Indian cinema. What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear this word? Colorful dramatic movies with choreographed dance numbers, right?
Because Bollywood movies are in the global cultural zeitgeist, it is easy for people to stereotype Indian cinema and associate it with certain archetypes. But Indian cinema is much more than that. Since time immemorial, Indian filmmakers have challenged the preconceptions people have about Indian films by creating real and fictional worlds full of interesting characters and stories.
If you are tired of watching Western movies and want to explore Indian cinema beyond the usual Bollywood dramas, here are some films you should watch. And don’t worry about the language — subtitles exist for a reason.
1. ‘Minnal Murali’ (2021)
Directed by Basil Joseph, this Malayalam movie tells the origin story of a local superhero (Tovino Thomas) who gains power when he is struck by lightning. This movie is its rooted script. The director doesn’t make the superhero and the villain some extraordinary creatures. Instead, they are shown as real people who are shaped by the various circumstances that surround them.
To see a hyper-local Indian superhero movie, even within the constraints of a limited budget, is groundbreaking. And that’s why you should see this gem.
When to watch: Watch this movie with your little cousins so they have access to superheroes who aren’t always white.
Where to watch: “Minnal Murali” is available on Netflix.
2. ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ (2021)
The kitchen is not only a place where people cook food but also a place where rules are made. It is a place where gender is performed and patriarchy is perpetuated. Exploring the kitchen and its politics, “The Great Indian Kitchen” is a masterpiece of storytelling.
Your blood will boil as you watch how the women in this film suffer in their own homes. Some of the scenes in the film may feel redundant, but that’s the point. The director masterfully and carefully analyzes each and every scene in the movie to express the suffocation that the women feel in the kitchen.
When to watch: Watch this movie with your feminist friends to learn more about patriarchy across cultures and how it seeps into our daily lives.
Where to watch: “The Great Indian Kitchen” is streaming on Amazon Prime.
3. “Ponniyin Selvan: Part One” (2022) and “Ponniyin Selvan: Part Two” (2023)
Mani Ratnam is one of my favorite directors of all time. The way he uses narrative, characters, music, and cinematography to tell a rousing and complete story is admirable — not all directors have these skills.
While his previous movies are gems in their own right, I would suggest people watch his latest movies, “Ponniyin Selvan Part 1” and “Ponniyin Selvan Part 2” which are based on Kalki Krishnamurty’s epic novel “Ponniyin Selvan.”
Who will sit on the throne? Will the struggle for the throne ever end? These are the questions the two films explore, creating a compelling cinematic experience.
The movie is set in an ancient Indian country. The Cholas, the current rulers, are facing great threats from their extended family members. And then there’s a twisted but gorgeous Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) the wife of the chancellor and treasurer of the Chola kingdom, scheming for power.
When to watch: Watch when you’re in the mood for period dramas filled with good-looking people.
Where to watch: “Ponniyin Selvan: Part One” and its sequel are streaming on Amazon Prime.
4. “Charulata” (1964)
There are so many classics of Indian cinema that the West and its audiences need to see. The list would be too long, so I suggest you at least watch Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” to understand this filmmaker’s prowess and his craft.
Set in the 19th century, the story explores the marital life of Charulata (played by Madhavi Mukherjee) and her upper-class journalist husband (Shailen Mukherjee). While Charulata has all the luxuries of life, she is isolated. In her large haveli, which means mansion, there’s no one to accompany her. There’s no one to take care of her. Nor can she read her poems to anyone. Everything changes when her brother-in-law visits, as they begin to spend time together and form a strong bond.
I don’t want to give any more spoilers but watch this movie to see how loneliness affects women and the complexities of love and affection.
When to watch: You can watch “Charulata” anytime, but I would like you to watch it right after you finish this article.
Where to watch: “Charulata” is streaming on Max.
5. ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ (2011)
If yes, go and watch “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” a 2010s classic that put Spain in the spotlight as a travel destination — at least for Indian movie lovers.
There’s so much I can say about the movie. The characters are wonderfully written, everyone is going through a transition, and the cinematography is brilliant as it captures the majestic locations of Spain beautifully. Watch the opening scene carefully as the filmmaker sets it up to know more about the characters, their personality, and the class they belong to.
In addition, the music is great and refreshing compared to other Bollywood movies that use songs and dancing just for the sake of it.
When to watch: When you miss your old friends.
Where to watch: “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” is available on Netflix.
6. “Wake Up Sid” (2009)
If there’s one particular movie I watch when I feel lost, it’s “W/ake Up Sid.” A coming-of-age drama, the movie stars Ranbir Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma, two of Indian cinema’s leading actors.
Set in Mumbai, the film explores Kapoor’s evolution from a spoiled brat to a sensitive, mature man. Just go see the movie. It’s beautiful, tender, and light. It will brighten your day.
When to watch: When your day is long and tiring and you feel like watching something that will calm you down.
Where to watch: “Wake Up Sid” is streaming on Netflix.
7. ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ (2021)
I am too queer to like sports. But when it comes to sports drama. Bring it on.
“Sarpatta Parambarai” is a gem. It’s not just a sports drama. It’s a film with caste politics that shows people from marginalized communities in a nuanced way. The performances are so raw that it doesn’t feel like the actors are acting. And that’s a triumph in itself.
When to watch: Watch whenever you feel like it. Don’t wait for special occasions.
Where to watch: “Sarpatta Parambarai” is available on Amazon Prime.
8. ‘Mirror’ from ‘Lust Stories 2’ (2023)
Konkona Sen Sharma, who stars in “Wake Up Sid,” is also a prolific director. While her debut film, “A Death in the Gunj” is enchanting, I would suggest you watch her latest directorial short film, “Mirror,” which is part of the short film anthology “Lust Stories 2.”
In this thirty-minute short, Sharma reveals the sexual fantasies and desires of two women who occupy different positions in the class hierarchy. But there’s so much more to the film than sex and kinks, as Sharma explores class differences, pleasure and female intimacy in this single film. The female gaze is so empowering in this film; it only reinforces why we need more female storytellers.
When to watch: Watch with mature movie partners, as some scenes are only appropriate for adult audiences.
Where to watch: “Mirror” is available on Netflix. It’s the second short in the “Lust Stories 2” anthology.
9. ‘Pyaasa’ (1957)
Guru Dutt is the greatest filmmaker India has ever seen. His movies are gold mines. There’s so much one can learn about filmmaking from his movies, including lighting, cinematography, and dialog writing.
My personal favorite movie from his rich filmography is “Pyasa,” a cult classic in which he also stars. The movie is a story about an unsuccessful poet who finds success after his death. But guess what? He is not dead. Yet no one believes him.
Dutt uses this plot to critique the rise of materialism and capitalism in Indian society, and he delivers an evergreen film that gets better every time you see it.
When to watch: Whenever you’re in the mood to explore earlier Hindi movies.
Where to watch: Rent Pyasa on Amazon Prime for $0.99.
10. ‘Anand’ (1971)
There are so many things people can learn from their friends. Our friends are not just our companions. They are teachers in life’s important lessons. Exploring friendship and intimacy between two men, “Anand” tells the heartwarming story of a terminally ill friend and a doctor who touch each other’s lives in beautiful ways. I would suggest carrying tissues while watching this film because it’s going to be an emotional ride.
When to watch: Watch this movie when you want to cry.
Where to watch: “Anand” is streaming on Sling.