When someone asks me ‘which Bollywood film should I watch?’ I rarely reply with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Hum Aapke Hain Koun - those classics are reserved for Bollywood connoisseurs; those who understand the culture of poetic serenades, slapstick comedy and secretly fawning over suspiciously awkward actors.
Instead, I list films known for their breakthrough acting, intriguing subject matter and, obviously, banging songs. I want Bollywood to be more than dancing around trees and defying gravity in action movies.
The genre has become a place of mockery, and rightly so at times - there’s a problematic undercurrent that runs through most of Bollywood. But it has also begun to make strides in conversations around homosexuality, menstruation, sex, disabilities and drug abuse.
These films are filled with songs, the production values are substantial and the actors are top-rated legends. This is what Bollywood means now. We shouldn’t dwell on the past, and instead look to the future of Indian cinema.
1. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)
I never thought I would watch a Bollywood film that portrayed my potential future so accurately. Ek Ladki is one of the first big blockbuster films that centres a lesbian romance. It’s set up as a typical Bollywood narrative - banging songs, dance routines and opens with a wedding.
Starring a shy young girl whose family attempts, as Indian families in Bollywood always do, to marry her off - but there’s a twist. She’s in love with a woman. Real life father and daughter Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor, who both deliver stunning performances, star in this film alongside Rajkummar Rao, the supposed male love interest.
Watching the film with a large group of queer South Asians produced more emotion than I could have imagined, not only because of the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, but also the effects that this story may have on our personal lives.
2. Udta Punjab (2016)
“Did you know there’s a drug abuse crisis in Punjab?” someone once asked me, and as a daughter of Punjabi immigrants, I found myself uncomfortably embarrassed while shaking my head in ignorance. And that’s because it’s not discussed - much like alcohol abuse in Punjabi communities. When this film came out, and faced it head on, I was impressed and intrigued.
When I found out it starred Shahid Kapoor, I was sold. Shahid plays a successful Punjabi musician who is addicted to cocaine, and alongside his story, we meet a young woman who gets caught up in sex trafficking and heroin dealing, played by Alia Bhatt.
These stories are intertwined with a doctor played by Kareena Kapoor and police officer Diljit Dosanjh, giving us the perspective of police corruption and health care professionals. It’s a well rounded film and despite this description, is actually filled with comedy and romance. And, banging tunes.
3. Dangal (2016)
It isn’t as common as it once was, but there’s still disappointment in some families when a girl is born over a boy. In Dangal, Amir Khan plays a former amateur wrestler and now a father of four daughters, who forces two of his daughters into the world of wrestling.
In the first half an hour we see his disappointment when his daughters are born, and he soon realises that their value exceeds his expectations. It’s loosely based on a true story of 2010 Commonwealth Games gold winner Geeta Phogat’s life as a female wrestler from a small village in Punjab.
The film has some of the best high tension sports scenes I’ve seen in a long time, as I was perched on the edge of my sofa screaming “FLIP HER” at my TV, I knew it had me sold. The performances by actors Fatima Sana Shaikh as Geeta Phogat and Sanya Malhotra as Babita Kumari in the latter half of the film gave the story the depth and nuance needed to be a fully formed story about women.
4. Pad Man (2018)
In India, Arunachalam Muruganantham found out his wife was menstruating onto dirty cloths because they couldn’t afford sanitary towels, so he dedicated the rest of his life to create eco and cheap pads accessible to women in poorer areas.
Based on his story, a book and now this film was created to help educate and destigmatise conversations around menstruation. Starring Bollywood legend Akshay Kumar and critically acclaimed actor Radhika Apte, this film explores the relationship women have with menstruation, the shame that is put on them, leading to a lack of education and eventually a breakdown of relationships.
It’s based on a South Indian Tamil man’s low-cost grassroots invention of sanitary pad machines that have since been installed around India. The film is full of music and it’s visually stunning - although there’s an ongoing theme with flowers in bloom, which can be a bit too on the nose.
5. Pink (2016)
Amitabh Bachan plays a lawyer who represents rape victims in Indian court, for a groundbreaking case that introduces the concept of consent. His speech during the trial, where he repeats “no means no” reinforces that no matter who the person is, if they don’t want to partake in sexual activity with you, it is rape.
With phenomenal performances from Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang, this film not only delves into the realities of rape culture in India and the issue with the law but also the reality of the pain that causes ongoing trauma.
This film, unlike many of the others on this list, doesn’t have songs and dance to give you breaks from the story and tension. Instead it keeps you on edge throughout. It’s intention is so you don’t let yourself forget the message. “No means no”.
6. Lagaan (2001)
This is the oldest film in the list, nearly 20 years old and I still remember leaving the cinema with my family in awe over what I’d just seen. At the same time I was confused. That was my first introduction into colonialism as a negative time in our history.
In the film, a village that was suffering from a drought couldn’t pay the British Raj their raised taxes, so were challenged to a cricket match - if the village win, they pay nothing, if the British win, they own the land. Amir Khan makes another appearance in this list, as the young man who leads his village through the cricket match.
Lagaan sends a strong message - that we haven’t forgotten our history and despite the power of the British during the Empire’s rule, India had the courage to stand up. Some of the songs in this film are my favourite, such as Radha Kaise Na Jale, which I still attempt to sing drunkenly after too many glasses of wine.
7. Dear Zindagi (2016)
As someone who has just started going to therapy, it’s important to see it portrayed in a Bollywood film. There’s still a stigma attached to discussing your mental health or seeing a therapist and I really believe that a lot of cultures who hide from such things will need access to these services more than anyone.
Starring the Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan as the wise and eclectic therapist, alongside Alia Bhatt, a camera operator who struggles with her mental health. Khan basically is Bollywood in human form, you can’t make a film without him and when you do, it’s an instant hit. Bhatt is a young actor with the talent and knowledge of a seasoned thespian - so much so that there are moments in the film that are so close to home, it has become therapy for me to watch.
8. Queen (2014)
I described this to my partner as “a girl who was jilted at the altar” and then realised there’s not an actual alter and jilted is such a strange word, so I’ve changed it to - “a guy doesn’t turn up at his wedding”, because we need to remember where to put the actual blame. And that’s where the heart of this film lies.
After being abandoned on her wedding day, Rani (played by Kangana Ranuat) goes on her honeymoon and meets a group of travellers. They happen to be all male; a situation she usually never finds herself in and you get to watch her attempt to navigate these situations with a severe lack of grace or understanding. It’s fun, silly, revealing and uncomfortable but more importantly reminds women that they aren’t defined by particular moments in their life that they don’t have control over. They can define it all themselves. Also, London Thumakda is a banger.
9. Haider (2014)
Based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this epic is situated in Kashmir during the conflicts of 1995 and civilian disappearances, all while telling a complex story about mistrust in a family dynamic, revenge and death.
Shahid Kapoor gives the performance of his entire career as Haider, a young man who has returned to Kashmir from university to find out more about his father’s disappearance. We don’t just have Kapoor leading the film; Tabu gives an extraordinary performance as a mother hiding a secret. During the song Bismil, Kapoor reveals his findings about his missing father in what can be described as ‘a dance theatre performance’, which sounds awful but is actually one of my favourite moments in film. A truly mesmerising piece of cinema, with some of the best performances I’ve seen in Bollywood to date.
10. Margarita With A Straw (2015)
I think this might be one of the first films in Bollywood which platforms disabilities and sexuality. The director Shonali Bose came up with the idea when her cousin, who has cerebral palsy, told her she wanted to have sex for her birthday.
Bose included elements of her own life and as a bisexual woman, her sexuality became a big part of the narrative. It was satisfying to see that whilst wanting to give a platform for her cousin’s story, she did so with her own. The film stars able-bodied actor Kalki Koechlin, which when I first heard that, I had concerns. Yet, Bose intentions were to cast an actor with cerebral palsy and unfortunately after a long search couldn’t find any in India.
Finding a blind actor who was open to the sexual scenes in the film was also difficult to find. Koechlin’s performance is incredible, and the fast moving and emotional story keeps you engaged. The story is heavy and equally lighthearted. You feel deeply hurt and deeply calm. It’s a beautiful film.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.