100 years of Indian cinema: Historian Irna Qureshi on the top five Bollywood films

Ram Pratap Verma, a 32-year-old aspiring Bollywood film actor, poses in front of a mural of actor Amitabh Bachchan Credit: Reuters

The Indian film industry celebrates its centenary today, 100 years to the day since Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's black and white silent film Raja Harishchandra (King Harishchandra), was released.

Irna Qureshi, curator of the Bollywood Icons exhibition which runs at the National Media Museum has written about what, in her view, are the top five Bollywood films.

1. Awaara (Raj Kapoor, 1951)

Starring legendary director Raj Kapoor and the luminous Nargis, Awaara (The Tramp) tackles the divide between rich and poor and asks if one’s character is determined by nature or nurture. Awaara is notable for Kapoor’s Chaplinesque tramp, evergreen songs, the classic Kapoor/Nargis pairing and for its spectacular nine minute dream sequence. Thanks to its socialist theme, Awara achieved cult status in Russia and China and was said to be Mao Tse Tung’s all-time favourite film.

2. Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957)

Pyaasa (Thirsting) is a favourite among filmmakers and often described as one of the most soulful and romantic Indian films ever made. Guru Dutt's film, in which he also stars alongside real life muse, Waheeda Rehman, is a tale of a poet struggling to get his work known. Befriended by a good-hearted prostitute, she helps to get his poetry published. Pyaasa is also visually poetic and illustrates superbly why the 1950s is remembered as Indian cinema’s golden age.

3. Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975)

Sholay (Embers) is the perfect film for beginners of Bollywood because it requires minimal cultural interpretation. Influenced by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sholay’s dialogue, star cast and technical excellence are still revered. Sholay tells the iconic story of ex-cons (played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) hired by a retired police officer to capture the notorious bandit, Gabbar Singh, arguably the greatest villain in Bollywood’s history.

4. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995)

DDLJ (The Braveheart shall take away the Bride) became the longest running Indian film of all time. It also made Shahrukh Khan a huge star. DDLJ is Bollywood’s first diaspora film, with second-generation British Indian characters and a London setting being central to the storyline. The scenes shot in Switzerland emphasise Bollywood’s long standing obsession of setting romantic song and dance sequences against ‘exotic’ backdrops.

5. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)

Set in British India in 1893, Lagaan takes its name from an agricultural tax levied by the British. A drought ridden village tries to rid itself of the oppressive tax after being challenged by the British masters to a game of cricket. But the village must first learn to play the game! Starring gifted actor/producer Aamir Khan, Lagaan became only the second Indian film to earn a best foreign film Oscar nomination.

Irna Qureshi is curator of the Bollywood Icons exhibition which runs at the National Media Museum until 16th June 2013.

She also blogs about the influence of classic Indian films on her British Asian upbringing.

ITV News Correspondent Nina Nannar reports on the movie milestone: