Bollywood movies to help you understand India

We’re not gonna lie, Bollywood is pretty amazing. But, if you take all your cues on Indian culture from a Yash Chopra movie, you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointment. You probably saw that one coming though. Maybe you turned to the more gritty movies by acclaimed directors and producers in recent years. Maybe Slumdog Millionaire? Please don’t.

Between the big money Bollywood blockbusters and the well-intended but out-of-touch foreign entries, there are a handful of moving and eloquent homegrown pieces that tell the stories of people you are most likely to encounter on your trip – the middle-class pencil pusher, the confusedly passionate student, the curious village boy, and dysfunctional families that brush dirty secrets under the rug.

While the locations may be neither quaint backward villages nor mansions big enough to house a city. But if you focus on the people and their relationships you’ll come to the country more prepared to understand it, both in its multi-faceted history and its convoluted present. I regret that this list has no regional options, as those are not always as easy to find with subtitles.

Bollywood movies Discover stories of people you are most likely to encounter on your trip (Photo Credit – Quan Lavender)


This Bollywood movie was released in 2013, it essays gently the complacency and complexity of the urban Indian middle class. An ageing accountant and a young housewife craving her husband’s wandering attention are accidentally linked through an error in Bombay’s otherwise infallible Dabba system.

Their relationship grows in the backdrop of sharing a radio and recipes with the upstairs neighbour, the comforting monotony of a daily commute and fantasies of potential love lost. The story is lovely in itself, but this movie’s particular beauty lies in its details – the unthreaded eyebrows of a woman whose husband does not love her, the creaky ceiling fans of an ancient South Bombay office. Watch it for the subtleties.

IMDB rating: 7.8/10

Indian Movies This movie’s particular beauty lies in its details

Rang De Basanti

Passion, history, pride. A gripping and heart-wrenching film about the journey of a group of college kids making a movie about the Freedom Movement over half a century after its dreams supposedly came to fruition. Tackling the seedy underbelly of political corruption and tracing its tangible and achingly physical casualties on the ground.

This Bollywood movie takes you across North India, infusing you with the history of a proud race, delving into the horrors of partition and religious conflict and will finally ask, if after all that sacrifice and bloodshed, are we finally a free country? And if not, how many more lives must we give? Watch it for the power-packed emotion.

IMDB rating: 8.2/10

Rang de basanti, Best bollywood movies Rang De Basanti

Pather Panchali

Famously the one to kick off the trend of ‘authenticity’ in Indian film, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece lays out the rural life in a simple and straightforward story.

A tale of siblings hungry for entertainment in a sleepy village, the politics of cramped living quarters, the social unbalance that results from income hierarchies and the parental burden of providing and caring respectively.

Nearly half a decade has passed since its release, and a lot has changed, but is, as always, the same. Watch it before you decide to trek out into the rural countryside and ‘get to know the real India’. Watch it to know who you’re dealing with and not confuse interest with pity.

IMDB rating: 8.5/10

Watch before you decide to trek out into the rural countryside and ‘get to know the real India’ (Photo Credit – IMDB)


Granted, a major part of this movie was shot in Paris and Amsterdam but it’s not just Europe. It’s Europe through Rani, the mould that all urban Indian girls are cast from. Left at her own wedding when her boyfriend suddenly decides she isn’t ‘modern enough’.

Rani, her name meaning Queen, decides to go off on her honeymoon anyway and meets all sorts while there. To understand her grapple with the woman she thought she would be, and the woman she discovers herself to be capable of being is to understand the expectations and limits set to so many like her.

Maybe see your own place as a woman travelling to India. Watch it for the context it’ll provide.

IMDB rating: 8.2/10

Queen, Must watch Indian Movies Watch as a woman travelling to India for the context it can provide

Monsoon Wedding

If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the big cities, this is a great way to dive into what you might consider the dichotomy of the upper-middle classes. Rich, educated, urbane, but still outrageously sexist and oppressive towards their own.

This movie is simultaneously hilarious, colourful and shocking. As one man’s attempts to throw his daughter a big Punjabi wedding he cannot afford churns up memories of sexual abuse, a budding romance and a young boy’s punishment for leaning too far into the demarcated realm of women.

As a traveller you might meet young people at bars and cafes of this category. This Bollywood movie will help you understand the grey shades of their backgrounds. Also, it maybe keep you from passing judgement too soon. Watch it for the honesty.

IMDB Rating: 7.4/10

Top Indian flims to watch This is a movie which dives into the dichotomy of the upper-middle class

Gangs of Wasseypur

Action-packed and haunting, this makes an appearance on any list with the word authentic in it. Set in the mafia-ruled Badlands of Jharkhand it watches three families battle it out for control over the local coal supply through gun warfare, seduction and dirty, dirty politics.

After being screened as a whole 5-hour long movie at numerous film festivals. Anurag Kashyap’s multi-starrer had to be chopped into two halves for the general public. The brilliant cinematography and chase scenes mean that it’s easy on the eyes.

And, the cuss-laden dialogues and sure to keep your adrenaline pumping. Watch it if you’re looking out for some of that classic third-world grit.

IMDB Rating: 8.2/10

Packed with action, three families battle it out for control over the local coal supply through gun warfare, seduction and dirty politics (Photo Credit – IMDB)

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