25 Hindi Movies For Your Bollywood-Illiterate Foreigner Friend

This is not a list that will shatter the stereotype of what a “Bollywood” film is. It is a list of films from the past 20 years, meant to breathe life into it- long films, class conflicts, colour and rage, dance-offs on stage.
25 Hindi Movies For Your Bollywood-Illiterate Foreigner Friend

Not everyone is a cinephile, and neither does everyone need to be a cinephile. But on the flipside you have people, like that ridiculously crafted character from Never Have I Ever, who unironically say stuff like "I found a Bollywood movie about a princess who falls in love with a lowly street sweeper; it's only 7 hours long."

We are here to take that stereotype and breathe life into it. Yes, many of our movies are long. Yes, many of our movies have class-based conflicts. Yes, many of our plots can be summarized in 15 word-sentences. Yes, many of our movies privilege music over characters. But who says this means our movies aren't well crafted, fun, moving, and enduring. Which is why I think this list is a perfect introduction to Indian cinema for your non-desi college friend or roommate or lover.

What this list doesn't do, however, is shatter that stereotype. Additionally these might not be the best films we have made; they are a mere flavour of the many shades of Hindi cinema. The best films call for another list. These are contemporary movies from the past two decades. And no, the 2004 colourized Mughal-e-Azam doesn't count.

1. Dil Chahta Hai, 2001

This is the definitive coming-of-age, buddy film of the 2000s. Farhan Akhtar's directorial debut of youth who shrink and grow into love and lovelessness, is in another sense a coming-of-wage film, with the characters reconciling their passions to their pockets.

For the uninitiated, the song picturizations might jar. Watch out for 'Woh Ladki Hai Kahan' where the characters watching the film become the characters in that film, dancing in endearing, silly, simple steps choreographed by Farah Khan. It's an ode to the movies and how we use it as an excuse to hold hands, and fall in love. The dream sequence song, 'Kaisi Hai Yeh Rut' takes all the excessive cliches of the Bollywood love song- the riverside and the moon and the dolphins- and weaves it into a warm expression of love.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

2. Kal Ho Na Ho, 2003

An emotionally exhausting see-saw between teary smiles and fiery sighs, this is a story about a terminally ill patient who falls in love, just enough to let her go. Set in New York, the visuals might be familiar to the American but the emotional undercurrents are very much Bollywood.

The cross-religious affair in this film that leaves the older generation livid is a classic one. But here, it is just one of the many strands in the background, along with Kantaben, the iconic homophobic help, and the Gujju-cult in peak stereotype, as an over-excited, and overwhelming people.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

3. Swades, 2004

Ashutosh Gowarikar, the director of this film, is better known for Lagaan, our big ticket to the Oscars, with a story of cricket and colonization. That was the perfect Bollywood film, so to speak. But I am choosing a different film from his oeuvre.

We spent the later half of the 2000s hearing stories of how Swades, about a NASA scientist (Shah Rukh Khan) returning to the Indian villages to find his home, made so many people move back to India. This is art that begs for its romance to translate into reality.

Be warned though, the movie runs for 3 hours and 30 minutes (most of Gowarikar's films have a similar run-time)! Like Amartya Sen noted in his essays "Prolixity is not alien to us in India."

Streaming Platform: Netflix

4. Yuva, 2004

Yuva is Mani Ratnam, a director known for quietudes and esoteric takes, at his most commercial and accessible. Three stories, of one lost youth, one ideologue, and one ruthless gangster with a golden heart plays out to A R Rahman's erotic soundscape. It is the perfect multi-star cast film, where even the minor players stay years after the end credits roll.

The uninitiated might find the violent student politics, tethered to national political parties, odd. It's cinematic fodder in motion because there's both ideology and drama. Additionally, the domestic violence labelled as love might be disconcerting. It treads the thin line between representing and romanticizing.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

5. Rang De Basanti, 2006

Like Swades, this film too moved people to react to real life events, catalyzing the candle light vigil for the Jessica Lal murder case that shook the political corridoors in Delhi. (There was a candlelight vigil for a character who is killed in this film) It is about directionless youth finding meaning in revolution, and is perhaps one of the finest films blending history (of Bhagat Singh, the communist revolutionary who was hanged by the British) and contemporary life with modern day nihilism. It's also a masterclass in multi-star casting led but never over-shadowed by Aamir Khan.

Watch out for the literal embodiment of the white saviour complex in this film. She finds her home here, documenting and directing.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

6. Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 2006

The FilmCompanion logo, of Dharam and Veer from Sholay is often mistaken for Munna and Circuit from this film series. This is a story of a radio jockey who falls in love with a loveable gangster who is hallucinating, seeing Gandhi everywhere. This film, a followup to the medical comedy Munnabhai MBBS, has so much heart, and is filled with kindness and forgiveness. If you understand the language, the charm in Munna's dialect is multiplied.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

7. Om Shanti Om, 2007

Shah Rukh Khan's 6 pack abs made a splash when this film, a reincarnation drama, released. This was a time when abs weren't the go-to step towards stardom. The film simultaneously channels into and makes jest of the reincarnation genre, one that became rampant in our cinema through the 70s and 80s. Watching this film requires a categorical suspension of disbelief but it won't be hard because the story is so overwhelmingly told, vacillating rapidly between an ode and a parody, you just get sucked in. And even if you don't understand many of the internal jokes and references, you will smile at those smiling because this joy is infectious… I mean… there is a heartbreak disco song here. How do you not smile?

Streaming Platform: Netflix

8. Chak De! India, 2007

If I were to christen this Hindi cinema's best sports film, I doubt there would be many detractors. A finely written, quietly acted, stunningly shot film with a restrained Shah Rukh Khan as the disgraced hockey player ressurrecting himself as a coach, is a clarion call for unity and brotherhood in our deeply divisive times. For those wondering, the setting of the story, with the under-invested sports academies, crumbling infrastructure and dirty politics is indeed based on a similar reality.

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

9. Race, 2008

Abbas-Mustan, the director duo always in matching white-shirts-white-pants are a genre unto themselves. It's a whodunit with a million twists, a semblance of sleaze, and action sequences pumping through plagiarized plots with verve. They don't always hit the mark, but when they do, as with Race it really gets going. This is a story of two brothers, who either love or hate each other, in love with two women who are either cheating or fiercely loyal, being tailed by an investigator who may or may not be a sell-out. A whodunit suggests one 'it'. Here, every character has their own 'it' they are trying to figure out through high octane car chases, friction be damned. It also has an iconic title-soundtrack that will leave you humming for the rest of the week.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

10. Wake Up Sid, 2009

Coming-of-age yada yada, Mumbai yada yada, young, lost, meaning purpose etc.etc. But oh boy will this film charm your socks off. When this film released its casting was questioned, Ranbir Kapoor, fair skinned and boyish was cast opposite the dusky maturity of Konkona Sen Sharma (Yes, colourism is still rampant and discussed with open sanction). But it's precisely this casting that moved people; so rare to see older (relative to the man, just by a bit) women fall in love with younger men with dignity, without drama. Sharma's character Aisha became this cult figure upon release – the intellectual that hates Jazz, and finds a home, faraway from familiar comfort, in Mumbai. It's a warm cosmopolitan hug!

But I must point out the dismissive treatment of the house-help might be cause for cringe, something we have (sadly) normalized in our cinema as much as in our society.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

11. Dabangg, 2010

This is the quintessential "masala" film, and by that I mean, hold your breath, action-drama-comedy-romance-dance-dialogue. It's a genre whose ultimate goal is pure entertainment, craft or no craft, message or no message.

This is the story of policeman Chulbul Pandey, played by Salman Khan, (whose shirtless acts in the 90s still seem to resonate), who fights the bad men, his shirt flying off his body and his curses, that are much more bizarre. Sample the one where he threatens to fill the enemies with so many holes they will be confused which hole breathes and which hole farts. I mean… these are questionable at worst, but at best, they make for some of the most entertaining moments.

Keep in mind this film was meant for communal viewing, with whistles and claps meant to fill in the silences between one dialogue and the next. Don't be disheartened if it doesn't work as a quarantine watch.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

12. Aisha, 2010

This is Jane Austen's Emma (with the same tone as the 1995 Clueless) transplanted into snooty, sanitized South Delhi. At the time of its release, there were notorious pieces about the costume budget of this film, draping the leads, Sonam Kapoor et al in Dior, Vintage Chanel, Lacroix, Ferragamo and Anamika Khanna. The costumes were eye-candy themselves, almost demanding their own retrospective. This isn't a Devil Wears Prada or a Sex And The City. It's mellower in tone but more obvious in its execution.

Streaming on: Disney + Hotstar

13. Barfi, 2012

A deaf-mute hero falls in love with an autistic woman; add to this a beautiful damsel in distress who also belongs to the heart of our hero, and this love triangle becomes a charming mess that plays across the East Indian landscape, something not often seen in Hindi cinema with such verve and colour.

If you see the film and gasp at the Charlie Chaplin rip-offs, err… some of our films seem to have a difficulty differentiating between inspiration and plagiarism.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

14. English Vinglish, 2012

Sridevi for most Indians (not just the Hindi cinema audience, Tamil. Telugu, even Malayalam and Kannada) is a Cinematic cannon. This film was her return to the screen after a hiatus, and was a moment of celebration for her fans across the country.

But even if you are not clued into her fandom, this film will charm you. It's the story of an Indian housewife-entrepreneur, who travels to New York to attend her relative's wedding and takes on a grand journey towards realizing the "-entrepreneur" part of her identity; a journey of reflection and resistance, played out in fluid Sabyasachi saris.

There is a moment in the film when Amitabh Bachhan and Sridevi have an interaction in the flight, him translating the dialogues of the in-flight film to her; this is a moment for the fans. For the uninitiated, just look past this scene as a sweet meeting of Bollywood's formative stars. These meta moments happen often in our movies; a celebration and eulogizing of a time past in the cinema of now.

Streaming Platform: YouTube/Google Play

15. Student Of The Year, 2012

Bubblegum romance is one thing, but excessively indulged bubblegum romance is quite another; this film is escapism at its most fashionable. Directed by Dharma Productions' Karan Johar, the doyen of escapist make-believe universes of mansions and mamma-boys, this is him dealing with a different demographic altogether- a high school love triangle, with a class angle that doesn't convince you because here, the poor look so rich. The students romp around in Gucci, abs attached, powdered and patted, and probably the only time they are seen with books is when there is a montage of them studying, playing to a song, 'Ratta Maar', rote-learn. The Westward aspirations are anchored by the crippling Indian education system. It's damn fun, once the questions are forgotten.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

16. Kahani, 2012

A thriller like none other, this film, about a pregnant wife in search of her missing husband in his city, Calcutta, is one of Hindi Cinema's finest products; taut, thrilling, but never indulgent. The city itself, like Noah Baumbach's New York, is a conspiring force. But here, it is not the architecture, but the people and its festivities that come to represent the city, a culminating sea of red and white during Durga Pooja. A climax for the archives!

Streaming Platform: Netflix

17. Gangs Of Wasseypur, 2012

This gangster saga of three generations in the coal-mines of Central India was so long (319 minutes) that theaters refused to screen it, forcing it to be released in two parts. Much like Scorsese's quick narrations that you must pay attention to, the film starts and is immediately jettisoned into action and violence. It's not for the faint hearted! This international press too caught onto the over-the-top "Bollywood" execution of a convoluted gangster saga running at a breathless pace.

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

18. Lootera, 2013

A quiet love story that sputters into violence in the second half (this is also something novel- how we partition our movie in halves, instead of thirds), this film is a tragic romance, set against the post-independence land reforms. A thief moves into the house he will empty, and falls in love with the daughter of the house-owner- a landlord whose land is now going to be partitioned, much like the country.

The movie begins with a folk tale and ends with O Henry's 'The Last Leaf'- a metaphor, perhaps, for the post-independent Indian life that bounces uneasily between tradition and modernity.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

19. Queen, 2013

In a role that made the actress of this film, Kangana Ranaut, Hindi cinema's finest on-screen feminists, she plays a conservative middle-class Delhi girl who goes on her own honeymoon to Europe. She begins to realize the beauty in independence, turning a sympathetic ear towards people on the margins. Her racism dims, her conservative neckline is questioned, and her idea of the self is radically transformed. If nothing else, this film is a microcosmic look into our food culture: pani puris, sweetmeats, and the aspirational sanitized mediocrity of Cafe Coffee Day.

Streaming Platform: Voot, Sony Liv

20. Haider, 2014

This was the third Shakespearean adaptation by Vishal Bhardwaj, who rhymes Shakespeare with brute Indian landscapes- Macbeth in the Mumbai underworld, Othello in the dusty masculine heartland, and now Hamlet in a militant and militarized Kashmir.

This dreamy hellscape is filled with characters who erupt and burst like dreams, imaginary or real, sane or insane, violent or violated. A lot of this is Shakespeare, but a lot of this is Kashmir. The sheer canvas of the film, snow and sludge, littered with blood and bodies, the daring political commentary, and the uneasy oedipal tensions of the text given complete validation in this film are a few reasons this is an absolute masterpiece.

Streaming Platform: Netflix

21. Bajirao Mastani, 2015

This period love triangle is the Bollywood stereotype of artistic outrance, lush with colours, hypnotic dances, and fabrics whose tactility you can almost feel. This is the Sanjay Leela Bhansali genre of histrionics and history. No education of the Indian film world is complete without encountering his excesses. The real life couple- Deepika Padukone's stoic radiance that keeps cutting against Ranveer Singh's brute dutiful gazes- create one of the most stunning chemistries of our time.

The untrained viewer might balk at the view of a wife dancing with her husband's lover. Settle in, this is part of the Bhansali tradition of lovers who love just enough to let go (female lovers, always).

Streaming Platform: Voot

22. Piku, 2015

It's so rare for a constipated bowel to become the crux of a film. More so if it weaves around it, the frustrating but ultimately forgiving relationship we have with our parents. Deepika Padukone plays Piku, the feisty daughter to a feister father, Amitabh Bachchan, the constipated man in question. This morphs into a road-trip with such ease, bringing in the late Irrfan as the driver, and companion. The father-daughter relationship is so layered and frank, where the daughter also moonlights as a caretaker. I am reminded of an interview of Aishwarya Rai with David Letterman's snark. When he asked her about living with her parents as a grown up and it being common in India, she replied on beat, "It's also common in India that we don't have to take appointments with our parents to meet for dinner, so…". That's Piku level sass, right there.

Streaming Platform: YouTube, Sony LIV

23. Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2015

This is one of the definitive "small town" Hindi films, a genre that the male lead Ayushmann Khurrana would run with, making half a dozen films about small town men embodying interesting themes like baldness or drag or erectile dysfunction. This one is lanky Khurrana getting married to a corpulent woman, and reconciling to his inner fatphobic predispositions. This small canvas was also bankrolled by Yashraj, a studio known for big budget dreams. A film whose musical sweetness will win you over, with nostalgia for the 90s music cassettes and sweater collections, this one is not just definitive but also disruptive.

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

24. Gully Boy, 2019

There are accusations against this Zoya Akhtar film's veneering of poverty with gloss. That is true. But what is also true is that this rousing tale of a rapper, played by Ranveer Singh, snowballed into a movement in India, visibilizing so many hip-hop artists, with one of the most eccentric soundtracks, and a rallying call for a hope filled generation, "Apna Time Aayega" (Our Time Will Come).

Like in Rang De Basanti, here too you have a manifestation of the white saviour complex.And you're right, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

25. War, 2019

Let me explain this film: Two of India's hottest men, Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, with the most dedicated male fan following, come together for an action adventure that often requires bare torsos, traversing continents, even flirting with the Antarctic. When I stated, like many of you felt, the palpable homoerotic subtext, I clearly touched a raw nerve with their respective fan bases. Don't be startled by the sudden burst of bronzed bodies dancing and singing in the middle of nowhere (geographically and narratively), smack in the midst of a big spy operation. Before a spy-thriller, this film is a meditation on the beauty of the male form.

Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime

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