Apart from a few outstanding stories, today’s cinema, especially the coveted ₹100 crore club, has not moved with the times. Rather, it seems to have regressed to an era where content is all about strong action, remixed songs, and crude jokes.
In fact, we’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of films from the past decades that even came close to the type of content presented by these films:
1. Kamla Ki Maut (1989)
Directed by Basu Chatterjee, Kamla Ki Maut dealt with the taboos surrounding sex in India and how women bear the brunt of it. Featuring some of the best Bollywood actors, like Supriya Pathak, Pankaj Kapoor, Roopa Ganguly, Irrfan Khan, etc., Kamla Ki Maut takes an honest and insightful look at sexual desires and society’s conservative view of them.
2. Ijaazat (1987)
Based on the Bengali story of Subodh Ghosh, Jatugrihaby Gülzar Ijaazat took on an overused subject like love and gave it a new treatment, brimming with sensitivity. A nuanced approach to love, heartbreak, marriage and divorce, the film felt like Gulzar’s words, relatable, yet poetic and profound. Bollywood may have replaced flowers with people, but there’s no love-like movie yet Ijaazat did.
In her feature debut, Padma Bhusan Award winner Sai Paranjpye addressed the emotional barriers faced by people with physical disabilities. Winner of the National Film Prize, sparse supported the struggles that we often overlook when talking about the disability community because we only focus on physical challenges, not emotional or mental issues. Years later, the 2014 drama Daisy with a straw attempted to do the same.
4. Ankour (1974)
Shyam Benegal’s feature film tackled the social ills of child marriage, caste and class difference, and didn’t shy away from exposing the myriad ways people from marginalized communities are oppressed. A hard-hitting drama, the sad reality is how the situations shown in Ankursuch as lynching, sexual exploitation, etc. are still rampant today – but the cinema no longer holds up a mirror to denounce these injustices.
5. Sujata (1959)
But Achout Kannya (1936) is considered to be one of the first films to deal with caste in India, it is Bimal Roy sujata, which provided a deeper exploration of the topic. It tells the story of an “upper caste” family who adopts an orphan girl from a “lower caste”, but does not treat her as one of their own. It showed the deep-rooted prejudice that exists in people’s minds, ably supported by an unjust society, which blinds them to a person’s virtues, even if they know better.
6. Sharada (1957)
There is perhaps no other film on the list that tackles such a bold and complex subject matter as Sharada which deals with the love story between a son and his stepmother. Directed by LV Prasad, the film starred Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari. It showed the story of Chiranjeev, who has an accident and cannot return to her lover, Sharada. He eventually returns, only to find that Sharada had to marry a wealthy man (due to his situation), who happens to be his father.
7. Bandini (1963)
Another Bimal Roy classic with Nutan (whose performance in the film was considered the best of his career), Bandini may not immediately strike as progressive. But, if you look closely at the film’s theme, it’s one of the first, and over the years, one of the few films to award a female agency with its own life. It was also one of the first Hindi films with a female lead.
8. Arthur (1982)
With Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Smita Patil, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arthur may seem to take infidelity. But it’s actually a beautiful ode to the changing face of relationships and a woman’s ability to take charge of her own life.
9. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful satires out of Bollywood, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro tackled bureaucratic corruption, Indian politics and the commercialization of information. This dark comedy employed none of the vulgarity that has become synonymous with comedic films today, and yet left audiences in shock with laughter and reflections on how society works.
10. Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990)
Based on story Abhimanyu by Ramapada Chowdhury, Ek Doctor Ki Maut with Pankaj Kapur and Shabana Azmi. As its name suggests, the film is about a doctor who is ostracized and insulted for his research, due to widespread red tape and bureaucracy. It’s disheartening to see how, in 2021, this film’s story remains more relevant than ever.
11. Dharmputra (1961)
It was the first (and last) time that Bollywood’s king of romance, the late Yash Chopra, has tackled a political drama about the idea of Hindu fundamentalism. Based on the novel of the same name by Acharya Chatursen, Dharm putra tells the story of an orphaned Muslim boy raised to be a devout Hindu. His devotion turns into fanaticism, when as an adult he dislikes his biological mother because of her religion. The recent resurgence of Hindutva makes it a suitable film for today’s times.
12. Mirch Masala (1987)
When it comes to films that address sexual violence and exploitation, thrillers are rare. And that’s what makes Ketan Mehta’s psychological thriller far ahead of its time. With powerful performances of the entire cast, Mirch Masala remains a stark reminder of the power women can wield, should they ever resort to exacting vengeance against the perpetrators of patriarchy.
Shekhar Kapoor’s directorial debut not only gave us a memorable soundtrack, but also showed how infidelity affects an entire family, not just your partner. Adapted from the novel by Erich Segal Men, women and children, Masoom expertly portrays the conflicting emotions that plague a woman caught between outrage at her husband’s infidelity and involuntary affection for an innocent child.
14. Julie (1975)
Long before Kya Kehnait was Julia (a Malayalam movie remake Chattakari) who addressed the issue of pregnancy outside marriage. While the film may be recalled for the track My heart beatshe actually exposed the prejudices regarding religion and caste that still plague our society.
At the time of their release, most if not all of these films were considered ahead of their time. It’s such a shame that decades after their release, they still seem to be ahead of the times!