(Dir. Guru Dutt, 1959, India)
Most critics would tend to go for Pyassa as the defining achievement of Guru Dutt's short lived film career but I have not come across a film which provides such a devestating critique on the studio system and the emotional/moral compromises a film maker is forced to make as is illustrated through the heart breaking story of Suresh Sinha played by Guru Dutt in the masterful Kagaaz Ke Phool. Though Guru Dutt's cinematic legacy was very much in doubt in the 70s, his films were rediscovered in the 1980s and he is now recognised as one of the genuine film auteurs to emerge out of the Bollywood studio system in the late 40s. The emotional power of this film really comes from the opening sequence which is an extended flashback being told by the main protagonist, and as the silohuetted figure of Guru Dutt enters the studio backlot, everything suddenly converges to become something much more than an ordinary Bollywood production. Much of Guru Dutt's films were ahead of their time and he was experimenting with deep focus, long takes and the potential of the widescreen frame way before his contemporaries discovered them. Guru Dutt committed suicide in 1964 and an industry mourned at the horror of having lost one of the great film makers of the golden age of Bollywood. His troubled personal life in in doubt effected the melancholy that permeates his work and almost seems as though Kaagaz Ke Phool is an autobiography of his experiences as a film maker. Yash Raj should be praised for their hard work to restore the films of Guru Dutt and now much of his work is avaliable on DVD for all to appreciate.
2. DEEWAR / The Wall
(Dir. Yash Chopra, 1975, India)
If Guru Dutt has been a constant inspiration for Bollywood film makers then Amitabh Bhachan would surely be singled out as the actor/star that everybody wants to aspire to even today. Mr Bhachan's name has become synonymous with the term Bollywood (he does not approve of the term Bollywood as he feels it makes the industry seem secondary to Hollywood) and he continues making films today and though his commercial appeal has waned somewhat his iconic status is unrivalled and he remains a dominant cinematic figure. Deewar was the pinacle of a long term collaboration (still on going even today) with the hugely influential film maker, Yash Chopra, producing a string of volatile and provocative films scripted by the magic teaming of Salim-Javed, two of the most important scriptwriters to emerge out of the 1970s. Deewar is a landmark film for many reasons. Firstly, Deewar features Bhachan's most famous performance and the one that would bring him international acclaim aswell as the adulation of millions of fans in India - the film also allowed Salim-Javed to perfect the figure of the angry young man. Secondly, Deewar is Yash Chopra's finest film and unusually for it's time it only featured one song and dance number which would be something that no producer would agree to in Bollywood today. Yash Chopra's body of work is a mixed bag and his films are strong examples of escapist entertainment that have a populist appeal, and though he is not really credited as being a key film maker in terms of influence and technique, his contribution to the industry is absolutely pivotal and it comes of little surprise that today he oversees one of the most successful studios in India; Yash Raj. Thirdly, Deewar also features one of the best on screen pairings with Shashi Kapoor taking up the role of the honest police officer who is eventually forced to use violence against his brother. Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bhachan worked together on numerous films but this is their finest on screen performance as the dialogue which was written for them was refreshing and brilliant. Finally, Deewar is probably the best screenplay that Salim-Javed wrote together, and contains some highly memorable scenes and lines of dialogue which have entered Bollywood movie folklore. Also the script proved that entertainment could be used a vehicle to address actual social/political problems that were at the forefront of Indian society in the 1970s. Deewar is perfect film making as it went on to clean up at the box office and confirm most importantly Bhachan's enduring star appeal; he would remain champion of the box office for nearly two decades.
3. MOTHER INDIA
(Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1957, India)
Mother India was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1957. Unlike western cinema which is traditionally patriarchal (male dominated), Bollywood films have reflected the matriarchal concerns of India and this is why many films continue to position the figure of 'The Mother' at the centre of the narrative. Mother India would be considered an epic in terms of genre but strangely it broke with the conventions by using a strong feminist narrative that is driven by the multi faceted performance of the legendary Bollywood actress and star, Nargis. Many critics have made comparisons with the work of Mehboob Khan to that of Hollywood's greatest exponent of the epic, Cecille B De Mille, and I would be probably agree with such a sentiment as they were both interested in representing historical events on the big screen but filtered through a populist agenda. Nargis plays Radha, a microcosm of the hardended and resourcesful Indian woman who goes to great lengths to ensure the survival of her family, especially her children. Mother India is a film about the emergence of an industrialised society and how it would challenge the traditions and customs of rural village life. Radha represents the progressive nature of Indian society at the time but the staunchly independent route that she takes to preserve her dignity as a woman and individual is very much a liberal statement on feminist ideology absent from much of cinema at that time. Nargis was already a huge star before the release of Mother India but this film cemented her iconic feminine status and ensured she would never be forgotten as one of Bollywood's most powerful female film stars.
4. PYAASA / Thirst
(Dir. Guru Dutt, 1957, India)
This was apparently the first film Guru Dutt decided to make after the commercial success he had enjoyed with his studio, establishing himself as a formidable force within the industry and also empowering himself to be able to acquire a degree of creative autonomy. Pyaasa is the most internationally recognised of Guru Dutt's many films and continues to be cited as an influence on the work of contemporary film makers like Aamir Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Pyaasa was fiercely controversial for the way it explores the ambiguous relationship between a downbeat poet and a prostitute with a heart of gold. Guru Dutt cast Waheeda Rehman in the role of the prostitute after discovering her in a song in a Bollywood film, and would collaborate with her on many other films. Though Pyaasa was not a resounding box office success, the film was responsible for launching the career of Waheeda Rehman whom even to this day respectfully acknowledges the role Guru Dutt played in bringing her to prominence. An artists struggle to be recognised in a society on the verge of moral and social decay is a key theme which Guru Dutt would return to in Kaagaz Ke Phool. The most famous sequence in Pyaasa is when Vijay, a disillusioned poet played by Guru Dutt returns from the dead to appear magic like at a poetry recital of his work. Vijay has no knowledge of the fact that Mala (Waheeda Rehman) has been able to get his work published and that his poetry has created a sensation in the country. The sequence is anchored by a remarkable song which is vividly sung by Vijay in which he condemns society for it's bitter hypocrisy - and this finally forces Vijay to abandon his dreams of artistic recognition by starting a new life with Mala. Pyaasa ends on an optimistic note but as Vijay and Mala turn and walk away into the distance, they become ghosts, people who exist on the margins of a deeply injust and unequal society.
5. MUGHAL E AZAM
(Dir. K Asif, 1960, India)
Sometimes the production history of a film can overshadow the film itself which is surely the case with K Asif's magnus opus, Mughal E Azam, a film with one of the most protracted production history's in Indian cinema, taking a staggering nine years to complete. That means filming started at the start of the 1950s and by the time the film had it's opening premiere in 1960, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were well on their way to becoming major film stars. Mughal E Azam is a true historical epic that explores the tragic love story between a Mughal ruler and a seductive courtesan. Revisting the film recently in a restored 'colour' version made me realise how the film is a film that revels in the breathtaking and groundbreaking production design and related technical aspects like the magnificient cinematography. It is difficult to overlook a film like Mughal E Azam because it is a uniquely singular film with a scope and vision that very few directors have been able to emulate today, though current films like Jodha Akbar and Laagan seem to suggest the contrary. When the film was released in the 60s it went on to become the highest grossing film of all time until Sholay came along, and it confirmed the stature of Dilip Kumar, Bollywood's first post war male icon. The film is not the masterpiece that many claim it to be and their are some faults with the film particularly to do with the horrendous running time, the lagging pace of the film and moments of bombastic melodrama which seem out of place in light of today's realist cinema. However, it is the enduring aspects like the music by Nashuad and the on screen pairing of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala which hold the classic status of this film intact.
6. DIL SE / From the Heart
(Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1998, India)
Mani Ratnam is arguably the most accomplished and well respected film maker working within the mainstream today. The technical superiority of Tamil cinema has always played an influence on Bollywood and though Mani Ratnam has become strongly associated with socially conscious film making, his directorial style is rooted very much in Tamil culture and traditions. Dil Se was Mani Ratnam's first foreay into Bollywood film making and was a continuation of a central political theme, that of terrorism, which seems to define much of his work. Dil Se is an uneven film but like Deewar it has become recognised as an extremely important turning point in Bollywood cinema, mainly because it was the first Bollywood film to enter the Top 10 in the UK box office. The rise of Mani Ratnam as one Bollywood's most commercially successful and artistically challenging film makers runs parallel with the film career of the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. Dil Se confirmed to worldwide distributors the commercial potential of an emerging Bollywood film industry that would predominately feature the international star appeal of Shah Rukh Khan as a key marketing tool. The film itself explores the politically controversial and topical issue of Kashmir which uses beautifully choreographed song and dance sequences with fatalistic lyrics by the poetic pen of the legendary Bollywood lyricist and film maker, Gulzar, to suggest that terrorism is a complex issue, motivated in part by political and social injustice committed against innocent people. One of the drawbacks with the film is the over the top performance delivered by Shah Rukh Khan who stutters and mumbles his way through his scenes, underlining how his credibility as a serious film actor would need a few more years and suitable projects to allow him to evolve into much more of a rounded, competent actor. For a film which did very good business at the international box office, Dil Se features a deeply pessimistic ending in which the lovers played by Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala (divided by political attitudes) detonate a suicide bomb intended to cause civilian harm, killing both of them but ensuring they remain together in a supposed after life. You can never quite get over the unforgettable image of Shah Rukh Khan dancing on top of a train as it makes it's way through the Indian landscape to the music of 'Chaiya, Chaiya' - this moment in itself qualifies Dil Se for instant classic status.
(Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1982, India)
It is a shame that whenever Ramesh Sippy is mentioned in the pages of film criticism it is most probably linked to the film for which he has become synonymous with in Bollywood, the overrated western pastiche that is Sholay. Shakti was one of the final screenplays by Salim-Javed and it represents the summation of the angry young man motif with Amitabh Bachchan reprising once again the role of Vijay who this time is up against his morally outrageous father, a police inspector, Ashwini Kumar, played by Dilip Kumar in one of the all time Bollywood film performances. This is the only time that the two greatest actors and superstars of Bollywood cinema were seen in a film together. For this reason alone, Shakti was a much anticipated film and generated considerable expectations amongst critics and fans. Unfortunately, like the best films and the ones that are remembered most fondly after a period of time, Shakti underperformed at the box office, precisely because this was a film about how two men, father and son, go about destroying one woman; Ashwini's wife and Vijay's mother. The fierce emotional reaction this film ellicts from the audience is unlike any other Bollywood film and the scenes with Amitabh Bhachan and Dilip Kumar are cinematically powerful exercises in screen acting. The anger for Vijay comes from discovering his father was prepared to let his one and only child to be sacrificed just so he could uphold the law and maintain his personal integrity as an honest public servant and police inspector. This one childhood incident affects Vijay for the rest of his life, shaping and determining his destiny so that to challenge his father's misunderstood intentions he becomes a criminal, putting him on a direct collision with law and order as personified by his brutally honest father. This is not a beautifully directed film nor is it shot very well, actually the technical aspects of the film could have been much better but everything about this film is down to the screenplay which is surely one of the best scripts Bollywood has produced, providing forceful evidence of how within the space of ten years Salim-Javed had evolved into auteurs in their own right.
(Dir. Priyadarshan, 1997, India)
Virasat seemed to come out of nowhere in 1997 as the film had not been publicised, the critics were negative in their reaction towards the film and many even declared the film a flop on it's initial opening week. It seemed as though Virasat was going to fade away very quickly but when Anil Kapoor started appearing on TV shows, trying bravely to counter all the rumours about the film being a flop, audiences started to take heed and positive word of mouth spread quickly and fiercely amongst cinemagoers, eventually turning Virasat into one of the hits of the year. Now had this film not starred somebody as iconic and powerful as Anil Kapoor, one of the few actors who has had longevity in terms of both critical and commercial appeal in Bollywood cinema, then I am sure the film would have been forgotten very quickly. Virasat is a remake of a famous Tamil film which had enjoyed great commercial success in 1995 and starred the legendary Tamil actor turned film maker, Kamal Hassan. The film is a powerful exploration of how feudalism incites discrimination, violence and division amongst people in rural India. Anil Kapoor plays Shakti Thakur who returns to his conservative and orthodox village from studying abroad in Europe. Shakti belongs to a very powerful family which owns a great deal of land and who's father, Raja Thakur (Amrish Puri), is village chief and tries his best to enforce some kind of law and order. The Thakur's power is challenged by his estranged brother which sets in motion a violent chain of events that leads to the death of Raja Thakur, forcing Shakti to abandon his dreams of escaping village life and taking up his father's impossible responsibilities. Virasat is a throwback to the liberal humanist films of Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan that defined much of the Bollywood golden era in the 1940s-50s. The film is striking for featuring what is probably the late Amrish Puri's best screen performance - this is largely to do with the fact that the role challenges all the typical villanious characteristics which had come to define Amrish Puri's legendary on screen persona. Anil Kapoor was one of the biggest box office draws for nearly a decade until the Khan syndrome set in and Virasat features one of his best performances - his star appeal has always rested on his ability to play the everyman with an honesty and truthfulness very few actors can exude easily on screen. This was also one of the first films which featured the actress, Tabu, in a largely mainstream role and her contribution to the role of the naive village girl is exemplary, convincingly portraying a vulnerability which is crucial to the relationship that develops between her and Shakti. There are two really exceptional and stand out moments in the film; the first occurs when Shakti undergoes a physical transformation after the death of his family and we find ourselves in the traditional intermission narrative juncture in the film. The second moment is the downbeat ending which is unlike any traditional Bollywood ending - Shakti is led away by the police on a train to await a jail sentence as he wants to demonstrate to the people who look to him for leadership that if law and order is to be upheld then somebody must sacrifice themselves in order for a new system to prevail. Supported by beautiful cinematography, a vivid collaboration between lyricist Javed Akhter and composer Anu Malik, and dynamic camerawork especially some stunningly choreographed tracking shots, Virasat is not only a remarkable technical achievement, it is one of the best Bollywood films to come out of the 1990s.
10. LAGAAN / Land Tax
(Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001, India)
Nobody in their right mind would have thought that an obscure historical period film made up of an unknown cast and unestablished film maker would work so brilliantly as a piece of cinema fashioned in old school sensibilities and indigienous values, not even the producer and actor, Aamir Khan who was the first to tell Ashutosh Gowariker that his idea was virtually impossible to put on film. The only thing Lagaan had going for it when it was deep in production was the Bollywood star power of Aamir Khan who was on the verge of radically transforming his own star image and launching himself as a formidable producer of risky and daring subject matters that have held a wide contemporary relevance for the emerging educated, professional middle class cinema audience. Lagaan's reputation as a film has quickly risen to a classic status and it was one of the few original and socially significant Bollywood films in the last ten years to have reached a wide international audience and be favourably received by the western media especially Europe where it has already found cult status. Lagaan is a deceptively simple story of a group of villagers who band together collectively and make a death defying stance against the might of the British empire who impose an unfair land tax on farmers who have had a poor harvest. Bhuvan, a defiant but resourceful figure of the community, played magnificently by Aamir Khan, is challenged to a game of cricket by the British troops who put forward an interesting proposition; if the villagers accept the challenge and win the game of cricket then they will be exempt from paying taxes for a long time to come but if they lose then they will have suffer to economic burdens and much hardship. Bhuvan's decision to take up the challenge compromises the position of the village who at first are reluctant to join Bhuvan's crusade but once they become united in their defiance, the villagers quickly through the support of a British sympathiser master the art of cricket. This is one of the oldest narratives; the David and Goliath story, triumph over adversity, yet the difference is that matters are resolved through a game of cricket, a sport which was an extension of colonial superiority and British imperialism. Stretching to nearly four hours long, Lagaan is truly an epic in the classical sense, and has gone on to become the biggest selling DVD in India. It is also the third Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar and though it lost out on the night, Lagaan stands as a testimony of the conviction of it's main lead and producer, Aamir Khan who continues to explore the theme of British imperialism - The Rising: The Ballad of Mangal Pandey and most recently in Rang De Basanti. Politicised film making of this kind is rare within the mainstream of Bollywood cinema and as long as Aamir Khan continues with this didactic approach which he has embraced then Bollywood has inherited a legacy which holds a considerable degree of wider social and political significance.