Indian cinema, which already had a chequered history prior to Independence, came into its own in the early years of free India and then periodically fell in and out of a formulaic rut. But it never wavered from its role as cultural unifier. In this timeline we present some of the most prominent markers and harbingers of change by decade, in mainstream and offbeat cinema, and across languages.
1940s to 1950s
1948: The country’s first nationwide megahit Chandralekha is released, which borrows heavily from dancer Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (Bengali), both shot at Gemini Studios. The latter flopped. But the idea of a movie revolving around dance was born, leading to V. Shantaram's Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje in 1955.
1952: Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra transforms the tone and tenor of Hindi film music and launches Meena Kumari into stardom.
1951:Awaara, Raj Kapoor's breakthrough film, catapults the showman into the league of legends. It was also India's first international sensation.
1952:Parasakthi (Tamil) reflects the spirit of the 1950s with its idealism and radical ideas; it launches thespian Sivaji Ganesan and makes the scriptwriter M. Karunanidhi a household name.
1954: P. Bhaskaran's landmark Neelakkuyil (Malayalam) questions regressive mores, making bold statements against untouchability, feudalism, and injustices against women.
1955:Pather Panchali (Bengali), Satyajit Ray's debut, becomes a cult classic, revered by cinema buffs worldwide. The first of Ray’s remarkable oeuvre, it is another testimony to the experimental mood that characterised the 50s.
1957: With Pyaasa (and Kaagaz Ke Phool two years later), Guru Dutt cements his place in the pantheon of India’s greatest filmmakers.
1957:Mother India, Mehboob Khan's epic, tells the heroic tale of a woman fighting poverty and an unjust society.
1958:Madhumati, a spellbinding entertainer, brings together superstars Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala and arthouse auteurs Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak.
1959: B.R. Panthulu strikes gold with Veerapandiya Kattabomman (Tamil), a historical retelling of an 18th century chieftain's rebellion against the British.
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1960: K. Asif’s long-awaited and lavishly mounted Mughal-e-Azam finally arrives to a rapturous welcome. Madhubala steals the show with a riveting performance in this enduring masterpiece.
1960:Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ritwik Ghatak’s sombre tale of struggle and sacrifice strikes a new path with its innovative technique and by placing refugees and their travails at the heart of the movie.
1964:Kashmir Ki Kali best reflects the formulaic nature of mainstream Hindi cinema of the 60s, with an insouciant Shammi Kapoor romancing the stylish Sharmila Tagore in heavenly Kashmir. O.P. Nayyar’s lilting music is the icing on the cake.
1965:Guide, Dev Anand’s finest hour, brings R.K. Narayan’s novel to life on the screen, achieving instant classic status with brilliant performances all around and scintillating music by S.D. Burman.
1965: M.G. Ramachandran’s Enga Veettu Pillai (Tamil) storms the box office, cementing his place as the unrivalled superstar of Tamil films and laying the foundation for his meteoric rise in politics soon thereafter.
1965:Chemmeen (Malayalam), based on a novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, brings a new aesthetic to Malayalam cinema with its lyrical storytelling, world-class camerawork, and Salil Chowdhury’s mesmerising soundtrack.
1971: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s philosophical Anand brings together Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan for a memorable cinematic outing.
1973: After Mera Naam Joker’s disastrous performance at the box office, a dejected Raj Kapoor teams up with K.A. Abbas to make Bobby, one of the biggest blockbusters of all time that also pioneered the genre of teenage romance.
1975: Yash Chopra’s Deewar, the high point of the “angry young man” genre, sizzles during an era riven by sociopolitical upheaval and widespread anger at the system.
1975:Sholay, the ultimate masala movie, sets the box office on fire and remains an integral part of the cultural landscape in subsequent decades.
1976: Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, inspired by Verghese Kurien’s pioneering milk cooperative movement and also entirely crowdfunded by by 500,000 dairy farmers, wins rave reviews and a handful of awards, leaving an indelible mark on the history of Indian film-making.
1977:16 Vayathinile (Tamil) heralds a brand new beginning in the annals of Tamil cinema, bringing a new look, sound and feel, propelling Ilayaraja to musical superstardom and transforming the fortunes of Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, besides debutant director Bharathirajaa.
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1980: On the threshold of a new decade, Feroz Khan’s Qurbani brings a certain panache to the screen that filmgoers love to bits, with the musical component being the epitome of cool.
1981: K. Balachander’s Ek Duje Ke Liye, an over-the-top North-South saga of love failure that ends in death, becomes a nationwide hit and inspires copycat versions in all languages.
1982:Gandhi, an international production so close to all Indians that it is considered one of our own, wins hearts and the box office and sweeps the Oscars.
1982: In the same year comes Disco Dancer, and India is singing a different tune and dancing to a different beat. Mithun Chakraborty scales the peak of fame in this monster hit.
1983: Govind Nihalani’s hard-hitting Ardh Satya, with Om Puri delivering a spectacular performance, touches upon social-political issues such as custodial deaths, domestic violence, and the criminal-politician nexus.
1983:Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a black satire made by debutant Kundan Shah and produced by NFDC, talks about the age-old battle between idealism and entrenched corruption. Adored by the generation that grew up watching Doordarshan, the film has now achieved cult status.
1987:Pushpak, Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s delightful rumination on love, struggle and living in a hotel, speaks louder than words, literally, wowing critics and audiences everywhere.
1987: Mani Ratnam arrives on the big stage with his celluloid masterpiece Nayakan, giving Tamil cinema a new direction.
1988:Tezaab and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, polar opposites in form and content, blaze new trails, changing the course of mainstream Hindi cinema.
1989: Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s masterpiece Parinda, yet another portrait of Bombay but focussed on the underworld, offers a brand-new experience with its innovative cinematic technique and stylistic storytelling.
1992:Roja, Mani Ratnam’s first expedition into hypernationalism, becomes a surprise nationwide hit, on the back of A.R. Rahman’s anthemic soundtrack.
1993:Baazigar, followed in quick succession by Darr, ushers in the Shah Rukh Khan era that would redefine mainstream Hindi cinema.
1994:Hum Aapke Hai Kaun, starring Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, breaks all records, bringing conservatism back into contention.
1995:Rangeela spearheads a revolutionary new look and sound, bringing into centrestage Urmila Matondkar, A.R. Rahman and Ram Gopal Varma.
1995: Conservatism wins big yet again in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the first big film where the protagonists are NRIs.
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The initial years of the new millennium were marked by the reign of the Khans and the arrival of new influential film-makers such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Karan Johar, and Anurag Kashyap.
2001: Aamir Khan hits paydirt with the ambitious period film Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, which explores the friendship, falling out and eventual reunion between three young men.
2001:Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, with an all-star cast, brings the Indian family back to the centrestage.
2002: Ram Gopal Varma’s Company, featuring superlative performances by Ajay Devgn and Mohanlal, keeps viewers on the edge with its riveting portrayal of friendship and betrayal in the Mumbai underworld.
2002:Devdas, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s interpretation of the acclaimed Bengali classic, floors viewers with its grandiose treatment, a hallmark of all his films.
2012:Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap’s two-part crime opus headlined by the stars of the new millennium such as Manoj Bajpai and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, births a new trend of elaborate storytelling.
2014:Madras (Tamil), Pa. Ranjith’s striking opus, tells a brutally honest story of political rivalry in North Madras in the early 90s while offering remarkable insights into the lives of urban Dalits.
2015:Baahubali (part 1), helmed by S.S. Rajamouli, breaks all previous records to become the greatest pan-Indian superhit, only to be overtaken by its 2017 sequel.
2016: Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (Marathi) raises troubling questions of how caste-conscious we are as a society.
2021:Pushpa (part 1), primarily a Telugu film, breaks all barriers by tasting success in Hindi and the major Southern languages, firmly establishing a trend pioneered by Baahubali and taken to the next level by RRR in 2022.