Top 10 movies about India


Passage to India, directed by David Lean.

March to the Marabar Caves, Passage to India, directed by David Lean.

With the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) quickly approaching — and this year the Spotlight City is Mumbai — now seems like a good time to make a list of my top 10 favourite movies about India. These are not necessarily Indian-made movies — but movies that reveal the history and culture of the country. I have arranged them in chronological order of the time period they depict (not when they were made), so if you watch them in this order, you will get a sense of the history of India over the past couple of hundred years. Not too many “Bollywood films” on the list — but if you want to know more about the booming Hindi cinema industry in Bombay/Mumbai, read my Bollywood Primer.

NOTE: TIFF is not the only Canadian film festival honouring Indian films in the month of September. So is the Canadian Film Institute with the 9th Indian Film Festival and the 13th Annual Toronto South Asian Film Festival.

1. Jodhaa Akbar

Jodhaa Akbar is a big Bollywood blockbuster of a film; it swept all the awards the year it was released. It’s about the relationship between India’s Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was of course Muslim, and his Rajput-Hindu wife Jodhaaa. It stars the impossibly good looking on-screen couple Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan. Jodhaa Akbar, set in the 16th century, is a sweeping historical saga dripping with romance, intrigue and absolutely fabulous REAL jewelry. A very satisfying film experience.

WHAT YOU LEARN: India has been a diverse and sophisticated civilization for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

2. Lagaan

Lagaan means “tax” — the tax paid by Indian subjects to their British overlords; and the film Lagaan, set during the Victorian era, is about a tax revolt by overburdened villagers. The tax revolt crisis leads to a cricket match challenge between the villagers, who have never played the game before — led by Aamir Khan, in the role that propelled him to stardom — and the British. It’s a feel-good movie on a grand scale about national pride. Made by the same director as Jodhaa Akbar, Ashutosh Gowariker, but earlier in his career. It’s great to watch post-colonial people taking pride in their culture and history, even if it means playing up stereotypes and formulaic plot lines. Aamir Khan is awesome. As usual.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Cricket may have came from England, but India has taken it to heart.

Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray, India

Scene from Pather Panchali. Photo credit: Canadian Film Insititute.

3. Pather Panchali

Some people think its Orson Welles, some Stanley Kubrick, others Kurosawa. But I think Satyajit Ray, who hailed from Bengal in eastern India, is the greatest film director in the history of cinema and this “little” film (budget was purportedly $3,000) was his debut. Pather Panchali, which means “Song of the Little Road,” is a study of rural family life in India in the early part of the 20th century. It is perhaps the most sensitive and true-to-life film I have ever seen. A lyrical masterpiece, and the first of the three Apu Trilogy films that also includes Aparajito and Apur Sansar.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Why Indians glorify traditional, pastoral life. And why Ray is lionized.

Scene from the film Water, directed by Deepa Mehta and shot in Sri Lanka

Scene from the film Water, directed by Deepa Mehta and shot in Sri Lanka

4. Water

Water is one of my all-time favourite films. When I saw it for the first time at TIFF the year it debuted, I cried my eyes out at the dramatic end. Directed by Indo-Canadian powerhouse Deepa Mehta, Water is about life in a widow’s ashram in India in the 1930s. The freedom struggle, which was gathering steam at the time under the charismatic leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, provides the backdrop. It took Deepa Mehta years to make this film as her set was burned by Hindu fanatics. Eventually, she shot it in Sri Lanka. (Note to self: must find out where it was shot before I go to Sri Lanka in December!)

WHAT YOU LEARN: Life for women in India is unfair; and when personal conscience triumphs societal beliefs, good things happen.

5. Passage to India

This is my favourite film about India! Based on the book by E.M. Forster, directed by David Lean and with an all-star cast that includes Victor Banerjee, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India is about the clash between the British colonizers and their Indian subjects in the years just before independence. The story centres on Judy Davis’ character, Adela Quested, who “goes out to India” with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to be with her fiance, a British bureaucrat. I love the scene when Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz in the mosque; it has haunted me for many years; and I recall studying the significance of the Marabar Caves in university, long before the film was made. The book, the story and the film has made an indelible impression on me.

WHAT YOU LEARN: The dynamics between Britishers and Indians, the oppressors and the oppressed, was complex. Plus, there are mysterious forces at work that can overturn any political or societal structure built by men.

Mahatma Gandhi, India, partition,

Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the David Attenborough film.

6. Gandhi

Can’t have a list of films about India without the epic Gandhi figuring prominently. Directed by David Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, it swept the Oscars in 1982. It’s a historical, biographical, cultural epic and an acting tour de force. There’s really no point in reviewing it; everyone has seen it; it’s about the greatest figure of the 20th century (in my opinion) and one of the most incredible stories in history — and Ben Kingsley pulled it off. I love that scene when John Gielgud as Lord Irwin says, “You mean he wants us to just walk out of India?” Yes. Yes he does. And they did. Freeing 350 million people. Incredible.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Non-violent, passive resistance can be a very, very powerful weapon.

7. Earth

But … then the Partition of India happened. Earth was the second film in Deepa Mehta’s elements trilogy (Fire, Earth and Water), and it’s about what happens to a group of friends in Lahore when Partition divides their lives in half. At the centre of the friendship circle is Lenny, a little Parsi girl crippled by polio, and her ayah, who is a ravishingly beautiful young Hindu woman (Nandita Das). They go regularly to the park, where a group of men — Muslim, Hindu and Sikh — surround them in quiet appreciation of ayah’s beauty. As August 15, 1947 and the independence of India approaches, Partition is announced: a line will be drawn through the populous state of Punjab to create Pakistan, and no one knows where the line will be, and whether Lahore will end up in secular India or Muslim Pakistan. Tensions start to erupt as the various religious-based factions form. Aamir Khan is excellent (as always) as the Ice-candy-man, an intense young Muslim man in love with ayah; and I fell in love with Rahul Khanna in this film, who played the sensitive masseuse who wins her love. The film was based on a book called Cracked India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is superb.

WHAT YOU LEARN: The decision to rip India apart and separate brother from brother, and sister from sister, was brutal — and its force is still being felt.

Rang de Basanti8. Rang de Basanti

Jump ahead to modern India. A British woman whose grandfather was a police officer in India in the 1920s travels to Delhi to make a film based on his diaries and about his involvement with the famous freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad (played by Aamir Khan) and their contemporaries. She meets a group of young people with no political convictions, but after she casts them in the documentary to play the freedom fighters, and one of their circle dies because of political corruption, they become activists. When I was in India the first time, in 2006, Rang de Basanti was a huge hit, and it galvanized a lot of young people to take action. In fact, they copied the candle-lit, India Gate sit-in from the film. With this film, you’ll learn a lot about both the early days of the freedom struggle and modern-day India.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Indians are very proud of their culture, their heroes, and the successful outcome of their struggle for independence.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle, famous for Trainspotting and the London Olympics opening ceremonies. I walked into the theatre with an Indian friend and a skeptical attitude. But Slumdog Millionaire blew both my friend and I away. It’s a tour de force. Though made by a “foreigner,” this film really captures something truthful about the realities of life in modern-day India. Plus, it is entertaining, well-made, fast-paced and engaging.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Life can brutal in the slums of India. But, like everywhere else, hope is a potent elixir.

 10. Delhi Belly

This film answers the burning question, is there a Quentin Tarantino in India? Well, no. But if there was, it would be the people who made Delhi Belly. I like it a lot better than Tarantino, though, because it’s way more fun and doesn’t take itself seriously — you can read my review here, Why Delhi Belly is a good thing. This film is on the list because it’s so “modern.” It’s not a “Bollywood” film and it’s not serious — it’s a dark comedy with lots of vulgarity and a completely implausible plot  — but it does show a slice-of-life of modern, middle-class, creative professionals. In other words, people like me, but in Delhi. And running from murderous diamond smugglers.

WHAT YOU LEARN: Don’t eat tandoori chicken from a filthy street vendor in Old Delhi.

Photograph of Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding, India

Still from the film Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair

11. Monsoon Wedding

The bonus film is by Mira Nair, a fantastic director who tackles social issues head on. (She also directed Salaam Bombay, which was set in the slums of Bombay/Mumbai.) Monsoon Wedding is about an upper-middle-class family preparing for a wedding and it’s one of my favourite films (like Water, it features the music of my good friend, Canadian musician Mychael Danna). As someone who’s been part of a big Punjabi family in Delhi, I can tell you from personal experience that this film is true to life, and does show what it’s like on the “inside” of family life.

WHAT YOU LEARN: In India, family is everything.

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43 Responses to Top 10 movies about India

  1. Tash September 3, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Ohhh, I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on my flight home to Aus, and loved it! Made my trip to India in March all that more exciting and wanderlust-ful! Ha!
    Tash recently posted..Toronto IslandsMy Profile

  2. Lesley Peterson September 3, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    A print-worthy list! I’m surprised how many I’ve seen and will look up the ones I haven’t. Love your comments on What You Learn.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..ArtSmart Roundtable: The Pre-Raphaelite BrotherhoodMy Profile

  3. Sue Ann September 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    Love Gollygood (my daughter’s pronunciation) films. I’d also recommend The World Before Her. It’s a great doco about India told from the perspectives of Miss India contestants and girls attending a militant boot camp for Hindu Nationalists.
    Sue Ann recently posted..Photoaday September 4th: In the letterboxMy Profile

  4. Roshni September 4, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    Love your list even though I cannot agree with you about the first two. Jodha Akbar is a very romanticized version of the real story where Akbar marries Jodha simply to annex a very important part of India to his empire in the simplest fashion. Lagaan is …well, a Hindi movie! But totally agree with the rest!
    Roshni recently posted..Could I be a Tiger Mom?My Profile

    • Rahul August 26, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

      If Lagaan is NOT a Hindi movie, what is ? *Surprised*

  5. Ajay September 4, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    I admire your passion behind this article. Very well written and a great choice of movies.

  6. Neelima V September 4, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    That’s a really nice list and I haven’t seen about half them yet! 🙁
    Should pick up the DVDs soon.
    Neelima V recently posted..Why I have never traveled out of India!My Profile

  7. indiamap September 4, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    Good list, But you’ve collected the movies from Bollywood only, there are many films which is about India in South Indian Cinemas too.

    • kim October 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      and they are??

      • Chitra June 14, 2014 at 2:20 am #

        NAYAKAN (1987) – google for this movie and find what why it is listed as Times’ Best 100 movies!

  8. Raghav September 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Mariellen Ward,

    Thanks alot for publishing the list. But this list is mainly about india in different phases through last few centuries. Like periodical or historical movies. But when you say film festival, i am expecting to hear the real movie style from india.

    May be you can select list from mainsteam movies from Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali ..etc language movies. May be it will be really strange to foreign people to watch these movies. There are really good movies in each language with very original native movie style.

  9. Simon September 6, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    Ha, I just knew that Slumdog Millionaire would be on the list! Great film – as are all the ones on this list that I’ve seen. I, too, just saw the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which isn’t a bad film at all. I’m a sucker for most films set in exotic locales like India!
    Simon recently posted..The Istanbul Pact: a delicious travel tip for couplesMy Profile

  10. Jose Edgardo September 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Really Rang de Basanti is a great indian film, which I’ve seen and especially Amir khan is really a great actor. Thanks for your nice post.
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  11. Neha September 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    I got to know about you blog through The Decent Stalker (am a crazy SRK fan just like her) . Lovely images and nice to see someone who is not Indian giving her honest views. I think you should surely add Swadesh to this list.

    It is a superb movie!

  12. Audrey September 8, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    I’ve watched a few of these, and I read the book Passage to India but now I’m thinking I should also try to find the movie. And I know this is more of a Hollywood film, but I really want to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! 🙂
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  13. Shalu Sharma September 14, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    I have seen all of them as listed and all of them are great movies. Out of them, I liked Lagaan as it captures the essence of India quite a lot. Also it shows how the game of cricket was developed from an Indian game called “gulli danda”. I didn’t like Slumdog Millionaire.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Top winter destinations of IndiaMy Profile

  14. Thomas Dembie September 29, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    I’m a big fan of the movie Amal. It’s a great story, and it also has Canadian roots and made its debut at TIFF. I’m sure we’ll see many more great movies from Richie Mehta.
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    • Mariellen Ward January 19, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

      Me too, I love that film, and i have met the actor who plays Amal several times here in Toronto.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  15. October 1, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    I think author would not have seen ‘Mystic India’ , its must watch movie to Understand India in better way

  16. Advantage Safaris Africa October 16, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    Nice piece about Indian movies-thank you.Would love if you watched Gorillas in the mist set in Rwanda Africa.

  17. Jonathan December 17, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    I absolutely agree with you-Rang De Basanti and Delhi Belly are great movies hailing from Bollywood. I had Lagaan recommended to me and I’ll make sure I watch it along with Jodhaa Akbar, your favourite. Thanks for this list!

    Have you had the chance to watch Salaam Bombay yet? It’s a bit dated since it was produced in 1988, but it remains a work of great contemporary relevance when it comes to understanding the different layers of street children’s lives.
    Jonathan recently posted..How and Why the West and India Differ So Much According to Devdutt PattanaikMy Profile

  18. Sekhar July 2, 2013 at 6:33 am #

    I am really shocked to see “Swades (2004) not being in the list. I guess, you omitted it cuz u already included 2 of the same Diro’s movies (Lagaan & Jodhaa Akbar), but still it’s Swades any day over Jodhaa…

    Also, I was really delighted that u mentioned “Rang De Basanti”. it’s my fav hindi movie..

    • Mariellen Ward January 19, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      I agree!! I re-watched Swades and I need to re-do this list. Seriously.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  19. Nishant Srivastava September 1, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Sardaar is also a great movie biopic of great India leader Sardar patel,that movies shows how sardar patel connect whole India at the time of Independence and what difficulties they faced during their efforts.

    BTW Great List Thanks 🙂
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  20. saichand January 31, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    bhag milkha bhag movie one of the great movie in bollywood..
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  21. OR Melling May 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    The Darjeeling Limited is one of my favourite films of all time. I watch it whenever I am feeling ‘homesick’ for Indiahhhh. Not my birth home but my soul’s home. Water was stunning (Deepa Mehta is one of the world’s great filmmakers.) I enjoyed Lagaan but found The Marigold Hotel cheesy. Thanks for your list. Will view the ones I’ve missed,

  22. saritha July 22, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    These are not Indian movies, they are only Bollywood or Hindi movies only so you need to change the name of the title! There are so many good movies other than these in India!

    • Mariellen Ward July 22, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

      Hi Saritha! This post is called movies ABOUT India. Not movies made in India. So, I think the titles is fine the way it is.

      However, a post about favourite Indian movies or favourite Hindi movies is a good idea. Do you want to add a few suggestions? I would start with Pather Panchali (in Bengali).
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..On the edge at Niagara FallsMy Profile

  23. moubani February 1, 2015 at 1:53 am #

    where is ” swadesh”??!! i think swadesh should replace lagaan! i mean itz also a great movie but not much about India i guess! “swadesh” should be on the list..plzz..add it! 🙂

  24. Amit Kumar February 24, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Nice compilation of the list of movies on India! Though i feel some great movies are missing from the list, such as The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Sardar, Pinjar and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisee.

  25. Amit Kumar February 24, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    Nice compilation of the list of movies on India! Though i feel some great movies are missing from the list, such as The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Sardar, Pinjar and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisee.

  26. Ankit Punn August 8, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    Spent a lot of time going through the list and reading all the messages and I can surely understand how hard it is for anybody to shorten the list down to 10 movies. I can only see one movie which has not been mentioned by anybody in the list, is PYAASA, directed by the famous Guru Dutt. It is a movie which I would highly recommend.

  27. lesley August 23, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Thanks for suggesting Rang de Basanti I watched it 3 days ago and am still recalling scenes and marvelling at the storyline. I loved the way the film started off as fun loving and frivolous but slowly morphed into a moving and powerful drama. It certainly deserves it’s cult status.Once aging thanks.

  28. Tim Makins August 26, 2015 at 3:30 am #

    Glad to see that ‘A Passage To India’ was mentioned. For anyone interested in this film, I have a website that talks about the locations used in the making of this movie:

  29. Aashish August 26, 2015 at 10:28 pm #

    Great list! I’d add Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi , Dil Se, and Swades to this list.

  30. jyoti prakash gogoi June 29, 2016 at 5:47 pm #

    Awesome list …loved it!!! Just want to add ‘ Gangs of wasseypur’ to that list, its a great movie about india as well.

  31. Adam August 21, 2016 at 10:19 am #

    I did not see my favorite movie Indiana Jones on the list.

  32. Mohit Kumar October 19, 2016 at 2:58 am #

    good list. Jodhaa Akbar, Rang De Basanti, Pathar panchali are of my favorite movies about India. You may also mention Parched movie in the list.

    Thanks for the post.

  33. Lee October 19, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Hi there,

    Not sure if you have seen Amal, about an Indian tuk tuk driver with high moral character, its a real feel good film even if at times your heart bleeds for the main character Amal,

    On a lighter note the comedy Outsourced, an arrogant American has his mind blown when he is forced to train his replacement in India, you see the culture clash when east meets west before he accepts that the American way is not the only way, Keep a close eye on Puru (Asif Basra) his subtle character idiosyncrasies are suberbly funny

  34. Anchal Bansal February 24, 2017 at 11:16 pm #

    nice list. Jodhaa Akbar, Rang De Basanti, Pathar panchali are of my favorite movies about India.
    Anchal Bansal recently posted..24 Best Inspirational Quotes For Difficult Times In RelationshipsMy Profile

  35. Mohit Kumar March 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    nice list. Keep is up!! I It’s hard to come by experienced people about this subject, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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