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 Vijay is an unpublished poet, dismissed by his own family and scorned by socialites and his colleagues.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 joy of “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” 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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Jaane Woh Kaise Log Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Guru Dutt evokes classic Christ-like imagery in his depiction of Vijay the struggling poet in Pyaasa (1957).

We now present the lyrics and full English translation to one of my all-time favorite Guru Dutt songs “Jaane Woh Kaise” from Pyaasa (1957). I think my undying love for Guru Dutt is pretty evident at this point, but in case you need some convincing to get over the bold Clark Gable ‘stache, start here. Pyaasa is no ordinary film. When released to roaring accolades in 1957, Pyaasa broke precedent upon precedent in both impact and style. Notice how every song in this film seems to flow naturally as a consequence of the plot, as if the lyrics of the songs were a poetic continuation of the spoken dialogue? It was a technique pioneered by Guru Dutt that was later emulated by every great director in Bollywood. And the film hit some hard topics. I discuss more of the political stance of the film and the fascinating struggle Guru Dutt faced behind-the-scenes earlier, but now let us look instead to the classic “Jaane Woh Kaise” hit from the immortal pen of Sahir Ludhviani. It’s a mixture of everything right in the world: Guru Dutt as actor, Hemant Kumar with vocals, S.D. Burman composing, and Sahir in the back with the words of wisdom. This Hemant Kumar gem is truly the industry standard for awkward dinner party songs–even copied in modern times by Mira Nair in her film Vanity Fair (2004)!

Guru Dutt is employed as a dinner party waiter for his rich boss, Rehman, where he is confronted by the reality of his former lover, Mala Sinha, having abandoned him for wealth by marrying none other than the man currently employing him. The injustice of it all gets to him, and by chance, he’s a poet at heart who does what any other tragic poet would do in the situation: drop everything and throw a pity party.

Mala Sinha plays a cold-hearted social climber in Pyaasa (1957).

I love the cinematography in this song–Guru Dutt and his brilliant Director of Photography V.K. Murthy were known for their overblown yet graceful dolly-ins (watch the camera fly in “Waqt Ne Kiya“!), and so too in this song, the camera acts as a silent messenger of emotional turmoil, extracting a beautifully devastating toll on each of the key players in the room. And Guru Dutt holds his ground with arms outstretched as if crucified–a soft-spoken martyr against a background of bookshelves in which his own spoken words will later be immortalized and massacred. Again, you really need to see the film to appreciate the poetic genius of Guru Dutt film-making.

So enough talk, onto the lyrics and English translation of “Jaane Woh Kaise” from Pyaasa (1957)! Check out the picturization on youtube and let us know what you think in the comments!

Jaane Woh Kaise Log Lyrics and Translation

Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila
I wonder what kind of people find their love reciprocated
Humne to jab kaliyaa.N maangii kaa.NTo.N kaa haar milaa
Whenever I asked for flowers, I received a garland of thorns

Khushiyo.N kii manzil DhoonDii to gham kii gard milii
I searched for a destination of joy, but I found a circle of sadness
Chaahat ke naghme chaahe to aahe.N sard milii
I desired tales of love, but I received only the coldness of sighs
Dil kii bojh ko duunaa kar gayaa, jo ghamkhwaar milaa
The burdens of my heart only doubled if I met someone meant to relieve my sorrow

BichhaD gayaa har saathii dekar pal do pal kaa saath
Every companion gave me a few moments of company, and left
Kisko fursat hai jo thaame diiwaano.N kaa haath
After all, who has the free time to hold a crazy man’s hand?
Humko apnaa saayaa tak aksar bezaar milaa
Even my own shadow is often weary of me

Isko hii jiina kehte hai.N to yuu.N hii jii le.Nge
If this is what they called life, then I will live like this
Uff na kare.Nge, lab sii lenge, aa.Nsuu pii lenge
I will not sigh, I will seal my lips, and swallow my tears
Gham se ab ghabraana kaisaa, gham sau baar milaa
After all, how can I be concerned by sadness? I have met sadness a hundred times

Humne to jab kaliyaa.N maangii.N kaaTo.N kaa haar milaa
When I asked for flowers, I found a garland of thorns
Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila
I wonder what kind of people find their love reciprocated

Glossary:

kali: flower; kaanTaa: thorn; haar: garland; manzil: destination; gham: sadness; gard: circle; chaahat: love, desire; naghma: tale; aah: sigh; sard: chilly, cold; bhoj: burden; duunaa karna: to double; ghamkhwaar: a remover of sadness (note: the w is silent, as in khwaab); bichhaD jaanaa: to become separated; saathi: companion; fursat: free time; haath thaamnaa: to hold hands; saayaa: shadow; bezaar: fed up, weary; lab: lips; aa.Nsuu: tears; gham: sadness: ghabraanaa: to become anxious, concerned

Singing his heart out, Guru Dutt transforms Rehman’s classy dinner gathering into a awkwardly personal pity party in Pyaasa (1957).

Guru Dutt revives the martyr-style mis-en-scene in the reprise of “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye” at the famous finale of the film! The scene has got to be one of the all-time greatest of Hindi cinematic history. For this and about a million other reasons, Pyaasa is absolutely mandatory classic Bollywood viewing!

-Mrs. 55

How to Play the Awkward Miffed Lover

It happens to everyone at some point. We all hate this situation. You land the girl of your dreams, you take her to a fancy dinner party, and just when everything is going your way, her ex-lover crashes the scene. With the heavenly voice of a playback singer, the new contender bursts into dramatic song, calling out his passion with your girl in front of EVERYONE.

Plus, the more the song goes on, the more you realize you’re trapped–any interruption would only backfire. And on top of it, your girl is getting embarrassingly emotional.

So what to do? It’s clear everyone in the audience is just cheering for those two to reunite, leaving YOU with the ugly villain label. The rules of the game prevent you from simply cutting the song off short—you have no option but to helplessly be made a fool. It’s such an unfair tactic, and heroes of Bollywood films LOVE to use it.

In times like these, we reflect on the inspiring behavior of greater men. They too were placed in these compromising and uncomfortable situations. Each one had their own style, their own method of handling the filmi fire life dealt them.

As I see it, you have five main options to choose from. Let us examine their protocols below.

The Vinod Khanna: Get Angry

During the beautiful love ode “Koi Nazarana Lekar” from Aan Milo Sajna (1970), Vinod Khanna shoots daggers from his eyes at the shameless flirt Rajesh Khanna.

Option 1. Get angry. It’s bad enough that you showed up to this event in a lime green tuxedo. Complete the look and let your face turn pea green with envy. Who cares who judges you? Be a party-pooper and scowl your way through the song, sucking the joy out of everyone else’s fun.

The Rehman: Blush

Ugh. Nothing worse than having your own crimes turned into public poetry. Although it’s a black-and-white film, you can see Rehman turn a hot pink during Guru Dutt’s classic lament “Jaane Woh Kaise” from Pyaasa (1957).

Option 2. Blush. You’re guilty and there’s no hiding it. Don’t make eye contact with anyone! Instead, mentally review the cquestionable ethical decisions you took along the path that led you to this debacle. You will realize what a jerk you’ve been, and although you have to stay the course, colour will rise to your cheeks.

The Raj Kapoor: Play it off as a joke

Always a goofball, Raj Kapoor attempts valiantly to make light of the humiliating situation wrought by Dilip Kumar singing “Jhoom Jhoom Ke” from Andaz (1949).

Option 3. Play it off as a joke. You’re at a dinner party, after all and this is no time to aggravate the situation. Keep that bow-tie straight and act casual. With enough non-chalance, maybe the party-goers will think it’s only a bit of fun among friends?

The Rishi Kapoor: Give up

Horror and resignation overwhelm Rishi Kapoor’s face during Tariq’s performance of “Kya Hua Tera Wada” from Hum Kisise Kam Nahin (1979)

Option 4. Give up. Just give up. How could you have not known of this beautiful subverted love story earlier? This is entirely your fault. You’re overwhelmed with moral guilt and regret–do the righteous thing and withdraw your nomination from the ballet entirely. In this way, you can quickly drop the villain label and return to your proper place as hero!

The Pran: Enjoy the show

Pran doesn’t ruffle a feather during Shammi Kapoor’s heartfelt and passionate “Dil Ke Jharoke” from Brahmachari (1968). But hey, when you’re as devastatingly sophisticated as Pran, you wouldn’t have time for these amateurs either.

Option 5. Enjoy the show. After all, who’s worried? This other guy has nothing on you, you suave gift to womankind.  Keep the entertainment coming! Oh, I’m sorry, honey, are you crying? Here, take my silk handkerchief. You might need it.

So the next time you hear the tinkerings of a tragic song start on the piano behind you, don’t panic. There is a way out! Just pick an approach from the textbook of Hindi films. If classic Bollywood has taught us anything about these moments, it’s that they can and will happen all the time. Tell us whose approach YOU prefer!

-Mrs. 55

Two or Three Things I Know about Mira Nair: Thoughts from a Former Intern

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in one of the most iconic shots of classic Indian cinema from Shree 420 (1955)

A scene from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) inspired by Raj Kapoor’s classic

After the summer of my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to intern with my favorite contemporary director Mira Nair. Both of us had studied film production at Harvard University and incidentally under the same professor! I first met Mira at his film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when I spotted her in the audience. My heart was beating so fast, I could hardly sit still through the screening. After the show, I gave her my impromptu elevator speech and joined the crew at Mirabai Films that summer!

Intern Mira Nair

Mira Nair and I at the MoMA my sophomore year. Note the glazed look in my eyes. Best day ever!

I was twelve years old when I saw Monsoon Wedding (2001) and have yet to find a movie from my generation that I love more. Mira’s other films include Vanity Fair, Salaam Bombay, The Namesake, Kama Sutra, and Amelia, but what does any of this have to do with old Hindi cinema? I want to talk about a side to her movies that you may not have been familiar with—that is, the impact of classic Bollywood on her work.

Perhaps you can recall that scene from Monsoon Wedding in which the wedding planner marries the housemaid beneath an umbrella. Look familiar? It should! Mira was directly inspired by Raj Kapoor’s famous song “Pyaar Hua Iqrar Hua” in directing this scene. Like Nargis and Raj Kapoor walking together on a rainy night, huddled together beneath an umbrella, Mira’s characters strike the same pose to celebrate their romance at the height of the Indian monsoons.

On-set and behind-the-camera with Hollywood director, Mira Nair.

In the front lobby of Mirabai Films hangs an original hand-painted movie poster of Aurat (1940), Mehboob Khan’s little-known precursor to the later smash-hit Mother India (1959). Its relative obscurity (and the eagerness to explain) brings a pride that can only be known to a fellow old Bollywood fanatic. By her desk is a beautiful and fascinating work of photography taken of the interior of R.K. Studios. Mira once explained how the studio in her photograph seems so unassuming and bland, but there, in an inconspicuous back wall besides an empty soda bottle hangs a small, telling picture of the greatest showman of India—Raj Kapoor himself. Despite his wealth and glamour, he and his colleagues maintained an inspiring sense of humility throughout his career that inspired hers.

If you’re looking for more celebrity interest, there is a great scene in her film, Vanity Fair (2004), in which the heroine (played fearlessly by Reese Witherspoon) makes an ill-received attempt to blend in among a high-class dinner party. Guess what? The scene was inspired by none other that the classic song Jaane Woh Kaise from Guru Dutt’s classic Pyaasa! In fact, Mira love it so much and wanted to make sure she captured Dutt’s spirit so precisely, that she got the whole cast together and watched Pyaasa for a movie night before the shoot. You heard me, people. If you have yet to watch Pyaasa yourself and are still looking for reasons to make the commitment, try this: Reese Witherspoon has seen it and you haven’t. Enough said.

Guru Dutt makes the room incredibly uncomfortable in Pyaasa (1957), an inspiration for Reese Witherspoon’s future character in Vanity Fair (2004).

And did you know Mira was very close friends with bold auteur Satyajit Ray? Mira’s favorite of his films include The Apu Trilogy and Days and Night in the Forest (1970), the latter of which was actually screened at the Harvard Film Archive last year with Sharmila Tagore in person! (I obviously had front row seats, almost underwent cardiac arrest upon seeing Sharmila in person, and begged for an autograph that is now framed on my desk. But that’s neither here nor there.) In fact, after growing up on these films, Mira came to respect Sharmila so much as an actress, and eagerly cast her in one of her first indie films called Mississippi Masala (1991)!

There are a million other ways old Bollywood films have influenced her work, and I have highlighted only a few that I know from working with her personally. Watch her films and let us know which others you can spot! Until then, put Pyaasa on your early Christmas list.

-Mrs. 55

Guru Dutt and the Struggle to Break Free of Convention

Guru Dutt’s poetic magnum opus, Pyaasa (1957), is often considered among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, even named by Time Magazine in the list of top 100 films of the century. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone more defensive of the genius that is Guru Dutt than yours truly. Pyaasa is an evocative film that explores one man’s search for humanism in the cold cynicism of post-independence Indian society. People often contrast Guru Dutt with his contemporary, famed actor and director Raj Kapoor, who shot hits like Shree 420 (1955)–a song-laden, fun rags-to-riches story with a clean happy ending. In contrast, the melancholic, disillusioned tone of Guru Dutt’s poetic films usually leave me feeling like my heart has been slowly torn out, but so beautifully done, I don’t even want it back anymore.

But I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and ask those who know and love both films, does it not seem that Pyaasa and Shree 420 both actually stemmed from the same reaction to the ideals of Nehru’s India under the “mandate of modernization?” Perhaps the creed of the heroic tramp of Shree 420 that spoke to the working masses is not so far from that of the starving poet of Pyaasa that stirred the minds of the intelligentsia. When Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, or any contemporary film-maker for that matter, sought to fill a void in their country’s cinema, despite such seemingly different approaches, they represented the emotions and wants of the same people. When you look closely, in fact, Pyaasa falls into many traps of the very conventions Guru Dutt wanted to break.

According to Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt believed the soul of Pyaasa was contained in the lines of hero Vijay’s song of lament: “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, woh kahaan hain?” (“Where are those who are proud of this India?”), and Prime Minister Nehru himself is rumored to have been quite upset upon hearing this line, a direct invocation to the government for change.

Appalled and disillusioned, Guru Dutt's hero stands Christ-like in the doorway of a ceremony to honor his own death.

But if that’s the case, what the heck is the chintzy “Hum aapki aankhon mein” dream sequence in which hero Vijay and Meena sing and dance in a heavenly courtyard of swirling mist and starry skies doing in the film? Perhaps it is not entirely surprising to learn that the song was not originally intended to be in the film–it was only added in later to appease the distributors who believed it to be unmarketable without at least one glitzy, expensive Bollywood song. The other songs in his film mesh seamlessly into the narrative, as if they are not songs at all, but mere continuations of dialogue–a novel technique pioneered by Dutt.

A greater travesty is, did you know the film was actually supposed to end with the high-angle crane shot of Meena all alone in the grand room with papers flying everywhere after Vijay leaves? To me, the scattered pages are a symbol of Vijay’s poetry whose role as a commodity in the film is in turn a symbolic attack of the loss of romanticism in the realities of the industrialization process. It’s as if to say, society must also honor the man who breathes life into the poems, not merely the price of the written words.

But as Dutt’s assistant recalls, Guru Dutt, “changed the ending because of how the distributors reacted. They felt the ending was too heavy. The financiers requested, ‘Why don’t you have a happy ending?’” Now Pyaasa finishes with Vijay finding spiritual fulfillment with the companionship of Gulabo and the two making their way into the hopeful sunset. I mean, isn’t this the kind of “all’s well that ends well” of conventional cinema he wanted to fight against?

So ultimately, the very focus on wealth and profitability that Guru Dutt chastises in his film is actually the force that proved overpowering in its production. Though Guru Dutt himself wanted otherwise, the distributors, believing to represent the mass market, were able to convince Dutt to change his plans and take fewer risks. He becomes just another flaw in his own criticism against Nehru’s India, greatly compromising the effectiveness of Pyaasa’s commentary. Essentially, the “solution” presented in a film like Shree 420 to try to work the system as best as possible, is all that Pyaasa shows is possible–try to be “purposeful” (as Guru Dutt wanted) within the limitations of the system. Recalling Vijay’s own lines, “Isko hi jeena kehte hain, to yuhiin jee lenge,” (“If this is life, then this is how we’ll live,”) Pyaasa often invites a sentiment to conform to the status quo rather than fight or question it.

Or am I reading too much into this?

–Mrs. 55