As I plonked myself comfortably on a couch this afternoon, I overheard my mother, sitting right across talk to my father about the greatness of Mother India (1955) for the umpteenth time. Having a media student for a daughter, she often tells me how the proverb ‘ghar ki murgi daal barabar’ aptly applies to me. I pride myself in having watched films from over the world, but am unfamiliar with my own country’s cinema.
Indigenously produced content often escapes the attention of even the best of cinephiles hailing from the Indian subcontinent. While there are several international films that we acknowledge, we often forget the innate, undiscovered brilliance of our own cinema. With impactful stories crafted brilliantly despite several technical challenges, some of these Indian films truly deserve more appreciation for their merit.
Here are 25 internationally acclaimed Indian movies you should have on your watchlist this season:
1. Neecha Nagar (1946)
A social realist film based on the divide between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats, the Chetan Anand-directorial fared miserably in India but found global acclaim. The first Indian film to gain recognition at the Cannes film festival, Neecha Nagar won the Palme D’Or, the only Indian film to have won the prestigious award.
2. Pather Panchali (1955)
Pather Panchali is, undoubtedly, the first Independent Indian film to achieve acclaim globally. It is so integral to the cinematic canon today, that no essential viewing list of world cinema is complete without it. Besides a host of National Awards, the film most notably won the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival.
3. Mother India (1955)
India’s first film nominated for the Oscars isn’t the only reason that makes it noteworthy. It also is the poster film for the broader term ‘Indian Cinema’, as no discussion around the very Indianness of our Cinema is complete without a mention of Mother India. No Indian or International best film list is quite complete without the mention this Mehboob Khan-magnum opus starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, and Raaj Kumar.
4. Awara (1951)
Featuring Raj Kapoor, who also directed and produced the film, Awara is part of the 100 Greatest Films of all Time, curated by the TIME Magazine. The Indian classic enjoyed enormous popularity abroad, specifically in countries such as erstwhile Soviet Union, East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
5. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)
Featured in the list of greatest films of all time by Sight and Sound magazine, Kaagaz ke Phool is a cinematic commentary on the cinema that outlives the boundation of time. Still relevant today in terms of themes, the film is a poetic ode to the loneliness that comes with a creative life.
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6. Aakhri Khat (1966)
Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat was selected for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 40th Academy Awards in 1967. Being Rajesh Khanna’s debut film, the film is also a stepping stone in the making of a superstar. Although it was not accepted as a nominee, the film was still well received internationally.
7. Ghatashraddha (1977)
Girish Kasaravalli‘s debut feature, among the finest in ‘New Wave’ cinema, took Kannada cinema to newer heights. In 2002, it received the honour of becoming the only Indian film among 100 films to be chosen by the National Archive of Paris.
8. Kharij (1982)
This film was the winner of the Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Mrinal Sen, this Bengali language film was also nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. It is centred around the exploitation of child labour by a family belonging to the Indian Middle Class.
9. Party (1984)
A rather undiscovered film directed by Govind Nihlani, this film was the official entry to the 32nd International Film Festival of India, New Delhi. It was also a participant at the Tokyo Film Festival 1985 and Asia Pacific Film Festival 1985. A crisp satire aiming to show a mirror to the vanity of the urban elite, Party features an ensemble cast of Vijaya Mehta, Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, and Rohini Hattangadi.
10. Om Dar-b-Dar (1988)
Hailed as the pioneering film of the Indian Avante Garde, the film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and was screened at the Rome Film Festival. Through an absurdist non-linear narrative, it tells the story of an adolescent boy Om and while at it, it also attempts to comment on the absurdity of the real world.
11. Dil Se (1998)
Dil Se won the Netpac Award at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival. It was also lauded for its screenplay and cinematography at prestigious festivals abroad. Besides the critical acclaim, the Mani Ratnam directorial featuring Shahrukh Khan, Manish Koirala did well commercially in countries like UK & US.
12. Lagaan (2001)
Lagaan was the third Indian film to be nominated for an academy award. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and starring Aamir Khan in a lead role, the film was also listed in TIME Magazine’s special ‘The All-Time 25 Best Sports Movies. In 2010, the film made it to the 55th Place in Empire Magazine’s ‘The 100 Best Films of World Cinema’ list.
13. Devdas (2002)
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s classic romance drama, based on 1917 Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Devdas earned a nomination at the 2003 BAFTA awards for best Foreign Language Film. The film did well critically and commercially.
Also submitted for the Academy Award, and screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, the film has the special status of being called TIME Magazine’s Best World Movie of 2002.
14. Black Friday (2004)
Anurag Kashyap’s gritty crime drama, centred around the infamous 1993 Bombay blasts, was the proud winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and a nominee for the Best Film award at the Locarno International Film Festival. It received rave international reviews for its uniquely fresh narrative style.
15. Gandu (2010)
First previewed at Yale University, the film was officially premiered on a global level at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival. It also went on to be screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, and was an official selection at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival. All the international acclaim aside, the film was classified as a ‘rap musical’ by the director Qaushiq Mukherjee. Belonging to such a unique genre, the film is sure to incite attention in the viewers.
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16. Sonchidi (2011)
Screened at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, the film was written and directed by one of the finest directors of our time, Amit Dutta. Also called the Golden Bird, the film belongs to the sci-fi genre and its story is about two travellers looking for a flying craft believing it to be an escape from the inevitable cycle of births.
17. Miss Lovely (2012)
Miss Lovely had its premier at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and won two National Awards. Besides, in terms of critical reception internationally, it was more than well received. With Nawazuddin Siddiqui in lead role, the film is as real as it gets. It was earlier planned as a documentary project, and later transformed into a feature film as the subject was too sensitive to involve real people.
18. Peddlers (2012)
Directed by Vasan Bala (of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota fame), this film was shortlisted for the International Critics Week. It is centred around 20-year old boys trapped in a drug trade, eventually getting tracked by the police. The film has also been nominated for Critics Week Grand Prize and the Golden Camera.
19. Lucia (2013)
Besides having won the Audience’s Choice Award for Best Film at London International Film Festival, Lucia has quite a reputation among critics for being the first crowdfunded Kannada film.
20. Liar’s Dice (2013)
This film has been a recipient of the Special Jury Award at Sofia International Film Festival. Directed by Geetu Mohandas, it stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Geetanjali Thapa in lead roles. Besides being screened at the Sundance Film Festival and International Film Festival Rotterdam, it was also India’s official entry to the Oscars.
21. Court (2014)
A recipient of a whopping 19 awards, this film was premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival. This Marathi language film also is more noteworthy because it was the debut film of director Chaitanya Tamhane. It is a well-crafted, realistic investigation of the legal system of India.
22. Killa (2014)
Killa trails an 11-year old Chinmay (Archit Deodhar) who adapts to a new life, a new world after his father’s death. This nostalgic trip back to childhood is a delicate, refreshing and beautiful piece of cinema.
At the 62nd National Film Awards, Killa won National Award for the Best Marathi film.
It also won the Crystal Bear Award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival by the Children’s Jury in the Generation KPlus section.
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23. Labour of Love (Asha Jaoar Majhe) (2014)
This lesser-known Bengali-language film directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival where it won the Best Debut Director award. The film also won the National Awards for Audiography in 2015.
24. Parched (2015)
Helmed by Leena Yadav featuring Radhika Apta and Surveen Chawla in lead roles, Parched premiered at the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
This is cinema that provokes. That shatters a cosy beguiling numbness and shakes and rattles sexual feudalism. This is a celebration of the sisterhood of oppressed women, united by their empathy, their deep caring for each other and the desire to reword the grammar of their lives. This is a feminist daring at its best, especially in the bleak Indian context. (Read Parched (2016) Review: Feminist Daring At Its Best by Sanjay Trehan)
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25. Masaan (2015)
This Neeraj Ghaywan directorial has garnered several national and international awards, most importantly the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. This film travelled internationally to the LA Film Festival, SAARC Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival etc, to name a few. Set in Benaras, and dealing with themes of death and hope in simultaneity, the film is essential viewing for connoisseurs of cinema.
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Besides the aforementioned films, other notable works honoured globally include Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), Salaam Bombay (1988) and The Namesake (2006. Another significant Indo-Canadian director who needs to be mentioned here is Deepa Mehta, for her remarkable Elements trilogy. Three of her films Water (2005), Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) are quintessential visual poems known for telling very deep-rooted stories.
My piece would be incomplete without remembering the stalwarts from India who won the prestigious Academy Awards for their work on both Indian and International projects.
The most notable of them is master filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who won the Lifetime Achievement Oscar Award.
Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) won five Oscars. One of these and India’s first was for the Best Costume Design, which was bagged by Bhanu Athaiya.
Lastly, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2009), which won 7 Oscars, got India 2 of these. While A.R. Rahman and Gulzar received an Oscar for the song ‘Jai Ho,’ Resul Pookutty bagged one for the Best Sound Mixing of the film.
India’s journey within the wide arena of International cinema is a long and ongoing one. While Indian films certainly struggle to find adequate representation, I hope better films get made and recognised on the global stage.
With a surge in OTT platforms and consequent consumption of content, the proliferation of Indian films across borders has also been rendered easier. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that there is tremendous hope latent in the many possibilities of this wider exchange of cinema across borders.
By Sanghmitra Jethwani
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