India’s Top 10 Films

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Passage to India, directed by David Lean.

March to the Marabar Caves, Passage to India, directed by David Lean.

With the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) quickly approaching — and this year the Spotlight City is Mumbai — now seems like a good time to make a list of my top 10 favourite movies about India. These are not necessarily Indian-made movies — but movies that reveal the history and culture of the country. I have arranged them in chronological order of the time period they depict (not when they were made), so if you watch them in this order, you will get a sense of the history of India over the past couple of hundred years.

NOTE: TIFF is not the only Canadian film festival honouring Indian films in the month of September. So is the Canadian Film Institute with the 9th Indian Film Festival and the 13th Annual Toronto South Asian Film Festival.

1. Jodhaa Akbar

Jodhaa Akbar is a big Bollywood blockbuster of a film; it swept all the awards the year it was released. It’s about the relationship between India’s Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was of course Muslim, and his Rajput-Hindu wife Jodhaaa. It stars the impossibly good looking on-screen couple Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan. Jodhaa Akbar, set in the 16th century, is a sweeping historical saga dripping with romance, intrigue and absolutely fabulous REAL jewelry. A very satisfying film experience.

WHAT YOU LEARN: India has been a diverse and sophisticated civilization for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

2. Lagaan

Lagaan means “tax” — the tax paid by Indian subjects to their British overlords; and the film Lagaan, set during the Victorian era, is about a tax revolt by overburdened villagers. The tax revolt crisis leads to a cricket match challenge between the villagers, who have never played the game before — led by Aamir Khan, in the role that propelled him to stardom — and the British. It’s a feel-good movie on a grand scale about national pride. Made by the same director as Jodhaa Akbar, Ashutosh Gowariker, but earlier in his career. It’s great to watch post-colonial people taking pride in their culture and history, even if it means playing up stereotypes and formulaic plot lines. Aamir Khan is awesome. As usual.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Cricket may have came from England, but India has taken it to heart.

Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray, India

3. Pather Panchali

Some people think its Orson Welles, some Stanley Kubrick, others Kurosawa. But I think Satyajit Ray, who hailed from Bengal in eastern India, is the greatest film director in the history of cinema and this “little” film (budget was purportedly $3,000) was his debut. Pather Panchali, which means “Song of the Little Road,” is a study of rural family life in India in the early part of the 20th century. It is perhaps the most sensitive and true-to-life film I have ever seen. A lyrical masterpiece, and the first of the three Apu Trilogy films that also includes Aparajito and Apur Sansar.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Why Indians glorify traditional, pastoral life. And why Ray is lionized.

Scene from the film Water, directed by Deepa Mehta and shot in Sri Lanka

4. Water

Water is one of my all-time favourite films. When I saw it for the first time at TIFF the year it debuted, I cried my eyes out at the dramatic end. Directed by Indo-Canadian powerhouse Deepa Mehta, Water is about life in a widow’s ashram in India in the 1930s. The freedom struggle, which was gathering steam at the time under the charismatic leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, provides the backdrop. It took Deepa Mehta years to make this film as her set was burned by Hindu fanatics. Eventually, she shot it in Sri Lanka. (Note to self: must find out where it was shot before I go to Sri Lanka in December!)

WHAT YOU LEARN: Life for women in India is unfair; and when personal conscience triumphs societal beliefs, good things happen.

5. Passage to India

This is my favourite film about India! Based on the book by E.M. Forster, directed by David Lean and with an all-star cast that includes Victor Banerjee, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India is about the clash between the British colonizers and their Indian subjects in the years just before independence. The story centres on Judy Davis’ character, Adela Quested, who “goes out to India” with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to be with her fiance, a British bureaucrat. I love the scene when Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz in the mosque; it has haunted me for many years; and I recall studying the significance of the Marabar Caves in university, long before the film was made. The book, the story and the film has made an indelible impression on me.

WHAT YOU LEARN: The dynamics between Britishers and Indians, the oppressors and the oppressed, was complex. Plus, there are mysterious forces at work that can overturn any political or societal structure built by men.

Mahatma Gandhi, India, partition,

6. Gandhi

Can’t have a list of films about India without the epic Gandhi figuring prominently. Directed by David Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, it swept the Oscars in 1982. It’s a historical, biographical, cultural epic and an acting tour de force. There’s really no point in reviewing it; everyone has seen it; it’s about the greatest figure of the 20th century (in my opinion) and one of the most incredible stories in history — and Ben Kingsley pulled it off. I love that scene when John Gielgud as Lord Irwin says, “You mean he wants us to just walk out of India?” Yes. Yes he does. And they did. Freeing 350 million people. Incredible.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Non-violent, passive resistance can be a very, very powerful weapon.

7. Earth

But … then the Partition of India happened. Earth was the second film in Deepa Mehta’s elements trilogy (Fire, Earth and Water), and it’s about what happens to a group of friends in Lahore when Partition divides their lives in half. At the centre of the friendship circle is Lenny, a little Parsi girl crippled by polio, and her ayah, who is a ravishingly beautiful young Hindu woman (Nandita Das). They go regularly to the park, where a group of men — Muslim, Hindu and Sikh — surround them in quiet appreciation of ayah’s beauty. As August 15, 1947 and the independence of India approaches, Partition is announced: a line will be drawn through the populous state of Punjab to create Pakistan, and no one knows where the line will be, and whether Lahore will end up in secular India or Muslim Pakistan. Tensions start to erupt as the various religious-based factions form. Aamir Khan is excellent (as always) as the Ice-candy-man, an intense young Muslim man in love with ayah; and I fell in love with Rahul Khanna in this film, who played the sensitive masseuse who wins her love. The film was based on a book called Cracked India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is superb.

WHAT YOU LEARN: The decision to rip India apart and separate brother from brother, and sister from sister, was brutal — and its force is still being felt.

Rang de Basanti8. Rang de Basanti

Jump ahead to modern India. A British woman whose grandfather was a police officer in India in the 1920s travels to Delhi to make a film based on his diaries and about his involvement with the famous freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad (played by Aamir Khan) and their contemporaries. She meets a group of young people with no political convictions, but after she casts them in the documentary to play the freedom fighters, and one of their circle dies because of political corruption, they become activists. When I was in India the first time, in 2006, Rang de Basanti was a huge hit, and it galvanized a lot of young people to take action. In fact, they copied the candle-lit, India Gate sit-in from the film. With this film, you’ll learn a lot about both the early days of the freedom struggle and modern-day India.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Indians are very proud of their culture, their heroes, and the successful outcome of their struggle for independence.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle, famous for Trainspotting and the London Olympics opening ceremonies. I walked into the theatre with an Indian friend and a skeptical attitude. But Slumdog Millionaire blew both my friend and I away. It’s a tour de force. Though made by a “foreigner,” this film really captures something truthful about the realities of life in modern-day India. Plus, it is entertaining, well-made, fast-paced and engaging.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Life can brutal in the slums of India. But, like everywhere else, hope is a potent elixir.

 10. Delhi Belly

This film answers the burning question, is there a Quentin Tarantino in India? Well, no. But if there was, it would be the people who made Delhi Belly. I like it a lot better than Tarantino, though, because it’s way more fun and doesn’t take itself seriously. This film is on the list because it’s so “modern.” It’s not a “Bollywood” film and it’s not serious — it’s a dark comedy with lots of vulgarity and a completely implausible plot  – but it does show a slice-of-life of modern, middle-class, creative professionals. In other words, people like me, but in Delhi. And running from murderous diamond smugglers.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Don’t eat tandoori chicken from a filthy street vendor in Old Delhi.

Photograph of Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding, India

11. Monsoon Wedding

The bonus film is by Mira Nair, a fantastic director who tackles social issues head on. (She also directed Salaam Bombay, which was set in the slums of Bombay/Mumbai.) Monsoon Wedding is about an upper-middle-class family preparing for a wedding and it’s one of my favourite films (like Water, it features the music of my good friend, Canadian musician Mychael Danna). As someone who’s been part of a big Punjabi family in Delhi, I can tell you from personal experience that this film is true to life, and does show what it’s like on the “inside” of family life.

WHAT YOU LEARN: In India, family is everything.

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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