100 Years of Hindi Film History in 10 Movies

This is to help sort of orient you to Indian film history.  A big accepted “classic” from each decade that will help you understand how the industry grew and changed.  I don’t promise that you will be able to find and watch each of them (the website indiancine.ma is a fantastic resource you might want to try), but you should at least be familiar with the titles of these films and what they meant.  And if you are familiar with the titles, feel free to tell me what you think in the comments, especially any Timeless Films that I may have missed including UPDATE: This is now the original version of the post, based on the comments I updated it considerably, but I kept this original version for reference and to save your brilliant comments.

1910s: Raja Harischandra (1913): A mythological telling the story of a king from the Ramayana.  The first Indian film, made by the first Indian director/producer Dadasaheb Phalke, father of Indian film.  It was an immediate massive success, leading to the founding of Phalke studios and a new industry in India.

The first narrative film of any kind was The Great Train Robbery only 10 years before this.  Raja Harischandra can easily stand next to any film from any country made in that same year.  It’s existence is a contradiction to the idea of Indian film as an “imitation” of any other industry.  It is its own industry, with its own artistic tradition and work methods and everything else.

1920s: A Throw of the Dice (1929):  Another mythological, telling the story of a prince from the Mahabharata.  The first big hit of Bombay Talkies, which was the first big professional studio in Bombay.  Directed by Franz Osten and funded by German money, but produced by an Indian couple who also starred, Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai.  The start of the professional studio era of Hindi film, a brief era, but one that had long ranging effects through all the many many artists trained at Bombay Talkies and by Devika Rani, the guiding force.

Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai were both trained in Europe, and brought a greater level of technical expertise to their films.  But I want to be clear, they were still making Indian films.  The training they received was a mixture of make-up lessons from Elizabeth Arden, a few months of acting training, and visiting film sets in Germany.  They took that mish-mosh of knowledge and turned it into something that would work in the Indian context, in mythologicals with grand stories and big stars.

1930s: Jeevan Naiya (1936):  A Bombay Talkies picture and one that marked the beginning of the Star system in Hindi film.  It launched Ashok Kumar, Hindi films first Star.  From then on, rather than everyone in the studio pulling together equally, the Star was something special, something extra, and everyone else followed his lead.  Within ten years, Ashok was unofficially running Bombay Talkies.

Bombay Talkies began as essentially a film factory.  You had a salary and you came to work every day and learned what they wanted you to learn, whether you were an editor or an actor.  Everyone was equal.  Once Ashok took off, the system began to change, not that the stars had to work less than everyone else, but that they had to work much more.  A star was also a part-time director, producer, editor, writer.  The connective tissue that held all the elements of a film together and made sure all artists on it were working towards the same goal.  As the in house Star, Ashok slowly took over the running of Bombay Talkies, and eventually brought it to the new era as a star-based Banner, not a studio based around turning out films at regular intervals.

1940s: Sikander (1941): Hard to pick a film for this era.  I went with Sikander because it is a good example of the ambition of Indian film in this era, and the patriotism.  A historical film about Sikander and King Porus, it also includes a barely veiled message to Indian soldiers to mutiny and refuse to fight for their British commanders.  It was blacklisted for a while by the British Army, not allowed to be shown to the soldiers.  Stars Prithviraj Kapoor, the second Star of Hindi film and founder of the Kapoor Family.

Sikander was also part of the new type of film.  Produced by Sohran Modi who also starred and directed.  It was made by people who were only together for this one film, not a factory system churning out film after film.  And then they dispersed.

1950s: Awara (1951): The 1950s are generally considered the Golden Era of Indian film, and this is the film that set that off.  An RK Studios film, the first massive blockbuster hit of Hindi film.  And also the first massive international hit, hugely popular all over the world, especially in Russia.  A prime example of such features of Indian film as the childhood flashback, the fantasy song, and the childhood love story.  And the all time top romantic couple of Indian film, Raj Kapoor and Nargis.

After Awara, Raj Kapoor was the King of Hindi film.  And remained the King for, well, ever!  He invented many of the elements that are now considered common in Indian film.  And he was a passionate visionary, opening up a beautiful new world for the audience, the world of Hindi film that we all still live in.

1960s: Teesri Manzil (1966):  A silly happy romance wrapped in a murder mystery and topped with rock and roll influenced hit songs.  The 60s were the era of Shammi Kapoor, of young love and escapism, without the social message the filled the films of the 1950s.

By the 1960s, the Star System was firmly in place.  Films were developed around particular lead actors more than anything else, and those lead actors added their own unique touch.  Teesri Manzil was, and is, a beloved movie not because of the director Vijay Anand or writer Nasir Hussain, or even the RD Burman soundtrack, but because of Shammi.

1970s: Deewar (1974):  This is the film that defined a generation, a country, everything.  The anger of the young post-colonial man, who feels like the promise of freedom has been taken from him, like the world has turned against him and he must fight back by fair means or foul.  Deewar literally looms large in Bombay, two massive fan murals of the hero Amitabh Bachchan dominate the Bandra neighborhood where Amitabh lives.  The dialogues, the images, the stars, the are ingrained in the Indian psyche in the way no other film is (except Sholay).

Written by the writing duo Salim-Javed (Salim Khan, father of Salman Khan, and Javed Akhtar, father of Farhan and Zoya Akhtar), and directed by Yash Chopra.  Besides Amitabh it features a packed cast of Parveen Babi, Raakhee, Neetu, and of course Shashi Kapoor.  It caused a seismic shift in the film industry, no more would there be superficial romances and happy rich people, now we would see the gritty reality of the streets, lead by the angry lowerclass young man of Amitabh Bachchan.  Ironic, considering Amitabh himself had an extremely upperclass (although not wealthy) upbringing.

1980s: Chandni (1989): The 1980s were a bit of an interregnum in Indian film.  Leadership had passed smoothly from Ashok Kumar to Raj Kapoor to Shammi Kapoor to Amitabh (with some stops along the way with other stars).  But in the 80s, Amitabh retired temporarily and there was no one to take his place.  In the midst of this turmoil, there were a few beautiful films that had the opportunity to come out, including this one.

By the 1980s, Indian film was no longer transitioning as an industry, it had a set pattern to it.  Most films were made by one man “banners”, producers or producer/director/writers who would have an idea, struggle to find a star to back it, and then find funding based on that star’s name.  Chandni is one of the best examples of this era, a brilliant producer/director (Yash Chopra) who had a distinctive vision of what he wanted to make, and was able to find perfect collaboration for his vision in his stars, Sridevi and Vinod Khanna and Anil Kapoor.  It was also a massive hit, a sign that the audience was shifting away from the angry violent young man of Amitabh, and more towards romance.

1990s: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995): The longest running film in the history of Hindi film, 22 years and counting.  It declared a new era of Indian film, an era when the films would actively look beyond Indian shores.  Our hero and heroine were born and brought up abroad, a first.  And it played all over the world, and played shockingly well.  Theaters in LA had to add a 5th showtime at 3am (to go with their 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, and midnight shows) because the crowds filled the lobby demanding tickets.

It declared a new era of production as well.  The young people were taking over.  Aditya Chopra, the director, was not yet 25 and soon after took over his father’s studio and turned it into the first fully vertically integrated studio in India.  Manish Malhotra did the costumes, he is now the most powerful designer in India.  Karan Johar was assistant director, went on to found his own studio and make his own successful films.  Farah Khan did the most popular song, became the biggest choreographer in India and a successful director in her own right.  And so on and so forth.  The most obvious change was the arrival of the star Shahrukh Khan, the international face of Hindi film from then on.

2000s: 3 Idiots (2009): A tragicomedy about life at an engineering college, the stresses and joys and jokes of it all.  It broke box office records that seemingly could never be broken, starting a new era of massive profits (and massive budgets).  It also broke through in the international market in a way that had never been seen before, suddenly Indian film was “mainstream” in a new way, appearing in the top 10 lists of box offices around the world.

Most importantly, it announced a new kind of film, the starless star vehicle.  Aamir Khan was the guiding force behind this film in many ways, designing the promotions and getting in the audience based on his name, not to mention pulling off the role in a way that demanded his particular level of talent and charisma.  But the film itself became what people came in for, the comic set pieces and non-threatening message and relatable version of India.  And the corporate backing, the first big hit of Reliance Entertainment India, but not the last, it proved that a big budget up front followed by a big release and promotion could ensure big profits.



There were some films that are hugely important, but don’t really represent the time they were released, or any time at all.  The float above film history, a goal filmmakers of all eras try to touch and cannot reach.  Timeless Films.

SholayThe Perfect Movie.  The perfect cast, the perfect script, the perfect sound, the perfect wide screen frame, the perfect stunt coordinators, the perfect songs.  There is not one moment that you can imagine being different in anyway, let alone improved upon.

Mughal-E-Azam: the Biggest movie.  Took years to make, to build the sets and coordinate the fight scenes and bring together the best possible cast.  And told the biggest story in Indian history, the biggest emperor and the biggest battle and the biggest love, and told it with a size that did it justice.

Pyaasa: Guru Dutt was the touched-by-God martyr and genius of Indian film.  He brought moving pictures from entertainment to art and then to something more than that, something almost Holy.

Kaagaz Ke Phool: Guru Dutt again.  While Pyaasa was a pure discussion of art and artist, Kaagaz Ke Phool is a love letter to film and the transitory nature of this particular art form.

Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam:  Dutt’s 3rd masterpiece.  Debate rages over whether he ghost-directed it or not, I land firmly on the “yes, obviously he was the real director” side of things.  There’s a certain sensitivity to the underdog, the tormented unhappy ones, which only Dutt can bring.

Guide: Dev Anand took Guru Dutt and put him in color with this film.  It’s big and beautiful, but also sensitive and deep, and yes, Holy.

Devdas (1955):  A story told over and over again, but this is the classic most important version, against which all others are measured.  A forgotten man slipping in to drink, a fallen woman who finds her sense of worth again, and an unnoticed young matron with a love hidden inside.  This is the film that captured the real tragedy of it all.

Pakeezah:  The great female film of Hindi film (tied with the next one).  The story of a “Tawaif”, a dancing girl born in to brothels and how she slowly discovers a faith in herself and in love that lets herself choose a different life.  Plus the last great performance of Meena Kumari, who was literally dying onscreen and passed away as the film released (see also, Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam)

Mother India: An interesting pair with Pakeezah.  The story of a noble farm woman, trapped in her position as wife and then mother, who carries the whole of her community on her long-suffering back.


27 thoughts on “100 Years of Hindi Film History in 10 Movies

    • A Throw of the Dice remastered version used to be streaming on Netflix, which was really cool. But then they pulled it 😦

      On Wed, Dec 6, 2017 at 10:44 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  1. Pingback: Starter Kit Posts Index | dontcallitbollywood

  2. Pingback: Hindi Film 101 Index | dontcallitbollywood

  3. I know you love SRK and you love DDLJ, which is certainly an influential film. But you consistently undervalue (or actually don’t value at all) the importance and impact of HAHK. It certainly deserves its place in your “timeless” films. For one thing, it’s shown on TV at least every couple of weeks, and has solid ratings even after all these years. It was the first Hindi film to open in the top 10 UK films, opening up the foreign market before SRK hit the big time there. It was a direct inspiration for both Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar (as stated by them themselves), and they tried to replicate its story and its “family values” approach in their own films. It is still the second highest grossing film (inflation adjusted) in Hindi film history, second only to Sholay. So how come it has made no impact on you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had it in the timeless list actually and removed it at the last minute, along with Rang De Basanti. Because I wasn’t sure if I was weighing the scale in including it or not. Notice that all the “timeless” ones are much older, so they have been time tested and proved they deserve a place. Since you agree with me that it belongs there, perhaps I should add it in.

      I see you had the same instinct I had that it doesn’t really belong as the 90s movie. It was my first thought for that era, because the content was so influential, but on the other hand in terms of the style and the characters and so on no one else ever came close to it. So it isn’t exactly representative of the 90s, since nothing else is like it. In the same way that Mughal-E-Azam doesn’t really “represent” the 60s, since nothing else was at all like it.


  4. The 80s belongs equally to disco, love marriage of very young people and escaping from your parents’ loving tyranny.It was a little bit different from Amrish Puri’s tyranny in DDLJ.The 80s parents indulged their children in nearly everything and could be persuaded to change their minds.Love Story started it all in 1981 when Kumar Gaurav and Vijayta ran away from overbearing parents and fell in love while being handcuffed together.Then there was Jackie Shroff’s Hero in 1983 with the same problems and indulgent brother.Qayamat se qayamat tak took the theme further in 1988.Sandwiched between these romances were Mithun’s disco movies.Come 1987 it was time for Anil Kapoor to rule the roost.Then it was again time for young love with Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So swap Chandni for Disco Dancer? That would be so hard to do! Chandni is a legitimate great film, if I want someone to respect Hindi film as an art form, I would want them to see it. Disco Dancer……not so much.

      On Wed, Dec 6, 2017 at 1:51 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Heavens no.Mithun definitely takes some getting used to.80s belonged to young love (barely legal at that) and looked their age.Chandni’s leads are a bit older and dare I say a lot more sensible than the movies which I had named.


        • Hmm. I seriously considered Maine Pyar Kiya or QSQT, but they felt more like leading in to the 80s.

          Which would you pick? Hero, MPK, QSQT, Love Story, Karz, Tezaab, or something else?


          • In my current Kumar Gaurav fangirl phase, I might pick Love Story.Especially since our hero is 19 and the heroine is 16.Young love and all that.But really Hero, QSQT or MPK would do equally well.But not Tezaab or Karz since they have other major issues to deal with.


  5. To represent the 1980s, I might pick something with a very 1980s cast and a bit of kitch – Mr India, Hero, Love Story, Nagina, or even Jaanbaaz or Disco Dancer. Otherwise, the 1980s feels like a bunch of late-70s films mixed with a bunch of early-90s films. Chandni, for example, feels like an excellent 70s film, even though it’s almost 1990 by then.

    Or else, when I think History of Indian Cinema and 1980s, I think Parallel Cinema. Really the movies I remember from that decade either come from that movement or are heavily influenced by it (like Salaam Bombay). Unlike any other era, the actors we remember today from that decade come from the parallel movement, not the big budget movies (with a few exceptions, like Sridevi and Anil Kapoor). And the parallel movement is heavily influential today. First, the diaspora audience may have gone gangbusters for HAHK and DDLJ, but it was the parallel films a decade earlier that first grabbed our attention and established us as a demographic – though more at the VHS rental/purchase level than the theater-ticket level. Second, that movement is the precursor to pathbreaking films to follow, like DCH, Saatya, Company, RDB, GOW, and Queen, which in turn influenced mainstream films. Third, that movement is the coda to the more obviously-social-message movies of the b/w era, along with the art and experimentation of the Guru Dutt films, and the precursor to the modern Aamir Khan type of film. So I think it’s a really significant movement that can’t be overlooked when talking about the overall evolution of indian cinema.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Though the 2010s aren’t over yet, what 1-3 movies would you pick so far to represent it? And what are the cinematic evolutions of this decade that you would highlight with your picks?

    I might pick Queen, Bahubali, and GOW, with the themes of the 2010s being movies that are based on storytelling instead of stars, movies that are deeply rooted in india and Indian-ness (after 2 decades of looking outward), movies that are increasingly influenced by western and international films and filmmaking techniques, and movies where the director is the star moreso than the actors. Influential precursors to the 2010s movement might be DCH, RDB, and maybe Black and Omkara.


    • Boy, I’d have a hard time picking a film to represent the 2010s. It feels like we don’t really know what will represent them, not yet. Bahubali will definitely be on the “Timeless” list, but whether it will feel like a representation of the decade as a whole, I can’t say until there are a few years perspective. It should be something that looks back and forward. We know Bajrangi Bhaijaan, for instance, is tied into the feel of the 2000s films like 3 Idiots, but will it be tied forward to whatever comes next? Or will that be something else entirely that’s closer to, I don’t know, ABCD?

      On Wed, Dec 6, 2017 at 6:22 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  7. Pingback: 100 Years of Hindi Film History in 10 Movies | dontcallitbollywood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.