Friday, November 19, 2010

The 10 best movies about India – Part 1

A few weeks ago, a reader Mike asked me for a list of movies about India.

First, a few caveats.

I've intended this list for a Western (non-Indian) audience.

Undertakings like this (listing movies that capture India well) are inherently flawed. India is so vast and diverse that it resists encapsulation. I have spent half my life in the country, I visit it every so often, and yet the country never ceases to amaze me.

In order to limit the scope, I have only included Hollywood movies about India. And I have only included movies that I have seen. (If I included Bollywood and regional Indian movies, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.)

For many of these movies, it has been years since I viewed them, so I am going based on what still lingers in my memory.

Here then are ten movies which, taken together, will give the viewer a good perspective on life in India, its landscape and its people.

I'll post five today, starting with the "classics."

1. Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough) – I still remember the hype around the release of this movie. I also recall that I was surprised that the director had cast someone who wasn’t from India (Ben Kingsley) in the lead role. But the hype was justified, and the movie delivered. There are a few good scenes where we get to see Gandhi growing and becoming the revered leader he ended up as. The following year, the movie won 8 Oscars, including best picture.

2. City of Joy (1992, Rolan Jaffe) – Ten years after 'Gandhi' came the 'City of Joy.' I had just come to the US, and watched it here in my university. It is undeniably a Hollywood-version of the slums and the tough lives of those in Calcutta, and contrasts the lives of a doctor from Texas and a rickshaw puller. Patrick Swayze and Om Puri excel in their performances.

3. Salaam Bombay (1988, Mira Nair) – A realistic movie about the life of the street kids of Bombay. NYC-based director Mira Nair made her name with this movie. She is tough and doesn't pull her punches. The movie ends up being educational for us the audience just as it does for Krishna, the boy hailing from a village learns the scrappy ways of the Bombay underworld.

4. Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair) – Yes, another film by Mira Nair. (I too am surprised that two of her movies made it into this list.) A very neat idea of making a movie around all the machinations that go into an elaborate Indian wedding. It appealed to the Western audiences as they glimpsed the inner-workings, and the Indian audiences liked it because they could relate to the events. And this being a Mira Nair movie, the plot line does not get diluted down into a syrupy comedy.

5. Fire, Earth, Water: The Deepa Mehta Trilogy. (1996, 1998, 2005) India-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta is comfortable making movies that deal with mature themes. Fire deals with the story of one joint family, with two brothers, their wives and the mother-in-law and a servant all living under one roof, and the ensuing complex interactions. Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das light up the screen, and some of the themes that Deepa touches on had the audiences squirming. I haven't yet watched Earth. The movie Water (2005) is about the lives of destitute widows in the city of Varanasi, and it received a lot of critical acclaim and it was an eye-opener for me.

Looking at the list above, I see that it has turned out to be more somber than I intended it to be. Nor do they add up to give a sense of life in India. (Maybe even 10 movies is too few.) I'll post some of the more contemporary ones in part two of this list.

I am sure I have missed tons of other good movies about India. If you think of others, do add them in the comments section.


  1. Among these five, I have seen Gandhi and Monsoon wedding. These were good movies and I liked both equally.

  2. @Savaari,

    Thanks. You should check out the others. I also posted the next 5 in the next post.


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