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With its recent encore release and streaming premiere, S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language blockbuster RRR is proving to be a gateway drug for American viewers eager to watch more Indian cinema. That category may be broad — India has dozens of different film industries, each with their own languages and sensibilities — but there are plenty of classic and contemporary entry points available to stream. The Criterion Channel has several works by legendary directors like Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt, while Netflix features multiple versions of Rajamouli’s Baahubali movies, a pair of sword-and-sandal epics on a mythological scale, for anyone interested in additional servings of his specific cuisine.
Crafting a list of recommendations that feels remotely complete or all-encompassing is a Herculean task, given India’s sheer volume of cinematic output (around two thousand films a year), so any such rundown is likely to be influenced by whims, preferences, and even gaps in your knowledge. That said, it also feels in line with the joyous spirit of RRR to share a list of personal favorites from recent years, whether they conform to Rajamouli’s over-the-top, maximalist aesthetic or swing in the opposite direction entirely.
These 10 films belong to various industries — none of which are Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language industry, which takes up enough conversational oxygen as it is — but they run the stylistic gamut, and paint a more complete picture of the many avenues of Indian cinema still left to explore.
One of the easiest films to recommend to a newly-minted Rajamouli fan is his ludicrously fun insect action thriller Eega. Reincarnation dramas are a dime a dozen in Indian cinema (they date back to at least the 1940s), but Eega pushes the concept to a delightfully absurd extreme by having its murdered protagonist return to extract revenge not in a human avatar, but as a housefly with the boastful cadence of a professional wrestler. It may unfold on a smaller scale than Rajamouli’s other works, but its action feels just as enormous and unabashed.
Where to watch it: The original Telugu and Tamil versions keep hopping between streaming services, so for now, the Telugu dub is only streaming on Indian platform Aha, while its Malayalam dub Eecha is available for rent or purchase digitally on YouTube and Google Play.
While its action is suitably stylized and over-the-top (at least compared to most Hollywood movies), Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala is grounded in grassroots activism and contemporary caste and economic politics, telling the tale of a Tamil leader protecting his people in a sprawling Mumbai slum. However, its biggest selling point is its leading man, the then 68-year-old Rajinikanth — aka “Super Star Rajini,” one of India’s most revered performers — who still carries himself with the self-assured swagger of a 20-something newcomer. His blazing screen presence is also matched by a raucous hip-hop dance number in the film’s opening, which paves the way for an exciting experience that explores the life and energy in some of Mumbai’s forlorn, forgotten corners.
Where to watch it: Kaala is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Anhey Ghorey Da Daan/Alms for a Blind Horse (2011)
This would be the aforementioned stylistic swing. While the perception of Indian cinema abroad tends to be grandiose action musicals, its arthouse scene is just as vibrant. Case in point: Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi-language Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, a ghostly tale of hardship faced by farmers of the oppressed Dalit caste, and a story that moves through shadows and empty spaces. It’s a poetic work that evokes Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, but it feels entirely Indian in its conception of community struggle.
Where to watch it: Anhey Ghorey Da Daan is available to stream on MUBI.
Gamak Ghar/The Village House (2019)
Another work of contemporary minimalism, Achal Mishra’s Maithili-language slow burn follows a family through several generations as they gather at their village home in eastern India, whether to celebrate the birth of a child or to mourn the death of an elder. Through shifting aspect ratios, quiet nighttime conversations, and lingering wide shots that capture the passage of time, Mishra’s film — a close thematic cousin to David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, but with Yasujirō Ozu’s restraint — explores the dynamic between places and the memories they hold.
Where to watch it: Gamak Ghar is available for rent or purchase digitally on Projectr.
If minimalism isn’t your cup of tea, then India’s chaotic 2021 Oscar entry Jallikattu might be to your liking. Lijo Jose Pellissery is one of contemporary Indian cinema’s finest satirists. His Malayalam-language movie about an escaped bull rampaging through a village as its residents chase it down is rife with the kind of stunning, holy, hellish imagery that can seep beneath your skin. As much a tale about the natural environment as it is about human nature and the way it unravels, Pellissery’s 90-minute saga of sound and fury is a complete spellbinder.
Where to watch it: Jalikattu is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Nagraj Manjule is arguably the best Indian director working today. His sophomore effort, Sairat, plays like a spiritual sequel to his effective debut, Fandry, about a young Dalit boy pining for his “upper-caste” classmate. Sairat focuses on a teenage couple who elopes, despite the many structures standing firmly in their way. However, while the film has bustling romantic energy at first (especially during the diegetic musical number “Zingaat”), it also depicts the sobering reality of life on the run from persecution, and the way it can turn even the most starry-eyed lovers spiritually inside out.
Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020)
The only short film on this list, Suneil Sanzgiri’s Letter From Your Far-Off Country may be abstract, esoteric, and filled with archival footage, but it’s a precise encapsulation of what it feels like to exist in this moment of contemporary Indian politics. Shot on expired 16mm film stock and using the narrative device of English letters and poems written to fallen revolutionaries, this volatile avant-garde work — which belongs to India’s wave of “parallel” experimental cinema — combines digital renderings with hazy images from various eras of Indian protest, connecting the dots between historical revolution and ongoing political struggles.
Where to watch it: Letter From Your Far-Off Country is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Bulbul Can Sing (2018)
Cinema from the oft-ignored state of Assam on India’s eastern border has seen a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to director Rima Das and her Assamese-language debut feature, Village Rockstars (India’s submission to the Oscars in 2019), about a small-town girl with big musical dreams. Das’ follow-up, Bulbul Can Sing, is a tender film that subverts the premise of its predecessor by telling the story of a teenage girl whose relationship to music is more complicated, given the deep roots of patriarchal tradition embedded within every facet of culture. It focuses on a trio of best friends coming to terms with their sexual identities against the backdrop of rural Assam in a tale of culture clash that Das paints, for the most part, with grounded, observational naturalism, while allowing occasional formal flourishes to capture beauty, longing, and desire.
Where to watch it: Bulbul Can Sing is available to stream on Netflix.
To Let (2017)
The directorial debut of renowned cinematographer Chezhiyan, To Let is an intimate Tamil drama that follows a lower-middle-class family of three. The movie explores the ways they’re either granted or denied humanity based on the spaces around them, as they’re suddenly evicted and forced to rent a new apartment. Set against the predatory real-estate industry in Chennai — a result of its recent IT boom — the film is about what “home” even means when physical space is so fragile, impermanent, and dictated by the cruel whims of moody landlords, whose decisions can come down to prejudiced technicalities. Chezhiyan, however, isn’t as concerned with sermonizing as he is with exploring how being denied basic dignity can unravel your sense of being, invoking the working-class spirit of Ken Loach while telling its story through walls, household objects, and minor changes in human behavior.
Where to watch it: To Let is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Sudani from Nigeria (2018)
Indian cinema may be rife with anti-colonial themes, but it doesn’t often reckon with its own racism — especially its anti-Blackness — which makes Zakariya Mohammed’s Malayalam-language sports comedy such a breath of fresh air. If either RRR’s tale of male friendship or its language-barrier romance struck a chord, then the hilarious and touching Sudani from Nigeria is a fitting follow-up. It tells the story of a Nigerian refugee and soccer player, Samuel (Samuel Abiola Robinson), who moves to Kerala and plays for a local team managed by Majeed (Soubin Shahir), a poor man whose love for the sport often keeps him from his family. When Samuel breaks his leg, he’s placed under Majeed’s care, as red tape and a harrowing immigration system prevent him from traveling home. With no verbal dialect in common, the two frustrated sportsmen are forced to break down barriers through their mutual love of the game (and eventually, their mutual hardships) in a film that understands that some languages — like cinema — connect people beyond words.
Where to watch it: Sudani from Nigeria is available to stream on Netflix.