Named "Bollywood" by movie enthusiasts, the Hindi-language film industry accounts for a major portion of the global film space and continues to grow with each title it pumps out. Bollywood beats out Nigeria's Nollywood as well as America's Hollywood to be the world's largest film industry in terms of output and reach, with its content appealing to moviegoers in every corner of the world. But what is it exactly that makes Bollywood so epic, its films so special? Some argue that there's a tried-and-true formula to any quality Bollywood film: swoon-worthy romance, swelling soundtracks, ridiculously attractive lead characters, and plot twists that you can see coming from a mile away. Others say that Bollywood's secret is far simpler—it's just a damn good time from beginning to end.
Either way, these films are well worth the two-plus hours you'll probably have to block off in your day to watch them (Bollywood movies are notoriously long). Whether you're a fan of romance, tragedy, or comedy, there's definitely a film for you in this colorful world. Below, a list of Bollywood staples that you need to add to your watch list, from epic historical dramas to kickass action movies.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
You can't talk about Bollywood without mentioning Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The 1995 classic is widely considered the golden standard for Bollywood rom-coms, featuring a cheeky Shah Rukh Khan and starlet Kajol (and her signature unibrow) as two young people who fall in love on a backpacking trip across Europe.
This 1957 musical romance is a classic. The story follows Vijay, an unsuccessful poet who is mistakenly assumed dead when a homeless man he gave his coat to is murdered. After his "death," Vijay's poems are published—and wildly popular.
Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980)
Insaf Ka Tarazu translates to "the balance (or scale) of justice" and the movie dives deep into what justice is and how to strike that balance. In this intense drama, a wealthy man named Ramesh meets a beauty queen named Bharti, who he invites onto his yacht. Afterwards, Bharti accuses Ramesh of sexually assaulting her, but he's exonerated. When he's murdered two years later, Bharti is arrested for the crime and put on trial herself.
Love Aaj Kal (2020)
It's appropriate that this romantic movie was released on Valentine's Day. The drama follows a young couple named Zoe and Veer who meet in a bar and have an instant connection, but struggle to move forward in their relationship as their careers and life plans keep pulling them apart.
This 2004 period drama tells the story of star-crossed lovers Veer, an Indian Air Force officer, and Zaara, the daughter of a Pakistani politician. Their 22-year love story is full of courage, sacrifice, and, of course, lots of edge-of-your-seat drama.
Mrs. Serial Killer (2020)
If you like your crime dramas dark and twisty, then Mrs. Serial Killer is for you. The premise: A a man is arrested (and possibly framed) for a series of brutal murders. His pregnant wife decides to prove he's innocent by committing a copycat crime while he's in custody. Foolproof, right?
For a thriller with more romance, try 2006's Fanaa, about a flirtatious tour guide named Rehan who meets and starts a relationship with a blind (but very independent) Kashmiri woman named Zooni. The twist: This isn't the first time Rehan and Zooni have met...or dated. Turns out, Rehan is an insurgent behind a series of terrorist attacks, including one seven years prior that he used to fake his own death and leave Zooni the first.
This inspirational sports movie takes place in the world of Kabbadi, a popular contact sport in India. The movie follows Jaya Nigam, a former Kabbadi champion who quit the sport after the birth of her son, but regrets walking away. With help and support from her now seven-year-old son and a former teammate, Jaya trains, gets back into shape, makes her comeback, and eventually wins the Kabaddi cup for team India.
Mother India (1957)
This epic drama focuses on an impoverished woman who is forced to care for her two sons alone while surviving threats from a nefarious money-lender when her husband leaves the family in disgrace. At the time it was made, Mother India was one of the most expensive Hindi movies ever made and is considered one of the most revered movies in Bollywood history.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
This movie has it all. It's a romantic comedy. It's a drama. It's a heartfelt coming-of-age movie. Dil Chahta Hai, which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, tells the stories of three college friends as they try to navigate life and love after graduation.
The Lunchbox (2013)
The Lunchbox is one of those beautifully touching movies that tells a story you didn't know you desperately needed until you've seen it. In the movie, a woman named Ila tries to rekindle the spark in her marriage by preparing a special lunch for her (not-so-great) husband. The plan goes awry, however, and the lunch ends up in front of an antisocial widower instead. When her husband doesn't mention his special meal, Ila adds a note to the next lunch she prepares (which also goes to said widower) and an unlikely friendship is born.
"Lagaan" translates to "Agricultural Tax," but don't let that put you off. Only within the genius that is Bollywood could a movie about a town outraged by an unprecedented tax increase also be this genuinely engrossing. It doesn't hurt that the villagers end up playing a game of cricket against the British army officers enforcing the tax for the right not to pay it.
This action-adventure Bollywood offering is a classic. The plot revolves around a retired police chief who sets out to catch a dastardly thief—with the help of two lesser criminals.
Jab We Met (2007)
If you love a good quirky-girls-saves-a-depressed-guy rom-com, then Jab We Met deserves a spot on your watchlist. The movie tells the story of heartbroken, borderline suicidal businessman Aditya who meets a spirited woman named Geet on a train and ends up sucked into her whirlwind of a life, including a trip to meet her family and the chance to tag along for her elopement with her secret boyfriend.
Lust Stories (2018)
Much sexier than many of the other titles on this list and within Bollywood in general, Lust Stories is an anthology film about four vastly different sexual situations, including an inappropriate student-teacher interaction, a maid's secret desire, the broken trust between a married couple, and one woman's awkward experience with a vibrator. Stream the steamy film on Netflix today.
When shy Rani Mehra gets left at the altar on her wedding day, she shocks her conservative family and friends by turning what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon for two into an ambitious solo trip.
Ready to cry, laugh, and then cry a little more? Barfi! is about the misadventures of a happy-go-lucky man who makes the most of life. The film stars Bollywood favorites Ranbir Kapoor as Barfi and Priyanka Chopra as his love interest Jhilmil, a young woman on the autism spectrum.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
Lifelong best friends Imran, Arjun, and Kabir finally make good on their pact to travel to Spain, but interpersonal conflict threatens to upend their vacation and their friendship.
Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
Hrthrik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai (former Miss World) lead this 2008 romance film about the marriage of convenience turned passionate love affair between a Rajput princess and a Mughal king that is jeopardized by the threat of a looming religious war. Jodhaa Akbar will make you believe in love again—trust me.
Mary Kom (2014)
Priyanka Chopra stars in the inspirational sports film as real life boxing icon Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangte, who went from farming the fields of Manipur to fighting in the ring and becoming a six-time World Amateur Boxing champion.
Haider takes the well-known play that is William Shakespeare's Hamlet and lets the tragedy play out in a totally different, equally grim setting: right in the the middle of the Kashmir conflicts of 1995.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)
What do you get when you take some of Bollywood's most prolific actors (like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Kajol, and Kareena Kapoor) and put them all in one movie about a well-off, prominent family in Delhi struggling to maintain its legacy? Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, that's what. The family drama is a heartbreaking story about the ties that bind us but can also break us, and it's so, so, so good.
A career-driven but socially awkward physical therapist gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she's hired by the Rajasthan royal family to nurse the king back to health. However, she gets thrown off her game by the presence of the family's extremely hot prince and his snobbish mother. Romantic shenanigans and misunderstandings ensue, and honestly, what else would we expect from a Disney movie?
3 Idiots (2009)
This coming-of-age dramedy follows three engineering students' trials and tribulations as young people, offering a tongue-in-check critique of the state of the Indian education system and the stress it creates.
Ek Tha Tiger (2012)
Action icon Salman Khan plays an Indian secret agent nicknamed "Tiger" who is sent to Ireland on a mission to keep tabs on a renowned scientist suspected may be aiding the defense strategies of Pakistan.
Shah Rukh Khan (told you he'd appear on this list a lot) takes on the titular role of Devdas, a man who returns to India after previously leaving the country to study law in England. His forbidden love leads him to a battle with alcoholism that impacts the lives of the people that he loves most.
There's only been one thing getting in the way of aspiring teacher Naina making her dream of landing a job as a teacher at the high school that she attended come true: her Tourette's syndrome. And even when Naina is able to finally become a teacher, her troublemaking class presents a new issue, making her wonder if her dreams really are within reach.
Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003)
A case of mistaken identity leads to love in this 2003 romantic comedy starring Bollywood heavyweights Hrthrik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor.
(Note: Pay no attention to the animated talking parrot that shows up from time to time—2003 was a whole different world.)
Model-turned-flight attendant Neerja Bhanot comes face to face with a group of terrorists intent on hijacking her flight. The film is based on the true story of the Abu Nidal Organization's hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986.
Bajirao Mastani (2015)
When Peshwa Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) falls for Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of a Rajput king in need of his fighting prowess, despite already being married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) a ill-fated love triangle forms that alters the very course of their lives.
Fun fact: Bajirao Mastani marks Singh and Padukone's second onscreen romance after starring in Ram Leela in 2013, and the two actors tied the knot IRL in 2018!
Dhoom 2 (2006)
In one of those rare cases where the sequel surpasses the original, Dhoom 2 is believed by many to be the best film in the Dhoom franchise (which, by the way, is the the second largest Bollywood film franchise in terms of box-office revenue). Think Fast and Furious, but in Hindi and complete with lively musical numbers.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)
LGTBQ narratives are slowly but surely making their way into mainstream Bollywood cinema, and EK Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is helping lead the way. The heartwarming film depicts a closeted woman's journey to personal freedom and her fight for acceptance from her traditional family.
Lovely Singh is assigned to be the bodyguard for Divya, the beloved daughter of a national politician with many enemies, but things get complicated when Lovely finds himself falling in love on the job. There are cool fight sequences and fun dance breaks in this one—we love duality!