows to destroy them. It’s a dark, brooding tale that has none of the comedic elements often found in such films.
9. Roja (1992)
Dir: Mani Rathnam
Based on true events, this Tamil film tells of Roja and her cryptologist husband, who is kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists in retaliation for the capturing of their leader. Roja, alone and only able to speak Tamil, befriends a temple worker who aids her in the quest to have her husband released. Memorable for being one of the few Tamil films to deal with problems of the Indian nation-state, it also introduced audiences to the music of Slumdog Millionaire Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, now considered the most important music producer in India.
Dir: Ramesh Sippy
Considered by many to be the greatest Bollywood film of all time, Sholay has seeped into India’s subconscious, and even today lines from the film find their way into advertising. Dubbed a “curry western,” it owes a debt to films such as The Magnificent Seven. The simple vengeance story sees a retired police officer hire two crooks to track and kill the bandit who destroyed his family. The film’s lasting appeal lies in the dialogue, which today is recited by audiences en masse whenever it is shown. The leads are nothing short of perfect, and the songs by R.D. Burman are now considered classics. If you’ve never seen a Bollywood film, this is the perfect place to start.