Shubhra Gupta

Film Critic, The Indian Express; Author of 50 Films That Changed Bollywood, 1995-2015

Voted for

GARM HAVA1973M.S. Sathyu
Pyaasa1957Guru Dutt
Pather Panchali1955Satyajit Ray
ANKUR1974Shyam Benegal
Sholay1975Ramesh Sippy
DEEWAAR1975Yash Chopra
Bandit Queen1994Shekhar Kapur
NAYAKAN1987Mani Ratnam
Maqbool2004Vishal Bharadwaj
Monsoon Wedding2001Mira Nair



1973 India

The deep religious and social complexities of an ancient civilisation, and the fault lines that have only been exacerbated over the years are there for all to see in Garm Hawa, a paean to an India that was, and an India that is still an idea. Searing, moving, and as relevant today.


1957 India

The perennial struggle of a true artist, the increasing commodification of values that were once held dear in an ever coarsening society, and the cynicism already seeping into a relatively newly-formed India (only ten years after Independence from colonial rule) is at the heart of Guru Dutt's timeless film : it is a portrait of an artist as a lost soul, that Dutt, who also acted in the lead role, poured his heart and soul into. Great music and superb performances all round, including the beauteous Waheeda Rehman who plays a street walker with a golden heart, makes this film one for the ages.

Pather Panchali

1955 India

Everything has already been written about Ray's classic, which was hailed globally as a realist masterpiece, and dismissed back home, by some eminent citizens who should have known better, as a film that did nothing but highlight Indian poverty for Western eyes.

Looking at it today, you marvel at what Ray pulled off, in his very first film. He was a gifted polymath : he had a great sense of design and space, but to have created a film in which each frame captures time and place with such elegance and depth, still takes you aback.

To me, it is Indian cinema's first truly modern film, at home in the world.


1974 India

Adman-turned-filmmaker Shyam Benegal's debut feature shifted something fundamental in Hindi cinema : it brought a strong sense of the political into what used to be called films on 'social subject's. The oppression of the landed upper castes and the 'hero' who challenged their hegemony was a recurring theme in Benegal's early work ( he made the equally powerful 'Nishant' a year after 'Ankur'), and it created a new kind of cinema in which trained actors from the country's premier film institute, hungry for good work, found the right directors.


1975 India

Has there ever been a more wonderfully entertaining movie, which polished the Sergio Leone 'spaghetti western' genre to an impossible gleam, than Ramesh Sippy's 'Sholay'? Of course, that is a rhetorical question.

It's about dacoits ( one of the last mainstream Hindi movies which featured these very unique Indian outlaws) and layabout heroes-- Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra are petty thieves with a noble heart--, a 'thakur' with a tragic backstory, and a villain Hindi cinema had never seen before. Gabbar Singh is immortal, and Amjad Khan as the campy, self-aware top-dog dacoit nearly runs away with the movie.

There are places where it drags, and there are scenes which are alarmingly close to a famous Western, but when the going is good, it is great.


1975 India

It has one of Hindi cinema's most memorable lines. The ability to use and understand 'Mere paas maa hai ( I have mother)', as an eternal pop-culture short-cut will elevate you into one of the believers, who love Hindi cinema despite all its flaws. The film cemented Amitabh Bachchan's position as a top star, while making stars out of the film's writers, Salim-Javed, who became much sought-after script-writers after the massive success of 'Deewar'.

In refreshing one of Hindi cinema's most over-used trope, that of a 'good' vs 'bad' brother fighting for the affections of their mother, the Oedipal touches hidden from no one, the writers gave us a film which still works. And how.

Bandit Queen

1994 United Kingdom, India

The film came out in 1994 but was immediately banned for its strong language and its explicit display of nudity and violence.

Director Shekhar Kapur fought a long, hard battle against the censors, and managed to bring back the film to the theatres in 1996. The story of Phoolan Devi, a low-caste woman who was brutalised and flung out of her home by her husband, old enough to be a father, is at once riveting and moving. Kapur pulls no punches ( the film's detractors, and there were many, claimed that he depicted rape to titillate the audience) in his portrayal of an arid landscape, home to a breed who looted people a living, and yet had strong connections with the homes they had left behind in their villages.

Phoolan became an outlaw not because she wanted to, but because she was forced into it. And then she took it, and ran with it.


1987 India

'The Godfather' has spawned so many variants in so many film-making centres around the world that it is hard to keep a count. But Mani Ratnam's 'Nayakan' is a creature very much its own. Mani Ratnam's ability to create mainstream melodrama which we couldn't take our eyes off, was headlined by a virtuoso performance by Kamal Haasan. This was a gangsta-saga which made the effort to humanise the gangster, and, yes, romanticises him at the same time.

Befittingly, in turn, 'Nayakan' became the inspiration of many Indian movies, some of them excellent, the last of which was Anurag Kashyap's 2012 rousing double bill 'Gangs Of Wasseypur'.


2004 India

The first of Vishal Bhardwaj's three interpretations of Shakespearen tragedies, 'Maqbool' is a brilliant adaptation of 'Macbeth', with a towering performance by the late, great Irrfan.

Bhardwaj, along with the Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerji, changed the face of Bollywood in the early 2000s. Their grasp of the hinterlands of North India, and their political acumen, seeped into their films, and changed the language that Hindi cinema spoke.

Irrfan and Tabu, as a desi Lady Macbeth, make a couple whose sizzle can still be felt, after all these years. Watching it again, you mourn the loss of Irrfan, taken from us too soon.

Monsoon Wedding

2001 USA, Italy, Germany, France

The song-and-dance Big Fat Indian Wedding is a trope that has always existed, and which Aditya Chopra's 1995 Shah Rukh Khan-fronted blockbuster 'Dilwale Dulaniya Le Jayenge' gave such a lease of life, that it is still puttering along, refusing to curl up and die.

Nair's Monsoon Wedding is a subversion of all the most durable of these elements-- arranged marriage vs love marriage, the worry of the 'bride's side' for everything to go off smoothly, the upstairs-downstairs romance between a 'tent-wala', and a house-maid, and old dark secrets that come tumbling out of several cupboards.

Not only do most weddings do not take place during the monsoon ; Indian wedding movies resolutely do not go down this thorny path. This was a first, and quite unforgettable.

Further remarks

As a long-time film critic with a regular weekly column for The Indian Express, one of India's most respected newspapers which also continues to make physical space for significant coverage of the arts, I've had a chance to track about three decades of cinema from India, and the world.

But my focus has been Hindi cinema, which turned into Bollywood good and proper in 1995, with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. So my choices for this poll have gravitated towards the cinema I know best. I mean, how to do you leave out Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Regle du Jour, and Dr Strangeglove, and Christ Stopped At Eboli, and the Godfather… The only way I could do with this a degree of certitude was to stick with the Hindi cinema, with the exception of two classic, very different from each other: Pather Panchali in Bengali, and Nayakan in Tamil.

I've always struggled with listicles, and to be asked for an ALL-TIME top ten is amongst the toughest things I've done; it's taken me all this while, from the time I first received the email from Sight and Sound, to be able to prune my list down to a mere ten.

I have left out so many films I love, and I'm sad about that, but I wouldn't change a single name that I do have in the list.