Although Bollywood is the most famous and largest Indian film industry, it is only one part of the rapidly growing entity that is Indian film. In fact, Indian film contains a variety of different film hubs that create movies in various languages.
While masala movies (films that mix many genres into one) are the most successful movies produced in India, the movies produced by what is known as “parallel cinema” never failed to attain international acclaim and awards.
Other important film industries are those located in South India and Tollywood, the film industry of the Tollygunge region in West Bengal.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about Indian cinema including its history, genres, and even a handful of its best movies.
- The Indian film industry is the largest in the world.
- Bollywood, Tollywood, and the South Indian Cinema are the three most important parts of the Indian film industry.
- Masala movies – generally produced in Bollywood – mix a lot of genres to create a unique kind of entertainment.
- Parallel cinema movies are often more artistic and unconventional.
- Some of our favorite movies of Indian cinema include the Apu Trilogy, 3 Idiots, A Wednesday! and more.
Indian Film Industry
Bollywood, a name created from the mixture Bombay and Hollywood, is the largest film industry in India. India’s film industry is unique, as it is becoming increasingly popular abroad but still has most of its audience in India.
The term Bollywood only refers to the Hindi-language movies that are produced by studios in Mumbai. So Bollywood does not encompass the entire industry but it is an important and large part of Indian cinema.
Other important parts of this industry include the Tamil and Telugu film industries and the South Indian film industry which together cover a wide variety of Indian cultures and languages.
Bengali cinema (Tollywood) movies are also important and have created what is known as the “parallel cinema movement”, that aims to be unconventional and contrast the widely popular “masala films” produced in Bollywood.
Bollywood, the film industry located in Mumbai, is said to be the largest part of the largest film industry in the world. Every year, around 2000 movies are released in India and about 400 of these movies are produced in Bollywood, representing 43% of Indian box-office.
Bollywood’s main influences derive from traditional Indian epics and ancient Sanskrit stories. Compared to other Indian film industries, Bollywood puts a greater emphasis on music, dance, and inspiration from Hollywood. Urdu literature has been a major influence on Bollywood and for the majority of the 20th century, Urdu was the language spoken in most movies.
Today, Bollywood is still incredibly important in India and has become a strong part of the country’s national identity.
Tollywood is the film industry based in the Tollygunge region of Kolkata in West Bengal. Its movies are shot in the Bengali language and they are often unconventional movies that receive critical acclaim. Tollywood used to be extremely important during the 20th century but in recent years has been overtaken by other industries.
Satyajit Ray is one of the most influential filmmakers in Tollywood and his films were highly appreciated. Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, François Truffaut, and many other important directors have praised his work. He was the mastermind behind the Apu trilogy movies which greatly contributed to shaping the Indian films produced during the 60s and 70s.
In Tollywood, about 140 films are produced every year and most of them are low budget. Tollywood is known for its periods of high success and periods of crisis, the most recent crisis happened in the 90s. Today, Tollywood movies are becoming popular again and even some American studios have started showing interest in the Bengali film industry.
Cinema of South India
The cinema of South India contains five different film industries taken as a single entity including films in the Kannada, Malayam, Tamil, Telugu, and Tulu languages. The first movies from South Indian Cinema were released in the 1920s and there has been a steady production of movies ever since.
South Indian films are famous for their low budget and over the top action scenes that are incredibly entertaining and enjoyable to watch.
Genres of Hindi movies
There are thousands of movies produced every year in India, but it can be safely said that most of them fall into one of these two categories: masala movies and parallel cinema films.
Masala movies are mainly shot in Bollywood and they are usually musicals that mix a wide variety of genres together, creating a unique product that is directed towards the largest audience.
On the other hand, parallel cinema films are less popular and are less successful at the box office. They are often inspired by European cinema – especially Italian neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague – and have serious content, lots of symbolic elements, and no song-and-dance.
Masala movies are the predominant genre in Bollywood and are characterized by their inclusion of various genres in one film. These movies are named after the various spices that are mixed together to make the commonly used Indian seasoning, masala.
Usually, these films are a mix of action, comedy, romance, and drama. They are also often musicals with tons of catchy songs and complex dance numbers.
These movies became popular in the ‘70s with the work of Nasir Hussain, whose Yaadon Ki Baarat is considered to be the first masala film ever shot. That would be the first of a long series of movies of the same kind, like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Sholay (1975).
Masala movies are typically produced in Bollywood and in South Indian Cinema where the catchy songs and moving plots appeal to a broad variety of viewers.
Muslim social films are completely different from those produced by mainstream Bollywood studios. Their main purpose is to portray and critique the Islamic culture of India. This type of movie was especially popular during the ’50s and the ’60s and can divide into two categories: Classic Muslim socials and New Wave Muslim socials.
Classic Muslim socials try to analyze and narrate stories of upper-class Muslim families. Instead, New Wave Muslim socials portray the life of middle-class families and their struggle with money and discrimination.
With time, this genre became less and less popular, until it completely disappeared.
This film movement was born in West Bengal in the 50s with the rise of many filmmakers who felt the need to find a different way of making movies. Specifically, they wanted to make films that didn’t follow the formulaic structures of mainstream cinema, especially Bollywood.
Parallel cinema drew its inspiration from the Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave and its well-known directors include Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Tapan Sinha.
Whereas Bollywood movies are famous for their song-and-dance routines and their mixture of genres, parallel cinema is characterized by realism, the use of symbolic elements, and an overall serious tone.
Films like Neecha Nagar, the Apu Trilogy, and others have gained international recognition and have won some important awards such as the Grand Prize the Cannes Film Festival.
Despite being artistic and unconventional, parallel cinema movies have attained a certain commercial success in India. Movies that combine both artistic and commercial cinema like Do Bigha Zamin have been the most widely successful.
After a couple of decades of constant growth, parallel cinema began to decline. Political and economic turmoil, the rise of television, and piracy are frequently cited as the main reasons. However, during the last years of the 21st century, we have witnessed the return of parallel cinema with movies like Satya (1998) which created a new subgenre called “Mumbai Noir”.
Best Hindi Movies
With thousands of new movies released every year and all of the movies released over the past 100 years, getting to know Indian cinema might seem impossible. But not worry, below we have listed some of our favorite Indian movies.
Here you can find a handful of movies that you can watch to begin to understand and appreciate Indian film. We have included some classics like the Apu trilogy and Anand as well as some recent hits like A Wednesday! or Jab We Met.
The Apu Trilogy
The three movies composing the Apu trilogy were directed by Satyajit Ray and are often regarded as the best of Indian cinema. Based on two novels, these three movies depict the coming of age of a young boy named Apu, from his childhood living in poverty to the struggles he has to face while trying to become a writer in adulthood.
Even with a very small budget, Satyajit Ray still managed to create a masterpiece revered by people all over the world and by numerous famous filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and James Ivory.
The plot of this thriller is brilliantly simple and centers on an old commissioner who narrates an incident that happened on a particular Wednesday. This movie was made with an extremely small budget and quickly became a box-office hit.
We recommend that you don’t research this movie before watching. The best way to experience the film is to watch it without any prior knowledge.
3 Idiots is a comedy-drama following three friends who have enrolled in an engineering college. The movie is mainly a satire of the pressures that Indian students have to face during their education. This movie was widely acclaimed by the critics and was also the highest-grossing movie in its opening weekend.
3 Idiots is one of the few Hindi movies to be successful in countries like China and Japan.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
Released in 2001, Lagaan is set during the period of the British Raj. The story starts when locals are challenged to a game of cricket by a British officer. If they win, they don’t have to pay the high taxes to the British Empire.
When it came out, Lagaan quickly became the third highest-grossing Indian film of the year and received critical acclaim for being a wonderful film that drew influence from old-fashioned Hollywood musicals.
Anand came out in 1971 and since then has gained a cult following. One of the reasons that it shot into popularity was thanks to the presence of the two greatest actors of Indian cinema: Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.
This film revolves around the story of the main character, Anand, who has cancer, and his friendship with Dr. Bhaskar, an oncologist.
Jab We Met
Jab We Met is a romantic comedy that came out in 2007 and tells the story of a fun-loving woman who meets a depressed businessman on a train to Delhi. By mistake, they both are left stranded in the middle of nowhere and have to figure out how to get out of the situation together.
The film became a hit both in India and in other countries and has been positively reviewed by many critics as a fun and enjoyable watch.
Enjoy the Magic of Indian Cinema with Asia Highlights
While watching Indian films will help you understand more about Indian culture and values, it is impossible to understand a country entirely through watching its movies. That why it is important to get firsthand experience in India.
Start planning your trip to India with the help of our knowledgeable staff. At Asia Highlights, we take care of everything so that you will only have to worry about experiencing the vibrant culture that inspired so many cinematic masterpieces.