The Top 30 Greatest Classic Bollywood Films of All Time

The top 30 greatest classic Bollywood films have been selected. Which films made the list of Bollywood’s best?

Greatest Bollywood Films of All Time Guru Dutt Waheeda Rehman

Introduction

Mr. and Mrs. 55 – Classic Bollywood Revisited! at last present our definitive list of the Bollywood classics you absolutely must see before you die. Hundreds of films were scored and ranked across multiple dimensions of Bollywood cinema including: story, direction, performances, musical composition, as well as cultural impact and legacy. We included Hindi-language films made between the period of 1949-1979 on our list of the best classic Bollywood films ever made. Some on the list are beloved favorites of the industry, while others may surprise you.

Among the winners are directors Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor–names synonymous with masterpiece Indian cinema–each with multiple films among Bollywood’s all-time greatest. Always wondered why a couple of young Harvard students like us love old Indian films so passionately? No matter what you think you know about Bollywood, the movies on this list will change your understanding of Indian films like never before. From village epics that grapple with our national identity to the nostalgic poetry of sudden disillusionment, classic Bollywood films transport us from the enchanting glamour of Bombay nightlife to the majestic gardens of Kashmir. They carry our souls through hardship and loss and revive our spirits with redemption.

This is cinema the way it was meant to be. This is classic Bollywood.

The top 30 Films from 30 years of classic Hindi cinema (1949-1979):

1. Pyaasa

Pyaasa Guru Dutt

Guru Dutt, 1957

Pyaasa, or “thirst,”is the story of one man’s search for compassion in the cold cynicism of post-independence Indian society. Vijay is an unpublished poet, dismissed by his own family and scorned by socialites and his colleagues. After befriending a prostitute who shelters him, Vijay is believed dead and his poetry “posthumously” lionized. He becomes an overnight sensation, mourned by fans across the country, and the true Vijay is labeled an imposter. India entered its golden age of filmmaking in the 1950s when its long-awaited freedom from England and the hopes of a new government created a social tinderbox of great expectations and disillusionment. Pioneering the technique of utilizing song lyrics as direct extensions of the film’s dialogue, Guru Dutt as the writer-producer-director-star paints a stirring portrait of the commodification of humanity.

2. Mughal-e-Azam

Mughal-e Azam K. Asif

Karimuddin Asif, 1961

At the turn of the 17th century, Prince Salim falls in love with the court dancer Anarkali and wages war against his own father, Emperor Akbar, in order to marry her. Director K. Asif’s enormous cast, opulent sets, intricately designed costumes and extravagantly staged battle scenes made the film the most expensive ever produced in India at the time. But despite of all the grandeur, the film has a warm heart, and the dangers of the romance between Salim and Anarkali are infused into each glance they share. Although the love story is the backbone of the film, it is Emperor Akbar, from whom the film derives its name (“the Great Mughal”), who takes center stage as he is torn between love for his only son and the unforgiving demands of the Mughal Empire. Every line of dialogue is written with the ornamentation of poetry, casting an elegance to Mughal-e Azam‘s thunderous power.

3. Pakeezah

Pakeezah Kamal Amrohi

Kamal Amrohi, 1971

In the grandeur of Muslim Lucknow at the turn of the century, Pakeezah is a courtesan and dancer who dreams of leaving her life behind when a stranger falls in love with her in a train compartment, not knowing her true profession. With swirling romanticism and languid, dream-like cinematography, Pakeezah instantly became one of the most extraordinary musicals ever made. Perfectionist director Kamal Amrohi, who also wrote the script and some of the lyrics, effectively transports the viewer into a wistful age of bygone formality and luxury. Each of Pakeezah‘s popular semi-classical songs illustrates the duality of a courtesan’s poetry, at once glamorizing the elaborate rituals of love and destroying the institutions that upheld them.

4. Mother India

Mother India Mehboob Khan

Mehboob Khan, 1957

With tragedy strikes her family, newlywed village belle Radha is determined to weather a crucible of social and personal adversities without compromising her honor. In doing so, she reinvents herself as a heavy-handed symbol of India’s own pride as an ancient culture and a new democracy. A defining film in the history of Bollywood, director Mehboob Khan’s iconic Mother India set the pattern for the more than 60 years of Bollywood film that followed it. A mythologization of traditional values and an homage to the beauty of Indian heritage, Mother India‘s unabashedly epic glorification of self-sacrifice and female empowerment was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1958.

5. Guide

Guide Vijay Anand

Vijay Anand, 1965

A corrupt businessman is transformed into a spiritual guide after a misunderstanding that leads to his idolization by a village besieged by drought. Based on the R.K. Narayan novel of the same name and bolstered by a stunning soundtrack, Guide explores a fundamental Vedic transformation from materialism to a release from worldly attachments in an extremely unlikely hero. A scandalous love story settles into the background as director Vijay Anand boldly deconstructs social taboos, from adultery and non-traditional gender roles to religious fraud, in a film that stirringly evolves into a philosophical awakening greater than the circumstances it portrays–a brilliant reflection of the double entendre intended by its title.

6. Kaaghaz Ke Phool

Kaagaz Ke Phool Guru Dutt

Guru Dutt, 1959

In the 1950s at the height of India’s golden age of film-making, a celebrated movie director feels uninspired by the tinsel-lined glitz of studio era Bollywood. When he discovers a new actress, innocent to the corruption of the industry, he believes he has found a muse to ease his restlessness. A elegiac behind-the-scenes film about film-making, Kaaghaz Ke Phool became a cult classic following the eerie semi-autobiographical death of its director Guru Dutt. Trapped in a world of pretense, Guru Dutt illustrates a kind of yearning that softly and slowly erodes the soul–a desperate hunt for a human connection. The real triumph is in the film’s stunning camerawork, gracefully gliding through the empty studio sets like a beautiful spectre of Dutt’s own shattered desires.

7. Awaara

Awaara Raj Kapoor

Raj Kapoor, 1951

A female lawyer is determined to prove her lover’s innocence in a murder attempt on the life of a respected judge. Structured in medias res, the film’s flashback reveals the injustice of her lover’s past when the very judge who condemns him proves to be his own father: a man who threw his wife onto the streets when he believed a criminal had raped her. Echoing the dark lessons of the ancient Ramayana, Awaara shatters the nature versus nurture debate with a showman’s flair and surrealist fantasy, including the film’s legendary dream sequence evoking a descent into Hell. Awaara launched Raj Kapoor’s famous Chaplin-esque hero for the first time, who resonated immensely across the Soviet Union and Communist China as the voice of a new generation.

8. Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam

Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam Guru Dutt

Guru Dutt/Abrar Alvi, 1962

Desperate to save her marriage, the younger daughter-in-law of a wealthy family sacrifices her moral boundaries to win over her alcoholic husband. A nostalgic glimpse into the decaying Bengali feudal system, Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam unravels a dazzling murder mystery at the heart of its progressive view of societal redemption. Seen from the perspective of a young factory worker lured into a stately mansion as an ally of its young mistress, Sahib, Bibi, Aur Ghulam hauntingly opens the doors to the hollowness of exterior splendor. Spiraling against her will with the collapse of Calcutta’s landed aristocracy, Meena Kumari’s portrayal of the tormented wife is forever considered among the most magnificent on-screen performances of Bollywood history.

9. Aradhana

Aradhana Shakti Samanta

Shakti Samanta, 1971

When her lover dies at war, an unwed mother gives up her son up for adoption, vowing to watch over him in secrecy as he grows up in the house of another. Her poignant worship, or aradhana, of her dead fiancé and their son became immortalized in the Indian cinematic psyche as an audacious struggle of traditional society confronted by changing modern values. Boasting one of the all-time greatest soundtracks of Indian cinema, Aradhana epitomizes the versatility and creativity of the era’s leading music directors. From the youthful romance of “Kora Kaagaz Tha” to the grim Bardic undertones of “Safal Hogi Teri Aradhana” to the notoriously seductive “Roop Tera Mastana,” the film is as much remembered for its luminous performances as for exemplifying the golden age of Bollywood music.

10. Do Bigha Zameen

Do Bigha Zameen Bimal Roy

Bimal Roy, 1953

A farming family fights to save their ancestral land from a cunning mill owner. Do Bigha Zameen follows the father and son’s trip to Calcutta from their idyllic village to earn enough money to pay their debts–only to discover the miseries of urban poverty instead. Inspired by the work of Italian neorealism, Do Bigha Zameen pioneered early parallel cinema with a deliberate attention to the “everyday,” and the feeling of an invisible, unhurried camera whose shots and mis-en-scene are both carefully constructed and effortlessly fluid. Directed by Bengali auteur Bimal Roy, the film’s nationalistic electricity hit a broader audience, becoming the first Indian film to win the Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.

11. Bandini

bandini bimal roy

During the British Raj of the 1930s, a prison doctor falls in love with a convict who reveals the story of her tumultuous connection to a freedom fighter.

12. Madhumati

Madhumati Bimal roy

Bimal Roy, 1958

On a rainy night, a man enters an abandoned mansion where he is confronted by unfulfilled visions of his past life.

13. Shree 420

Shree 420 Raj Kapoor

Raj Kapoor, 1955

A country boy travels to Bombay to make his fortune where he is lured from the path of virtue into a thrilling life of deceit.

14. Sholay

sholay ramesh sippy

Ramesh Sippy, 1975

After his family is murdered by a notorious bandit, a former police officer enlists the help of two outlaws to capture him.

15. Ankur

shyam benegal Ankur

Shyam Benegal, 1974

The social hierarchies of rural India are disrupted when a landowner begins an affair with a poor farmer’s wife.

16. Hum Dono

Hum Dono vijay anand

Amarjeet, Vijay Anand (1961)

After returning from war, a soldier begins to lead a double-life when his doppelgänger’s family welcomes him home.

17. Barsaat (1949)

Barsaat raj kapoor

Raj Kapoor, 1949

Two men with different ideals of love search for answers with the coming of the monsoons.

18. Amar Akbar Anthony

Amar Akbar Anthony manmohan desai

Manmohan Desai, 1977

Three brothers are separated in childhood and eventually unite after one is brought up a Christian, one a Hindu, and one a Muslim.

19. Anand

Anand hrishikesh mukherjee

Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1971

A doctor recounts the story of a terminally ill man who wishes to his live life to the fullest and spread happiness to those around him.

20. Haqeeqat

Haqeeqat chetan anand

Chetan Anand, 1964

A platoon of Indian soldiers leave their homes and loved ones to encounter the harsh realities of battle in the Indo-China War of 1962.

21. Don

Don 1978 chandra barot

Chandra Barot, 1978

A simpleton is trained to infiltrate the underworld by impersonating a criminal leader who has been killed in a police chase.

22. Mahal

Mahal kamal amrohi

Kamal Amrohi, 1949

A young lawyer is haunted by a ghostly woman in his new house, where the builder and his fiancée died shortly after it was built.

23. Sangam

Sangam raj kapoor

Raj Kapoor, 1964

An Indian Air Force Officer leaves for the Kashmiri front, entrusting his wife to the care of his best friend who has secretly always loved her.

24. Dosti

Dosti satyen bose

Satyen Bose, 1964

A penniless orphan makes the unexpected friendship of a blind boy who teaches him survival on the streets of Bombay.

25. Waqt

Waqt yash chopra

Yash Chopra, 1965

Natural disaster separates the members of a close-knit family who re-connect in a series of dramatic entanglements years later.

26. Deewar

Deewar yash chopra

Yash Chopra, 1975

A mother attempts to reunite her two estranged sons: one, a leading criminal of the underworld, and the other, an uprighteous policeman.

27. Kati Patang

Kati Patang shakti samanta

Shakti Samanta, 1970

As a promise to raise the child of her dying friend, a young woman risks starting a new life under a false identity.

28. Aandhi

Aandhi gulzar

Gulzar, 1975

A powerful politician struggles to reconcile her position with secrets from her past.

29. Purab Aur Paschim

Purab Aur Paschim major kumar

Manoj Kumar, 1970

East clashes with West when a traditional Indian student encounters swinging London society for the first time.

30. Bombai Ka Babu

Bombai Ka Babu Raj Khosla

Raj Khosla, 1960

A small-time thief is forced into a deadly web of deception when he gains the trust of his victim’s family.

Read more about these and other classic Bollywood films on our film pages! Which films do you consider among classic Bollywood’s all-time best and why? Leave us a comment and let us know!

– Mrs. 55

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The Best Holi Songs of Classic Bollywood Movies

Hema Malini Sholay holi

Hema Malini dances with joyful abandon in Sholay’s famous holi number “Holi Ke Din.”

The festival of Holi is among Bollywood’s favorite celebrations–an occasion at last as colorful as the country of its origin. Indeed Holi, a Hindu spring festival, is commonly known as the Festival of Colors. It is both a religious celebration signifying the triumph of Good over Evil, as well as a cultural one commemorating the onset of a new Spring season. It is marked by the throwing of colorful powders, the lighting of bonfires, and the strengthening of bonds between all individuals in colorful merriment. Its spirited catchphrase “Buraa na maano, Holi hai!” (Don’t bear any ill-feelings, it’s Holi!”) speaks to the underlying theme of the day – the burning of negative forces or ill-will, a sort of spiritual purging. The smearing of colors represents the deconstructing of identities and the breaking of social barriers, as all rejoice and participate together, regardless of social class. At the very least, it is a day to settle old scores and move on. Indeed, everyone is welcome and everyone is pardoned for his or her revelry. Thus, we mortals celebrate Holi today with fun and games, colors and powder, and Bollywood takes this grand opportunity to ignite romance.

Rajesh Khanna asha parekh holi

Rajesh Khanna woos Asha Parekh with color at the Holi celebration of Kati Patang (1970).

There’s something inherent to the playful tag-style nature of Holi that lends itself so conveniently to flirtation and a male-female dichotomy. We discussed the appalling lack of Diwali-associated songs in classic Bollywood previously, and hazarded the guess that the festival is far less conducive to overt flirtation and bumping dance grooves like Holi invariably is. Whether wooing the mourning lover into a literal rainbow of joy or painting your sweetheart with a visible mark of your flirtatious overtures, Holi delivers the goods for Bollywood every time.

Mother India holi

Even the old school epic Mother India takes a drama break for the holi festivities!

Below is our list of the 10 greatest Holi songs of classic Bollywood cinema. Happy Holi to all our readers–and if you’re stuck in a huge snowstorm like we are, here’s hoping Holi will usher in the Spring at last!

1. Rang barse (Silsila 1981)

The ultimate old school Holi hit, this song will force anyone to get in the mood and join the festivities! Say what you want about Amitabh and Rekha’s clandestine affair, this dance number will get you on board in no time!

2. Aaj na chodenge (Kati Patang 1970)

This song is easily my favorite Bollywood holi song! Besides the fact that I grew up on the Kati Patang soundtrack, does it get much better than Rajesh Khanna-Asha Parekh shy seduction? Lata and Kishore are delightful, but don’t get me started on the bizarre chorus act that chops up the number like barbarians on holiday.

3. Holi Aayi Re Kanhaayi (Mother India 1957)

Oh, there’s no school like the old school! Bring it back Nargis-style with this classic song from Mother India that just overflows with romance and sass! The only thing better than a Holi song is a Holi village dance-off.

4. Tan rang lo ji (Kohinoor 1960)

While this royal gem may be shot in black-and-white, you can practically see the colors flying in this fantastic Mohammed Rafi-Dilip Kumar celebration that invites the entire kingdom for a Holi song-and-dance sequence!

5. Holi Ke Din (Sholay 1975)

Retro flirting Queen Hema Malini proves to Dharmendra that she’s more than just a loud mouth in Sholay–her moves and dancing steal the show in this colorful song!

6. Are Ja Re Hat Natkhat (Navrang 1959)

Classical dancer Sandhya wows the audience with this traditional stage performance, alternating as both the male and female character complete with ghungroo! Asha Bhonsle’s Hindustani vocals balance out Mahendra Kapoor’s mainstream sway in a Holi number that is well-known even today for its stunning classical choreography.

7. Piya Tose Naina (Guide 1965)

Looking for something a little classier? Go no further than this Waheeda Rehman semi-classical piece from the great philosophical Guide. Watch her prance around with so much joie de vivre, you’ll ignore how gaudy the stage is decorated and your feelings for high-pitched female choruses of the 1960s.

8. Nadiya Se Dariya (Namak Haram 1973)

This song is just plain cute. While not a roaring shoulder-shaking dance off like some of these others, the song is playful and full of shy passion for Rajesh Khanna, which we always approve of.

9. Baghi Re Bhagi Brij Bala (Rajput 1982)

I think this hidden jewel is under-appreciated by historians. While something of a repeat of previous Hema Malini-Dharmendra magic, Vinod Khanna holds his own in this fast-paced duet that once again brings an entire kingdom to the palace to party Holi-style!

10. Kaikhe Paan Banaraswala (Don 1978)

OK, so this isn’t technically a Holi song per se, but it’s arguably the unofficial anthem! There’s something about a traditional, rich beat coupled with Kishore’s absolutely unabashed vocals that set the tone of a celebration and throwing inhibitions to the wind!

While Holi was born in India, it’s popularity was carried across the diaspora and is celebrated around the world each year with full force! The picture below is from my freshman year at Harvard where Holi was played on the Mac quad! Can you spot me in the pigtails with the orange-yellow face?

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– Mrs. 55

What is Eastmancolor?

Amar Akbar Anthony in blinding Eastmancolor!

No, really, what the heck is Eastmancolor? When you look closely at title screen of each of your favorite classic Bollywood films, you find the simple, but bold little phrase, “EASTMANCOLOR” conspicuously splashed across the screen. It’s gnawed quietly at the back of your mind for years. Is “Eastmancolor” part of the name of the film? Is someone making a not-so-clever reference to Indians themselves (“Who is this MAN from the EAST, anyway?”)!? But the words quickly dissolve, the film begins, and in the excitement and messiness of the resulting masala, why “Eastmancolor” deserves a holy spot right in the title screen remains forever an unsolved mystery. Luckily for you, that’s about to change.

Aradhana in mind-blowing Eastmancolor!

Let’s back ourselves up and unravel this riddle from the start. When the first monopack colour film stocks hit Hollywood in the 1930s, India was eager to catch up and bring colour to Bollywood. But the process was not easy. Apart from being significantly more expensive than traditional black-and-white (silver halide photographic emulsion), coloured film stock brought with it a new set of artistic problems: development of the negative taking both luminosity and color into account.

Mere Huzoor in death-defying Eastmancolor!

The first colour film made entirely in India was Kisan Kanya (1937), produced by Ardeshir Irani who had also pioneered the first talkie of Hindi cinema 6 years earlier. However, poor box-office returns and difficulties and expenses in garnering rights to the American Cinecolor stock development process kept coloured film largely out of range for many years following. Guru Dutt, not surprisingly, was among the later auteurs who help revive its popularity. He experimented with the new colour cinematography in his timeless beauty “Chaudhvin Ka Chand”(1961)  that highlights the effect of (fake) moonlight and colour ranges at night. The opportunity to use colour arrived mid-production, and although Dutt had wanted to reshoot the entire film with the new technology, budget and time-constraints forced him to film only this and one other song in colour before the release. Around the same time, K. Asif too experimented with the range of this new technology, incorporating the dazzling colour song “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya” into his magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1961) as a stunning and vivid tribute to the full glamour of the Mughal Empire.

Junglee in dazzling Eastmancolor!

India’s full-length color feature, Mother India (1957), was a landmark film for many reasons, but notably for demonstrating that coloured film stock was the wave of the future—garnering a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards the year of its release. After the overwhelming success of Mother India, Bollywood began shifting its norm to predominantly coloured film, eventually using black-and-white sparingly for stylistic reasons (as in the film noirs or Teen Devian).

Caravan in jaw-dropping Eastmancolor!

Prior to this era, colourizing film had been a technical and artistic nightmare—as far back as the 1910s and 1920s, filmmakers had been painting each frame of a film by hand, bleaching the film stock and adding color dye, or most popularly, using the expensive Technicolor multi-strip subtractive method. These options had little ground in the competitive, movie-a-minute atmosphere of India, and the hassle of processing such film stock (which often needed to be shipped abroad for the purpose), left India for many years colourless.

Teesri Manzil in heart-stopping Eastmancolor!

Eastmancolor, introduced in 1950 by Kodak was a novel and economic technology that used a single-strip 33mm negative-positive process incorporated into one strip of film. While a popular rival to expensive Technicolor, it unfortunately is also the stock most prone to fading over the years. The Eastmancolor emulsions are made of cyan, yellow, and magenta layers. The cyan is the first to fade—in films you see what were originally blue skies now turned white—then eventually all you have left are the sun-washed reddish hues. This gives us a classic image of badly preserved Bollywood films with faded colours and a warm tint.  Contrast this with most beautifully vivid Technicolor processed films you can watch today (think MGM Judy Garland musicals), and you can see a big difference in how the colours have survived.

Safar in gut-wrenching Eastmancolor!

By the time DVDs rolled around, many of the films we know and love in Bollywood had suffered destruction in their original film stocks that no one bothered to repair before a DVD transfer. However, just to give you a hint of what we’ve lost, I’ve personally adjusted the color (albeit imperfectly), to a few stills below from some classic Bollywood films as they would have looked had they been printed on extremely saturated Technicolor. See how subtle thing like this can actually make a HUGE overall difference?! That faded look is merely a tragic artifact of time and neglect.

Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai in Taj Mahal (1963).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Sunil Dutt and Sadhana in Waqt (1965).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh in Teesri Manzil (1966).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Aruna Irani in Caravan (1971).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana (1969).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

Zeenat Aman and Dev Anand in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971).
Left: Eastmancolor. Right: Technicolor.

We often think that Eastmancolor was used only in Bollywood, but it truly started in America as a cheaper rival to Technicolor. In fact, with the advent of Cinemascope (a new widescreen format that once again changed the dynamic of filmmaking), Eastmancolor became THE industry standard—however, in America and unlike in India, the Eastmancolor stock was actually processed still by Technicolor using their sturdier dye-transfer printing. Therefore many films in America billed as “Technicolor” actually have an Eastmancolor base, but would retain their colour fidelity over the years. This is also true of the climax of Mughal-e-Azam which was also shot in and processed by Technicolor and has therefore remained brilliant over the years (helped, of course, also by the recent restoration project). The colours of that film look far different than the colours of classic Eastmancolor Bollywood films like Caravan (1978), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), or Jewel Thief (1967). Sigh. A little investment would have gone a long way.

Madhubala glitters in K. Asif’s true Technicolor masterpiece Mughal-e-Azam (1961). Now THAT’s colour, people.

Satisfied? More information than you really wanted? I hope everyone’s burning curiosity has been slaked at last. The next time you and your hip friends watch an Eastmancolor film, you’ll be the cool cat who knows the full story. Impress the crowd with your knowledge, and poo-poo those provincial fools who think Eastmancolor simply meant Indian men making films! Fun fact: Eastman is actually the name of George Eastman who founded Kodak Photography in 1889!

This Bollywood Mystery request was submitted by faithful fan Pankaj. As always, shoot us an email and keep those requests coming!

-Mrs. 55