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India's 20 greatest films

Posted by Anuradha Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The list of 20 greatest Indian films ever made. This list emerged from the 'T20 of Indian Cinema' poll in which 20 experts from around the country - 10 young filmmakers and 10 seasoned critics and scholars - participated.


1. Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960, Bengali), directed by Ritwik Ghatak

Cast: Supriya Choudhury, Anil Chatterjee, Bijon Bhattacharya, Geeta Dey

Ritwik Ghatak's most complex melodrama narrates the story of a self-sacrificing woman who puts her wedding on hold because she is the sole breadwinner of a refugee family that barely ekes out a living in Calcutta.

The references to the mythical Durga and Menaka, the innovative use of sound effects and the tempered projection of emotions takes the narrative beyond the story and into terrains of comprehension that are usually beyond the ken of melodramas.

2. Charulata (1964, Bengali), directed by Satyajit Ray

Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sailen Mukherjee

Among Ray's most accomplished cinematic essays, Charulata is a loose adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's Noshto Neer, set against the backdrop of the reform movement in 19th century Bengal.

This tale of loneliness, loss, betrayal and final reconciliation is narrated with wonderful cinematic flourishes.

Among all his films, Charulata was Ray's personal favourite.

3. Pather Panchali (1955, Bengali), directed by Satyajit Ray

Cast: Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Subir Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Chunibala Devi

Satyajit Ray's superb adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee's novel put Indian cinema on the world map.

Even as the film focussed on a poverty-stricken family in rural Bengal, it underscored the invincibility of the human spirit and the magical beauty of the landscape juxtaposed against the misery of the characters that populate it.

4. Sholay (1975, Hindi), directed by Ramesh Sippy

Cast: Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini, Amjad Khan

A hugely successful adventure flick that drew upon conventions of the Western to deliver a pure Bollywood movie experience that remains unmatched to this day.

There was nothing original in the plot or the narrative style, but for its time, Sholay was a huge step forward for popular Hindi cinema, with its top-of-the-line action sequences, its classy cinematography and a clutch of fine performances.

5. Do Bigha Zameen (1953, Hindi), directed by Bimal Roy

Cast: Balraj Sahni, Nirupa Roy, Murad, Jagdeep, Nana Palsikar

This is a tragic drama about a small farmer who is compelled by indebtedness to relocate to the big city and become a rickshaw-puller. Do Bigha Zameen, which exposes the vice-like grip that ruthless zamindars/moneylenders have on agriculture in this country, is generally regarded as one of the earliest and finest examples of "neo-realism" in Indian cinema.

It, however, employs several of Hindi cinema's principal conventions - songs and melodrama, for instance. The film draws much its power from lead actor Balraj Sahni's outstanding performance.

6. Pyaasa (1957, Hindi), directed by Guru Dutt

Cast: Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha, Rehman

Inspired by Saratchandra's novel, Srikanta, Guru Dutt's Pyaasa is the story of poet who has no takers in a nation overrun by philistinism. So he turns his back on his family and lives on the streets, where he encounters a pretty prostitute.

His ex-girlfriend marries a publisher, while the hero is given up for dead when a beggar he had lent his coat to dies. The prostitute has an anthology of his poetry published and he is suddenly hot property.

As his one-time detractors pay tribute to the 'dead' poet, he barges in with a plaintive denunciation of a world that isn't worth living in.

The cinematic mastery on display in Pyaasa has rarely been replicated in mainstream Hindi cinema.

7. Bhuvan Shome (1969, Hindi), directed by Mrinal Sen

Cast: Utpal Dutt, Suhasini Mulay, Sadhu Meher, Shekhar Chatterjee

This small Film Finance Corporation-funded satire was Mrinal Sen's big national-level break. Many also regard it as the film that marked the beginning of the New Indian Cinema movement.

Bhuvan Shome is set in the early years of Independence. An upright Bengali railway official sacks a corrupt ticket collector and then sets off for a holiday in Gujarat. In the dunes of Saurashtra, he meets a young village woman who turns out to be the wife of the man he dismissed from employment. He has a long encounter with her.

The girl's uncomplicated ways disarm the railway officer and by the time he is ready to return, he is man who has begun to see life just a tad differently.

Garam Hawa (1973, Urdu), directed by MS Sathyu

Cast: Balraj Sahni, Dinanath Zutshi, Geeta Siddharth, Shaukat Kaifi, Farouque Shaikh, Jalal Agha

IPTA stage director MS Sathyu's film debut remains to this day the most insightful depiction of the plight of the north Indian Muslim minority at the time of the Partition exodus across the man-made border.

Set in Agra, the story is about an elderly shoe manufacturer and his family who are faced with a crucial question: should they continue to live in India or migrate to the newly-formed state of Pakistan? The prospects are daunting and there is little hope of a future in a climate of distrust and hate.

Sathyu recreates the Partition-era Muslim milieu of Agra with great care and precision and Balraj Sahni, in his last major role, lights up the screen with his magnetic performance.

9. Mother India (1957, Hindi), directed by Mehboob Khan

Cast: Nargis, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar

One of the greatest films ever made in this country, Mother India rightly enjoys the status of a timeless epic. In its grand narrative, it captures aspects of Nehruvian India that are both positive and negative.

As she inaugurates a new irrigation canal, an elderly village woman Radha (Nargis) recalls her past. She bears much pain and hardship to steer her family through severe financial crisis even as she ward off the unwanted attentions of the moneylender.

One of her two surviving sons turns a rebel to settle scores with his family's tormentors, and the mother, an epitome of rectitude, is compelled to shoot him dead.

The film was a powerful allegory for a nation rebuilding itself after centuries of oppression.

10. Ghatashraddha (1973, Kannada), directed by Girish Kasaravalli

Cast: Ajit Kumar, Meena Kuttappa, Ramaswamy Iyengar

Girish Kasaravalli's directorial debut owed its inspiration to the Navya literary movement and Samskara, but in style, substance and treatment it was remarkably original.

Based on a story by UR Ananthamurthy, the film is set in an orthodox 1920s Brahmin village in Karnataka. It chronicles the travails of a child widow as seen through the eyes of a boy. The widow's father runs a school where young boys are taught the scriptures.

The girl becomes pregnant after an affair with a schoolteacher. The boy watches with growing horror as she tries to abort the foetus and then tries to commit suicide. The widow's father imposes the ghatashraddha ritual (breaking a pot) on her as a means of expelling her from the village.

11. Elippathayam (1973, Malayalam), directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Cast: Karamana Janardanan Nair, Sharada, Jalaja, Rajam K Nair

Elippathayam, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's most accomplished film, traces the last legs of a decaying feudal order In Kerala. It revolves around Unni, a middle-aged man who cannot pace with the changing world around him.

His eldest sister fights for her share of the family inheritance, while the submissive second sister assumes the roles of slave and surrogate mother to Unni until she revolts against the system. A trapped Unni, on his part, withdraws further into a hole.

The narrative rhythm and a pattern of close-ups and sounds suggest the hopelessness of Unni's situation and the inevitability of the death of the feudal order that he represents.

12. Mughal-e-Azam (1960, Urdu), directed by K Asif

Cast: Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Durga Khote

Mughal-e-Azam is a blockbuster to beat all blockbusters, blending style, panache and substance. This historical romance tells the apocryphal love story of Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) and commoner Anarkali (Madhubala). They face opposition from all quarters, including Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor), and Anarkali dies to save the prince.

Mughal-e-Azam is remembered to this day for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) song sequence shot in colour in an otherwise black and white film. Also noteworthy were Kamal Amrohi's dialogues, Naushad's musical score and RD Mathur's cinematography.

13. Nayakan (1987, Tamil), directed by Mani Ratnam

Cast: Kamal Haasan, Saranya, MV Vasudeva Rao, Janakaraj, Tinnu Anand

Nayakan, by far the greatest underworld dramas ever made in India, catapulted Mani Ratnam to the big league. The film was a riveting, if controversial, fictionalisation of the life and times of real-life Bombay mafia don Varadarajan Mudaliar.

Kamal Haasan plays the man who runs away to Bombay after his father is brutally murdered by the police and quickly works his way up the underworld hierarchy. His daughter detests his calling and leaves him to marry a police officer.

The don is eventually killed by a mentally deranged man he gave shelter to as a boy. Nayakan was a huge commercial success.

14. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1962, Hindi), directed by Guru Dutt


Cast: Guru Dutt, Mala Sinha

Kaagaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt's most melancholic film ever, takes his deepening disillusionment with the world and its guardians to a new level of despair.

The iconic actor-director plays a filmmaker on the skids. He is unable to get his point of view across to the people who matter and life is a constant struggle, both personally and professionally. The masses failed to connect with the film, but Kaagaz Ke Phool has lived longer than many money-spinners of the golden era of Hindi cinema.

15. Apur Sansar (1959, Bengali), directed by Satyajit Ray

Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore

The third part of the famed Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar launched the career of Sharmila Tagore. She played the newly-married wife of an adult Apu, Soumitra Chatterjee, who went on to work in 13 more Ray films.

A superbly crafted, expertly modulated human drama, the film tracks the voyage of a boy turning into a man in a tough environment and it does so with unmatched empathy and perspicuity.

Taken together, Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar constitute one of the greatest cinematic achievements the world has ever seen.

16. Sant Tukaram (1936, Marathi), directed by Damle & Fatehlal

Cast: Vishnupant Pagnis, Sri Bhagwat, Pandit Damle, Shankar Kulkarni, Kusum Bhagwat, Master Chhotu, B Nandrekar, Gauri

A film that has outlived all others made in the 1930s, Sant Tukaram was an outstanding recreation of the life and times of the 17th century poet-saint.

17. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1980, Hindi), directed by Kundan Shah

Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani, Bhakti Barve, Satish Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur

This dark, cocky satire about amoral politicians and avaricious businessmen is the greatest advertisement for FTII that there has ever been.

The film, whipped up by a bunch of institute batch mates, narrates a zany story about two struggling photographers who, while working on an assignment for an editor hunting for sleaze in high places, stumble upon a builder-politician nexus and a high-profile murder that is being sought to be swept under the carpet.

Shady deals, cover-ups and political shenanigans stumble out of the woodwork in this crazy cat-and-mouse game that leaves everybody open to manipulation.

The no-holds-barred climax, which unfolds during the Draupadi disrobing scene in a performance of the Mahabharata, is the film's high point, a perfect summation of the spirit that propelled it.

18. Guide (1965, Hindi), directed by Vijay Anand

Cast: Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, Kishore Sahu, Leela Chitnis

This is a sweeping drama about a tourist guide who rescues a wannabe dancer from a loveless marriage to an archaeologist and helps her achieve stardom. He makes money in the bargain but is convicted for forgery. When he returns from jail, he wanders about the countryside and is mistaken for a holy man.

His messianic halo is strengthened when he starves himself to death in order to end a dry spell in a drought-hit area. Based loosely on a RK Narayan novel, it benefitted from the star turns by Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman and Sachin Dev Burman's eclectic musical score.

19. Madhumati (1958, Hindi), directed by Bimal Roy

Cast: Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Johnny Walker, Pran, Jayant

This classic reincarnation story scripted by Ritwik Ghatak was the biggest commercial success of Bimal Roy's varied directorial career. The stars, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala, play multiple roles alternating between the present and a past life.

The narrative centres essentially on a village woman who returns from the dead to avenge her death caused by a Raja. Madhumati, with its unique atmospheric attributes, lilting musical interludes (composed by Salil Chowdhury) and editing rhythm (editor: Hrishikesh Mukherjee), became the template for many subsequent reincarnation dramas but none could quite match its impact.

20. Anand (1970, Hindi), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Cast: Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Sumita Sanyal, Ramesh Deo, Johnny Walker, Dara Singh

A terminally ill hero is determined to make the most of the remaining months of his life. In one of his early starring roles, Amitabh Bachchan played a Bengali doctor who develops a deep emotional connect with the dying man.

The director added deft touches to the narrative through cameos played by comedian Johnny Walker and wrestler-turned-actor Dara Singh to drive home the central message of the film: life should be big in terms of impact rather than in terms of mere length.

The film gave the career of the then reigning superstar a huge fillip.

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