Beauty in cinema is often considered a distraction, an embellishment, to be treated in a side-comment in a critic’s review of a work of art. The idea is that beauty can help make a point, but beauty cannot be the point. Filmmakers who have made a name for their visual maximalism and attention to detail are slowly chipping away at this notion.
Because what would cinema, an audio-visual medium, be without beauty? Some of the most exciting movies to come out of India, and indeed, the world, are the ones that court visuals effectively. In an increasingly visual world — Instagram, TikTok, Twitter which recently removed the automatic photo crop — to treat beauty as a separate from the “point” of the film would be to make a grievous error.
At Film Companion we are celebrating the beauty in the movies by selecting 30 of the most beautiful Hindi movies of all time. What we consider beautiful is a question of instinct and nostalgia.
Shree 420 (1955)
The black umbrella and thick rain was immortalized as love in the song ‘Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua’ from this film. Radhu Karmakar who has shot all of Raj Kapoor’s movies from Awara (1951) to Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) lights both the artificial sets and on-set locations with equal control. Kapoor plays the homeless tramp who falls in love, and through light showers that look like ribbons floating in the air, the city of then-Bombay looks like the dream that every person dreams to be in — hardened by labour, softened by glory.
It is true that black and white accentuates drama, by hardening shadows and silhouettes. The reason so many actresses wore print-saris in the black-and-white era is precisely to create a sense of visual tension in a world with no colour. Madhumati, one of the earliest films to deal with reincarnation, uses shadows effectively in scenes — hiding half of the face in darkness, intermittently blazing light on the other half with lightning strikes. Dilip Gupta, the cinematographer, studied in the United States of America in the early 1930s, attending the New York institute of photography, and later working at Paramount Studios with legends like Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. The studied precision shows here.
Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)
Guru Dutt’s collaboration with his cinematographer VK Murthy — who shot all of Dutt’s films since his sophomore attempt Jaal (1952) — set in the disillusioning world of movies, gives them every possible excuse to use beams of light, stark silhouettes, harsh backlights, soft facelights, and deep shadows for maximum drama. While the Murthy-Dutt collaboration has provided some lasting images in Aar Paar (1954) and Pyaasa (1957), their final collaboration, the commercial failure Kaagaz Ke Phool — India’s first cinemascope film — ushered in a new era of filming. When Shammi Kapoor walked out of the interval during the premiere in Maratha Mandir, he had screamed, “Movie ka hero kidhar hai?” When people pointed out that Guru Dutt was in the lobby, he screamed back, “Arey woh nahin re, Murthy kidhar hai?”
Few films have had such a lasting image-based legacy — the turrets of the brothel, with dancers twirling on them in the background, that we can see reflected in Devdas’ ‘Kaahe Ched Mohe’, the fountain of water to drench the hair that was also used in Devdas and Bobby Jasoos, the pistachio green walls that has become emblematic of the kotha, seen most recently in A Suitable Boy. Pakeezah was shot in part by the German cinematographer and regular collaborator with director Kamal Amrohi, Josef Wirsching. He had died while the film was being shot over two decades — from its muhurat in 1956 to its release in 1972. With Belgian chandeliers, expensive carpets, hundreds of extras, and an ailing Meena Kumari holding it together, this film produced the seeds that bore fruit in the modern Indian visual vocabulary.
Opulence is synonymous with this film, almost ten years in the making — the budget of a song would exceed that of entire films. The production design that was led by art director M. K. Syed included Belgian glass, gold statues, and formidable domes. Cinematographer RD Mathur would spend up to 8 hours to light a single shot, using headlights of trucks and reflectors. It was also the first Hindi film to be digitally coloured, released in 2004 to criticism for swapping the depth of black and white with the photogenic clashes of retro colour.
The cinematographer of Guide, Fali Mistry, was one of the few who made the transition from black and white to colour effectively. He shot this film in Pathe colour, with the film processed at the Pathe Lab Inc. in New York. As a result of this foresight, the film’s print is today well archived at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune. The film’s print preserves the rich colours of Bhanu Athaiya’s costumes, along with the retro lights and evocative colours which brought together a world of cobwebbed caves, desolate temples, empty countrysides, and crowded co-ordinated dream sequences. Besides, who can forget the hypnotic glimmer from the border of Waheeda Rehman’s sari as she performed the snake-dance?
Yash Chopra’s films may or may not be your cup of tea, but you’ve got to love his unfailing commitment to beauty. His films were about beautiful people looking drop dead gorgeous as they get their hearts broken. And while it’s hard to pick his most beautiful film we’re going to go with Silsila because it’s hard to top a breathtaking Rekha in blood red lipstick being serenaded by a strapping young Amitabh Bachchan, reciting poetry in his deep baritone.
It’s been 40 years since Silsila released and it’s impossible to watch the song ‘Yeh Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum’ without feeling giddy.
India Cabaret (1985)
This is Mira Nair’s immersive documentary, where she lived with bar dancers, and later decided to capture their lives — leud, loved, loving, lonely, longing — and those of the patrons who also make unabashed cameos. Nair even goes to the house of one of the frequent patrons, speaking to his wife and family. Shot by Mitch Epstein, the candid gaze of the camera produces little pressure on its subject to perform more than they would otherwise, anyway. The long shots that swirl with the dancer holding a glass of whiskey on her head as she dances from patron to patron is an iconic moment of heady realism.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda is a gripping crime drama that’s also remembered for its romantic sequences. Who can forget Karan (Anil Kapoor) and Paro (Madhuri Dixit) in ‘Tum Se Milke’, taking their vows for a lifetime of togetherness amidst a candle light? Framed masterfully by the brilliant Binod Pradhan, the scenes spoke for themselves. In one particular sequence, right before tragedy strikes, Karan and Paro enjoy a passionate night of marital bliss, reflected through silhouette shots in a blue lighting. In the background only instrumental music plays, with the notes rising and falling as the two consummate their marriage. After a point, all you can hear are the couple’s breaths. Such scenes were rare in Hindi films back then, but Pradhan captures it beautifully and intimately, even with a minimalist setup.
Bandit Queen (1996)
Easy as beautiful-looking films are to include here, beautiful film-making is a different beast altogether. Especially when the story itself is so stark – the life of India’s foremost female dacoit Phoolan Devi – and an exquisitely composed indictment of ugliness. Ashok Mehta’s camera doesn’t expose a time in history so much as watch it pass by. Shekhar Kapoor’s brave and brutal film, starring Seema Biswas, has triggered relevant debates about its depiction of sexual violence (“that” gangrape sequence), but there is little to counter its primal commitment to a rural and ravenous landscape that’s too often exploited by art to be considered by it. Sonchiriya comes to mind: the ravine-drenched narrative wears the robe of a tragic Spaghetti Western that keeps getting interrupted by bullets of inescapable reality.
What makes this film — a politically naive romanticization of tragedy with an erronous use of two-period ellipsis — difficult to resist is the optical opulence connecting the disparate voices of a radio journalist and a suicide bomber. That love is the only language they read is reflected in lensmaster Santosh Sivan’s finest work – a poetic symphony of bodily compositions, burning eyes, blue skies, stoic clouds and aspirational smoke, reticent landscapes, talking silences and communal darkness. Every other frame is constructed as a narrative metaphor – with the hypnotic permutations of primary colours daring to hold a brooding candle to Rahman’s most immersive soundtrack. The result is unique: You can see the sound and hear the shots, both figuratively and literally.
I’d argue that if storytelling must be sacrificed at the altar of imagery, then Asoka is the only way to do it. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s graphically pleasing period epic, starring Shah Rukh Khan as an emperor and a drop-dead gorgeous Kareena Kapoor as a warrior princess, is a hypnotic hybrid of nature photography and music. Rarely has an Anu Malik soundtrack blended so seamlessly into a historical canvas. The song picturization across Central India is spectacular, symbolized most famously by Raat Ka Nasha’s “dancing raft” drifting along the Narmada while Bhedaghat’s rugged white canyons double up as natural reflectors for the water.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
An unusual choice on paper, Farhan Akhtar’s iconic buddy flick marked the precise moment the tectonic plates of the urban Hindi film aesthetic indelibly shifted. Dil Chahta Hai’s physical beauty is an inextricable part of its emotional density – it’s not just Ravi K Chandran’s unobtrusive cinematography and Arjun Bhasin’s perceptive costuming, the production design by Suzanne Caplan Merwanji and spatial geography of every scene seem to be telling their own stories. The walls of Tara’s new apartment, the tuned darkness in Akash’s room when he’s brooding and listening to Sting’s ‘Desert Rose’, Sid’s studio, the boys’ Goa posing, even the blueness of the hospital reunion – the seeds of Dil Chahta Hai are sown in almost every metropolitan drama ever since.
We saw Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s love for grand romances in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but it’s in his adaptation of Devdas that he unapologetically embraced his penchant for opulence and make-believe worlds. Bhansali goes all out with his fascination for period settings, flowing fabric, diyas, bright colours (here it’s red and green), overdressed characters, unexplained water bodies and elaborate dance performances where two women celebrate their love for the same man — all tropes that we came to see more of in his subsequent films.
Also Read: Where To Begin With Sanjay Leela Bhansali
His creation of Devdas’s ornate world was aided by the genius work of cinematographer Binod Pradhan, production designer Nitin Desai and choreographer Saroj Khan.
It’s easy to condescend on self-proclaimed spookmaster Vikram Bhatt’s paranormal activity today. But Raaz, his first foray into the genre, remains the ultimate embodiment of Hindi cinema’s hill-station horror syndrome. Despite its roots – an “unofficial” adaptation of What Lies Beneath – Raaz still holds as a sensory feeling captured by cinematographer Pravin Bhatt. When we think of Raaz, we invariably think of space and sound, the fundamental building blocks of the audiovisual medium. The film forever altered the perception of Ooty’s pine forests and wooden cabins, back when ‘erotic horror’ was still at an embryonic stage in India. Not to mention the mysterious Malini Sharma as a jilted enchantress, slithering to the strings of Alka Yagnik’s “Aapke Pyaar Mein” outside a Swiss chalet.
Meenaxi: A Tale Of Three Cities (2004)
Visually, this film feels like poetry in motion. And why not? It’s helmed by artist MF Hussain, after all. What he couldn’t do with Gaja Gamini (2000), he does with Meenaxi, and beautifully blends art and aesthetics with the plot of the film. Santosh Sivan’s ace cinematography helps Hussain paint on celluloid. In a Sufi song, ‘Noor-Un-Ala-Noor’, composed by AR Rahman, and written by Hussain himself, Meenaxi (Tabu), in a stunning white attire, with a white gajra adorning her hair, appears as an ethereal Goddess-like figure in front of Nawab (Raghubir Yadav).
Also Read: 25 Years, 25 Moments, 25 Tabus
She exudes this mystic and mysterious charm as Nawab finds himself in a trance, awestruck by her omnipresent yet unobtainable aura. This a motif that lasts throughout the film, as fact blurs with fiction, and an enchanting Meenaxi — across the scenic locales of Jaisalmer, Hyderabad and Prague — starts symbolizing Nawab’s state of mind, depicting the deep-rooted relationship that an artist can have with his muse.
Dor is peak mid-noughts Nagesh Kukunoor: daring, driven, dramatic. Apart from being his most accomplished film, Dor’s beauty is entrenched in the relationship between a socially dense narrative and a vivid visual grammar. It reframes the cinema of two relentlessly exoticized Indias – the deserts of Rajasthan and the mountains of Himachal Pradesh – by equating them to the cultural dichotomy of womanhood. The intersecting fates of two disparate wives (Gul Panag represents modernity and Ayesha Takia, traditionalism) define a story that refuses to fetishize its physical form in pursuit of lofty drama. The sand dunes and the havelis, the colours and the shadows don’t hijack the air – the naturally striking palettes framed by Sudeep Chatterjee eschew tokenism in favour of emotional texture.
Delhi 6 (2009)
While Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s collaboration with Binod Pradhan in Rang De Basanti was a tactile, hazy blur to give expression to the bursting energy of youth, his work in Delhi 6 showed a greater range from the cloistered gullies of Delhi 6 to the spacious airy tomb of Taj Mahal, the symmetric rising and falling of people during the Azaan as a top shot, and even the crazier elements — the bouncy first-person of the kala-bandar, the CGI melting of borders between Times Square and Delhi 6 — with cows, the Banyan tree, jalebi cauldrons, and the rickshaw — and that whitewashed heaven in the cursed climax. Who can forget the nostalgic lighting for ‘Masakali’, bleached off any excessive colour?
Fans of Bimal Roy’s minimalist Devdas who felt Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s take in 2002 was too over-the-top probably considered Anurag Kashyap’s 2009 version a shock to the senses. Kashyap takes Devdas, the character, out of rural Bengal and places him in Delhi’s seedy bars, brothels and dingy lanes. He uses Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack and a highly stylised and psychedelic treatment to give us some unforgettable and original images. Who can forget Chanda’s crazy wigs, the three suited dancers who pop up in the song ‘Pardesi’ and Abhay Deol’s face painted as a clown.
Mani Ratnam is a visual storyteller, and often concots an audio-visual spectacle, even if the story is somewhat small in scale. With Raavan, he took over the jungles, and with his cinematographers Santosh Sivan and V Manikandan, gave us steep cliffs from steeper angles, slippery slopes with slippery pans, and a lush verdant forest chase that includes some of the most warm rotating komorebi lights.
Who can forget the stillness of Aishwarya Rai perched on the snapping branch of a bare tree, fainted luxuriantly. The flashbacks to a rainbow riot of a marriage serves as a visual jolt to the otherwise colourless palette of the film.
This was the movie before Bhansali’s maximalism got both critical and commercial ovations. Right after his previous film Sawariya (2007) was panned for precisely visual over-indulgence, Bhansali, instead of re-thinking his aesthetic, delved deeper, and delved darker, with the help of production designer Sumit Basu. (A critic at that time unfairly noted how perhaps the discarded sets of Saawariya were used for this film) This gothic otherworldly Goa, bristling with aged concrete, wet leaking walls, and brass framed pictures and paintings was Bhansali’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee — a collaboration that would give us the obviously beautiful maximalism of Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. Chatterjee is a gift to Bhansali, able to give his vision of utmost beauty and utmost brutality a form.
Say what you will about Anurag Basu’s dynasty-produced turkey, there’s no denying that Kites is the kind of perfectly cooked, oven-baked Turkey with a crispy golden crust that any Thanksgiving dinner would be proud of. Nobody nurses a sense of colour and geography like Basu does, and in Kites he turns the sun-parched Las Vegas and Mexican desert into a portrait of pretty urgency. The sepia-tinged landscape stays at cultural odds with the cold peril of the film’s central chase, and the result is oddly alluring. Add to this a bronzed Hrithik Roshan, a flawless Barbara Mori, Ayananka Bose’s playful and glassy cinematography, and a soothing Rajesh Roshan soundtrack – and Kites makes for a whimsical ode to cinema’s grand fetisization of tragedy.
Director Anurag Basu’s first collaboration with Ravi Varman was visual ecstasy — with soft, silken lighting, and deep blues to emphasize sadness. Barfi is a wanderer being chased, and the locations from a rooftop in Kolkata to a tea garden in Assam provide a canvas for rich cultural articulation. The dream sequence with technicolour energy bursting through the Chhau masks is one of enduring beauty. The lonely landscape with two lonely people holding fingers to cross a creek is another. The drops of water that fall from the feet as it emerges from the creek, the pulling of hair to keep balance — there is little visual promise in this film that doesn’t produce an overwhelming emotional reaction.
Cinematographer Mahendra J Shetty and production designer Aditya Kanwar appear completely besotted by the old-world charm of 1950s Bengal. You can feel it in the way Shetty lovingly captures a zamindar’s home — the high ceilings, the arched doorways, the checkered floors, the wall-to-wall library, the gramophone, the colonial tea-sets, the majestic chandeliers, the mosquito net behind which Pakhi (the zamindar’s daughter) and her lover first embrace, the maroon vintage car in which their romance blooms… Every frame of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera is minutely detailed and richly textured. Coupled with Amit Trivedi’s lilting background score, Lootera’s seductive beauty makes you long for an era gone by.
One of Hindi cinema’s foremost Shakespearean adaptations, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider reframes tragedy as a cultural subset of madness. Setting Hamlet in an insurgency-hit Kashmir of the 1990s is an ingenious move, not least because cinematographer Pankaj Kumar’s lensing finds devilish comfort in the details of a region seeking an identity. The oedipal mirrors and snowy valleys, the gravediggers and the dead, the Roohdars and the Ghazalas, the sounds and the muted noises – the sensory atmosphere of Haider’s Kashmir is inextricably linked to our perception of political violence. “Beauty” is not an adjective so much as an orphaned pronoun in this film. It’s as though fear is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The acoustic richness of Tamasha is not limited to the fantastical French island of Corsica. Tamasha is largely an optical narrative: an expression of human nature through colour, framing, music and emotional symmetry. It is also a masterclass in blocking and lighting by Ravi Varman — especially the character’s faces. Given that the film itself is a play on storytelling, the vivid book-panel-isque glow decorates every other sequence. Whether it’s the melancholic mist of Shimla, the frigid conformity of New Delhi or even the fleeting escapism of Japan, seldom has a contemporary movie aligned itself with a mental aesthetic directly derived from a multilayered soundtrack. Think ‘Agar Tum Saath Ho’, think ‘Safarnama’, think all the Rahman compositions translated into a playground of light, clothes and trapped souls.
Bombay Velvet (2015)
What stands out in Bombay Velvet is the way the characters are stylized. It manages to bring out a different side of Bombay — when it was officially Bombay — in the 60s and 70s. Every frame, designed meticulously by Rajeev Ravi, oozes grandeur and old-world charm. Even for a person looking at the film’s poster for the first time, the film can give out the impression of being a stylish, sepia-toned ode to a forlorn love story set in the olden world. The suits and sunglasses, the dresses and hats, the vintage cars and the hairdos spoke for themselves. And that says a lot about the brilliance of the film’s production design (Sonal Sawant) and costumes (Niharika Khan). Furthermore, the jazzy, groovy music by Amit Trivedi adds more dimensions to the storytelling.
Fitoor lies at the opposite end of the Haider spectrum, in that its Kashmir is designed as a cauldron of cosmetic emptiness. Fitoor may have lacked life, but it is undeniably one of the most “good-looking” movies of modern Hindi cinema. It can be argued that director Abhishek Kapoor and cinematographer Anay Goswamy’s painstakingly beautiful rendition of Great Expectations reflects the hollow splendour of Estella herself. And that she mirrors the broken paradise of her infamous landscape. Katrina Kaif and her kohl-eyed coldness evoke the luscious ambiguity of Gwyneth Paltrow that made Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 version sparkle beyond its gold-and-green palette. Throw in a terrific Amit Trivedi soundtrack, a red-on-white colour scheme, and it’s impossible to go wrong – at least on a big screen – with Tabu in Kashmir.
Tumbbad is the vibrant, throbbing, fever-dream manifestation of a sort of unrestrained, child-like imagination so many of us wish we could carry into our adulthood. Which makes sense, because creator Rahi Anil Barve wrote the first draft of this mythological-horror-fantasy fable when he was 18. The “horror” — a giant womb, blood-red demons, gold coins, creepy mansions, a cloudy pre-independence Maharashtra — is the aesthetic itself, like an errant fairy tale aching to show her parents that she is also a gifted painter. Pankaj Kumar’s stunning cinematography, Jesper Kyd’s eerie score and Santosh Shetty’s audacious art design is now an inextricable part of Indian film folklore — featuring an original homegrown universe that would make Guillermo del Toro proud.
Colours play a very significant role in Bulbbul’s storytelling. Throughout the film, there’s a dominance of red and blue lighting, often indicating the protagonist’s mind space. One scene that stands out is the shift of lighting that transpires after a brutal, almost painstakingly long, abuse sequence. Here, director Anvita Dutt intentionally wants the viewers to feel Bulbbul’s (Tripti Dimri) pain by bearing witness to it. As this scene ends, the moon, previously with a blue-ish tinge in colour, transitions to a red-ish hue, instantly taking in the grim reality of the rage, the pain and the inner transformation the titular character undergoes during this time. The cinematography executed by Siddharth Diwan does beautiful justice to 19th century Bengal. In fact, Dimri’s powerful transformation from a naïve young woman to a demi-goddess is justly complemented by her costumes and hair, as much as it is by her overall demeanor.