Significant firsts, when done right, can create revolutions. They can redefine perspectives as well as genres. Dil Chahta Hai was one such first. The film, which completes 20 years of release on August 10th, was not just Farhan Akhtar's directorial debut but also a landmark film for the Indian film industry. It gave new dimensions to a genre less explored, and set the tone for many travel buddy films in the times to come.
In the list below, we look at 40 Indian directors in the past two decades – across languages – who, through their fresh views and voices, created a similar impact with their debut films. Not to say that they were perfect films, but they left a mark deep enough, in terms of popularity, acclaim, or a mix of both.
Farhan Akhtar's directorial debut never felt too close to home, almost as if someone had peeked into the lives of real-world friendships and copy-pasted them on-screen. It felt real. And that's precisely why it was as impactful a film as it was. It made everyday friendships and urban relationships cool, casual conversations pinched with wry humour appealing, the aesthetics calming and soothing – wrapping it all in a one-of-a-kind classic in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The Munna Bhai series not only, in a way, gave a new lease of life to Sanjay Dutt's career but also created an impact that went beyond the screens. Not only did it subvert the bhai/local goon trope, but actually made a better person out of a clearly flawed character – all through an inherent sense of compassion. The jadoo ki jhappis became a rage, and Circuit and Munna the new-age Jai and Veeru. It made Hirani stand out as a filmmaker who largely centered his films on morality and the inherent goodness within human beings.
Anurag Kashyap's (official) debut is a gut-punch of a movie – a rare cocktail of a personal voice, journalistic vision and dramatic verve. Based on Hussain Zaidi's book on the 1993 Bombay Bombings, Kashyap's storytelling felt like an accumulation of time – of not just his own suppressed film-making career but also of a city simmering with communal tension and vicious ideas. No film since has "recreated" a real-life event with such a controlled audiovisual palette and crowded narrative – it walks a thin line between opining and stating, observing and concluding, constructing and deconstructing. Most of all, Kashyap furthered the Ram Gopal Varma school of casting: the "unknown" non-starry faces who played famous cops and criminals went on to shape the parallel Hindi cinema landscape in big ways and small over the next decade.
Rosshan Andrews' first film Udayananu Thaaram wasn't just a game changer. It was also a collective sigh of relief. Released at a time when Malayalam cinema itself was going through a crisis, the meta comedy about the struggles of a first-time filmmaker had a certain freshness in every frame. It had style and technique, it had impressive songs and it gave us hope that our cinema was safe in younger hands. The seeds of the movement that has taken over today seems to have been planted with the release of this superhit.
Contemporary Bengali cinema tends to shy away from engaging with the state's socio-political context but Suman Mukhopadhyay's first film looked at Bengal's Communist history through a complex lens (and as a result, was targeted by the then CPI(M) government). A story of the titular Herbert Sarkar, an orphan and a clairvoyant, as much as it is about the city's past, present and future, Mukhopadhyay adapted Nabarun Bhattacharya's celebrated, difficult-to-film novel for the screen with great filmmaking flair, featuring a career-defining performance by Shubhasish Mukherjee. "A mad, messy and a frequently amazing epic from India," raved the New York Times.
The film bridged several gaps – right from the perception of mainstream and indie cinema to middle-class woes in real and on reel. Of course, films had touched upon the house dilemma that every regular person in the country faces, but none quite like Khosla Ka Ghosla, written by Jaideep Sahni. The dysfunctional family dynamics were real, peppered with awkwardness and bottling up of emotions, the Dilli within – a topic Banerjee excels in – was on-point, and the nonchalant wit, even during a sombre scene, brought to light a technique that could seldom go out of fashion. Banerjee's later films, including Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, too, retain this brand of cinema – sophisticated, intelligent and wry.
Valu, the resident bull of a village in Maharashtra, considered holy by its inhabitants, is all of a sudden deemed as a threat. Atul Kulkarni plays a forest officer in charge of the situation. With its eye for filming landscape and the foibles of humans living in it, Umesh Kulkarni's satirical comedy didn't just launch a fine body of work (Vihir, Deool, in collaboration with writer-actor Girish Kulkarni), it was also laying the foundations for a new Marathi cinema.
Arguably one the best first features made, Sasikumar dazzles with control over craft and the resurrection of the Madurai milieu in Subramaniapuram. The strikingly realistic film, set in the 1980s, never resorts to lazy nostalgia. It effectively explores the story of five bell-bottomed young men getting caught up in the world of crime. Baradwaj Rangan, writing for The New Sunday Express, sums up the film's impact: "The success of a class act like Subramaniyapuram – in theatres that are typically looked down upon as those that cater to the 'masses,' yet – is happy proof that the idiots aren't the audiences so much as the filmmakers who've made careers out of chronically underestimating them."
If there's a film that presents the ironies of the Hindi film industry from a straightforward yet subtly satirical standpoint, it's this. Getting a film about films right was never a mean feat but Zoya Akhtar hit the nail on the head. Right from an ensemble cast with known and unknown faces to superstar guest appearances from the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan – everything had an arc. Even as the film was well-received by critics nationwide, it tanked at the box-office. Over the years, however, it earned its own popularity among the internet junta for humanizing stars and stardom. Akhtar continued to thrive with ensemble casts in the coming years, becoming a leading voice for urban conflict.
What made Udaan a breakthrough film was the sensitivity it showed in the portrayal of a fraying relationship between a father and son. Motwane added every possible shade of grey in the father's character, making him abusive, toxic and deeply damaged, all at the same time. And so, when the protagonist and his young brother finally break free, their coming-of-age feels personal. It became the first Indian film in seven years to get represented at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section, it received a standing ovation. It kickstarted Motwane's career as a filmmaker with a distinct language of storytelling that spoke through intense background scores, intricate detailing and lingering silences.
A fading superstar, a rookie director, and the ghost of Satyajit Ray's Nayak. Srijit Mukherji's self-reflexive meta movie resurrected Prosenjit Chatterjee's career and launched his own. Aided by Anupam Roy's sensational soundtrack, a new type of urban Bengali film was born, one that was bringing the young audience to the theatres. With a viable art-commerce equation now seemingly in balance, Autograph's impact was felt the most on that one word it had highlighted in the promos: industry.
Probably the most idiosyncratic of the new generation of Tamil filmmakers, Thiagarajan Kumararaja may not have the mainstream appeal of Karthik Subbaraj or Nalan Kumarasamy but both his films — Aaranya Kaandam and Super Deluxe — are impossible to be slotted into the scheme of Tamil films. But it's not just the quick that appeals. Kumararaja endows his films with layers of interpretative richness while still keeping the surface pleasures of film-viewing alive. This is a director whose sparse filmography is made up only of cult hits. Kumararaja won a National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director, and KL Praveen and NB Srikanth won the award for editing. The film also won the Grand Jury Award for Best Film at the South Asian International Film Festival.
Abhishek Chaubey began his career in 2002 as an assistant director and co-writer for Vishal Bhardwaj. It was perhaps this association that helped him gain a knack for exploring the dark undertones of human existence. He uses his background score to punctuate the storyline, to add that extra goosebump – a la his mentor. Krishna, Babban and Khaalujaan – with quirky dialogues and quirkier mannerisms – in Ishqiya are a mix of flawed, edgy and hilarious. The film is ultimately a revenge story, but it's spearheaded by an uninhibited female protagonist, played by Vidya Balan. She's no damsel in distress, and neither is she a femme fatale. Chaubey's characters aren't defined by conventions, they're as layered as it gets – a pattern prevalent with firm nuance in Sonchiriya and Udta Punjab too.
The film might've had a hypermasculine cop in the lead showing off his hypermasculinity – but it was a fresh, incredibly entertaining addition to a masala genre that was otherwise getting more and more typecast by conventions. It was unapologetically crass, the dialogues hilarious, the songs catchy and the one-liners quote-worthy. The film was a massive hit – earning a thunderous 219 crores at the box office, catapulting Salman Khan's stardom to an all-time high, and making the heart-eyed sunglass adorning Chulbul Pandey a brand big enough to become a franchise. The sequels and prequels with new directors, however, could never replicate the magic and hysteria that Abhinav Kashyap created with the original. Sadly, the director, apart from his debut, faced a similar fate too.
Gurvinder Singh's meditative Punjabi-language debut strips the region of its cinema and reveals a North India on the margins – a misty, smokey and shadowy universe where oppression and poverty can actually be "filmed". An old Dalit Sikh man fighting a losing battle in his village is juxtaposed against his son struggling as an auto driver in the city – both men exist on the verge of quitting and finding solace in the other's space. Satya Rai Nagpaul's stunning cinematography speaks a language of grand nothingness, as though the camera were compelling the people in the frames to stop thinking of themselves as characters in a narrative. There's plenty of Mani Kaul and a bit of Govind Nihalani in the way Anhe Ghorey Da Daan unravels – sparsely, languidly, purposely – and yet it's Gurvinder Singh, part philosopher and part cultural guide, who makes the stark landscape his own.
Important is an overused term, but Anand Gandhi's path-breaking debut is as important as it was profound. Ship of Theseus extended its festival reception into a word-of-mouth theatrical run in the pre-OTT era, paving the way for many an independent title to find its audience without compromising on artistic integrity. It's difficult enough to "film" a philosophy, but Gandhi's intricately designed multi-narrative – featuring a career-defining turn by Neeraj Kabi as an altruistic monk – allows the story to reveal the core instead of the other way around. Most of all, Ship of Theseus laid the foundation for the modern director-actor arrangement. The Anand Gandhi-Sohum Shah team came before the Chaitanya Tamhane-Vivek Gomber union, both of which caused seismic shifts in the worldwide perception of Indian cinema.
Attakathi marked the debut of both Pa. Ranjith and Santhosh Narayanan, a superb collaboration that has continued until their latest, Sarpatta Parambarai. It is a story of a happy-go-lucky guy who goes through endless cycles of attraction and heartbreak with a series of women. What sets the film apart from the usual romantic comedy is how the culture of North Madras and its people is seamlessly integrated into the narrative, something that would progressively come to the foreground in Ranjith's later — relatively more ideologically direct — films like Madras (2014) and Kaala (2018).
Karthik Subbaraj is, in a way, Tamil cinema's answer to Quentin Tarantino, with a flamboyant style of filmmaking that's as shocking as it's pleasurable. Jigarthanda, an arguably stronger film, followed Pizza before Subbaraj made films that were a deviation from expectation: Mercury (a superb horror take on an environmental issue) and Iravi (a feminist film seen entirely through male characters). He followed them with Rajinikanth-starrer Petta and Dhanush-starrer Jagame Thandhiram, to become one of the most exciting mainstream directors in Tamil cinema.
Screened at the International Critics' Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, not only did it receive a standing ovation but even won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award, also known as Grand Rail d'Or. Batra created a bittersweet, beautiful love story between two people seemingly different and yet similar. Critic Mike McCahill, in his review for The Guardian, wrote, "It remains resolutely undemonstrative, Batra's camera mirroring the characters' cautious restraint. Yet by its final act, pressing home the most un-Bollywood message that life's often more complicated than the movies, it's assumed the feel and weight of a well-observed short story. Rabindranath Tagore, for one, would be proud." Batra earned a BAFTA nomination for the film, helping him bag national and international projects – including a film with Academy Award winner Jane Fonda.
One of the great themes of the new Marathi cinema has been the tender, unsentimental depiction of adolescence (Vihir, Shala, Killa). Like so many of his contemporaries, Nagraj Manjule's debut film is about adolescence too – except Manjule is Dalit and his protagonist is the 13-year-old Jabya, who, like his forefathers, is expected to carry on his ancestral work of hunting wild pigs. As if a prelude to Sairat, Fandry is about Jabya's unrequited love for an upper-caste girl in his school. Lyrical and harrowing, it is both a key entry in Dalit narratives in cinema and the starting point for one of the important Indian filmmakers of our times.
Back in 2013, when Annayum Rasoolum released, the ecosystem that's almost fully developed now, was just being built from scratch. Although not a blockbuster, the impact of this film can be seen today in the number of actors the film introduced that have now become irreplaceable anchors of the industry. It introduced a lot of us to a different rhythm in storytelling. Some of its elements do seem problematic in hindsight but there's no denying the memory of watching a unique mind at work with visuals and musical cues we've seldom seen before.
Though he's only made one other feature film, Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016), Nalan Kumarasamy's arrival with Soodhu Kavvum marked the mainstreaming of dark humour in Tamil cinema. It brought together Nalan Kumarasamy, Vijay Sethupathi and Santhosh Narayanan in the early phase of their careers to make a film that was wickedly humorous, which also entirely avoided mainstream comic tropes. It paved the way for, or at least was an early part of, the movement that produced darkly comic and amoral films like Sathuranga Vettai and Moodar Koodam.
The indie film is a lost battle in contemporary Bengali cinema, crushed by the mainstream and refused a level-playing field. The only other option is taking the festival route. Pradipta Bhattacharyya's debut feature, with Ritwick Chakraborty in the lead, defied all these categorizations (and paid the price for it). But the cult of the film lives on. The story is weird and wonderful – an amateur filmmaker working on a documentary on "love" lands up in a village where every visitor magically falls in love with someone – and Bhattacharyya's film language all his own. It showed a new way to look at Bengal, which is dominated by city-centric narratives about the urban elite.
In his much talked about multi-lingual debut feature film, Chaitanya Tamhane stripped the courtroom we've seen in movies of all its drama and took a deep dive into the Kafkaesque judicious system and Mumbai's activist circuit. At the center is a seemingly absurdist idea: an Ambedkarite balladeer is charged of writing seditious songs after a sewage worker commits suicide. Characterized by his unique gaze, most notably the long take, and a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors, Court was that rare Indian film that won not one but two prizes at the Venice International Film Festival. It put Tamhane in the international map.
When a crime drama looks and feels good, you always end up rooting for the bad guy. Rakshit Shetty directs and stars as a person with whom maintaining a cordial relationship becomes difficult after a point in this movie. But you still cheer when you see him. This is a film where he throws surprises in the writing, directing, and acting departments. Now that a spin-off has been announced, it'll be interesting to watch Shetty's character, Richard Anthony, grow into a bigger version of a megalomaniac. Shetty went on to become an important actor in Kannada films with films like Kirik Party and Avane Srimannarayana.
Reels have been written about Neeraj Ghaywan's Cannes-winning debut over the years. But Masaan – a poignant multi-narrative portrait of an India on the fringes – is the kind of film that feels more meaningful with each passing year. Modern-day Varanasi is the cauldron of contradictions and conflicts, and Masaan – gently powered by Varun Grover's writing and lyrics – manages to be both broad and intimate at once. The three stories of Masaan acquire geopolitical depth under the current regime: a sort of astute anti-exoticized snapshot of Indian cinema and culture that counters age-old Western perceptions.
Before his shocking sophomore outing, Aamis, Bhaskar Hazarika's debut film showed his ability to marry genre thrills with a social consciousness. Kothanodi is a chilling, subversive folk horror film adapted from dark indigenous tales from Assam – four stories that are as interconnected as the river island of Majuli itself (where the film is set), each one stranger than the other. The overarching theme is motherhood; but true to the power of folk tales, it works, first and foremost, as a bedtime yarn. In a country lacking in good genre films, Kothanodi is an exception.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, the star of the Malayalam indie film circuit, truly broke out with his second film Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015), which even got a theatrical release outside the state. But the much-younger Don Palathara managed to break through with his first film, Shavam (The Corpse), an hour-long dark comedy that takes you through every corner of a house during a funeral. The hypocrisies it exposes are at once hilarious but also accurate. Made on a small budget with new actors, it paved the way for films to get its due even without having to take the conventional route. Watch out for a scene between the dead man's son and a person he had borrowed money from to understand the incisiveness of his writing.
Death is a slice-of-life comedy in Raam Reddy's Thithi, a wonderfully unrehearsed and poker-faced Kannada-language drama that pivots on three generations of sons preparing for the funeral of their crabby 101-year-old patriarch in a remote Karnataka village. There's an amusive in-between-ness about the film featuring non-professional actors, as though the camera were recording all the desperate moments that usually unfurl when the cameras stop rolling. The fragility of a modern film-maker examining a rural environment is actually turned into a strength in Thithi – resulting in a rooted language that's curious, observational, traditional and young all at once.
Pelli Choopulu, in more ways than one, is a coming-of-age film. It's a romantic comedy too and it pushes the art form, from all directions, of moviemaking forward. You get top-class music (thanks to Vivek Sagar), a great bunch of one-liners (thanks to Priyadarshi, whose career took off with this), and a whole lot of lessons on business and life (thanks to Chitra, played by Ritu Varma). It came with a new voice and a lead couple made of two equals. The big success of this small film was proof that there was room for another kind of cinema to co-exist along with big action spectacles. Tharun Bhascker has gone on to become an important comic voice both in Telugu films and the web series space.
There's a preconceived bias against actors who decide to step behind the camera. But the formidable Konkona Sen Sharma, a performer par excellence for two decades, pulls on more than just her film-making genes for A Death In The Gunj: a striking, deeply thoughtful chamber drama centered on a troubled young man at a week-long family get-together in 1979. The final scene and Vikrant Massey's turn as the sensitive Shutu will stand the test of time, but it's Sen Sharma's layered understanding of space – both psychological and physical – that makes the film one of the most intelligent debuts in independent Hindi cinema.
When Dileesh started his direction career (he was an actor even before that) with Maheshinte Pradhikaram, he not only changed the grammar of Malayalam cinema but also added onto its thesaurus. Suddenly, 'Pothan's Brilliance' or 'Pothan's Touch' became synonymous with subtlety and a certain kind of marriage between Malayali stories and a universal style of filmmaking. The film felt fresh like it had just been plucked off the ground. With the release of Thondimuthalum Drikshakshiyum and his most recent Joji, this was clearly no flash in the pan.
Hemanth M. Rao won the Gollapudi Srinivas Award for best first film director for Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, a superb film that explored the relationship (or the lack of it) between a father (Anant Nag) with Alzheimer's and his distracted and distant son (Rakshit Shetty). He followed it up with the stylized investigative thriller Kavaludaari (with noir overtones) where even flashbacks are stylized and brought to life — a triumph of treatment over plot.
Arjun Reddy is a remodeled version of the Devdas template and portrays the unbridled machismo of the protagonist (portrayed by Vijay Deverakonda) and his experiences with self-obsession. Vanga also remade the affecting, problematic but arresting film as Kabir Singh in Hindi. The film also established Deverakonda as the official tormented and jilted lover of South cinema. The film without a star actor and a debutant director grossed over ten times its modest cost and became one of the 10 biggest grossers of Telugu cinema in 2017.
With Pariyerum Perumal, Mari Selvaraj emerged as one of the most unique voices in Tamil cinema. The film dealt with the issue of everyday, casual caste discrimination, but what set it apart was the way framed the issue with psychological acuity. The hopelessness and pain of the film's protagonist Pariyan is made real to the viewer which renders the bigoted world around him ugly. Baradwaj Rangan writes in his review, "It feels personal in a manner that resembles reading someone's diary." Pariyerum Perumal has a superb climax and Mari Selvaraj followed it up with the equally psychologically complex and rousing Karnan.
Director: Venkatesh Maha
C/o Kancharapalem, directed by Venkatesh Maha, is a slice-of-life romantic drama made up of a set of lovely stories, each with moments that will stay with the viewer for a long, long time. Despite its small scale and limited means, it's fascinating that it could address so many themes without ever seeming forced. It used a set of amateur actors but the film flowed like water, mainly thanks to the sophisticated filmmaking that makes it seem as if anyone could do it. Of course, not many could, but it was a sign that the audience and a few filmmakers had matured to ensure Telugu cinema was just as good as its neighbors.
Mainstream Gujarati cinema has been infantile at best. But Hellaro, a Best Film National Award winner, is a shot in the arm for the ailing industry. At a time when every second movie is a crass buddy comedy, Abhishek Shah's barnstorming debut combines a period Lagaan-like setting with the intense cultural specificity of Kutch to speak a universal language of 'smashing the patriarchy'. Garba, the Gujarati folk-dance, and music play the starring roles of Hellaro's visceral premise – which revolves around the women of a parched desert village not being allowed to participate in a garba for the rain Gods. That they secretly find an outlet for their twinkle-toed desires also doubles up as an allegory for sexual freedom. The scenes crackle with inherent drama, pent-up tension and physical release, without fetishizing a region that's often appropriated as Rajasthani remoteness.
Can you think of any other director who managed to make the biggest hit of their industry with their debut film? That's what Prithviraj pulled off with Lucifer. This unabashed star vehicle from a self-confessed A10 fanboy broke every box office record and opened up the market like no other film good. The film was a perfect mix of mass and class with good masala writing, solid performances and a smart use of scale. The action scenes were slick to the point that even the Telugu industry wants a piece of this action, that too for a Chiranjeevi starrer.
What Prithviraj did with the superstar film, Madhu C Narayanan managed with a wholesome, lovely film that redefined our ideas about family. Kumbalangi Nights became an instant classic across the country and Kerala's biggest import since… banana chips. With its widespread success, Malayalam cinema went viral with a fanbase across the country, creating an even bigger fanbase for its villain, Fahadh Faasil. Its pop culture impact was so huge that even Indian bowler Mohammad Shami could shout, 'Shammi Hero Ada' without offering context or explanations.
Prateek Vats' excellent debut feature caught fire on the international festival circuit, but it was the timely OTT release that truly defined the legacy of this wry sociocultural satire. The documentary-like film – about a Bihari migrant struggling to do the job of a monkey repeller in the Stately center of Delhi – was watched during the pandemic in a nation whose ruthless lockdown policy had dehumanized the big-city migrant. The tragicomical plight of the protagonist (Shardul Bharadwaj) – a young man who spends his days chasing monkeys away from government buildings – reflected a nation in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, where the 'new normal' citizen becomes both the monkey and the repeller.
(Munna Bhai MBBS was produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a stakeholder at Film Companion)