The internet has lists for everything. A simple search will throw up movie recommendations by genre, decade, ratings and so on. Back when filmmaker Sriram Raghavan was in film school, you had to work harder for a credible film recommendation. He remembers going through bound volumes of The Monthly Film Bulletin (which later became Sight and Sound magazine) in the library, to track down older, well-reviewed films.
Raghavan has also briefly been a film reviewer. “I used to work for Trade Guide. Our reviews used to be about whether a film would work or not. I’d write my thoughts and they’d make ‘suitable changes’ to my review. I remember giving Sunny Deol’s Arjun a great review,” he says.
From watching re-runs of older movies at theatres to attending film festivals and screenings, Raghavan has spent a good part of his life chasing good cinema. We asked him to put together a list of the best movies he’s seen. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of thrillers in here. The list also has amazing range – it goes from French cinema to Manmohan Desai. Raghavan clarifies that his list doesn’t have obvious greats like Satyajit Ray or Orson Welles. But these are equally great films that are all “rewarding watches”.
1. Notorious (1946)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
When I was at FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), we were asked to choose one filmmaker and study his work. We could watch 3 films of the filmmaker we picked in 16 MM. I had picked Hitchcock. I remember watching Psycho, Strangers on a Train and Notorious. Notorious is a spy movie with not one act of violence. It’s also a movie in which you dislike the hero and sympathise with the villain. There’s this shot of a party in the movie and the camera keeps moving closer to the actress who has a key in her hand that she has to give the spy. I remember being very impressed with that shot. Recently when I saw Raazi I thought of Notorious.
2. The Fallen Idol (1948)
Director: Carol Reed
We all know Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This film is lesser known. I saw it after reading the short story on which it was based. It’s about this big ambassador’s kid who is alone at home. The kid dotes on the butler and the butler is having a scene with the secretary. In all this, there is a death and then the cops come in. We see all these events from a child’s point of view. So in a sense, it’s about the shattering of innocence. It’s unbearably suspenseful, even today.
3. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Director: John Huston
I saw this at a John Huston retrospective in Mumbai. I remember having to apply to get entry, it wasn’t easy. During that time, I saw all of Huston’s films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but this was the one that spoke to me the most. This movie was a huge influence for Johnny Gaddar too. I remember taking the first scene of The Asphalt Jungle and creating a version of it for my film. The movie has a great line – After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.
4. Jules et Jim (1962)
Director: François Truffaut
On a story level, you may think this is like a Hindi film – two men on opposite sides of the war fall in love with the same woman. Truffaut is one of my favourite filmmakers and I love the character of the girl in this film. She’s so enigmatic; you love, but can’t understand her. I used to watch these movies at the Alliance Francaise in Pune. Before watching Truffaut’s films, I read the book ‘The Films in my Life’ which was his take on movies from his film critic days. The way he used to write about movies was heartfelt.
5. Jagte Raho (1956)
Directors: Sombhu Mitra, Amit Maitra
It’s a story set on a single night about a villager who is looking for a glass of water and how he’s mistaken for a thief. He’s hiding in a huge building and the kind of characters he meets and the things he encounters will make you wonder who is innocent and who is guilty. It’s a beautiful film with terrific performances. These movies transcend time and they are still relevant today. The film probably needs patience from the millennial kids but it’s worth it.
6. Kala Bazar (1960)
Director: Vijay Anand
This is a social drama about Dev Anand’s character who sells black-market movie tickets. It also has a lovely romance about how the girl transforms him. It’s not the kind of movie I thought I would like but I loved Dev Anand so I went to watch it at a matinee show. A big highlight of the movie is that they’ve shot the premiere of Mother India, so you get to see that footage. There’s also one scene in which Dev Anand is standing outside Metro cinema and North by Northwest is playing. Vijay Anand also made Jewel Thief which has a very similar premise.
7. Zelig (1983)
Director: Woody Allen
This is a sort of mockumentary by Woody Allen. I used to love the movie so much that at one point it was my email ID! The movie really connected with me. I used to have a stammer so I was very inhibited. This really spoke to me. It’s a comedy but it tells you something about yourself.
8. Groundhog Day (1993)
Director: Harold Ramis
I absolutely love this film. It’s about a guy who is reliving the same day over and over again and he can change things. Often, I used to think that this happens to us filmmakers too between movies when you’re trying to write and nothing is happening. I feel like I’m living Groundhog Day – doing the same thing over and over again. I remember my brother Shridhar (Raghavan), Anjum Rajabali and Vinay Shukla had some sort of a film club. We used to meet at Anjum’s house because he had a laser disk. Every Saturday we would watch a movie, and this was one of them.
9. Sachaa Jhutha (1970)
Director: Manmohan Desai
It’s a mad movie. I saw this as a kid and was blown away. There’s a simpleton Rajesh Khanna who is a trumpet player. He comes to the city to earn money for his physically challenged sister’s wedding. Then there’s another Rajesh Khanna who is a suave smuggler. He sees the simple guy and makes him his alibi whenever he is doing something wrong. There are some really ridiculous scenes. One day, the simple guy is thirsty so he opens the fridge and sees there’s no water there. Then he goes to another fridge and when he opens it, there’s a passage inside. I just loved that! Even the robberies are really fun. In one of them, the bad guys give everyone a cola drink with something mixed in it and they all freeze for a few minutes after drinking it.
10. Rififi (1955)
Director: Jules Dassin
The French make the most superior crime films. Rififi is about a planned robbery and it’s unbearably tense. It has this long sequence which has no music – it just shows four people at work. These movies are the seeds of the later crime and gangster movies. If you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, you’ll know Quentin Tarantino has obviously loved Rififi. I remember rewatching this film while writing Johnny Gaddar.
11. Stalag 17 (1953)
Director: Billy Wilder
It’s about a group of POWs in a German concentration camp. Billy Wilder is a caustic filmmaker. As bad as you feel for these PoWs who are trying to free themselves from their captors, he also shows us that these prisoners aren’t the noblest of men. He breaks the cliches of an American war movie.
12. The Wages of Fear (1953)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
It’s an action-adventure involving a bunch of four disenchanted characters. These guys are desperate characters who agree to drive trucks with nitroglycerine over some absolutely rugged mountain terrain. The thing with nitroglycerine is that if it goes over even one pothole, the whole thing may blow up. The movie is tense but also has a tinge of sadness because you know everything is not going to end well.
13. The Man Who Would be King (1975)
Director: John Huston
It’s an adventure story of two British soldiers thrown out of the army. It’s fun to revisit this film because it’s set in India. It’s based on a book by Rudyard Kipling. The film also has a super cast. It stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery as the two soldiers and Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling.
14. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
Director: Luis Buñuel
This is about an elderly aristocratic man who is lusting after his house help. I know it sounds like a sleazy movie but it’s not. What’s interesting is that the character of the help is played by two girls. So you’ll see – one actress enters the house and then the one inside is the other girl. They both look different. I read that Buñuel did this because the first actress was giving him too much trouble and he thought, ‘At my age I don’t want all this nonsense.’ I remember seeing it at a screening. Everyone was confused for a bit and then you just get used to it. The movie grips you so much, you stop noticing this.
15. The Killing (1956)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
This is another heist film which was sort of a precursor to Reservoir Dogs in terms of breaking structure. There’s something about the way this film has been written that you want to watch it over and over again. I think if it was written straight, like say Pulp Fiction, it wouldn’t work as well. This is the baap of all those movies.
16. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Director: John Carpenter
It’s a low-budget John Carpenter movie with an amazing score by him. A prisoner on death row is being taken to another jail and on the way they have to stop at some police station for a break. It’s like a home invasion movie but set in a police station.
17. The Lives of Others (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
I can’t give away the story but it talks about living under surveillance and about the invasion of privacy by the state. It’s set in Germany. Some movies have a spiritual call to them, this is that.
18. Downfall (2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
It’s a German film about Hitler’s last few days in a bunker. it’s neither pro nor anti Nazi – it just tells you what happened. You’ll actually feel like you’re with Hitler in the bunker. It has a great scene in which Hitler loses it at his men and that’s somehow become a meme and been parodied for so many things.
19. The Sicilian Clan (1969)
Director: Henri Verneuil
It’s again a heist movie about three characters – a cop, an ageing don, and an upstart crook. They plan a robbery and the crook says he needs to be smuggled out of prison for it. It’s thrilling but it’s also emotional because this guy knows that after the robbery he has to leave the country, so he has to go meet his sister one last time.
20. A Short Film About Killing (1988)
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
This is a harrowing watch. The movie is about capital punishment but it doesn’t openly make a case for or against it. But you can be sure when you watch it that you’ll get affected. Kieślowski is an extremely humane filmmaker. It’s got one sequence in which you see a man being clobbered to death. It’s an uncomfortable watch and it compels you to take a stand.
21. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone
I saw this for the first time on VHS. My brother and I saw it back-to-back and after two days I wrote a script which was almost the same story without even knowing it! A few years ago, I saw the film again on the big screen at the Mumbai Film Festival where they screened a restored uncut version. It was an amazing experience. The film’s got one of the greatest uses of ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. This film was a particular inspiration while writing Badlapur – the sequence in which we cut to Varun (Dhawan) 10 years later was based on this film.
22. Yateem (1988)
Director: JP Dutta
It’s a Hindi badlands movie meant for the big screen. Before Border, JP Dutta made some lovely movies and Yateem is the best of them. This also has a terrific performance by Sunny Deol. It’s probably also the rare 80s movie that talks about things like incest and menstruation. It didn’t do well, but it’s a great film.
23. Thalapathi (1991)
Director: Mani Ratnam
I’m sure many people have seen this. It’s a modern-day retelling of the Mahabharat. We were all Mani Ratnam fanboys and we had to see everything he made at the Aurora Talkies theatre in Mumbai. I used a little bit of a song from Thalapathi in Agent Vinod.
24. Anupama (1966)
Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee
I want to tell the younger audience to watch this patiently. Don’t dismiss it as old-fashioned or slow. This movie has one of my all-time favourite songs ‘Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha’. Whenever you’re down and out, it helps change your mood.
25. Barton Fink (1991)
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
A dark, surreal early Coen film for everyone who thinks writing a script is easy. An arty playwright is offered a mainstream Hollywood job. A golden opportunity turns into a nightmare because our ‘artist’ cannot write ‘crowd pleasers’. The Coens lampoon the Hollywood mogul and themselves too.
26. High and Low (1963)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
This was remade successfully as Inkaar in the 70s. Kurosawa’s masterpiece police procedural is based on an Ed McBain thriller. A kidnapping thriller that goes beyond the plot twists and questions the characters, and finally, the viewer.
27. Darkness in Tallinn (1993)
Director: Ilkka Järvi-Laturi
A rare, unheard-of heist film from Estonia, this one is worth seeking out. Russian thugs plan to steal a shipment of gold bullion by bribing an electrician who will plunge the city into darkness at the appointed hour. Everything goes right until the electrician’s pregnant wife delivers and the baby needs an incubator. A nerve-wracking thriller with humour and romance and an ending that Manmohan Desai would have approved of.
28. The Truman Show (1998)
Director: Peter Weir
A man whose entire life is a TV show. A God-like producer controlling his life. Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is a fantastic high-concept film. It’s a comedy, a drama and a disturbing film about how the media manipulates our reality.
29. The Great Gambler (1979)
Director: Shakti Samanta
It’s got terrific songs and locations and old-fashioned villains. People have seen Bachchan’s Don, Zanjeer, Deewar but I don’t know how many have seen this. It was a highly enjoyable film. I don’t know why it didn’t do better.
30. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
Director: Juan José Campanella
This is an Argentinian movie. It’s about this guy who is an investigator for a lawyer. He loves her but he can’t tell her. Many years later, he comes back to write about an unsolved case and by now, she’s become a judge. So it’s their love story but it’s also an investigation. It’s got a mind-blowing sequence in which a suspect is caught at a football match – I won’t give away more than that.