For the past 100 years, Indian cinema has been a mirror of its vast culture and has partially, if not completely reflected the way the Indian society has transformed in terms of its culture, traditions and the general way of life.
While films in Hindi (the primary language) have made waves across the globe, films in regional languages have not been far behind in terms of creativity and innovation with their subject matter. Filmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann have at one point or the other acknowledged the influence of Indian films on their style of filmmaking.
While Satyajit Ray has always been the face of Indian cinema in the west, there have been many Indian film makers who have made their impact on world cinema. The following 15 films are those which actually set the standard for future films.
Recent international successes such as Lagaan (2001), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Lunchbox (2013) owe a lot to initial exposure given by these films. They were a part of Indian Cinema which just were taking baby steps towards becoming big and evolving into a truly global identity. Since this list is reflective of how Indian films have progressed in terms of their scale and measure, we have made this list a chronological one.
1. Sant Tukaram/Saint Tukaram (1936) Language: Marathi
The most obscured of the lot, Sant Tukaram was one of the most revered films of its time. It’s based on the life of Tukaram (1608-1650), a spiritual poet of the Bhakti movement which is prominent in medieval India. The story depicts the life of Tukaram – a farmer who becomes disillusioned with worldly pleasures after losing his first wife and child in a famine.
Ignoring the needs of his second wife, he rekindles his inner spirituality and goes on to become one of the most followed spiritual leaders of his time, albeit with some controversy. He finally proves his worth in front of the great Maratha King Shivaji and subsequently earns a legion of followers, who have followed his teachings through generations to follow.
Sant Tukaram is considered the first Indian film to receive international recognition. It was adjudged one of the three best films of the world at the Venice Film Festival along with Maria Nover of Hungary and Flying Doctor from Australia. It also became the first Indian film to be screened at an international film festival. A extraordinary achievement which offers a deep insight into the evolving years of Indian cinema.
2. Neecha Nagar/Lowly City (1946); Director: Chetan Anand; Language: Hindi
The film revolves around a wealthy landlord ‘Sarkar’ who lives in a palatial estate on the top of a mountain while the peasants toil hard and live a life full of misery and poverty in the villages in the valley below. The villagers’ rage towards the landlord is further augmented by the fact that the sewer from the landlord’s palace dumps the waste directly in their village, spreading diseases and death.
The landlord diverts the water supply of the village for personal profits; thereby leaving the villagers without a single drop to drink. It is then that the protagonists learn about Sarkar’s true intention, that is to drive them away so that he can use their land for his construction project.
They send a delegation to Sarkar to request him to move the drain away, but he comes up with his own reasons that it is not sewage but a canal and it is for their own good that he has diverted it to Neecha Nagar, to irrigate their fields and provide water for their cattle.
However they reason, which Sarkar is not willing to listen, more so because of his will to control everything around him. He even manages to get a few henchmen in Neecha Nagar. The filth flows into the settlement and people start falling sick. The rest of the film shows how the people of this Lowly City are destined to a hopeless, wretched existence.
The film focuses on the most common issue prevalent in pre-Independence era India – the social disparity between the rich and the poor. It depicts the deprived and destitute existence of people living in rural India and their exploitation by the aristocracy.
Inspired by Maxim Gorky’s play Lower Depths, socialism is the highlight of this internationally acclaimed work directed by Chetan Anand and written by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the guardian angel of socialism in Indian entertainment. Although the film was never released in India commercially, it stands out as the first and only Indian film to win The Grand Prix or the Grand Prize (Palme d’or at the time) at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.
3. Awara/Tramp (1951); Director: Raj Kapoor; Language: Hindi
The golden age of cinema, as it is known will always be cherished for the way its films have addressed social issues of the time, while imbibing elements mostly suited to mainstream, popular fare. This defining classic by Raj Kapoor was such an example.
Not only did it become popular for its soundtrack and characters (Raj Kapoor played his own version inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp), but its themes such as the divide between the rich and the poor made it a defining work of Indian cinema. In the first few minutes, the film puts this question before us which is relevant even to the present day, “How do we judge a person morally, what’s the definition of good and bad?”
The film became a cultural phenomenon in India and abroad with a loyal following in the Middle East, Africa, Russia, China and Romania. While garnering a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize of the Cannes Festival in 1953, it was included in the 20 new entries to the All-Time greatest films by TIME Magazine. Considered by the same magazine as one of the “10 Indian films to treasure”, it went on to be remade in Turkey as Avare in 1964.
4. Do Bigha Zameen/Two thirds of an Acre of Land (1953); Director: Bimal Roy; Language: Hindi
Filmed by Bimal Roy, who was inspired after watching Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic “Bicycle Thieves”, this film is a trendsetting example of Indian neorealist cinema or the Indian parallel movement with its themes of socialism depicted in a realistic and gripping manner.
Do Bigha Zamin portrays Shambhu (Balraj Sahni), a local farmer’s struggle to save his two thirds of an acre of land from getting auctioned. The local landlord Harnam Singh plans to make a factory and the only obstruction is the land owned by Shamb hu which lies exactly in between the patch of land supposed to be utilized for the factory.
In order to clear off his debts to eventually save his land and his only source of income, Shambhu migrates to the city to search for bigger avenues. The resulting story depicts how a bigger tragedy awaits him and his family.
The film was internationally acclaimed upon it release, eventually earning the international prize at the Cannes Film Festival along with a nomination for the Grand Prize (Palme d’or at the time). It also won the Prize for Social Progress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
5. Pyaasa/Thirsty (1957); Director: Guru Dutt; Language: Hindi
Vijay (Guru Dutt) is talented but unsuccessful poet whose works are ridiculed by everyone around him. He loses the love of his life as a consequence of his failed career. Only Gulabo ( Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute finds meaning in his poems and eventually falls in love with him.
A sudden twist of fate brings everything which Vijay struggled for at his disposal. What happens in the end is only of the most fondly remembered climaxes filmed in Indian movies.
The film is a unique example of studio interference ushering in the film’s success. The film was planned towards a more negative ending however, the distributors insisted on the final cut for a positive, if not a generic happy ending.
Pyaasa went on to be ranked at #160 on the Sight and Sound critics’ and directors’ poll of all-time greatest films in 2002. In 2005, TIME Magazine rated as one of the 100 best films of all time with the description “the soulfully romantic of the lot”. Moreover, the film’s soundtrack was chosen as one of “The Best Music in Film” by Sight and Sound.
6. Mother India (1957); Director: Mehboob Khan; Language: Hindi
A remake of the director’s earlier film Aurat (1940), it is the story of a poverty-stricken village woman named Radha (Nargis) who, in the absence of her husband, struggles to raise her sons and survive against the many troubles she encounters throughout her life.
Despite her hardship, she sets a goddess-like moral example of the ideal Indian woman. The title of the film was chosen as a response to American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book Mother India, which was an attack on Indian society and culture, basically written as a response to Indian demands of independence and self-rule.
The film has a number of references to Hindu Mythology and portrays the struggles of a single mother in a highly patriarchic society. Mother India metaphorically represents India as a nation in the aftermath of independence, and is an allusion to a strong sense of nationalism.
With the struggles of the woman at the center of its plot, this film is considered by many to be the Gone with the Wind of Indian Cinema. The lead actress Nargis became the first Indian to receive the Best Actress award at Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
It was India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958, where it was eventually nominated. Interestingly, it lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria by a single vote!
7. Do Aankhen Barah Haath/Two Eyes Twelve Hands (1957); Director: V Shantaram; Language: Hindi
The film portrays a young jail warden, Adinath, who rehabilitates six dangerous prisoners released on parole into persons of virtue. He takes these notorious criminals and makes them work hard with him on a dilapidated country farm, rehabilitating them through hard work and kind guidance as they eventually produce a great harvest through ingenious team work and sheer determination.
One of V Shantaram’s defining works, it takes the viewers through scenes that set a strong moral code about hard work, dedication and concentration. The film provokes society and its individuals to focus their energies on a noble cause.
Two Eyes Twelve Hands went on to win the Silver Bear and the OCIC Award at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival. In a record of sorts, it became the first Indian film to win the Golden Globe Award in the category of Samuel Goldwyn Awards.