Every decade of Hindi cinema has its own totem that is symbolic of its time; either nation building, or the angry proletariat, or the NRI love-scape, or kitsch violence. Every year too has its own significant film moment, that speaks to the cultural landscape- the hairstyles of characters that local barbers began to create wholesale, the songs that were played on radio, parotted in games of antakshari, the hook-steps that meandered their ways into marriage sangeets, the poster art stuck on walls and in memory, and the dialogues that became common parlance.
So here's a list of the films, 1980 onwards, that made the most money that year. These are the highest grossing films worldwide. For example, though in 1999 Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai was the highest grossing film in India, taking worldwide collections, Mohabbatein was selected. Similarly in 2017, Secret Superstar did so well in China that its global box office exceeded even that of Tiger Zinda Hai!
Directed by Feroz Khan, starring himself, Vinod Khanna, and Zeenat Aman this film is about a misunderstanding between bosom buddies. The music and lyrics by Kalyanji–Anandji and Indeevar respectively have gained a cult status; you might remember 'Laila O Laila' that has been shredded into remixes since. It was one of the most expensive Indian films at the time, where Khan decided to decimate a Mercedes Benz, a rare car in those days, in an underground parking lot for a scene.
Directed by Manoj Kumar, this Dilip Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Parveen Babi, and Sarika starrer is an epic historical about India's freedom struggle between the years 1825 and 1875. This Salim-Javed film was also one of the most expensive of its time and ran for about 67 weeks in theaters!
1982, Disco Dancer
Directed by Babbar Subhash, starring Mithun Chakraborty and Kim, this revenge saga of rags to riches became one of the highest-grossing foreign films ever in the Soviet Union, establishing Mithun as a household name across South Asia and the Soviet Union. Bappi Lahiri's soundtrack for this film is a tome in itself. Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja Aaja…
Directed by Manmohan Desai, this Amitabh Bachchan, Waheeda Rehman starrer is about labour rights, and the oppressive capitalists. Bachchan, the angry young man, was critically injured while shooting this film. He was declared clinically dead for a few minutes before being put on the ventilator. He was in the hospital for two months, during which the entire nation was praying for his recovery. In the final cut of the film, the fight scene during which he got injured was frozen for a moment and a message appears to mark the scene as the one in which he was injured. What a way to memorialize pain!
Directed by Pramod Chakravorty, this Indian-Western revenge film starring Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, and Zeenat Aman was another film that did exceedingly well in the Soviet Union. It was the highest grossing Indian film in Soviet Union that year.
1985, Ram Teri Ganga Maili
Directed by Raj Kapoor, this Rajiv Kapoor, Mandakini, Divya Rana starrer is about a mother's journey to give her son a good future, be setting out to search for her husband. The film became very controversial because of Mandakini's bold scenes of breastfeeding and bathing in a transparent saree.
Directed by Subhash Ghai, starring Dilip Kumar, Nutan, Sridevi, Jackie Shroff, and Anil Kapoor this film is about the revenge of an ex-high ranking police officer whose family was destroyed by the head of a terrorist organization. A film with a heavy star cast, stories of various actors being unhappy with the length of their roles made the circles of Page 3.
Directed by N. Chandra, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, this is a story about how a college student, who wants to join the army, becomes … plot-twist…a criminal. Filmfare Awards started recognizing choreography as an award category for the first time with this film. In 1989 the late Saroj Khan won it for 'Ek Do Teen'!
1989, Maine Pyar Kiya
Directed by Sooraj Barjatya, starring Salman Khan, Bhagyashree, and a very obedient pigeon, this is a class-based story of young love. The film was dubbed in English as When Love Calls. This was the iconic moment when Salman Khan became synonymous with the name Prem. It was 125-minutes long (as opposed to the 195 minute version we have seen) and was one of the biggest hits in the Caribbean market- in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago.
Directed by Indra Kumar, this Aamir Khan, Madhuri Dixit starrer was about a father pretending to be rich to land his son a rich bride. The song 'Aaj Na Chodunga Tujhe Dum Dama Dum' was added later once the film became a success. Kumar wanted to shoot the song before, but ran out of funds. He used the Haveli set of his next film Beta (which also made this list) to shoot this song.
Directed by Lawrence D'Souza, starring Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, this is a love triangle where two friends fall in love with the same woman. The shooting of Saajan was completed in a tight schedule of only 36 days, something unheard of in those days. Sanjay Dutt's character, who walks with the help of a rod, was inspired by that of writer Reema Rakesh Nath, who had met with a very serious accident.
Directed by Indra Kumar, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, this film is about a son whose devotion to his step-mother is questioned by his lover, who thinks the step-mother is a gold-digger (she is). Notice that this is the third consecutive year when a Madhuri Dixit film was the biggest hit. This was her golden period. While this film was launched before Dil, they could continue shooting it only after the super-success of that film. Such was the dedication to make this film successful that Anil Kapoor did the giant wheel stunt himself, where he is tied to a giant wheel as it rolls.
This is an action-comedy, one of the firsts on this list, directed by David Dhawan, starring Govinda in a double role, Chunky Pandey and Raj Babbar. This was a time in Dhawan's career where he was pivoting towards comedy films. This was the film responsible for re-invigorating Govinda's career, his double role here giving him comic credence. Anyone remember 'O Lal Dupatte Wali' with Govinda and Chunky Pandey in white pants and block print tucked shirts thrusting with the hands of their 'love-interests' stuck between the knees?
1994, Hum Aapke Hain Koun
Directed by Sooraj Barjatya, and starring Madhuri Dixit, Salman Khan, Mohnish Bahl among the elaborate list of actors that includes an Indian spitz, Tuffy, this family drama was the first Indian film to gross over ₹1 billion. When adjusted for inflation, it is the highest grossing Indian film of the 1990s and also still one of the highest-earning Bollywood films ever, despite having a 14-song soundtrack, something unheard of.
1995, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Directed by Aditya Chopra, this Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol romance set the stage for Europe as a dream love-scape. The film is about how a brief tryst in Switzerland makes the boy come all the way to Punjab to ask for the girl's hand in marriage. As of 2019, over 20 years after its first release, it is still being shown at the Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai!
1996, Raja Hindustani
Directed by Dharmesh Darshan, this Aamir Khan, Karisma Kapoor starrer about a taxi driver marrying the daughter of a rich man against his wishes, was famous for one of the longest kissing scenes in Hindi cinema. Apparently the kiss was shot over three days in Ooty. The kiss isn't half as long.
1997, Dil To Pagal Hai
Directed by Yash Chopra this Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor musical love-triangle served as Shiamak Davar's debut as a choreographer. Kapoor's role was offered to so many actresses who rejected it because they did not want to play second fiddle. Kapoor finally took on the challenge, winning the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress.
1998, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
Karan Johar's debut film as a director, this Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Rani Mukerji love triangle is in the tradition of love-without-violence that came to the fore in the 90s. This was supposed to be two different film ideas that Johar merged into one. This set the tone for a "Dharma Film", with illogical but entertaining beauty. The Archie-Betty-Veronica angle was also quite apparent here. This became a major moment of pop culture with Khan's "C-O-O-L" necklace, Mukerji's tight dresses, Kajol's hairstyle and dungarees. Did you know Javed Akhtar declined to write the lyrics for this film because he thought the movie title had a double meaning?
1999, Hum Saath Saath Hain
Directed by Sooraj Barjatya this family drama had an elaborate casting: Mohnish Bahl, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Karisma Kapoor. It is a film about how a small misunderstanding can tear apart the fabric of a joint family. If nothing else, this movie is known for teaching an entire generation of moviegoers the earworm alphabet rhyme ABCDEFGHI…. JKLM …NOPQRSTUVWX …YZ…I love you. Is it stuck in your head now?
Directed by Aditya Chopra, this is a college drama between Shah Rukh Khan as the music teacher and Amitabh Bachchan as the purveyor of rules, the principal of Gurukul, the school. The film was shot in London. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who plays Shah Rukh Khan's lover had her role extended, for her popularity was on the rise during the making of the film. At the turn of the millennium Chopra gave us 6 new actors, Uday Chopra, Shamita Shetty, Jimmy Shergill, Preeti Jhangiani, Jugal Hansraj, out of whom it seems that Sheirgill is the only one still pursuing acting on the regular.
2001, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
Directed by Karan Johar this Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor Khan family drama between Chandi Chowk and London has become a cult classic of the millennial gen. Taking the "Dharma movie" trope forward, this remains the most iconic and mem(e)orable Hindi film. Poo's antics and the Aarti Thali became a rite of passage to understanding Bollywood hyperbole. Roshan's leather jacket and leather pants became a fashion moment that we still may not have recovered from.
Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, this Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit period love triangle set in aristocratic Bengal received an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival. It is said that the amount of generators this magnum opus required for the shoot in Mumbai's film city made the generators a scarce commodity for weddings, causing alarm!
2003, Kal Ho Na Ho
Directed by Nikkhil Advani this Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan love triangle, set in New York, is also a story about cancer and hope. This is one of the rare films in Hindi cinema where the fourth wall was broken. Later, in his book, An Unsuitable Boy, Karan Johar, who wrote the movie, admitted that he regretted handing over the reins of his story to someone else.
Directed by Yash Chopra, this is a love story across borders and time starring Shah Rukh Khan, Priety Zinta, and Rani Mukerji. Sanjeev Kohli recreated 11 of his late father, Madan Mohan's unused compositions for the soundtrack of this film, creating the highest selling album of the year.
2005, No Entry
Directed by Anees Bazmee this multi-starrer comedy with Anil Kapoor, Salman Khan, Fardeen Khan, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Esha Deol and Celina Jaitley is primarily about infidelity and the comedy of errors that it causes in the lives of married couples. Despite the names attached to the film, it started off slow at the box office.
2006, Dhoom 2
Directed by Sanjay Gadhvi, this high octane action-thriller starring Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai was shot in a variety of locations including Namibia and Rio De Janeiro (the first Indian film to be shot there). The kissing scene between Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, something uncommon in Hindi cinema back then, resulted in a court case for obscenity! Roshan's moves and muscles, while known, became the altar for action heroes.
2007, Om Shanti Om
Directed by Farah Khan this is a reincarnation drama that is both an ode to and a parody of the Hindi film industry, starring Shah Rukh Khan. This was also the debut of Deepika Padukone. There is a celebration song in the film, 'Deewangi Deewangi' where 31 Bollywood stars appeared briefly to shake a leg with Shah Rukh Khan.
Directed by A.R. Murugadoss, this is a Memento inspired revenge drama. Aamir Khan is afflicted by a condition where his memory gets wiped out every 15 minutes, attempting to avenge the murder of his lover played by Asin. The tonsured haircut of Khan, called the Ghajini cut, caused a lot of alarm in Bangalore colleges which wanted to ban the haircut for it looked indisciplined.
2009, 3 Idiots
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, this college-buddy drama is about two friends played by R Madhavan and Sharman Joshi, looking for their third companion, played by Aamir Khan, years after graduating. All Is Well became a common parlance platitude, and the conversation about academic rigour and its pressures got mainstream attention. This movie performed exceedingly well in countries like China, Korea, and Taiwan.
Directed by Abhinav Kashyap, this Salman Khan-starrer is about a loveable but corrupt local cop, Chulbul Pandey. This was Khan's most loved character, and despite having two sequels to this film, nothing came close to the wit, charm, and humour of this one. This was also Sonakshi Sinha's debut film, one that is touted to have re-invigorated the single-screen audience that was on the wane given the rise of multiplex cinema.
Directed by Siddique, this Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan starrer is about the daughter of a wealthy man falling in love with her bodyguard. It is the remake of the director's own Malayalam film. The film was Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan's first blockbuster together; their previous films, Kyon Ki and Main Aur Mrs Khanna were both flops.
2012, Ek Tha Tiger
2013, Dhoom 3
Directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya, this film has Aamir Khan in a double role alongside Katrina Kaif, Abhishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra. The usual bike-chases of the Dhoom series are present here too, around a story of a circus and mass theft. It was the first Indian movie to release in IMAX.
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, this is the story of Aamir Khan descending onto Earth as an alien, trying to make sense of religion. Anushka Sharma plays his confidante. The first look of this film of a wide-eyed, nude Aamir Khan with a radio cassette recorder covering his genitals was followed by a fully clothed Khan in a red angrakha. No one had any idea what the movie was about! If you have seen the movie, did you realize that PK's reply to the godman in the climax 'Sarat Manzoor Hai' is a hard nod to the same dialogue from his 2001 cult-classic Lagaan?
2015, Bajrangi Bhaijaan
Directed by Kabir Khan, this Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor starrer is about the lengths a good-hearted man goes to get the small mute girl back home, to Pakistan. The entry scene of Nawazuddin Siddiqui in this film is inspired from a real life incident of Pakistani reporter who shares the same name, Chand Nawab. That video was uploaded on YouTube as a prank, and it became source material for this character.
Directed by Nitesh Tiwari, starring Aamir Khan, Sakshi Talwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra, this is the story of real life former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat trying to get his two wrestler daughters to the Commonwealth Games in the face of societal strictures. Dangal is the highest grossing Indian movie in the history of Indian films unsurpassed even by Bahubali 2!
2017, Secret Superstar
Directed by Advait Chandan, this Zaira Wasim starrer is about a talented teenage singer-songwriter becoming a YouTube phenomenon in the face of conservative backlash. Released in about 11,000 screens in China, its Chinese revenue placed the movie on this list displacing Tiger Zinda Hai. Shot on a modest budget, this became one of the most profitable films of all time.
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, this was a biopic on the life and times of controversial figure Sanjay Dutt, starring Ranbir Kapoor. Kapoor would request a month in between shooting different phases of Dutt's life, each requiring its own look and attitude.
Directed by Siddharth Anand, this Hrithik Roshan-Tiger Shroff (b)romance is about one chasing the other, a rogue agent, across the world.Tiger's one-shot, no-background-score wham-bam entry fight scene is perhaps the most exciting introduction and fight scene in Hindi cinema! The film was shot in 7 different countries and 15 different cities, the first film ever to be shot in the Arctic Circle!