With its recent encore and streaming premiere, SS is Rajamouli’s Telugu language blockbuster RRR is proving to be a gateway drug for American viewers eager to see more Indian cinema. This category might be broad – India has dozens of different film industries, each with their own language and sensibilities – but there are many classic and contemporary entry points to stream. The Criterion Channel has several works from legendary directors like Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt, while Netflix has several versions of Rajamouli’s Baahubali films, a pair of mythological-scale sword-and-sandals epics for anyone wanting extra helpings of his special cuisine are interested .
Coming up with a list of recommendations that feels anywhere near complete or all-encompassing is a Herculean task given the sheer volume of film production in India (roughly two thousand films a year), so any such overview is likely to be influenced by whim, preference and even gaps in your knowledge. That said, it also feels in tune with the upbeat spirit of RRR to share a list of personal favorites from the past few years, whether they align with Rajamouli’s over-the-top, maximalist aesthetic or go in the opposite direction entirely.
These 10 films belong to different industries—none of which is Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language industry that’s already picking up enough conversational oxygen—but they cover the stylistic range and paint a more complete picture of the many avenues Indian cinema has yet to take explore.
One of the easiest films to recommend to a new Rajamouli fan is his ridiculously funny insect action thriller Wait. Reincarnation dramas are a dime a dozen in Indian cinema (they date back at least to the 1940s), but Wait takes the concept to a delightfully absurd extreme, with the murdered protagonist returning not in a human avatar but as a housefly with the swaggering rhythm of a professional wrestler to exact revenge. It perhaps unfolds on a smaller scale than Rajamouli’s other works, but its plot feels just as powerful and bold.
Where to see: The original Telugu and Tamil versions keep bouncing back and forth between the streaming services hence the Telugu dub will only be streamed on the Indian platform for the time being Ahawhile his Malayalam dub Echa can be rented digitally or bought on youtube and google play.
While its plot is appropriately stylized and over-the-top (at least compared to most Hollywood films), Pa.’s is. Ranjith Kala Based on grassroots activism and contemporary caste and economic politics, it tells the story of a Tamil leader who protects his people in a sprawling Mumbai slum. However, its biggest selling point is its leading man, then 68-year-old Rajinikanth – aka “Superstar Rajini‘, one of India’s most revered artists – who still presents himself with the confident pride of a 20-year-old newcomer. Its blazing screen presence is also complemented by a raucous hip-hop dance number in the film’s opening, paving the way for an exhilarating experience that explores the life and energy in some of Mumbai’s desolate, forgotten corners.
Where to see: Kala is available for streaming Amazon Prime.
Anhey Ghorey Da Daan/Alms for a Blind Horse (2011)
That would be the aforementioned stylistic flourish. While Indian cinema is perceived abroad more as grandiose action musicals, its art house scene is just as vibrant. Case in point: Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi language Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, a haunted tale of the plight of peasants of the oppressed Dalit caste, and a tale that moves through shadows and empty spaces. It’s a poetic work reminiscent of the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, but feels wholly Indian in its conception of communal struggle.
Where to see: Anhey Ghorey Da Daan is available for streaming BAD.
Gamak Ghar/The Village House (2019)
Another work of contemporary minimalism, Achal Mishra’s Slow Burn in Maithili language, follows a family through several generations as they gather at their village house in East India, whether to celebrate the birth of a child or the death of an elder to mourn. Changing aspect ratios, quiet late-night conversations and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the passage of time, Mishra’s film is thematically a close relative of David Lowery’s A ghost storybut with Yasujirō Ozu’s restraint – explores the dynamics between places and the memories they hold.
Where to see: Gamak Ghar can be rented digitally or bought on projector.
If minimalism isn’t your thing, then India’s messy 2021 Oscar entry Covered might be to your liking. Lijo Jose Pellissery is one of the finest satirists in contemporary Indian cinema. His Malayalam-language film about an escaped bull rampaging through a village while its residents hunt it down is full of breathtaking, sacred, hellish images that can get under your skin. As much a story about the natural environment as it is about human nature and its flourishing, Pellissery’s 90-minute saga of sound and fury is an absolute magic book.
Where to see: footed is available for streaming Amazon Prime.
Nagraj Manjule is arguably the best Indian director working today. his second work Sairat, plays like a spiritual sequel to its effective debut, Fandryabout a little Dalit boy who longs for his “upper caste” classmate. Sairat focuses on a teenage couple who elope despite the many structures standing in their way. Yet while the film initially has a busy romantic energy (particularly during the diegetic musical number “To sing‘) it also shows the sobering reality of life on the run from persecution and the way it can turn even the most bright-eyed lovers mentally upside down.
Letter from your far country (2020)
The only short film on this list is that of Suneil Sanzgiri Letter from your distant land It may be abstract, esoteric and full of archival material, but it is a concise summary of what it feels like to exist at this moment in contemporary Indian politics. Shot on expired 16mm film and using the narrative device of English letters and poems written to fallen revolutionaries, this ephemeral avant-garde work – belonging to India’s wave of “parallel” experimental cinema – combines digital renderings with blurred images from different Epochs Indian protest connecting the dots between historical revolution and ongoing political struggles.
Where to see: Letter from your distant land is available for streaming The Criterion Channel.
Bulbul Can Sing (2018)
Cinema from the often-ignored state of Assam on India’s eastern border has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to director Rima Das and her Assamese-language debut film. Village rock stars (India’s 2019 Oscars submission) about a small town girl with big musical dreams. The’ follow up, Bulbul can sing, is a tender film that subverts the premise of its predecessor by telling the story of a young girl whose relationship with music is more complicated given the deep roots of the patriarchal tradition embedded in every facet of culture. It focuses on a trio of best friends as they grapple with their sexual identities against a backdrop of rural Assam, in a tale of cultural clashes that Das paints largely with grounded, observational naturalism while allowing occasional formal flourishes to capture beauty, longing and desire.
Where to see: Bulbul can sing is available for streaming Netflix.
For Rent (2017)
Renowned cinematographer Chezhiyan’s directorial debut, To let is an intimate Tamil drama that follows a lower middle class family of three. The film explores how they are either granted or denied humanity based on the spaces around them as they are suddenly evicted and forced to rent a new apartment. In contrast to Chennai’s predatory real estate industry – a product of the recent IT boom – the film is about what “home” even means when the physical space is so fragile, fickle and dictated by the cruel whims of fickle landlords whose decisions can amount to biased technical details. Chezhiyan isn’t so much preaching, however, as he is exploring how denying basic dignity can unravel your sense of being, evoking the working-class spirit of Ken Loach as he tells his story through walls, household objects, and subtle changes in the human Behavior.
Where to see: To let is available for streaming Amazon Prime.
Sudanese from Nigeria (2018)
Indian cinema may be rife with anti-colonial themes, but it doesn’t often reckon with its own racism – particularly its anti-blackness – which is what makes Zakariya Mohammed’s Malayalam-language sports comedy such a breath of fresh air. If either RRR‘s story about male friendship or their language barrier romance hit a nerve, then turned hilarious and touching Sudanese from Nigeria is a fitting sequel. It tells the story of a Nigerian refugee 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 of the sport often takes him away from his keeps family. When Samuel breaks his leg, he is taken into Majeed’s care as bureaucracy and a harrowing immigration system prevent him from traveling home. With no verbal dialect in common, the two frustrated athletes are forced to break down barriers through their shared love of the game (and eventually their mutual difficulties) in a film that understands that some languages - like cinema – connect people beyond words .
Where to see: Sudanese from Nigeria is available for streaming Netflix.