The top 45 Bollywood movies of all time

Bollywood makes more films a year than Hollywood, but finding good ones can be a bit of a minefield. Here are 45 very much worth your time.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word Bollywood? Song and dance? Colours? Musicals? Please don’t say Slumdog Millionaire! Bollywood – the Hindi film industry – makes more films per year than Hollywood. However, you’ll be forgiven for not having heard of any because it’s more quantity than quality. 

Like Hollywood, the passage of time has challenged directors to take on new scripts and audiences to be receptive to new ideas. You’ll see a very clear indication of that in the extensive list below, which features Academy Award and BAFTA nominated films, and even Grammy Award-winning artists.

Recent films are based on sentimental and patriotic real-life events, with some brilliant original scripts that would have fallen flat had they been released earlier. There’s also a strong focus on heroine-centric roles, which isn’t the case if you go back a decade.

Two of the biggest hits in the 00s were for films that touched a patriotic nerve in some regard. Rewind to the 1990s and this same recipe was dominated by family dramas and romantic films by dependable actors. Go back even further (a generation) and the secret ingredient was ‘masala films’ – combining drama, action, comedy and a predictable happy ending.

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Here are 45 of the best Bollywood movies of all time (newest, first):

Neerja (2016)

There’s a reason why you’ll spend precious money to watch a film based on a real-life event despite knowing the ending. It’s because if the director has done a good job, you’ll still be at the edge-of-your-seat, get riled up or even shed a tear despite knowing fully well that the actual event is long past. It also serves as a reminder to remember fallen heroes. If you walked into a cinema hall in February and wondered why people looked like they were exiting a funeral procession, it’s likely they just watched Neerja.

India tends to glorify men more than women. One of the bravest women the country has seen was Neerja Bhanot – a 23-year-old air hostess who sacrificed herself to save passengers from Palestinian terrorists on a hijacked Pan Am flight in Karachi (Pakistan) in 1986. Few from our generation remember this event, so the film served as a good reminder to pay due respect to a worthy civilian. It’s the only tribute film in this list and it’s so good that it recently became the highest-grossing heroine-centric film in Bollywood.

Lead actress Sonam Kapoor may not be anywhere near Bollywood’s leading ladies but in Neerja, she does an outstanding job of single-handedly carrying the film on her able shoulders. Neerja Bhanot was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra, Indian’s highest civilian award for bravery and valour. That said, the story was always going to be gripping but hats off to director Ram Madhvani, writer Saiwyn Quadras and Sonam Kapoor for not going over the top, tugging on the audience’s heartstrings in just the right measure, and coming up with an informative, engaging and stunning film in the process.

Airlift (2016)

Like Neerja, Airlift resorts to retelling an inspirational story about a time long forgotten. It’s a brilliant, but simple retelling of the evacuation of over 100,000 Indians from Kuwait after the onset of the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war.

A Kuwaiti businessman who has no interest in ever going back to India suddenly finds renewed fervour to help lead the largest-ever civilian evacuation amidst a war-torn country. There are twists at every turn, but veteran Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar does a splendid job of applying his powers of persuasion in time of duress by brokering deals with other governments and the elusive Indian government to bring his people home safely.

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It bears a striking similarity with the Ben Affleck film Argo. Both films don’t offer high dramatic footage or the loss of life. Instead, both are simple stories where you’re constantly at the edge of seat wondering what’ll happen next. At the end of the film, I felt like I ran a marathon, even though I knew the outcome beforehand. Like with Neerja, there also were loads of people with wet eyelids toward the end. While the former was for the loss of life, for this film it was more than manner in which lives were saved.

Piku (2015)

Piku would have been a commercial failure had it released even five years back. I say this not because it’s a slow and testing film, but because the Bollywood audience sentiments have changed a lot in the last few years. People have learnt to be patient with movies, have accepted the fact that some films don’t have ‘item’ songs, hell, some don’t even have songs anymore. Bollywood audience sensibility has matured to a point where a simple story, told well can gently tug at the heartstrings of a million people. And sometimes honest is the best kind of cinema.

Piku is a simple Bengali girl living with her senile father Bhaskor, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (or at least that’s what he fears). The duo are forced to take a long road-trip from to his childhood home in Kolkata to resolve some property matters. Their driver (Jurrasic World’s Irfan Khan) injects both humour and charm into the strained father-daughter dynamic.

The film’s helmed by two of Bollywood’s most dependable actors – evergreen veteran Amitabh Bachchan and reigning Bollywood Queen, Deepika Padukone. Padukone is one of two Indian actresses ready to take India global with her Hollywood debut in 2017’s xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, alongside Vin Diesel, Nina Dobrev, Samuel L Jackson and Ruby Rose. The film is currently available on Netflix and I would highly recommend you watch it (with English subtitles, ofcourse).

Drishyam (2015)

It’s easy to confuse Bollywood (Hindi movies) as Indian cinema. However, Indian cinema consists of various others, including Telugu (often referred to Tollywood), Malayalam and Tamil cinema. There are also films in other regional languages, such as Marathi and Guajarati, which occasionally outshine Bollywood in terms of content. The good thing is that when one regional film does outstandingly well, other regions are quick to buy the rights and remake it.

Drishyam is one such example. The original Malayalam film (of the same name) became the highest grossing film in that language upon its release in 2013 and was subsequently remade into four Indian languages – Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi – all of which became huge commercial hits. This is a rare feat, but not surprising considering the premise consists of a brilliant, original script.

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In this Hindi remake, Ajay Devgn has a simple family. His daughter goes on a school trip where someone takes a photo of her bathing and threatens to make it public unless she ‘does what he asks’. In a moment of panic, she ends up killing him and she and her mother bury the body. The problem is the dead boy is the son of the Inspector General. From here on, all their lives turn upside down. Devgn vows to protect his family, making it his mission to train his family to concoct the perfect story, destroy evidence and stay one step ahead of the cops who are hot on his trail.

After the murder is committed, the movie will leave you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Also, it’s one of those rare movies where you’re in a constant state of confusion as to whom to side with: a father protecting his family from an honest mistake, or a vicious cop who’ll stop at nothing until she finds her son’s killer.

Talvar (2015)

In 2008, a girl named Aarushi Talwar was murdered in her bedroom in Noida, India. The prime suspect was the domestic help Hemraj, until he was found murdered on the building terrace a day later. Without much evidence or proof, the parents (both doctors) were accused. However, during the investigation the police flouted some basic rules, such as not cordoning off the crime scene area and not collecting evidence diligently. Just when one detective had almost got the killers to confess, he was reassigned – suggesting there was underhand foul play involved. To this day, it remains one of India’s biggest unsolved murder mysteries.

Last year, Talvar accurately depicted the flaws with India’s police and its judicial system – how senior officers shirk responsibility and come to conclusions without proper evidence, often letting the guilty go scot-free and punishing the innocent as a result of their callous ineptitude.

Given what a massive national case this was, it could have been easy for the film to become another badly-told story, but the way in which supercop (Irrfan Khan, again) unravels the crime by bending the rules, only to be told to leave when he’d almost caught the culprits red-handed was a great way to make a story you’ve read about seem interesting, while still exposing faults with the judicial bureaucracy at large.

For anyone that’s interested, here’s a brilliant first-hand account of the case from one of the relatives. The author probably sums it up the best when he says: How can a country have democracy and anarchy in equal measure? How can an IT powerhouse accept outdated forensics and investigative techniques? The answer is simple. There are many Indias.

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Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015)

Bollywood’s biggest problem is not a lack of finances, dependable actors or directors, it’s the dearth of writers who can regularly churn out brilliant, original scripts. Most movies are either rip-offs from similar Hollywood scripts, remakes of older movies or sequels of ones that have done well commercially.

Rarely will you find a script that tells a captivating story from start to finish, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan definitely does that. Since the British left the country in 1947, India and Pakistan have always been rivals, but this movies takes a sensitive issue, combines it with a solid script and creates magic. It will leave you in tears.

One of Bollywoood’s most-loved stars Salman Khan plays a simple person trying to impress his future in-laws. During a ‘selfie’ dance sequence, he comes across a dumb girl from Pakistan, who looks to him for help. She came to India for her throat operation with her mother but got lost when her train left without her onboard. Horror ensues when the family he’s trying to impress finds out she’s from Pakistan (during a cricket match between the arch rivals), but Salman vows to cross the India-Pakistan border and return her home safely, risking his own life in the process.

Queen (2014)

In the India of yesteryear, if a woman got dumped on the eve of her wedding, she went into hibernation and it was societal taboo for her entire family for at least a few years, maybe even forever. However, Queen represents the modern Indian woman. Having never travelled outside her home city, Rani goes to Paris on her honeymoon…alone, chases thieves, travels the city, makes friends and learns that you don’t necessarily have to have a man in your life to have a great time.

At Amsterdam, she stays in a hostel with three guys from different countries and learns that genuine friendship transcends gender, geographical borders, language barriers and cultural differences. Lead actress Kangana Ranaut contributed with her own dialogues and she deservedly won a National Award for her metamorphosis of a reserved, dependent woman into an independent, spirited soul within the span of three (very entertaining) hours. It’s available on Netflix and it well worth a watch.

It’s one of the many coming-of-age films that have inspired a generation of Indians to travel, see the world and make the most of their youth – not succumb to the wishes of an earlier generation that would rather they get married by 26, have kids at 28 and continue paying off their loans thereafter.

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Mary Kom (2014)

Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra might be only making waves in Hollywood recently. But Quantico’s leading actress and Baywatch’s new baddie honed her acting chops in Bollywood in over 50 movies after being crowned Miss World in 2000. In this National Award-winning role, she plays India’s most decorated pugilist Mary Kom who, despite her tiny frame, has taken the world of international woman’s boxing by storm.

She faced a lot of backlash when she was initially selected to play the part. Then again, it’s become common for every real-life Indian story or biography to be dissected, frowned upon and torn apart by some sections of the society and media. In fact, it’ll be a shock the day that doesn’t happen. True to form, Priyanka threw herself into training for the role and it shows on screen. Not only does she accurately portray Mary Kom’s ascent from unknown village girl to putting India’s name on the map, she also makes you feel her pain when her coach drops her after getting married and her long, arduous road back to glory after giving birth to twins.

In India where cricket is given all the importance, it’s refreshing to see a film about a lesser-known sport and even better to see a genuinely great athlete rewarded for her endurance, dedication and commitment. Mary Kom (the real one) will next be seen in the ring for the 2016 Rio Olympics where she’ll be hoping to better her London 2012 bronze medal, where she lost to eventual Gold medallist and British boxer, Nicola Adams.

The Lunchbox (2013)

Last week, I was watching Rick Stein’s India on the BBC. While shopping for ingredients, he stopped by the wayside staring intently at a mesh of wires, which he initially mistook for entangled tree branches. He then aptly described his perspective of India as those mesh of wires – a highly-complicated and intricate system, but a system where things work nonetheless.

One of the systems that functions in this way is the Indian dabbawallas – thousands of people who collect tiffin boxes prepared by individuals daily and then deliver them to their intended recipients (employees) at lunch time. In The Lunchbox, a dabbawalla mistakenly delivers the tiffin to the wrong recipient. This honest mistake leads to serendipity because it connects two simple people, who are both in need of a friend – a wife going through a bad marriage and a widower on the cusp of retirement. Unlike conventional Bollywood movies, this is a slow story that’s beautifully told through a series of back-and-forth letters delivered inside the lunchbox.

It’s also one of the only movies I know of where the two protagonists don’t ever communicate face-to-face. The (lost) art of writing heartfelt letters is not only enough to bring them together, it made this movie a resounding success both in India and abroad. Many critics rued the country for not sending it as the official entry for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category. A Vogue writer even commented that he felt it would have won after he saw it at Cannes.

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Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)

Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani is my ultimate feel-good Bollywood film. Most Bollywood movies with a young, good-looking cast have stories that pivot around love and friendship, but few are as well done as this. It has a great script, a stunning cast and is one of the last movies I remember where literally every song is worth listening to (most tracks just tend to be ‘fillers’).

A studious nerd goes against her parents’ wishes and takes a trip with three of her school friends. It doesn’t take her long to realise that she’s missed out on the best part of life, in pursuit of academic excellence. At the half-way point, she falls in love with the charming protagonist, only to discover he’s going to study in the US. When he returns years later for their best friend’s wedding, time has fractured the relationship between all four characters. While exploring the scenic city of Udaipur the two fall in love again, but he’s torn between his dream job in Paris and the girl he’s fallen for.

The best films featuring youth become commercially successful because they are well-told stories written in a way that anyone going to theatres can relate to, or aspire to be like. In the bespectacled Naina (Deepika Padukone, again), geeks were forced to take a break and look at the world whizzing past them. While the carefree and charming Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) proves that education counts for little when you have the gift of the gab and the passion to follow your dreams.

Barfi! (2012)

It’s easy to tell a love story when you have the best actor (Ranbir Kapoor) and actress (Priyanka Chopra) in the country. However, the task becomes doubly challenging when he’s deaf and dumb, and she’s autistic. It takes a brave director to helm such a script. Luckily, Bollywood has no dearth of those. Thankfully, you can safely rely on the breathtaking backdrop of the picturesque Darjeeling fill some of the void in the conversation, but that’s not taking anything away from a stellar cast who – like Charlie Chaplin – entertained us only through their actions.

A charming deaf-mute falls in love with a girl, only for her to get married to someone else because her parents couldn’t see their daughter with someone who wouldn’t be able to support her. He then decides to kidnap an autistic girl and ask for ransom to pay his father’s medical bills, but both their lives change forever as soon as their paths collide.

The film was helmed by Ranbir Kapoor, an actor that hails from Bollywood lineage and who was at the top of his game. Not once does he make you feel sorry or have pity on him. Instead, you aspire to be like him – always the charmer, always with a plan up your sleeve and never once complaining about the wrong hand life has dealt you.

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Gangs Of Wassseypur (2012)

In many ways, Gangs Of Wasseypur (Parts 1 and 2) can be considered to be Bollywood’s equivalent of The Godfather. Director Anurag Kashyap has two other movies mentioned later in this feature, but this saga is clearly his most ambitious and – without a shadow of a doubt – his best work to date.

Both movies are cumulatively over 320 minutes long and portray the feud between mining families in a small village called Wasseypur stretching from the early 1940s to the mid-1990s. Kashyap shot the entire saga together but since no Indian theatre was willing to screen a five-hour-plus film, he had to divide it into two halves. It tells the story of betrayal and deceit between two families – each generation and family paying the price for the atrocities committed by its ancestors. As in the Godfather trilogy, the black sheep of the family goes on to command the pivotal role.

Add to this Kashyap’s brilliant direction of action sequences, gory deaths, liberal use of expletives and efficient use of characters, who each consider themselves invincible. It all ends with manslaughter so over the top, it can give any Hollywood classic (like Scarface) a run for its money. It’s the only film where I’ve hated every character, but loved the movie as a whole. Then again, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Kashyap intended.

Kahaani (2012)

I’ve watched innumerable Bollywood films over the last 23 years. Often, I’ll go back and re-watch a film because of its feel-good factor, its story or to relive certain scenes. However, Kahaani is the only Bollywood film that I needed to watch a second time – in order to connect the dots backwards. It’s something I haven’t needed to do since watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

A heavily pregnant woman (played by Vidya Balan) comes to Kolkata from London in search of her missing husband and is helped by a kind officer. Soon the Intelligence Bureau get involved in the hunt and there’s a deadly assassin on the loose, killing anyone who’s willing to help her. As these players interact and move across the chessboard, you’re sucked into the ensuing power-play at large.

Unlike most Bollywood movies, where you can safely go to the loo or grab a bite and still not miss much, here you need to pay close attention to every conversation to stitch together details of the convoluted plot. Also, the ending will leave you baffled. Neither is she pregnant, nor does she come to look for her missing husband. She’s just a ghost with a mission, comes, fulfils it and then disappears into thin air, handing the police some baffling evidence upon her exit.

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Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara plays out like a tourism advert for Spain, featuring scenic locales and some of its annual cultural events that Indians previously didn’t know existed (such as the Tomatina festival in the video above). Add a decent script about three best friends and a stellar A-list cast and you’ve got yourself a hit. Another standout of the movie were the short philosophical lines composed by legendary composer Javed Akhtar and narrated by his son (Farhan) who plays a writer in the movie. His daughter Zoya directs.

‘You won’t get life again’ is the story of three best friends who decide to take a road-trip to Spain before one of them gets married. Each friend chooses one activity the others need to do – scuba diving, sky diving and running with bulls (The fiesta of San Fermin). During the journey one them finds love, the other finds his father who abandoned him as a child and the third realises he’s not really in love with his fiancé. It tells the story of friendship, love and the importance of taking a timely holiday to set your life’s priorities in order. It’ll easy make anyone’s top-five list of feel-good Bollywood films.

3 Idiots (2009)

This film exposes the gaping flaws in the Indian education system and is helmed by Bollywood’s most dependable actors since the last decade-and-a-half, Aamir Khan. He plays the role of an engineering student who’s naturally gifted at electronics. While studying at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country, he’s surprised to see people around him cramming for exams and wedded to their books in the relentless pursuit to please their professors.

Rancho (Khan) believes people should pursue excellence in whatever field their heart desires and not merely succumb to becoming an engineer or doctor merely because their family or society tells them to do (which is very true of India as a whole). It leads to him almost being expelled, falling in love with the professor’s daughter and even delivering his professor’s grandson in an empty classroom without any electricity (not only because he’s a genius, but because Indian films always have to end with drama).

Upon release, it became hugely popular all over the world, including the East and West and held the record for the highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time for four years. A Tamil version of the film also became a commercial success and there are ongoing talks about a Chinese remake by Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) and a Hollywood remake as well.

Dev D (2009)

In the last two decades Bollywood has been gifted with some talented directors who were willing to take a risk with their story, beating the convention of formulaic films that enviably guaranteed box office hits. Leading this fearless pack is Anurag Kashyap. To give you an idea of his nature, he openly cited “I am an atheist. Cinema is the only religion I believe in” – that after living in a highly religious country like India. His ideas are reflected in the films he makes and the risks he takes.

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Take Dev D, it was his (modern and audacious) take on Devdas – one of India’s most classic love stories and a film that’s been remade more than 10 times in several different languages by notable Indian directors such as Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansaali. As much as India prides itself on being the land of the Kamasutra, until the last two years kissing was still seen as taboo on screen.

And here’s Kashyap in 2009 lavishly flaunting rules to create his own – showing sex, kissing, drugs and using psychedelic music to tell the story of a forlorn guy who’s overly sceptical of the girl he loves and overly ashamed of the girl he wants. It’s a dark, modern story told aesthetically and stylistically, not ashamed to hold up the mirror at Indian society and how its patriarchal society perceive relationships and its values.

Rock On!! (2008)

Many people consider Bollywood movies ‘musicals’, but they’re actually just like any Hollywood movie, with songs interspersed in between for good measure. These songs serve different purposes – they break the narrative, give the audience an ‘item number’ (usually a high-energy song featuring a skimpily-clad heroine, which is then played at various festivals and at parties). But some songs actually tell stories in themselves and that’s the part that Rock On!! gets spot-on.

India has a bigger rock scene than most people give it credit for and Rock On!! is the only Bollywood film I remember based purely on (brilliant) rock music. Four-piece band Magik win a talent hunt, which leads to a recording deal. The clauses in this contract lead to friction among the band and disperses its members. A decade later, a chance encounter leads to an opportunity of a reunion but it’s up to them to see whether they can leave their past difference behind and rediscover the magic (pun intended).

Actors generally lip sync their songs, but for this role, lead singer Farhan Akhtar actually learnt to play the guitar and sang his own songs. Accompanied by a stellar supporting cast, excellent editing and one of the best soundtracks in years, it was an experience for any musician or non-musician alike. It’s no surprise then that Rock On 2, which releases later this year, has become one of the most anticipated films of 2016.

A Wednesday (2008)

Bollywood often (blatantly) copies the West and constantly draws inspiration it. Therefore, it’s a pleasant surprise when a low budget film becomes a massive hit, owing largely to word-of-mouth publicity and leads to a Hollywood remake.

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A policeman who’s about to retire narrates the frightful incident of events that unfolded on one afternoon (a Wednesday) where a man threatened to harm thousands of civilians if his demands of the release of four militants were not met. He then kills three of them and informs the police that they were responsible for carrying around the 2006 Mumbai train bombings that sent shockwaves throughout the country, so he was only avenging the loss of a nation. The policeman and the man meet briefly but the former doesn’t reveal his name, in order to not hurt religious sentiments. He says the incident cannot be found in written records, except for the ones who witnessed it and concluded by saying that he doesn’t regret anything that happened.

If the script sounds familiar it’s because the 2013 Ben Kingsley and Ben Cross film A Common Man is an official remake of A Wednesday.

Fashion (2008)

Director Madhur Bhandarkar loves making films based on the realities of professions that are considered glamorous but are a mystery to those on the outside. In Fashion, he gives a detailed account of the cut-throat modelling industry – how its gains are short-lived, you’re dealing with people who’re out to get you at every turn and its notorious underbelly of drugs and promiscuity.

In some parts, it almost plays out like a well-told documentary of the rise, fall and comeback of one model – played stunningly by Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra, who herself went from being Miss World to finally being taken seriously for her acting chops.

It accurately portrays how people’s perceptions and attitudes toward you change based on your stature in society and how friendships are transient in a world where each person is only concerned about themselves. Drawing from previous inspiration, she and her co-star Kangana Ranaut were both awarded the National Award for the film. It was one of the first out-and-out women-centric Bollywood movies to achieve both widespread critical and commercial acclaim.

Black Friday (2007)

Despite being a Bollywood film, Black Friday is probably the only film I know to have released abroad two years earlier than it released in India. The film is about the 1993 Mumbai riots and it’s based on journalist Husain Zaidi’s brilliant and well-researched book of the same name. It revolves around police commissioner Rakesh Maria’s investigation of the blasts.

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Unlike the movie Talvar featured above, director Anurag Kashyap took a brave decision not to change any of the characters names, thus revealing exactly who the main players were on that sad and fateful day that brought India’s financial capital to its knees. This decision led to its delayed release because legal proceedings were still on. The movie could thus affect the public’s decision and thereby affect the outcome of the court proceedings.

Kashyap deserves credit for not being biased and telling the story from each of the central characters’ point of view – inspector Rakesh Maria, notorious underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim, Tiger Memon and one of the main bombers Badshah Khan. Another brilliant decision was to use rock band Indian Ocean to provide the music, sidestepping traditional Bollywood composers. This resulted in one of the most haunting, yet spine-chilling soundtracks I’ve heard. The song Bandeh still gives me the shivers.

The movie also features a stunning 12-minute chase around Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi slums – a scene that British director Danny Boyle cited as inspiration for his Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire released in 2008.

Jab We Met (2007)

Director Imtiaz Ali is a genius when it comes to telling strong stories around a central lead, relating to matters of the heart. The trouble is that he sometimes does it in a roundabout way that sometimes confuses Indian audiences, who’ve become accustomed to predictable plots – i.e. boy meets girl, they fall in love, come across a few obstacles, but overcome them to live happily ever after.

For example, in 2014’s Highway he portrayed a woman falling in love with her kidnapper because being kidnapped and on the run gave more freedom than she ever experienced at home. In 2015’s Tamasha, he showed two people who meet as strangers, take on false identities and fall in love, then meet years where the girl convinces the guy that his false identity makes him unique – not his boring, everyday-Joe avatar.

Jab We Met (when we met) is Ali’s most well-known hit, mainly because of the bubbly and talkative Geet (Kareena Kapoor) and her chemistry with her then-boyfriend (Shahid Kapoor) who plays a wealthy, but shy industrialist. Over the course of the film, we see them crossing paths, confused about their feelings for each other. However, if you’re looking for great Bollywood rom-com that’ll leaving your laughing and crying in equal measure, then this is a must-watch. Unlike his other films, both characters were relatable, likeable and its premise of underlying feelings of romance that cannot always be expressed in words resonated with a mass audience.

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Taare Zameen Par (2007)

The Indian education system is both a blessing and a curse. You only need to look at the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, MasterCard and Adobe for evidence of the former. For those less gifted mentally, however, it can be very challenging. This beautifully-scripted movie tells a story of highly-talented but dyslexic child Ishaan, who is expected to shine in a normal world, and rebuked when compared to his high-achieving brother and friends.

When a new art teacher Ram (Aamir Khan, again) who suffered from the same condition as a child realises what he’s going through, he confronts Ishaan’s parents who fail to believe that there’s something wrong with their child. He makes it his mission to train the child using dyslexic remedial techniques and even encourages him by saying that some of history’s greatest minds (Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday and Leonardo da Vinci) were dyslexic. The movie ends with a touching drawing competition, which Ishaan wins easily and both he and his parents are grateful for Ram’s guidance.

Having coincided with students’ suicides, which unfortunately are a regular occurrence in India, this film held up the mirror to several parents and forced them to take a look at their children and accept them for what they’re good at, rather than comparing them to other children who meet their aspirations. The film was a massive success, both critically and commercially and even made India’s shortlist for the 2009 Academy Awards.

Chak De India (2007)

Hockey is India’s national sport, yet you wouldn’t say that after seeing how religiously cricket is followed. Likewise, more attention is paid to male sports and female sports are often given second-hand preference. Chak De India was not only a sports movie done right. Its storyline hinged on the success of a woman’s hockey team.

After failing to take India to glory during his playing days, Kabir (played brilliantly by Shah Rukh Khan again) coaches the Indian women’s team, who nobody gives a chance at the World Championships. In the process, he deals with corrupt sports officials and teaches the girls the importance of leaving their egos behind and playing as a team.

In a country where cricket is the equivalent of football in the UK, this was one movie that proved why a nation of a billion people can succeed in other sports, provided they’re given the right motivation and backing. All the young cast (relative unknowns until then) performed commendably in clearly one of India’s best Bollywood sports films of all time. The movie currently available on Netflix.

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Rang De Basanti (2006)

Being a patriotic movie, it was apt that Rang De Basanti was released on India’s Republic Day. However, the movie is so well expected that it arouses patriotic sentiments in you regardless of when you watch it. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 BAFTA Awards and was India’s official submission for the Golden Globe and Academy Awards that year.

The reason why the movie why the movie did so well was because it resonated with the youth of the country – a generation powerful enough to effect change but one that’s brought up conceding that things are often beyond their control because of which they become by-standers to events which they can collectively help prevent.

A young British filmmaker comes across the diary of her grandfather who fought during the Indian Independence movement. Its pages tell the story of five freedom fighters whose roles were pivotal in Indian gaining independence. She decides to make a documentary about these revolutionaries casting five happy-go-lucky students from University of Delhi in the lead roles.

When tragedy strikes the group in real-life, they begin to dig deeper into the death of their friend and discover a conspiracy that will require courage, resilience and belief – something each of them have, but none of them believed they needed. Director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra does a brilliant job of juxtaposing their situation with that of the freedom movement, each of the friends unknowingly taking up roles that India’s freedom fighters did many decades ago. While the independence resulted in the end from the British rule, the boy’s martyrdom prove the catalyst to effect change in the flawed Indian judicial system. The movie also benefitted from an excellent soundtrack courtesy of Grammy-award winner and India’s most popular music composer, A.R. Rahman.

Black (2005)

To give you a sense of Black’s universal appeal, Time magazine ranked it fifth on in its 10 Best Movies of the Year 2005 list. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is well known for his massive and colourful sets and elaborately choreographed dance sequences, this one broke a lot of the Bollywood stereotypes. Most the movie is in black and white, there are very few dialogues (mainly in English) and it has only one song.

Drawing inspiration from Helen Keller’s life, the narrative follows Michelle McNally – a blind-and-deaf girl with an alcoholic teacher Debraj who invests most of his life being her eyes and ears. He perseveres to ensure she lives a normal life, turning her into a mature, confident and bright woman in the process. Just as things peak for the two, Debraj contracts Alzheimers and the roles are reversed. In the latter half of the film, Michelle has to remind her mentor something he taught her all along – the resilience to overcome adversity and the importance of living.

Aided by a brilliant script and cinematography, this movie achieved something few of its predecessors could – it gave you empathy for the maimed, giving you an insight into their lives and how it’s often fraught with difficulties, challenges and obstacles that are similar to ours.

Dhoom (2004)

Most people wouldn’t include Dhoom in this list, but the movie surpassed my expectations purely because of the fact that I went into the theatre for laughs and came out wanting to buy a bike (literally at the second, without even knowing how to ride one) and become a thief. It’s the same sentiment you get after watching Fast And The Furious. It was one of the best heist movies that Bollywood pulled off.

Dhoom was an expected hit because it resonated with thousands of people more because of the stylish way in which it was executed, than because of its storyline. It featured a constant cat and mouse chase, an undercover agent and a great final showdown between hero and villain. One of the biggest hits of 2004, it was sleek, suave and yet smart – a combination Bollywood is not especially known for. It’s also one of the few Bollywood films to have spawned two successful sequels, each one more successful than the last.

Swades (2004)

After the success of 2001’s Lagaan, all eyes were on director Ashutosh Gowariker, even more so because this time he collaborated with an even bigger Khan – arguably the country’s biggest superstar, Shah Rukh Khan. The result was another film with a simple script that was executed to perfection, even though it didn’t inspire the same national fervour in people as Lagaan did. In comparison, Swades took its time to be appreciated but it’ll still go down as one of the finest movies of its time.

It follows Mohan Bhargava, a NASA scientist who returns to India to bring his grandmother to America, so she can live out the rest of her days in comfort. While meeting her, he’s forced to experience lives in India’s villages and its stark comparison with the lives of village-folk in the affluent Western countries. Ironically, even though the villages are responsible for more than half of India’s food produce, their living situations are far direr than the plush metropolitan cities.

Bhargava finds himself sucked into their lives, helping them build a hydro-electric power plant to combat the irregular power supply in the village and make it self-sufficient. After finishing his project with NASA, he decides to return to India, realising his Ivy-league education and experience could help make a bigger impact to the rural folk than the brilliant minds at the space agency.

It addresses the problem with India’s youth who seek greener pastures abroad when there is so much that’s yet to be accomplished (relatively easily) in their own motherland.

Munna Bhai MBBS (2003)

We’re told to never judge a book by its cover. Yet, it’s easy to form a preconceived notion about a movie after seeing its cast, poster and trailer. I did the same with Munna Bhai MBBS, assuming it was a silly attempt at comedy featuring an actor known for his action roles. But when I left the theatre I had a stitch in my side and a tear in my eye.

‘Bhai’ means two things in Hindi. Its literal meaning is ‘brother’, but its slang meaning is ‘gangster’. Munna is a gangster from Mumbai with a big heart and a conscience (like a brother, see). His conscience is so big, in fact, that whenever his parents visit him, he transforms his place into a hospital pretending to be a doctor, so as not to keep a promise he made to them. His secret is exposed when he’s told to marry a fellow doctor, after which he must prove to his parents, future wife and her family that he ‘can become’ a qualified doctor.

The movie bears a striking similarities to the Robin Williams-starrer Patch Adams because of the way in which Munna trains to become a doctor using unconventional techniques of love, laughter and his famous ‘jaddu ki jhappi’ (magic hug) – that became the movie’s trademark. The movie was also reviewed by the prestigious British Medical Journal and it spawned off a successful sequel Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Keep Going Munna Bhai).

Lagaan (2001)

No movie to date has invoked more national pride in me than Lagaan (Taxation). While the British rule brought several good things to India – namely the Indian railways and English education – some sections of society also faced very difficult times, none more so than the Indian farmers.

Made on a then-gigantic budget of $8 million, Lagaan was set in the Victorian period of India’s colonial rule. It’s 1893 in a small village of Bikaner, during the height of the British Empire in India. The country is undergoing severe drought because of which the Indian villagers are unable to pay their taxes. The commanding officer of the district (played by Arrow’s Paul Blackthorne) offers to cancel the taxes of the region for three years if the local villagers can beat his team to a cricket match. If they lose, however, they pay three times the taxes!

Having never previously played the game, the Indians are aided by the commanding officer’s sister (The L Word’s Rachel Shelley), who takes pity on the villagers and falls in love with its charismatic leader. What follows is a lesson in unity, teamwork, sportsmanship and patriotism. Aamir Khan (again) was simply outstanding as the protagonist, Bhuvan.

The three-hour epic earned India its last Oscar nomination in the Best International Film category and deservedly so. In the last six years, it ranked 55 in Empire magazine’s ‘The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema’ and Time magazine special ‘The all-time 25 best sports movies’.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

15 years later, Dil Chahta Hai still remains one of the biggest cult films of our generation. It was the first Bollywood movie I remember which revolved around three best friends and the problems they encounter as they face life’s decisions, responsibilities and their roundabout love lives. On the surface, it sounds like any 90s US sitcom. But where the movie succeeded was in its sheer honesty. Every person I knew see themselves in each of the three central characters – Akash, Sameer and Sid.

The credit of film’s success rightfully went to then 27-year old director Farhan Akhtar, who clearly drew from his life experiences while writing and directing the film. It was refreshing to see someone so young aptly explain the problem with the current generation. Akhtar has since made the successful transition to actor, with movies like Rock On!! And Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara – the latter bears a similar underlying friendship theme to DCH.

Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hain (2000)

Up until Hrithik Roshan graced our screens in his debut film, it was perfectly normal for Bollywood heroes to display a protruding belly on screen and have two left feet. Starring in his father’s home production, the younger Roshan set the screen ablaze with his eight-pack abs and suave dance moves, which have now become the minimum requirement for any aspiring young Bollywood male actor. His was – without a doubt – one of the best male debuts I’ve ever witnessed in the history of cinema. Every girl I knew had a poster of him, and every guy wanted to be as good-looking, well-built and charming as him.

In the first half, he plays a simple kid who makes music and falls in love with a girl, Sonia. But when he witnesses a crime being committed, the villain orders for him to be killed. Sonia’s parents suggest she visit her cousins in New Zealand to help her get over her grief. But she strangely bumps into a carbon copy of her lost boyfriend – only a cooler version of him. As the film unravels, they identify the killer and fall in love. The film picked up almost every major movie award that year and as for Hrithik… let’s just say Bollywood has never experienced such a phenomenal debt for any male actor before or since.

Satya (1998)

During an era when romantic feel-good movies with dependable actors were the rage, director Ram Gopal Verma (RGV) made this dark, crime film with a lead cast comprising solely of TV and theatre stars on a (then) shoestring budget of £200,000. Little did he know that by doing so, he would give birth to the ‘gangster’ genre in Bollywood.

Satya chronicles the life of an ordinary man who comes to Mumbai (called ‘the city of dreams’) to forge his own. Violent, fearless and practical, he soon becomes the right-hand man of a gang-leader. It depicts a side of Mumbai many know exist but few get to witness – crude, dark, unforgiving, brutal and merciless. The script was tactfully written using everyday language without affecting the fragile Indian sensibilities.

The movie and its 2002 sequel Company did equally well, earning rave reviews despite its dark theme of the Mumbai underworld. Unfortunately, not all future gangster movies (even ones directed by RGV later) achieved the same impact. What made Satya brilliant was that RGV wasn’t aiming for brilliance. The characters all have their flaws, but that’s what makes them believable. The fact that RGV could pull this off with a group of unknowns is even more commendable because Bollywood is an industry where the presence of one actor (name any of the Khans) can pull in millions to the theatre.

Almost two decades later, Satya still maintains its cult having set the benchmark for what a gripping gangster film should be. Indian directors may not research Coppola extensively, but if they’ve taken footnotes from Satya and Company, then they’re on the right path. Each of the dark, gangster films you’ve read about before this – all owe some credit to Satya and RGV.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

A story about love, friendship and romance, this Karan Johar film comes a close second to DDLJ (below) when it comes to the best romantic Bollywood movies of all time. After lighting up the screens with their chemistry in DDLJ, Shah Rukh and Kajol (Anjali) teamed up again for yet another tear-jerking love story in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH).

They start off as best friends in high school but Shah falls in love with and marries another girl. His wife dies while giving birth to their child (also named Anjali), but not before she leaves her daughter a series of letters on each of her birthdays. In her seventh birthday letter, her mother tells her about Kajol and how she’s the only person that can replace her absence in both her life and that of her father. Thus, our young star sets off in search for her father’s former best friend. Only problem is, she’s already engaged to get married.

KKHH succeeded because it introduced a spanner in the works, just when you thought you could predict what’s going to happen next. It was the epitome of a good 1990’s film, ticking all the right boxes – cast, music, script, story and a happy ending. It’s available on Netflix.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

Ask anyone to name their top three romantic Bollywood movies and this movie (DDLJ) will almost definitely feature (if not top) their list. It has all the ingredients of a great romantic film, without being a Nicholas Sparks novel. DDLJ has a heart-wrenching script, great chemistry between the leads, a storyline that leaves you guessing until the very end, rooting for the (spoilt-brat of a) hero and their (eventual) happy ending.

Before getting married to her father’s best friend’s son (and someone she hasn’t even met yet – yes, that’s still common in India), Simran requests her father’s permission to go on a Eurotrip with her friends. Little does she realise, she’ll fall in love with the brat, who’ll capture her heart, crash her wedding and literally steal her away on her wedding day (which roughly translates to the English meaning of the film).

It cemented Shah Rukh Khan as ‘King Khan’ and his pairing with Kajol as the nation’s favourite onscreen couple. Unlike the commercial roles he does today, Shah Rukh was genuine, charming and could make any girl’s heart melt by simply gazing at the screen. Kajol, on the other hands, was the epitome of grace and had terrific screen presence. The movie holds the world record for the only one to be screened at a theatre for 20 consecutive years (from its release until February 2015).

Andaz Apna Apna (1994)

Most Bollywood movies require a certain level of suspension of disbelief – ‘leave your brains at home if you want to enjoy it’ and Andaz Apna Apna (everyone has their own style) definitely falls into this category. The film didn’t do well upon release but, its cult status has only grown with time.

Andaz Apna Apna has everything in pairs – two lead roles, two rich daughters, two rich dads. The leads want to fall in love with the rich guy’s daughter, not realising that she’s a decoy and her secretary is actually the real daughter. The rich dad has a twin brother, who’s a gangster wanted by the infamous Crime Master Gogo. When all these characters paths collide, hilarity ensues but – like we said – leave your brains at home because the situations you see here will never unfold in real life. It’s one of the best films if you want to reminiscence simpler times and have three hours to kill. Again, it’s available on Netflix.

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992)

Until JJWS (whoever wins is king), Bollywood never really experimented with sports-themed movies. It bears certain similarities with the 1979 Dennis Quaid-starrer Breaking Away, in terms of its high-adrenalin cycle chases but while that movie gravitated towards friendship, JJWS is a story about retribution, classism and the importance of family in the Indian society.

It portrays diverse Indian towns where the rich live next to the poor, having certain advantages being at the higher end of the social spectrum. In an inter-college marathon cycle race, the rich kid wins because he has a superior bike. The following year, the loser’s young, rebellious and bratty brother seeks to avenge his brother’s loss, after he briefly abandons his family for a girl.

The film was an instant success and added to Aamir Khan’s credibility as a young star, coming off the back of his other success Quayamat Se Qayamat Tak a few years earlier.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988)

Of course there were love stories before Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, but none were done so aesthetically, none left you rooting for the couple and none left you teary eyed during the emotional conclusion. It was a film by Mansoon Khan, but it had all the makings of the classic it was inspired from – Romeo And Juliet.

The film launched the career of the actor who appears the most within this list and for right measure – Aamir Khan. His Papa Kehte Hain song from this movie still remains one of the most famous acoustic farewell college songs. It was a great departure from the masala films dominating its day and was one of the first truly remarkable love stories despite having a predictable story that most of us today are familiar with – warring families on opposite sides of the spectrum, children that fall in love despite that, eloping and living a brief happy life before being chased down and sacrificing their lives to live happy ever after for eternity.

Salaam Bombay (1988)

A British friend of mine visited Mumbai a few years back. She described her first impression of the city as ‘an assault on her senses’ – sights, sounds, smells. She also described the strange experience of seeing small children begging at every traffic signal she stopped at. While it’s something we Indians are not proud of, it’s a common occurrence.

It was brave of filmmaker Mira Nair (The Namesake) then to gather these street kids and make a movie around their daily plight, giving us an insight into the impoverished yet joyful world that they inhabit, which includes train stations, bazaars (markets) and red-light districts where many of them live.

What was even more commendable was that the entire cast (including the brilliant lead actor Shafiq Syed) was selected after rounding up a group of these street kids and talking to them about their experiences. They were then enlisted for weeks in a workshops, not to teach them acting but how to behave in front of the lens. Also, the entire film was shot on location. She even used hidden cameras to capture the audience’s natural reactions.

The result was a string of victories that will make any seasoned star envious – National Award for Best Hindi Film, the Golden Camera and Audience Awards at Cannes, three awards at the Montreal World Film Festival and a feature in the list of ‘The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made by the New York Times. It was India’s second official nomination at the prestigious Academy Awards.

Mr India (1987)

Long before Shekhar Kapur directed Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, he directed this intricate movie with an infamous villain (whose tag lines are still famous), a scintillating Bollywood item song and an honest hero who discovers a family heirloom that makes him invisible (maybe JK Rowling took inspiration?).

Two of Bollywood’s then leading actors turned down the lead, making a star out of Slumdog Millionaire and 24’s Anil Kapoor in the process. Arun, an honest peasant, tries to make the most of his little means, when he’s informed about a device created by his father that makes the wearer invisible. He uses this to help people save India from annihilation from the evil Mogambo.

The film achieved cult status because of two reasons – Sridevi’s unforgettable Miss Hawa Hawaii performance (see video) and Amrish Puri’s memorable performance as India’s most well-loved villain, Mogambo.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

Despite being a multicultural, democratic country, religion is a very sensitive topic in India and Bollywood is no exception to this rule. Another brilliant ‘masala’ film, Amar Akbar Anthony is a masterclass on how to take a sensitive topic, combine it with the right script and cast to create a thoroughly enjoyable film.

It follows the fate of three children who are abandoned by their father, after which each of them are adopted into different religions. Amar (a Hindu), Akbar (a Muslim) and Anthony (a Catholic) grow up as different people until fate brings them together at a blood donation drive for their… wait for it, their mother, who absconded them as a child. Their lives (and love lives) are then intertwined and religion plays an important role in the paths they choose to take.

Sholay (1975)

Sholay (fire) will go down in history as Bollywood biggest ‘cult’ film. It’s hard to imagine that upon its release, it was reviewed negatively and the director even considered re-shooting the end to pander to audience sentiments. However, it soon gained traction and became a sudden overnight success, running consecutively for more than five years at Mumbai’s Minerva theatre. Adjusted for inflation, it’s probably one of the most successful Bollywood films of all time.

In terms of the plot, it drew inspiration heavily from the West, with a huge cast and multi-layered plot. Styled after Akiro Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, it drew heavily from 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West and John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. It also defined the term ‘masala film’, which contain several genres (mainly drama, action and romance) rolled into one. This became Bollywood’s go-to benchmark for success for years to come.

A retired policeman summons a pair of thieves he once arrested to help him capture the notorious dacoit, Gabbar Singh. En route to doing that, we’re privy to Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai and Dharmendra’s Veeru blossoming friendship and how they fall in love with two villagers. It’s a story about friendship, love, trust and sacrifice, smattered with action and adventure for good measure.

Anand (1971)

This is one of the ultimate feel-good films which didn’t boast a big budget, a stellar cast or lavish sets. It simply relied on the power of a heart-warming script. It’s a tale of resilience and how some people choose to put smile on others’ face, regardless of the dire situations they’re in.

Anand means ‘happy’ in Hindi, but it’s also a popular Indian name. During his practice as a youngster, cancer specialist Bhaskar (the ever-dependable Amitabh Bachchan) meets Rajesh Khanna’s Anand – a cheerful person who’s intent on living life to the fullest before his intestinal cancer gets the better of him. Shortly before dying, he brings happiness into Bhaskar’s life by helping him muster the courage to propose a patient he fell in love with but couldn’t confess to.

The film relied hugely on tugging with people’s heartstrings and the title served a good reminder of being grateful for what you have, than aspiring for things you can’t. The entire film was shot in less than one month and swept the local awards shows that year.

Guide (1965)

People often remember Guide as India’s official Oscar submission that year or as the first movie which bagged Best Film, Director, Actor and Actress at the country’s prestigious Filmfare Awards. However, few remember that the movie was first shot in English as lead actor Dev Anand felt it would be better suited for a Western audience.

This version was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. Adapted from R.K.Narayan’s book of the same name, the movie failed to make an impact in the West, but the Bollywood version had the opposite effect. Time magazine listed it at number four on its list of Best Bollywood classics.

A witty and gifted tour guide falls in love with a married woman and encourages her to pursue her dream of dancing, which is frowned upon by society. As her manager, his attitude changes and he’s put behind bars for forging her signature. What follows, is a glorious turn of events as despair, poverty and loneliness engulf him until he finds a group of sadhus (holy men) that will change the course of his life forever. When the two meet again at the end of the movie, they are both very different people.

The film was screened at the 2007 Cannes Festival, 42 years after its release to a rousing reception. It was aided by a stunning soundtrack by composer S.D. Burman.

Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

India has a strong historical past, with its many notable Mughal kings and rulers – of course, we’re talking even before the British Empire. This three-hour film was the first to depict the grandeur and majesty of Mughal dynasty. No expense was spared in the making of this classic. To give you an example of that, the budget of a single song sequence exceeded that of a typical film during its era.

Inspired by real-life events, it tells the story of Emperor Akbar and his son Prince Salim. The heir to the throne falls in love with a court-dancer Anarkali. Going against his father’s wishes, this results in a massive war between father and son, leading to the Price’s imprisonment. Anarkali then trades her life for the Prince’s. However, the Emperor is forced to honour a promise he made to her mother at birth.

It achieved commercial success twice – upon release, and 44 years later, when it was re-released in colour in 2004. Its soundtrack (by Lata Mangeshkar – called the ‘Nightingale of India’) is often cited as one of the finest in Bollywood’s history.

Mother India (1957)

One of India’s earliest-known ‘epics’, Mother India metaphorically represents India as a nation in the immediate aftermath of independence from the British rule. It also symbolises the strength of the Indian woman, who steadfastly holds on to her strong values despite facing constant difficulties from society.

A young woman’s life is made hell but a cunning money-lender. She struggles to raise her children after losing her husband to poverty and hardship, but never once discards her strong values. Her children then take on her mantle, but one of them grow up to be a gangster and is out for revenge. In a heart-wrenching finale, she refuses to let go of her ideals, even if it comes at her child’s expense.

It was the most expensive Bollywood film ever produced and earned the highest revenue for any Hindi film at that time. One of the first Bollywood productions to feature a Hollywood-style orchestra as a musical backdrop, it was India’s first official nomination for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

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