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15 Best Historical Bollywood Movies of All Time

November 25, 2017
12 min read

Bollywood loves a slice of history and it has a natural affinity for drama, a tad over-the-top at times. No wonder historical dramas are a regular phenomenon in a film industry obsessed with grandeur and its song and dance routine. If you ask what are the qualities of a good historical drama the quickest response would be the one which transports us to a different era via dialogues, music, costumes and larger than life sets. The list below features some of the most successful – either commercially, critically or both – historical and period Hindi films of all time. You can find several of these historical Hindi movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.

15. Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)

Ketan Mehta and historical dramas go hand in hand. Add the star power of Aamir Khan to it and we have a delectable trio who should have won the box office hands down. Alas it wasn’t the case with ‘Mangal Pandey: The Rising’. Mehta took a tad too many creative liberties in his version of retelling of the heroism of Mangal Pandey, the perpetrator of the first war of Indian independence. Naturally there were protests and demands of ban from leading political parties which also helped the film to stay in the news prior to its release. Despite mixed reviews and discouraging box office revenues in India the film got a rousing reception at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival where Ketan Mehta won the NETPAC Special Jury award.

14. Airlift (2016)

‘Airlift’ deserves all the praise and love that it got as it brought to light a very significant but lesser known to public event in Indian history – the 1990 airlift of Indians from Kuwait. It is a perfect example of how cinema can contribute to the highlighting of unsung heroes and relatively less glorified events and provide entertainment at the same time. Thanks to the film a generation of Indians took notice and felt pride of an event which would have otherwise gotten lost in general knowledge books and archived newspapers. Director Raja Krishna Menon took care that the mass appeal of the film and the seriousness of the subject didn’t interfere with each other and the result was an engaging film with immense historical and cultural value. Akshay Kumar was simply brilliant in the role of Ranjit Katyal, the man who master minded the entire rescue operation that the world witnessed and admired in awe.

13. Train to Pakistan (1998)

As the name itself suggests it is based on Khushwant Singh’s true to life and hard hitting novel ‘Train to Pakistan’. Director Pamela Rooks sticks to the book as much as possible but makes a few minor changes here and there to give her film a more cinematic feel. You will be forgiven for not hearing about this film before but by no means is it forgettable. Featuring Nirmal Pandey, Rajit Kapur and Divya Dutta in prominent roles ‘Train to Pakistan’ is as poignant and controversial as the book. Given its subject matter – dark days leading to the partition of India – the film ran into troubles with the certification board and eventually got a very low profile release. However the merit of the film shined through at the various international film festivals where it was shown. It was nominated for best film at the Cinequest Film Festival.

12. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004)

For a common man the life and most importantly the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is still an enigma. And honestly there are not enough films to clear things up as the very few films based on his life tell a story of their own. 2017 has been a fruitful year as far as depiction of Bose in entertainment is concerned. ‘Rangoon’, ‘Raag Desh’ and ‘Bose: Dead/Alive’ (web series) showcased the various shades of Bose as a person, a leader and a revolutionary. The film in discussion here comes close to depicting the real Bose as director Shyam Benegal does away with glossy over appreciation and presents a balanced view of his vision, life and death. The film released to overwhelming critical response and won two National film awards. However any biopic on famous personalities does get into some kind of legal and moral trouble and even Bose couldn’t escape it.

11. Bajirao Mastani (2015)

It might be a while before we get to see Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Padmavati’ on the Indian movie screens but for now let’s admire another one of his historical epic. ‘Bajirao Mastani’ hit the screen two years ago and since then it has achieved cult status for its visual grandness and the lavish retelling of the tale of a warrior lover and his second wife. Ranveer Singh was born to play the role of Peshwa Bajirao as he gave more than his 100% to the role and shone like a silver star. Deepika Padukone’s unmatched beauty made her the perfect Mastani and Priyanka Chopra’s inherent intensity made for a poetic Kashibai, a woman pining for her husband’s attention. The film is a classic Bhansali entertainer; it enthralls with its eye catching exteriors as well as with its soulful interior.

10. Taj Mahal (1963)

‘Taj Mahal’ is a beautiful film in every sense of the word. Focusing on an aesthetically rich chapter of Mughal history it showcases the relationship between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal and how the Taj Mahal came to be built, an everlasting symbol of their love. The film is enriched by Roshan’s evergreen tunes and the songs – gems like ‘Jo Wada Kiya Ho’ – can still make hearts melt with their simplicity and melody. Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai played the eternal lovers on-screen and exuded innocence and pure love. The film proved to be a musical hit and won Filmfare awards for best music composer and lyricist. To its credit the 1963 cinematic version of ‘Taj Mahal’ is the only noteworthy Indian movie based on the history of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

9. Garm Hava (1974)

‘Garm Hava’ is undoubtedly the most humane film based on the social conditions of post partition India. The film draws its material from an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai. It tells of the plight of the family of Salim Mirza – played by a towering Balraj Sahni – who stays back in India despite the majority of the Muslim folks migrating to Pakistan. His family struggles on a daily basis in matters of social and economic stability. The film is so aesthetically and emotionally crafted that it almost feels like a firsthand account of the events that took place within the family and society at large. It’s painful to the extent of heartbreaking to watch innocent people suffering loneliness and ostracization from a society of which they were a part of since generations. Even today the film is as effective as it was in its time of release. It was showcased in the competition section of 1974 Cannes Film Festival.

8. 1947: Earth (1999)

Deepa Mehta’s ‘Earth’ pushes the right buttons as far as depicting the various shades of human emotions are concerned. The film’s story – based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s ‘Cracking India’ – focuses both on pre and post partition India and how human relationships changes with changing political scenario. Aamir Khan, Rahul Khanna and Nandita Das breathe life into their respective roles with the perfect display of love, anger, fear and vulnerability. The film’s tense moments, especially the ending, have the ability to make you shiver with horror at the turn of events as it also make you realize that these events could have been very much true at a certain point in India’s history. ‘Earth’ was sent as India’s official entry to the 71st Academy Award but it failed to go any further.

7. Hey Ram (2000)

‘Hey Ram’ is a fictional account of a conglomeration of real historical events such as the Partition, the assassination of Gandhi and the demolition of Babri Mosque etc. Kamal Haasan is in the vanguard of the film and in his capacity as a director, producer, writer and actor he does engage in a bit of self indulgence. Like rest of his big budget productions ‘Hey Ram’ too is technically advanced and musically empowered. Here the main purpose is entertainment rather than historical accuracy. Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji made sure that Kamal Haasan was in good company in his ambitious retelling of Indian political history in a manner which is more imaginary than real.

6. Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

When it comes to historical romances ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ takes the cake and for the viewers it is a classic case of having the cake and eating it too. To put it simply ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ is a minimalist approach to history. The grandness lies in the details and in the words unsaid between the two main leads. Director Ashutosh Gowariker yet again scores big with history as the backdrop after his international hit ‘Lagaan’. The sizzling chemistry of Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai make up the best moments of the film and the musical score by A.R. Rahman keeps the magic alive throughout the film. If you don’t go in expecting epic war scenes then the film works just right for you, otherwise it’s a bit too romantic for a global audience.

5. Sardar (1994)

Ketan Mehta’s ‘Sardar’ is an insightful biopic on one of the brightest luminaries of the Indian freedom struggle. Nicknamed as the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel finally came out of the shadows of Gandhi and Nehru all thanks to Ketan Mehta’s directorial vision. Paresh Rawal shines in the title role and delivers what can be called perhaps the best performance of his much acclaimed acting career. The film is also culturally significant for more reasons than one: the film was produced by former Indian Home Minister H.M. Patel and the script was written by the celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar. The film focuses on the issue of integration of states during the Partition era and also highlights the relationships between Sardar and Gandhi. A must watch for history and movie fanatics.

4. The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)

Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘The legend of Bhagat Singh’ is the stuff classic historical dramas are made of. It is at once compelling, emotional, inspiring and engaging. Ajay Devgn does full justice to his portrayal of Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter who played a major role in India’s freedom struggle. The film is a detailed study of how Bhagat Singh came to be the hero that everyone admires and how he gave his all to the cause of the reality of a free nation. Devgan’s spirited performance won him the second National Film Award of his career. The film is very Bollywood in its outlook but it doesn’t compromise on the reality and the seriousness of the real issue. A must watch for anyone with a fascination for history.

3. Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ was the master of Indian cinema Satyajit Ray’s first foray into Hindi films. And he chose the Indian royalty’s – ruler of the kingdom of Awadh’s – indifference towards the Indian freedom struggle as the subject of his focus. The film’s events takes place on the eve of Sepoy Mutiny as the fight for Indian independence gains momentum. The film tells two parallel stories to highlight the lack of seriousness among the royals – Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali – who in the face of imminent danger decided to flee from the place of action in order to engage themselves with a game of chess. Here the game of chess takes on a symbolic meaning to showcase the power struggle between the British East India Company and the citizens of India represented by the royalty. The film was narrated by Amitabh Bachchan which definitely worked in its favour as far as lending a solid voice to the film is concerned. Some of the finest actors of the Indian film and theatre scene came together for this film and all thanks to Ray’s impeccable direction for handling such a touchy subject and a super talented bunch of actors effortlessly. Ray won the Filmfare award for best direction for the film.

2. Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

K. Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is a master class in how to make a historical epic. It had everything going for it; a solid budget (highest at that time for any Indian film), a stellar cast consisting of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor and music by Naushad. Based on the love story of Mughal Prince Salim/Emperor Jahangir and Anarkali, a slave girl, the film took the box office by storm at the time of its release. It is a perfect blend of history, romance and captivating production design. There are numerous Bollywood memories associated with the making of the film one being that Madhubala was gravely ill while shooting the film which took a heavy toll on her health. The historians are still out regarding the historical accuracy of the film but the film itself marks a historical moment in the 100 years or so of Indian cinema.

1. Lagaan (2001)

‘Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India’ is one of the only three Indian films ever to be nominated for an Academy award in the category of best foreign language feature. Call it either a historical film or a sports film as per your taste and assessment but you cannot deny that it is a world-class cinema produced at the studios of Bollywood. Ashutosh Gowariker’s direction and Aamir Khan’s meticulousness combined with his innovative marketing skills made ‘Lagaan’ a pure cinematic treat to watch and also ensured that it got the proper exposure at the world stage. The success of the film ushered in a new global era for Bollywood as it was no longer restricted to the traditional markets like the US, the UK and Australia for its revenue earning and opened up unheard of market opportunities for an industry which was largely NRI based till then.

Read More: Best Historical Dramas on Netflix

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