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.
Sholay: The 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.