7 Iconic Films That Capture India’s Turbulent Relationship With Power

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception,” George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism. “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakably certain of being in the right.”

Indian cinema has a long history of propagating this sentiment with films like Upkaar, Purab Aur Paschim, Border, Gadar. Yet, these films have existed alongside a vibrant counter-culture that has treated jingoism with the skepticism it deserves.

As India turns 72, amidst what appears to be an increasingly dark time for the arts, here are 7 films that shook the status quo.

1957— PYAASA

In the 1950s, India was a young nation torn between the hope of hard-won freedom and the horrors of the partition that heralded independence. The films of the era — by stalwarts such Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, and Bimal Roy — spoke to realities of this very moment.

But one film stood out.

Seventy years after it stunned cinema-goers, the genius of Dutt’s Pyaasa remains one of the best films of Hindi cinema: A wounded writer sublimates his disenchantment with the world through poetry, only to be marginalised by the hypocrisy of a corrupt society that maligns artists while profiting from the art they produce.

Moody, atmospheric, and imbued with a persistent shadow of gloom, Pyaasa is beautifully shot. The black-and-white imagery heightens the sense of melancholi most visible in the song Hum Aapki Baahon Mein, which appears in a dream sequence.

Pyaasa marked the final collaboration between music composer SD Burman and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, who came together one last time to produce on of Hindi cinema’s most memorable albums. Each viewing of Pyaasa is a rediscovery of its subtle symbolism and the many homages (the breakfast scene is a reference to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), woven into this outstanding film.


The film is best remembered for Balraj Saini’s iconic performance as the eponymous Kabuliwala, who comes from Afghanistan to Calcutta to make a living and support his daughter back home. In Calcutta, he befriends little Mini, with whom he shares a paternal connection.

Tragedy strikes when the Kabuliwala is imprisoned, and upon his release he realises that Mini doesn’t recognise him anymore — a metaphor for how his country (and by extension his own daughter in Afghanistan) has perhaps forgotten him too.

The songs by Gulzar and Prem Dhawan, especially Ae Mere Pyaare Watan, capture the love and longing for a nation changed beyond recognition — (an allegory for a post-partition India). The script was based on a celebrated short story by Rabindranath Tagore.

Kabuliwala, didn’t quite achieve commercial success but remains one of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated works.

Guide, Waqt, Mughal-e-Azam, Sahid, Biwi, aur Ghulam were some of the other memorable films of the 1960s.


MS Sathyu’s enduring classic, Garm Hava, is as relevant today than it ever was.

A film that poignantly examines the terrifying consequences of partition on a Muslim family that chose to remain in Agra, Garm Hava is based on an Ismat Chughtai’s short story adapted for screen by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi.

The film explores the alienation and marginalisation of Muslims who chose not to take the train to Pakistan. Balraj Sahni, once more, delivers a quietly dignified performance as Salim Mirza, the patriarch trying to hold his family together in an altered political reality.

A critical commentary on the prejudices faced by the minorities and the warp and weft of India’s secular fabric, Garm Hava has aged with grace and remains a sharp dissection of communally divisive politics.


Kundan Shah’s iconic satire is ageless. The film found its inspiration in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (the park where Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani discover the body, is called Antonioni), but captures the zeitgeist of a decade when the idealism of the early years of independence had decisively faded.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a victory of artistic vision despite a paucity of resources. The film went over-budget and there were creative differences within the team. But a talented cast and crew (the film was edited Renu Saluja with Binod Pradhan as cinematographer, and scripted by writers Satish Kaushik and Sudhir Mishra) finally produced a powerful critique of the moral bankruptcy of a corrupted nation.

“Everyday was a nightmare. Nobody laughed during the shooting,” director Kundan Shah recalled in his final interview. “There were fights, swearing and what not. Tempers were high but the unit and the actors stayed on and, finally, the film was made. But it was like riding a wild horse.”

1998— DIL SE

The 1990s were largely dominated by melodramatic Bollywood fare, but there were a few exceptions and Dil Se stands out in a decade that also saw films like Satya, Bandid Queen, and Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Ram Ke Naam.

Cinematic and politically charged, with strong performances by Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, Dil Se is one of Mani Ratnam’s most accomplished films; one that unflinchingly interrogates the emotional complexity between two people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum— a freethinker and a suicide bomber.

Rahman’s music, from Jiya Jale to Dil Se Re to the iconic Chhaiya Chhaiya, perfectly capture the film’s tense, volatile mood while the sprawling landscape of Ladakh, shot with haunting beauty by Santosh Sivan, renders the film on a sweeping canvas.

Ratnam seeks to understand what motivates extremists and makes no bones about placing blame on institutionalised oppression by the state.

The film was a box-office failure but in hindsight, it works as a sobering antidote to the blinding gaudiness of the 1990s.


There were a number of great films that fundamentally changed Bollywood’s cinematic sensibilities at the turn of the millennium. These include Lagaan, DIl Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti, Swades, Chak De India! And then there’s Peepli (Live), directed by Anusha Rizvi.

A biting satire on India’s scoop-hungry television media and the shameless opportunism of politicians, Peepli (Live) is the story of Natha, a farmer who decides to commit suicide so his family can avail the government compensation and pay off their loans.

The film captures the government’s apathy towards farmer suicides, and also critiques the ratings-hungry media as an institution driven by spectacle more than sincerity. As television newsrooms have transformed into toxic mouthpieces for the state, Peepli (Live) remains an under-rated classic we must all revisit.

2014— HAIDER

One of Hindi cinema’s bravest films, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet— set amidst Kashmir’s prolonged insurgency.

Co-written by Kashmiri journalist and writer Basharat Peer, the film casts an unsparing eye on the valley’s violent history — a four minute monologue offers a biting critique of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA), the song So Jao recalls the unmarked mass graves that lie beneath Kashmir’s frozen ground with discomforting precision.

Featuring a strong performance by Shahid Kapoor, Haider is one of Hindi cinema’s the most authentic depictions of the Kashmir conflict.

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