Most consider cinema to be a source of entertainment for the masses that help them escape to a world of fantasy. But Indian cinema, from its inception, through some of its iconic films, has also served as a mirror to the stark reality of the world.
Hop onto this journey, as we look as some of the most exemplary films that were way ahead of their times and continue to stand the test of time.
1. Fire (1996)
Sita and Radha are young women whose husbands choose celibacy or mistresses over them, leading them to explore an intimate, passionate relationship in a traditional orthodox society.
A 1996 Indian-Canadian romantic drama film, it starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das and was directed by Deepa Mehta. Loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt), it was one of the first mainstream Bollywood films to explicitly show homosexual relations. It triggered protests and opened debates around homosexuality and freedom of speech in 1998, after its release in India.
2. Filhaal (2002)
Rewa (Tabu) and Dhruv (Sanjay Suri) are devastated after a miscarriage and find out they cannot conceive on their own. It is at the time that Rewa’s best friend Sia (Sushmita Sen) offers to be a surrogate mother, much to the fury of her long-term boyfriend Sahil (Palash Sen). Released in 2002, the film was one of the firsts to bring surrogacy onscreen and was critically acclaimed.
3. Kya Kehna (2000)
A 2000 family drama, the film shows how Priya, a young feisty teenager gets pregnant, and the father of the child, Rahul (Saif Ali Khan) abandons her. Struggling with acceptance from family and society at large, her best friend Ajay (Chandrachur Singh) helps her fight odds and win her family back.
It was one of the first mainstream films, apart from Julie, that dealt with premarital pregnancy.
4. My Brother Nikhil (2005)
A 2005 film set in Goa and based on the life of Dominic D’Souza, it was directed by Onir. The movie portrays the life of Nikhil (Sanjay Suri), a bright young swimmer, whose life keeps falling apart after getting diagnosed with HIV.
Ostracised by society, he finds solace in his only sister, Anamika (Juhi Chawla), and her boyfriend, Nigel. It is set between 1987 and 1994, when AIDS awareness in India was extremely low and was treated as a major taboo.
5. Chandni Bar (2001)
The 2001 film depicts the story of a young orphan woman moving to Mumbai and accepting work as a bar dancer to survive. Directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, it shed light on the unexplored side of Mumbai underworld, intergenerational prostitution, dance bar girls, prison abuse, and gun crime. The film stars Tabu and Atul Kulkarni in lead roles.
6. Aastha (1997)
Struggling to make ends meet with her husband, Mansi (Rekha) is trapped into sex work by her friend. She continues to engage in prostitution to help provide for her school-going daughter.
A 1997 drama, it was one of the first few films to show a woman’s extramarital sexual relations and explicit sex scenes.Rekha’s controversial role was severely criticized by the audience. But she held her head high saying, “After ‘Aastha,’ people had a lot to say about my role of a wife who moonlights as a prostitute. I don’t have problems playing anything. I’ve reached a stage where I could do justice to any role that came my way.”
7. Salaam Bombay! (1988)
Salaam Bombay! is a 1988 Hindi film directed by Mira Nair, and screenwritten by Sooni Taraporevala. The film depicts the daily lives of street kids in Bombay. It found its rightful place among The New York Times’ ‘The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made’ and explored the life of a revengeful Krishna, who, after destroying his brother’s motorbike, is thrown out of the comfort of his mother to earn INR 500 to repair it. It eventually lands him in a slum of Mumbai.
8. Chameli (2004)
A 2004 film starring Kareena Kapoor and Rahul Bose, it shows a rainy night encounter between a distressed wealthy banker and a prostitute at a railway station. From shaming her to understanding and respecting her after delving into her life story, the film chronicles how one encounter changes his life.
9. Mandi (1983)
Once patronised by princes, Rukminibai runs a brothel that is losing its charm and fame. An 1983 film starring Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil, it is deemed a satirical comedy on politics and prostitution. Loosely based on the classic Urdu short story Aanandi by Ghulam Abbas, the film narrates the story of a brothel, in the heart of a city, which powerful politicians want to encroach.
10. Monsoon Wedding (2001)
A 2001 drama film directed by Mira Nair, the film apart from depicting the chaos of a big fat Punjabi wedding, touches upon social issues of cheating, betrayal and child sexual abuse.
Considered ‘parallel’ cinema back then, it depicted romance, family bonds, moving away from the past and dealing with child sexual abuse within family in the Indian context.
11. Taare Zameen Par (2007)
The film explores the life and imagination of an 8-year-old Ishaan. Deemed a day-dreamer who can’t seem to get anything right at his boarding school, the entry of an unconventional new art teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, helps the dyslexic student discover his true identity.
12. Masoom (1983)
A family man’s world turns topsy turvy when he discovers that he has an illegitimate child from a past affair. Following the death of his birth mother, the child is sent to live with his father’s family.
A 1983 Indian drama film, it is an adaptation of the book, Man, Woman and Child, 1980 by Erich Segal and starred Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi in lead roles along with Jugal Hansraj, Aradhana and Urmila Matondkar as child actors.
13. Mathrubhoomi (2003)
A 2003 film by Manish Jha, the film is a future dystopia in an Indian village overpopulated exclusively by males due to female infanticide/foeticide over the years. It shows the aggressive young men, desperate for wives, release their frustration through group screenings of imported pornographic films, cross-dressed dance performances, and even bestiality, which are handled sensitively.
It chronicles the fate of a woman bought by Ramcharan, a wealthy father, to fulfil his and his five sons’ sexual desires.The film sheds light on the consequences of female foeticide, female infanticide, gender balance, fraternal polyandry and bride buying.
14. Lajja (2001)
The films depicts how the stories of four different women, victims of male chauvinism, come together and refuse to get abused, deciding to fight for their rights. A 2001 film, it mocks society which worships goddesses but refuses to honour its own women.
The protagonists’ names Maithili, Janki, Ramdulaari, and Vaidehi are all different names for Sita. The film starred Manisha Koirala, Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Mahima Chaudhury, Rekha,Sharman Joshi and Ajay Devgn.
15. Khamosh (1985)
Mysterious murders that takes place on the sets of a Bollywood movie. The film has no songs and actors played themselves. This film was Bollywood’s attempt to reinvent itself as early as the 80s and demanded viewers get out of their comfort zone.
Directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the film starred Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Amol Palekar, Soni Razdan, Pankaj Kapoor and others.
16. Manthan (1976)
A 1976 film by Shyam Benegal, the story was inspired by the White revolution of Dr Verghese Kurien. It depicts how a veterinarian, Dr. Rao, makes a visit to a village, to start a co-operative society dairy for the betterment of the rural people.
The film was a major success, and was entirely crowdfunded by 500,000 farmers who donated Rs. 2 each. The title song Mero gaam kathaparey was later used as the soundtrack for the television commercial for Amul.
17. Dil Se (1998)
When Journalist Amar (Sharukh) falls for a mysterious woman, Moina (Manisha Koirala) on an assignment, she does not reciprocate his feelings.When he is about to get married to another girl, played by Preity Zinta, Moina shows up at his doorstep.
A 1998 romantic thriller set during the insurgency in Northeast India, it is directed by Mani Ratnam.