By Alice Whittemore, Deborah Sathe

29 October 2015 - 13:43

Irrfan Khan (left), the star of The Lunchbox, 'a slice of middle-class India rarely presented to the world.' Photo (c) Ash Chuan, licenced under CC BY-SA-2.0 and adapted from the original.
Irrfan Khan (left), male star of The Lunchbox, 'a slice of middle-class India rarely presented to the world.' Photo ©

Ash Chuan, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The landscape of Indian film is as diverse as the country it represents. Alice Whittemore and Deborah Sathe of Film London pick five favourites as an introduction.

India has the biggest film industry in the world. Bollywood alone, which doesn't include all the independent films made in India, surpasses Hollywood in output. Independent productions often do not appeal to Indian audiences used to Bollywood musical extravaganzas and ‘masala’ films, but are attracting attention internationally amongst arthouse audiences and on the festival circuit. So, where to start? Here are our top five:

1. The Lunchbox (2013)

Forget the clichés of slums and poverty. The Lunchbox is a slice of middle-class India rarely presented to the world. It's a delicate love story between a lonely housewife whose delicious lunches are accidentally delivered to a grumpy widower instead of her neglectful husband. The film is irresistible and heartbreaking, and has some exquisite performances.

2. Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Monsoon Wedding is a jubilant ensemble comedy in which relatives of an extended Punjabi family return to Delhi from around the world to celebrate the wedding of a family member. The film takes on the big themes of family and love in vivid, moving and funny ways. 

A celebration of modern-day India, Monsoon Wedding was an international hit that paved the way for today's Indian cinema.

3. Apur Sansar (1959)

The final film of Satyajit Ray’s celebrated Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar returns to the story of a young Bengali named Apu Roy, whose childhood was depicted in the earlier films. Having dropped out of college for lack of money, Apu hopes to find success as a writer. The film follows his journey into an unexpected marriage, his attempts to be a responsible husband, and the tragic death of his wife in childbirth.

Inspired by the neo-realist movement in Italian cinema, this is a simple, moving chronicle of Bengali life elevated by breathtaking cinematography.

4. Mother India (1957)

This is the epic, devastating story of a poverty-stricken village woman named Radha, who struggles to raise her sons in the absence of her husband. Amidst considerable hardships and misfortunes, Radha provides an inspirational example of the ideal Indian woman who always sticks to her own moral code.

Mother India is among India's most famous and successful films and one of only three Indian films to have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (the others being Salaam Bombay! and Lagaan).

5. Pyaasa (1957)

A classic Bollywood romance, but very much independent in ethos, Pyaasa is the vision of director, producer and star Guru Dutt. The film tells the story of Vijay, a poet who writes unpopular poems about the destitute and poor; and Gulabo, a kind-hearted prostitute who finally helps him get his works published.

In 2005, Time magazine rated Pyaasa as one of the 100 best films of all time.

Guilty Pleasure: Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) 

Dil To Pagal Hai is a hedonistic ride into contemporary Bollywood, and one of the first to pursue European locations and modern dance routines (now a Bollywood convention). Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) is another must-see movie of the 90s romance genre, as it holds the record for continuous cinema exhibition: 20 years and still playing!

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