Beginner’s Guide to Indian Cinema

With the largest film industry of any country in the world, producing 2,961 films in 2009 alone, it’s easy to get intimidated when trying to delve into the depths of Indian cinema. As I’m going to list movies that are for a wide audience and are meant to appeal to many people, they won’t be my favorites, per-say. But I do enjoy them.

Here is my attempt to give our readers a few starter titles. Chalo mere saath.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

Translates As: The Brave Heart Takes the Bride
Year: 1995
Directed By: Aditya Chopra
Music: Jatin Lalit

DDLJ, as it is lovingly called by fans, is a film that changed the face of romance in Bollywood films. It showed a hero that defied his elders, but still respected them enough to try and win their approval. The charisma between Raj (Shahrukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) is enchanting. The songs are timeless and I forever associate the mandolin with this movie now.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is the longest running film in Indian history, it’s still playing in theaters to this day. The film also won 10 Filmfare Awards, making it the first to do so.

Like it? Buy it on


Translates As: The Greatest of Mughals
Year: 1960
Directed By: K. Asif
Music: Naushad

Set in a historical period that seems to fascinate and awe India enough to produce many films, Mughal-e-Azam is a black and white film interesting enough for even me to watch. The film tells the story of Prince Salim of the Mughal empire who falls in love with dancer Anarkhali and the battle that ensues to make her his bride.

The film itself took 16 years for K. Asif to complete and was released partially in color, with a colorized re-release in 2004.

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Translates As: Embers
Year: 1975
Directed By: Ramesh Sippy
Music By: Rahul Dev Burman

Sholay is a film about friendship before anything else. One of its most memorable songs Yeh Dosti (This Friendship) is actually one of the most easily recognizable songs coming out of Bollywood of that era.

Friends Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veer (Dharmendra) are small time criminals who get roped in by the authorities to catch big-time thief and local terror Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Of course, there has to be a battle over the lovely local maiden (Hema Malini) thrown into the mix to make it a true masala film.

This is the film that sprang Amitabh into ultra-stardom and created the “young angry man” phenomenon that swept Bollywood and continues to be a character type in modern day Indian cinema.

Like it? Buy it on Eros Entertainment

Raja Hindustani

Translates As:It’s the main characters name — but literally means King of India
Directed By:Darmesh Darshan
Music By: Nadeem-Shravan

Raja Hindustani (Aamir Khan) is a local taxi driver who picks up a rich city woman — Aarti (Karisma Kapoor) who is on a journey to view the town where her parents met and fell in love.  Through time, they come to fall in love themselves, but both struggle with the decision to be with one another because of their social differences. Aarti and Raja fail to fully trust each other and this leads to devastating misunderstandings and chaos in their already fragile romance.

The item number for Pardesi, Pardesi is one of my favorites to this day. The traditional street performers characterized here put so much passion into this performance that I can’t look away. Today, Aamir Khan is known as one of the best dramatic actors in India, and this early film of his really helped build that reputation.

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Translates As: Brave Warrior
Year: 2009
Directed By: S.S. Rajamouli
Music By: M.M. Keeravani, Kalyani Malik

Magadheera is everything but average. The storyline starts off easy enough with a motorcycle racer named Harsha (Ram Charan Teja or “Cherry”) enjoying the single life and racing it out in Hyderabad. On his way out of town for a race, he accidently brushes against a mysterious girl (Kajal) and experiences flashbacks into a past life. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find Indu and correct the romance that failed to take flight in the previous lifetime.

Magadheera was one of the films that pulled me into the South Indian cinema world. It has the old masala (spice) flavor that Bollywood has been losing lately. It has action, drama, romance, and, of course music. The dance scenes were so spectacular I have yet to see anything top it.  The fight sequences were on par (and similar to) 300. Most of S.S. Rajamouli’s films are blockbusters, and he outdid himself with this one.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you have the son  (Teja) of the biggest hero in Tollywood (Cheeranjevi)  in your film.

Like it: Buy it on  Bhavani DVD


Part-time student, full-time media whore, fan of all things Asian.

28 Responses

  1. Julili says:

    Woah so much variety! Great job bb! I might watch one if my busy Kdrama schedule allows!

  2. Dani says:

    Good job!

  3. amy says:

    The only Indian film that’s not exactly Bollywood type that I can name is… A Wednesday. Thought it was very exciting and really ethically murky. xD

    Oh, I’ve also watched Life in a… Metro, which it was sorta okay… but then they blatantly ripped off Kothbiro from The Constant Gardener.

    I think I saw a book – the day I bought my Taschen 100 All-Time Favorite Movies – about Essential Bollywood films. xD

    • Jenna says:

      @amy, That is a sad truth about much of Indian cinema – someone is always copying someone else. Most films are “re-makes” either of Western films or films from within the country, but are just part of another film industry. For example: Pokiri is a South Indian film that blew my mind, but they re-made it in Bollywood as Wanted. This happens all the time. And films like A Wednesday and Life In A…Metro are considered “art house” in India. Not quite Bollywood, but still Bollywood. Most of those films get good reception abroad, but do poorly in the box office of India. I liked Life…In A Metro well enough, but it was “sorta okay” like you said. I do have a book on “the essential Bollywood” but, it’s kind of opinionated towards a certain production company. :/

  4. Dan says:

    Wonderful range and variety of films. This is just what I needed as an intro to Indian cinema.

  5. Ben says:

    Nice list but kind of surprised to see must-see films such as Black, Water, Lagaan, Devdas, Swades or Veer-Zaara. no love?

    • Jenna says:

      @Ben, I love those films, but I tend to think that all of those titles are a lot more serious and really similar to western film. On this list I tried to pick ones that were likely to appeal to a broad crowd with no experience with Indian film. I would tell people who have a little more advanced interest in Indian cinema to watch the more serious films like Black, Water, Lagaan and etc.

      • amy says:

        @Jenna, I only had heard about Water when in Canada xD Wasn’t it the Canadian selection for the Oscar, or something? It’s kinda weird to me. That’s my inner Canadian for you haha

    • amy says:

      @Ben, two years into this – Sanjay Leela Bhansali is really good. Still missing a watch for Water and Lagaan, but I’m about to watch Devdas.

  6. Camiele says:

    Arya 2 looks like a VERY amazing film; however, Allu Arjun on par with MJ…? Not so much. He can move, there’s no doubt about that, but not even close to MJ.

    I’m definitely gonna have to check this film out, though. It seems to have a bit of danger and darkness to it that I don’t usually see in most Bollywood films. I’m kinda stoked :)

    • Jenna says:

      @Camiele, Hmm. We might need to agree to disagree. I find that while he was an amazing artist, inspiration for millions and originator of a lot of moves and choreography, I just never went “Oh holy crap, how did he do that?” with anything of Michaels. Bunny, on the other hand, fascinates me everytime he performs.

      Also, Arya 2 is Tollywood, not Bollywood, so it will have a much different feel than Bollywood films. ;)

      • Camiele says:

        @Jenna, AH! And see, I don’t know anything about Tollywood… HaHa. So, there ya go.

        I guess we will have to agree to disagree as far as Michael vs. Allu’s concerned. But, anyway… it is what it is.

  7. amy says:

    Ranveer Singh did a speech at the India Today Conclave 2015 complimentary of your post, though it’s Bollywood-centric, it’s thorough from swifting through the 50s, 60s, the birth of The Angry Young Man and Amitabh Bachchan, the wave of South remakes and birth of the big dancing sequence, the birth of the Big Indian Family HAHK, the Friends cap, the birth of the NRI in Indian cinema, DDLJ, big brands on screen, KKHH, the birth of Lover Boy SRK, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Dil Chahta Hai and urban India, Rang de Basanti and patriotism on film, Aamir, Taare Zameen Par (possibly Swades too) and Rajkummar Hirani, and the birth of the big film with a message.

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