You may not know it by looking at the media today, but Bollywood is one of the biggest film producers in the world. Even though American Hollywood films make more money at the box office, there are more Bollywood films getting made each year. This actually results in more overall profits for the Indian equivalent.
But how many of these films can you name? It’s amazing how little the western world knows about these massive industry films. Well, we’re here to change that. Let’s take a look at some of the best classic Bollywood films ever made. For the purposes of this list, we will be focussing on 30 years of classic Hindi cinema between 1949-1979.
Pyaasa tells the story of one man and his search for compassion in a cynical Indian society. ‘Pyaasa’ translates roughly to ‘thirst’ and follows the life of Vijay, an unpublished poet disregarded by his own friends and family.
After incorrectly assume that he has died, his work suddenly becomes popular and he is mourned around the country. The real Vijay is then called an imposter when he tries to convince the world he’s actually still alive. It was filmed in the 1960s – considered the golden age of Indian cinema after its independence from England.
With an impressive Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%, Mughal-E-Azam is a must-see for fans of historical cinema. The 1961 epic film tells the story of Prince Salim in the 17th Century. The prince wages a war with his father, Emperor Akbar, so that he can marry a dancer.
Mughal-E-Azam is a Bollywood film praised for its stage performances and intricate costume designs. At the time, it was Bollywood’s most expensive film ever made but made ten times its money back at the box office.
Mother India (1957)
This epic Indian drama featured classic Bollywood stars like Nargis, Sunil Dutt, and Rajendra Kumar. Newlywed Radha is struck by tragedy and decided to go on an adventure to battle her enemies and retrieve her honor.
By the end of the film, Radha has become a symbol for India’s pride as an old culture, but also one that embraces newfound democracy. Mother India is unabashedly pro-female empowerment and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1958.
Guide is another film that was nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. It tells the story of a corrupt businessman who is transformed into a spiritual ‘guide’ after accidentally becoming the idol for a village suffering from a drought.
The film explores an interesting transformation from material goods to the release of worldly attachments. Guide also explores social taboos like adultery, religious fraud, and challenges gender stereotypes in its process. Some of its themes still hold up today.
Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)
Kaagaz Ke Phool was produced, directed, and starred Guru Dutt. At the time, it was considered a flop at the box office and only developed a cult following in the years that followed. The film is semi-autobiographical about a film director who has lost all passion for the Indian Bollywood industry.
Kaagaz Ke Phool has often been called ahead of its time and is now appreciated for its stunning camera work and cutting commentary about the film industry.
Awaara, which was known overseas as ‘The Vagabond’, explores the relationship between the poor Raj and the rich Rita. At the time, it was considered a milestone film in the progress of Bollywood and the industry as a whole.
As soon as it was released, Awaara became a worldwide hit. According to reports, more than 200 million people saw it around the world, including 100 million in China. TIME listed it in the top 20 of the All-Time 100 Greatest Films.
Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam (1962)
Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam roughly translates as ‘The Master, the Wife, and the Knave’, The film explores the devastating collapse of the haveli-dom and feudalism in Benegal throughout the British Raj.
There has been an ongoing controversy over who exactly directed Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam. The film carries the style and feel of Guru Dutt, but he himself said that Abrar Alvi was the mastermind behind it. Either way, the film is worth a watch for those who love Bollywood.
After an unwedded woman’s lover dies at war, she gives up her son for adoption. However, she promises to watch him from a distance over his life and make sure he does well. Over time, Aradhana, or ‘poignant worship’, became a central theme of the film.
As well as being a theme in the film the idea of traditional social values is also challenged. The film is largely remembered today for its intense performances and for highlighting the golden age of Bollywood.
Do Bigha Zameen (1953)
Do Bigha Zameen is based on a Bengali poem and is praised for being an important trendsetter in the Bollywood industry. The story follows Shambu, who lives with his wife and child in a famine-struck village.
The film is praised for its exploration into urban poverty and deliberate attention to the ‘everyday’ actions of normal characters. Critics highlighted the details in each shot, including the mise-en-scene. It was the first Indian film to win the Prix Internationale at Cannes Film Festival.
This 1963 film explores the relationship between a prison doctor who falls in love with one of the convicts in jail. As he gets to know the freedom fighter more and more, his ideals are challenged as he learns more about the world.
At the time, Bandini was the 10th highest-grossing film of the year and was considered a hit. At the end of the film, the female prisoner must make the choice between the prison doctor and another man from her past. Who does she choose?
Madhumati is a paranormal romance film that tells the love story between Anand and Madhumati. Due to being unable to meet on Earth, they must withhold their relationship during their lives and wait to meet during a reincarnation.
Released in 1958, Madhumanti was the highest-grossing Indian film of the year. It is credited for inspiring international films to explore the themes of reincarnation and birth. In the following year after its release, it won various awards for its performances and music.
Shree 420 (1955)
Here, ‘420’ references section 420 of the Indian Penal Code that explores the punishment for cheating. Therefore, Shree 420 is a derogatory name for a cheater – and that’s exactly what the film explores through its characters.
Upon its release, Shree 420 became the highest-grossing film of 1955. Outside of India, the film also gained popularity in countries like Romania, Israel, and the Soviet Union. History has treated Shree 420 as a patriotic symbol of newly independent India.
Sholay is a relatively modern film on our list and explores a former policeman who seeks revenge on someone who murdered his family. By hiring two criminals, the two of them work together and seek justice for the murders.
Upon its release, Sholay was considered a classic Indian film and even earned itself the top ranking in BFI’s Top 10 Indian Films of all time. In 2014, it was re-released in cinemas and remastered for 3D. Today, some of the characters are popular online in ‘meme’ format.
In Ankur, the social hierarchies of rural India become fragmented when a rich man has an affair with the wife of a poor farmer. Technically, Ankur belongs to a specific genre of Indian at films called ‘Indian Parallel Cinema’.
Ankur is a sign of its times and reflects more modern aspects of films before it. For example, it contains a lot more profanity than other Bollywood films, and even contains a scene involving whipping. It has been praised for how it analyses human behavior.
Hum Dono (1961)
Hum Dono, or ‘Both of Us’, tells the story of Anand in India during WWII. The romantic love story explores insecurity and how it can affect relationships between husbands and wives. As well as love, Hum Dono also depicts the traumas of war and how PTSD can play on human minds.
In 2011, the film was re-released in color and found a whole new audience. Immediately, the film was a box office hit and even inspired its own remake, released in 1985. Today, the original 1961 version remains superior.
There are three versions of Barsaat, but we will be exploring the original one from 1949. The Bollywood film was one of the first main films directed by Kapoor, and its success ultimately allowed him to buy RK Studios.
Barsaat revolves around two separate love stories. Two men, with different personalities, both have affairs in the mountains and we explore the repercussions of their actions. It contains battles of love, loss, and how to overcome conflict during romantic relationships.
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
Here’s a charming tale of three brothers who were all separated in childhood, only to be reunited later in life. The plot twist? One has been raised Christian, one Hindu, and one Muslim. Suddenly, the three must get to know each other and overcome cultural divides.
The action comedy film focuses strongly on religious tolerance and quickly became a landmark for masala films. Today, it is still relevant in pop culture and has a cult following among Bollywood fans.
In Anand, we meet Dr. Bhaskar who recounts the story of one of his patients. Today, it is the third highest-rated Indian film on IMDb and considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
The film is counted among 17 other films that were considered hits for Rajesh Khanna between the years of 1969 and 1971. IndiaTimes has listed Anand as one of the top 25 films to watch before you die. So, what are you waiting for?
Haqeeqat is significantly longer than most films, clocking in at more than three hours long. It is set during the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and tells the story of a soldier named Singh who falls in love with a Ladakhi girl called Angmo.
Upon its release, Haqeeqat won the National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film. In 2016, the film was re-released and screened at the Independence Day Film Festival to mark the 70th year of India’s independence.
This action thriller explores the idea of dual-identity through various means. Amitabh Bachchan plays crime boss Don and a dumb lookalike called Vijay. The police, who notice the resemblance between the two characters, ask Vijay to pretend to be Don and infiltrate the crime scene.
Upon its release, Don became the third-highest-grossing film in India. In time, the film would be the first of a franchise of films, including sequels and remakes using its brand. Interestingly, it’s theme tune was sampled by The Black Eyed Peas in their 2005 hit Don’t Phunk With My Heart.
One of the earliest films on our list, Mahal tells the story of a young lawyer who is haunted by a ghost in her home. After investigating it a bit more, she discovers that the builder and his fiancee had died shortly after building it.
At the time, Mahal was considered a groundbreaking supernatural thriller. Historians believe it is one of the first films to tackle reincarnation as a theme and ultimately paved the way for future films in the gothic fiction genre.
Sangam explores the story of an Indian Air Force Officer who leaves for the Kashmiri front. While away, he trusts his best friend to care for his wife. The only problem? He’s been secretly in love with her the whole time.
Sangam was an instant hit and widely considered a classic Bollywood film today. It is an amazing four hours long and inspired by Hollywood’s Gone With The Wind. It filmed some of its scenes overseas – mainly in Venice and Switzerland – which was rare at the time.
Dosti explores the relationship between two children: one is a poor orphan and the other is a young blind boy. Together, they learn about life and how to survive on the streets of Bombay.
Translated into English, ‘Dosti’ roughly translates into ‘Friendship’. Upon its release, it became a moderate hit and earned a place in the 4th Moscow International Film Festival. In 1977, it was remade as Sneham in Telugu. It won countless awards, such as Best Film and Best Story in the 12th Filmfare Awards in 1965.
In Waqt, a close-knit family is separated from each other after a natural disaster. Years later, they reconnect in a series of dramatic turns. The Bollywood drama film reignited the ‘lost and reunite’ theme in Indian films at the time.
Waqt earned many awards upon its release in 1965. The Filmfare Awards granted it the Best Director, Best Story, Best Dialogue, and more. As well as strong acting, the film also introduced popular Hindi songs still enjoyed today.
This Indian crime and drama film reflects on some of the more challenging aspects of India in the 1970s. Specifically its socio-political climate, Deewar tells the story of two impoverished brothers trying to survive in Bombay.
The film has had several remakes due to its popularity and global appeal. At the time of its release, it was the fourth highest-grossing Bollywood films of 1975. IndiaTimes calls it one of the Top 25 Must-See Bollywood Films, so be sure to check it out!
Kati Patang (1971)
After promising to raise the child of her dying friend, a young woman risks revealing her identity. Kati Patang, which stars Asha Parekh, is one of the 17 consecutive hits of Khanna between 1969 and 1971.
The plot was inspired by the 1950 film No Man of Her Own. After its release, it became the sixth highest-earning Indian film of 1971. Kati Patang was twice remade for modern audiences who enjoyed the same compelling storyline updated for young people.
Aandhi, which roughly translates as ‘Storm’, is a political drama allegedly based on the life of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. While many thought it followed her real-life drama, it was later ‘confirmed’ that it was only the look of the characters.
Aandhi was not allowed to be released when Gandhi was in power and it was actually banned during the national emergency of 1975. After her defeat in 1977, the film was then released. Overall, it received good reviews upon its inevitable release to the public.
Purab Aur Paschim (1970)
Purab Aur Paschim is unabashedly patriot in its story. Based in 1942 in British India, it tells the story of Harnam and his betrayal of a freedom fighter and the consequences that follow.
The film ends with a lady being so amazed by India that she gives up smoking and drinking and adopts a traditional Indian lifestyle after she fell in love with the ‘purity’ of India. When it was released, Purab Aur Paschim received generally positive reviews.
Bombai Ka Babu (1960)
Bombai Ka Babu roughly translates into ‘The Gentleman from Bombay’ and is one of the only Bollywood films to play with the idea of incest. Focussing on the relationship between a brother and a sister, it is a chilling thriller.
It stars Dev Anand and Suchitra Sen, who makes a rare appearance in Hindi cinema. The film was considered a musical masterpiece upon its release due to the popularity of the soundtrack and performances from the stars.
Bonus: Dangal (2016)
If you would rather enjoy some more modern Bollywood films, we’ve decided to highlight some recent films that have made a splash culturally and financially. In Dangal, a former wrestler and his wrestler daughters fight for glory at the Commonwealth Games.
The film had been in development since 2013 and is loosely based on the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler. The film was a massive success, becoming the highest-grossing Indian film of all time. Let’s take a look at some more modern films…
Haasil is a 2003 film that has developed somewhat of a cult following after its release. It follows student politics at the University of Allahabad and the bad turns it takes. Overall, the acting performances have all been praised by critics.
Haasil was featured in 40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed and fans are encouraging audiences to explore some of its themes. Today, it is rated as number 10 in IMDb’s best Bollywood Films of all time.
Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)
Here’s another recent Indian film that quickly garnered international praise from critics. Upon its release, Tiger Zinda Hai was the second-highest-grossing Bollywood film of the year. It features Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif and is the second feature in the Tiger film series.
The story follows up from the events of the franchise’s first film, Ek Tha Tiger from 2012. The action thriller garnered strong reviews upon its release and paved the way for a third film, which is currently in the works.
London Paris New York (2012)
Its title might not sound like a Bollywood film, but London Paris New York is a romantic comedy film set around the world to the delight of fans and critics. The film’s soundtrack was particularly praised by film fans who enjoyed the music and how it accompanied the landmarks in the famous cities.
The story focuses on Nikhil and Lalitha, who are naturally drawn to each other despite their inherent differences. They spend one night in each of the cities and audiences see whether they will end up together.
Black Friday (2004)
Black Friday is an action and crime drama that follows the investigations set up after the 1993 serial Bombay bomb blasts. As the film unfolds, audiences witness the stories from different people involved: the police, the victims, the conspirators, and more.
Even though Black Friday premiered at the 2004 Locarno International Film Festival, its nationwide release was delayed until 2007. The Indian Supreme Court had to rule on whether it should be released, which of course it allowed. Today, it is considered one of the best Bollywood films of all time.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge roughly translates as ‘The Big-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride’. The story follows Raj and Simran, who fall in love while vacationing with friends in Europe. The only problem? She’s been promised to someone else!
Upon its release in 1996, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was praised by critics who highlighted how it connected with many parts of Indian society. It promotes both concepts of following one’s heart while also respecting Indian family values.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
According to IMDb, Dil Chahta Hai is the most popular Bollywood film of all time. It follows three inseparable childhood friends who have just finished college together. Nothing ever breaks them up – that is, until they each fall in love and express different approaches to relationships.
The comedy-drama won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. It is set in Mumbai and Sydney, Australia, and was praised for how it conveyed friendship and changes among young adults.
Jab We Met (2007)
Jab We Met tells the story of a wealthy but depressed businessman whose life is challenged by the introduction of a young and care-free woman. She invites him to take a train ride after he was dumped by his partner and the two of them fall in love.
The film opened to positive reviews which praised the film for its simple plot and dedication to romance. Today, it is considered a classic and already one of the most popular Bollywood films of all time.
Based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Haider tells the story of a young man who returns to his home in Kashmir to investigate his father’s disappearance. He has reason to think that his uncle may be behind the reason his father is gone.
Haider is the third installment of a Shakespearean trilogy from Bhardwaj. It was the first Indian film to win a People’s Choice Award at the Rome Film Festival. The entire production shoot was 54 days, but filmed in two parts in 2013 and 2014.
Set in the turn of the century, Pakeezah tells the story of a young girl who lives life as a prostitute told that falling in love is ‘forbidden’. That is, until she meets a handsome stranger on a train and the two of them immediately hit it off.
Pakeezah is full of romanticism, lucid cinematography, and amazing music. The film was highly praised upon its release and marks the last performance by actress Meena Kumari – who would die shortly after the film’s release from a quick illness.