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“People who do not understand cinematic legacy or the richness of storytelling are unfortunately condemned to a life of mediocrity at movies,” says director Hansal Mehta. He picks 33 movies that have influenced his works, from those he watched as a child to happy discoveries at film festivals, and those he can’t stop watching even now:

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krystof Kieslowski

Streaming on: Mubi

This is the very first film I saw at a film festival in 1994. This was when I’d just started shooting the television show Khana Khazana. I went to the film festival as though it was a picnic — I had no idea who Kieslowski was. I went in blind and came out almost transformed. It’s the power of cinema that transcends language and conveys a state of mind without exposition. Everything that I wanted in a film — poetry, literature, relationships — it had it all with such beauty and elegance. A year later, I watched this film again on a laser disc and ended up watching it multiple times. Every time I feel low or disturbed, with respect to work, I watch this movie. It’s my constant companion. 

Manthan (1976)

Director: Shyam Benegal

Streaming on: YouTube

I saw this one as a kid at Bandra Talkies theatre. I think it had a very limited release. The film stuck in my mind because it was based on a true story and had real characters. It told the story of Amul in a very engrossing way. It was a refreshing change because I grew up on a diet of potboilers and Manmohan Desai films. So somewhere Manthan’s true story influenced the choices I’m making now. 

Kalyug (1981)

Director: Shyam Benegal

I must have been 13 or 14 when I saw this film. As a kid, I was fascinated by the Mahabharat. We had a broad understanding that the Pandavas were good men and the Kauravas were bad. When I saw Kalyug, I didn’t get the complexity but I was completely engrossed by that world. We don’t celebrate Shyam Benegal enough. His storytelling was uncluttered and uncomplicated, yet full of depth with great characters. Even the performances and the sophisticated storytelling was way ahead of its time. Kalyug stands the test of time. The insight into industrial intrigue and conspiracy through an epic like the Mahabharat makes it a timeless film. It’s also well shot by Govind Nihalani — the use of light and shade and the camera work was exceptional. 

Tamas (1988)

Director: Govind Nihalani

It was an epic tale told in a limited-series format with the country’s best actors. It was beautifully shot. It’s based on a great piece of literature by Bhisham Sahni. In 1988, I was in my 20s and I realized that these filmmakers were telling stories that had their roots in literature and great writing. It was a truly strong experience. 

Do Bigha Zameen (1953)

Director: Bimal Roy

Streaming on: YouTube

I saw this on Doordarshan as a kid and could never forget that one image of Balraj Sahni pulling the cart. It was horrifying. I’ve thought about it many times. People have told me about its parallels to Bicycle Thieves (1948), which I saw later. Now when I see Balraj Sahni, I feel we had an actor of international calibre, who would’ve transcended all the barriers. But very few filmmakers actually used him well and one of them was Bimal Roy in Do Bigha Zameen.

Also Read: 30 Films Sriram Raghavan Wants Everyone To Watch

Bombai ka Babu (1960)

Director: Raj Khosla

Streaming on: YouTube

This has classic songs like ‘Chal Ri Sajni Ab Kya Soche’, which had Dev Anand and Suchitra Sen. Raj Khosla is a very underrated director and this is a highly underrated film. It dealt with the theme of incest. The undercurrent in the relationship made you uncomfortable. Incredibly skilled storytelling. I sometimes feel like our popular cinema has regressed because we dealt with such mature themes backed by immense literature back then. 

Tere Mere Sapne (1971)

Director: Vijay Anand

Streaming on: YouTube

It was based on a book, The Citadel, written by A. J. Cronin. Vijay Anand has a great, diverse filmography — Teesri Manzil (1966), Johny Mera Naam (1970), Guide (1965), Jewel Thief (1967). It’s a film about the medical profession, ethics, dreams, and a moral dilemma. There is a beautiful love story between Dev Anand and Mumtaz’s characters. This film is underrated, except for its songs. ‘Ae Maine Kasam Li’ andJeevan Ki Bagiya Mehkegi’ are such great songs with wonderful lyrics. The picturization by Vijay Anand is just excellent. 

In The Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Wong Kar Wai

In The Mood for Love

It was a transformative film for me. I was blown away. I had never seen something so beautiful and evocative. At the time, I was not somebody who followed film festivals. I only watched films available in the theatre or on DVD. In The Mood For Love made me explore Wong Kar Wai’s work. I saw 2046 after this followed by Chungking Express and his other films. I was fascinated by the sheer poetry of his work. It’s a must watch for any serious student of cinema. It was a work of beauty. A story which uses a pretty painting is nothing without a soul. 

Bread and Roses (2000)

Director: Ken Loach 

I just happened to stumble upon Bread and Roses. It has Adrien Brody. The film’s approach to a political struggle through a common man’s perspective, and his concerns for the working class, immediately resonated with me. The way the story is told isn’t film-like — neither the performances nor the scenes look constructed. It’s an observation of life and yet, it doesn’t let go of the drama of engaging the audience in a human story. It influenced the way I approached my later films. Ken Loach makes masterpieces and understands the working class with love and empathy. I like Bread and Roses because it’s so relevant at this time. It’s about a migrant who has crossed over from Mexico to LA. The protagonist is very spirited and feisty. It’s terrific. 

Road to Guantanamo (2006)

Director: Michael Winterbottom

When I first saw the film, I thought I’d seen a documentary. Later, I realized this wasn’t a documentary. This was my introduction to Riz Ahmed and after seeing him, I realized how actors don’t ‘act’. It’s a strong film and probably Michael Winterbottom’s best work. I learnt a lot from it, especially the performances. I wished I could extract such performances. The way Omerta (2017) was shot and Rajkummar Rao’s performance in it were inspired by this film. 

Also Read: 40 Movies That Filmmaking Duo Raj and DK Want Everyone To Watch

Nixon (1995)

Director: Oliver Stone

I have a natural affinity for biographies. Oliver Stone has nice filmography but Nixon was a largely ignored film. It’s a very long film, more than 3 hours, but it’s supremely engaging. It enters into the mind of a very controversial and much-hated President of America and Anthony Hopkins’ performance was fantastic. The crucial thing that I learnt from the film is that to tell a true story, an actor doesn’t necessarily need to look like the original person. It’s not about imitation or caricature. It’s about capturing the spirit of the real person. Hopkins did not look like Nixon but he embodied Nixon’s fake smile and overall character. It’s truly a great performance. 

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Director: John Badham

Saturday-Night-Fever

When I was growing up, John Travolta was my hero. I used to dress like him, dance like him, walk like him. I know all the Saturday Night Fever steps. It was heroism at its peak. When I revisited the film a few years ago, I found a neo-realism to it. It’s about an Italian working-class family and a boy who falls in love with an older woman. It is a fairly complex tale. The choreography of the dances and the nightclub are timeless! 

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Streaming on: Netflix

This is filmmaking at its best. Spielberg is appealing to the child in you. It’s thrilling and poignant. It’s such a complete piece of work. Because of its entertainment value and the presence of a star like Harrison Ford, we don’t appreciate it enough. The cinematography was pathbreaking.  

Saraansh (1984)

Director: Mahesh Bhatt

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

I was a teenager and watched it at Bandra Talkies. I remember being completely blown away by the film. It left a deep impact on me. At a young age, grappling with the questions of life and death felt different. Over the years, it has been a spiritual companion. 

Also Read: 42 Films Director Vikramaditya Motwane Wants Everyone To See

Pyaasa (1957)

Director: Guru Dutt

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

It’s one of the greatest Hindi films ever made. The plight of an artist, the cinematography by V. K Murthy, the use of light and shade, the songs, the poetry, the political commentary and then the angst, restlessness, unrequited love; there is so much in this film. It’s so metaphorical, the relationship between the artist and the prostitute. I always recommend Pyaasa to people. It’s my all-time favourite. 

Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (2005)

Director: Sudhir Mishra

Streaming on: Netflix

Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi

Sudhir Mishra is the connection between my adolescence and contemporary cinema. He is the consistent force. This one stands at the pinnacle of his filmmaking prowess. It’s one of the finest political films made in our country. It is a personal story within a time of big political turmoil. There are morally ambiguous characters and it is lyrical by nature. 

Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)

Director: Ritwik Ghatak 

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

It has such raw visual energy and the use of Hindustani classical music is incredible. It is truly a great piece of work. We need more nuance in what we watch. Ghatak is a master. I’d also recommend Ajantrik (1958). The merging of melodrama and poetry —  nobody could achieve it better than Ghatak. 

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Lumet is a great filmmaker whose entire filmography is full of experiments. I watched Find Me Guilty (2006) starring Vin Diesel, which is his career-defining performance. What struck me when I watched Dog Day Afternoon at a film festival was that it had no music and yet you’re completely engrossed in the film. The narrative grabs you. It has some great characters. There are none of the tropes that filmmakers usually use. It is realistic without being overly like a documentary. For me, it’s Al Pacino’s greatest performance. The film is based on an article titled Boys in the Bank from Life Magazine in 1972. The dramatization and adaptation of the article to a cinematic medium and the characterization of Al Pacino make it a great film. 

Masoom (1983)

Director: Shekar Kapoor 

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

A great adaptation of Man, Woman and Child, which is an ordinary book. The screenplay by Gulzar, music by R.D Burman, acting by Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi made this film exceptional. It’s just a combination of many forces of nature. All the three children were adorable. I still watch it. It is such a tightly written and well-directed film. Masoom is Shekhar Kapoor’s best film. A tale told with purity never fails to engage. 

Dekalog (1988)

Director: Krystof Kieslowski 

This is a collection of stories based on The 10 Commandments. I visited this much after I watched Bleu. It illustrates the power of short films. There is a subtle difference in the craft. Often, short films are showreels for larger formats. Filmmakers fall into the trap of making short films to showcase their caliber so they can make features but shorts have a language of their own. Dekalog is a lesson in the language of telling shorter stories. It’s a lesson for short filmmakers. 

Jules et Jim (1962)

Director: François Truffaut

Streaming on: Mubi

There’s so much romance in it. Despite being a black and white film, it’s images are so powerful. I felt the weather — the harshness of winters, the warmth of those lights and the intimacy in the relationship. There’s that classic shot on the bridge! So many filmmakers have been inspired by that shot. It is the greatest black and white cinematography ever.

Also Read: 50 Horror Movies You Must Watch

Mirch Masala (1987)

Director: Ketan Mehta

It’s a defining Indian film. I don’t think Gen-Z knows enough about Ketan Mehta. We need to celebrate this homegrown storyteller. Mirch Masala is cinematic in all aspects — beautifully shot, crafted and acted. It is an enduring work of art that uses chillies as a metaphor for women’s rage and empowerment. It felt like an amalgamation of all the arts — painting, poetry, theatre and cinema. 

Memories of Murder (2003)

Director: Bong Joon Ho 

Memories of Murder

My favourite Bong Joon Ho film. This film works on so many levels —  it’s a serial killer-slasher flick, a cop drama and it delves into human nature. Memories of Murder is a defining moment in world cinema. The open ending of the film tells us so much about us as a society. A truly enlightening take on modern society and human nature. 

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Director: David Lean

This is a film for all seasons. It’s the ultimate romance. David Lean is intensely personal in terms of telling a story. Set against the backdrop of Russian Revolution, Lara and the Doctor’s love story takes you through that period in history; a classic. It’s the greatest story of unrequited love that I have ever seen. The visuals are timeless. 

The Last Emperor (1987)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci 

I am fascinated by the way the filmmaker achieves precision with that magnitude and scale. It feels seamless and effortless. In all that precision and magnitude, there is a poignant tale. 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee

Streaming on: Netflix

Crouching-Tiger-Hidden-Dragon

I have watched this on 10 consecutive days. The visuals are so beautiful. When I think about them, I can still feel them. Such films make you miss the large-screen experience. There’s also a great love story finely knitted with poetry. I never get tired of watching this. 

Man Push Cart (2005)

Director: Ramin Bahrani 

He is a very good filmmaker and this is his best film. I recently got to speak to him thanks to Raj (Rajkummar Rao). He showed him some of the films we’ve done together and he loved both Shahid (2013) and City Lights (2014). In fact, Man Push Cart is one of the films I showed Raj before Shahid and said this is the kind of performance you should try to achieve.  

The Circle (2000)

Director: Jafar Panahi

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

It’s a tale of women and their search for a voice and independence. It’s a universal tale. It’s a full circle — from a child to an old lady, everyone is running away from something. ‘Running away’ is again a metaphor for liberation. Every woman’s tale is given a different cinematic treatment —  yet it all comes together seamlessly. 

Also Read: Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey Picks 40 Movies He Wants Everyone To See

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Director: Mira Nair

Monsoon Wedding

I absolutely loved the film and watched it for 7 to 8 days consecutively. I’m fascinated by the way Mira Nair made the drama look like it’s there but it’s not there. There’s a misconception that drama means dramatic performances and shooting styles. Here there is drama, but it flows like water. Every character’s life is dealt with with such empathy. I remember I wrote an email to Mira Nair and thanked her for helping us rediscover the Naseeruddin Shah we saw last in Masoom.

Mad Men (2007-2015)

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

As someone who started my journey with television, Mad Men was an influence. It’s an exemplary series. Mad Men is a defining moment because of this great character Don Draper. He’s flawed, morally ambiguous. It’s a great immersive experience and reinforces the belief that great characterization comes from great writing. In Scam 1992, there is a little homage to Mad Men in the title sequence. The man falling down from the building…that is a tribute to Mad Men

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989)

Director: Saeed Mirza 

Streaming on: Mubi

Saeed Mirza, as a filmmaker and a person, has influenced my worldview. He is a less-heralded genius. This film truthfully depicted the lives and aspirations of Bombay’s Muslims. Shahid and its world are a tribute to this film. It’s a film that people must watch. There’s a great character played by Rajendra Gupta who talks about the need for education among Muslims. It’s a strong social statement in a memorable scene from the film.  

Garm Hawa (1974)

Director: M S Sathyu

Garam-Hawa

I saw a restored version of it a few years ago. Every time I watch it I am unable to sleep. It is Balraj Sahni’s greatest performance. Even now, I can feel the pain in his eyes.  Looking at such films, we realise how rich Indian cinema is. The conflict that continues to simmer between India and Pakistan feels like a raw wound. 

The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher 

Streaming on: Netflix

Fincher’s work has always been influential to newer generations of filmmakers, which includes me. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is a cynical character. It’s a verbose drama and I watched it four times and was mesmerised by its storytelling. It is seamlessly cinematic and gripping. It’s a lesson in craft. Very often, craft overtakes the story. But in Fincher’s work, especially this film, the craft never overpowers the great storytelling. This film is an important chronicle of our times. 

(As told to Mohini Chaudhuri)

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