8. Pardesi/Journey Beyond Three Seas (1957); Director: Khwaja Ahmed Abbas; Language: Hindi/Russian
Based upon the book of the same name, Pardesi chronicles the experiences of 15th century Russian traveler and trader Alfanasy Nikitin (Oled Strizhenov). The film depicts the time when Nikitin travelled India (1466-1472) and eventually fell in love with an Indian woman Champa (Nargis Dutt).
One of the first cross-cultural love stories, the film was officially released in two different versions: Russian and Hindi. Though not as popular as the other titles on this list, the film deserves a mention for its sheer scale of production (the first official Indian co-production with a foreign studio) and the fact that it was a nominee for the Golden Palm at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
9. Meghe Dhaka Tara/Cloud Capped Star (1960); Director: Ritwik Ghatak; Language: Bangla
While there were a few other Ghatak films worthy of making this list (Ajantrik for its indirect influence on the Travis Bickle character in Taxi Driver), this one stands out particularly for the way it is associated with Ghatak’s claim to fame.
The film, based on a social novel of the same name by Shaktipoda Rajguru, was the first in a trilogy followed by Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962). The film is centered on a self-sacrificing girl Neeta who belongs to a family of refugees from East Pakistan. Falling prey to constant exploitation from everyone around her including her own family, she eventually loses dear to hear: her job, her first fiancée and her health as she is diagnosed with tuberculosis.
The film’s final scene where she utters “Dada, ami baachte chai” (“Brother, I want to live”) is considered one of the most memorable scenes in Indian cinema.
In 2002, the Sight and Sound critics’ and directors’ poll ranked this film at 231 on its list of the best films of all time. It also earned a place in the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” for its surrealist sound effects, the grace of Ghatak’s mise en scène and the enormous sense of loss expressed in the film.
10. Elippathayam/The Rat Trap (1981); Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan; Language: Malayalam
Director Adoor Gopalakrishnan is regarded by film critics as the spiritual heir to Satyajit Ray. With his films, he ushered in the wave of neorealism in the cinema of South India, Malayalam film industry to be more precise. His 1981 effort stands out as one of his most outstanding work, which brilliantly provides a stark picture of the feudal life in Kerala.
The story revolves around Unni, a middle aged man living a life of struggle with his three sisters. Our protagonist remains oblivious to the changes in the external society, thus caught in a “rat trap” as the title suggests.
The film was partly inspired by Adoor’s own experiences living as part of a feudal family. Silence is recurring motif throughout the film, which is remembered for carrying forward the story through symbolism. The scene where the rats infesting the mansion are caught and drowned symbolizes the way in which Unni is destroyed by the decline of the feudal way of life.
The film went to win the British Film Institute Award for Most Original and Imaginative Film shown at the National Film Theatre. The film also won the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival while also getting screened at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
11. Nayakan/The Hero (1987); Director: Mani Ratnam; Language: Tamil
Most film critics who have followed Indian cinema would agree that this is possibly the best Indian film depicting organized crime. The film, a fictionalized account of underworld gangster Vardaraj Mudaliar, depicts a common man’s rise to power in the world of crime. The protagonist Shakti Velu (Kamal Hassan) is an underworld kingpin who is otherwise popular in his neighborhood for his benevolent acts of charity, a la The Godfather.
The realistic crime drama was Mani Ratnam’s claim to fame. With its stark depiction of how a life of crime takes a toll on the personal lives of those involved in it, this motion picture was a far cry from the no-brainer, action films of the time which were served in the name of crime thrillers.
The film made to the list of All-Time 100 Best Films compiled by TIME Magazine in 2005. The magazine quoted the film with the tagline “A terrific gangster epic in the Godfather style”. India’s official submission for the Foreign Film Oscar, this Godfatheresque film stands out among other versions with similar content due to its wonderful blend of fact and fiction.
12. Salaam Bombay/Greetings Bombay (1988); Director: Mira Nair; Language: Hindi
Highly regarded at the time of its release, the film offers an insight into the routine lives of the slum dwelling children in Mumbai. The film was unique in a way that it explored the world nobody even gave a thought about bringing on to the silver screen.
The film was a no holds barred take on the inhabitants of the impoverished areas of the city, very much unlike the commercialized and sugarcoated productions which came out during its time. The sense of realism of the film is heightened by the fact that most of the children were actual street children who were later rehabilitated.
Through the story of its central protagonist Krishna, the film uncovers underbelly of the slums, the harsh city life, along with the lives of the women forced into prostitution. Shafique Syed in the role of Krishna, a boy struggling to make ends meet and save money in order to go back to his village and meet his mother, stands out as a revelation for sure.
The film won a host of awards which included the National Board of review Awards for Best Foreign Film, the Golden Camera and Audience Awards at the Cannes along with the Jury Prize and Most Popular Film at the Montreal Film Festival. Further nominations included a BAFTA, Golden Globe, Cesar and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Furthermore, it was listed by New York Times as one of “The 1000 Best Movies Ever Made”.
13. Piravi/The Birth (1989); Director: Shaji N. Karun; Language: Malayalam
This directorial debut by Shaji N. Karun created a sensation all around the world by bagging 31 major international awards. The film was highly appreciated for its gritty depiction of corruption, lawlessness, realization and broken dreams.
The story follows the life of a couple whose son was born late into their marriage and as a result, was brought up with immense love and devotion. When a fully grown Raghu (the son) does not return from college for his sister’s wedding, it comes to the family’s knowledge that he may have been arrested by the cops for political reasons. As the truth dawns upon his sister, the film becomes a twisted saga of determination, hope and a mind numbing tragedy.
The film was the prestigious winner of the Camera d’or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Some of the awards it won include the Sir Charles Chaplin Award at the 1989 Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Silver Leopard and prize of the Eumenical Jury-Special Mention at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival, the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival 1989 to name a few.
14. Mathilukal/Walls (1989); Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan; Language: Malayalam
An autobiographical film based on the novel of the same name by Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, the film focused on the prison life of the novel’s writer (Mamootty in National Award winning performance) and his love life with Narayani.
The most interesting entry on this list in terms of its narrative, due to the fact that the narrator’s love interest and the second most important character remains unseen throughout the film. The two protagonists are separated by a high wall and develop ingenious ways of communicating with each other.
The film was honoured with the FIPRESCI award and the UNICEF Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1990. The film is particularly noted for the lead performance by its lead star Mammootty who went on to win a National Award for his role. In the words of the director “To play someone when he is living is no mean challenge, and the Malayalam star rose up to it”.
15. Swaham/My Own (1994); Director: Shaji N. Karun; Language: Malayalam
A unique tale of family bonding, Swaham is another compelling story of a family struggling to make ends meet. Yet this film is different in a way that it portrays a central female character that stands strong in the face of adversity, even when she confronts the bitter truth that her only hope of a better life, her son who got recruited for a military camp has died in a stampede.
Our lead character is very much unlike the lead character in Meghe Dhaka Tara in way that she is tough and uncompromising as compared to the self-sacrificing, selfless leading lady in Ritwik Ghatak’s drama. This heart wrenching story of hope and despair is a must watch for all film buffs.
A global success upon its release, the film went on to win the Bronze Rosa Camuna at the 1995 Bergamo Film Meeting Italy. It was also a nominee for the Palme d’or in 1994, an event which saw the likes of Pulp Fiction and Exotica.
Author Bio: Niloy is presently working with Expedia customer care and is also a part-time musician in his band. He loves to watch, read and talk about movies whenever time permits. He indigenously follows the work of Scorsese, Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.