Most of these are works of first-time directors, which possibly brings a freshness in their treatment if not novelty in their ideas. Some of these might be formulaic but we find ourselves in these characters and stories or so we’d like to believe. As escapist as some of these might be, they tug at our hearts and refuse to grow stale even after repeated viewings.
1. DDLJ (1995) | Dir: Aditya Chopra
The ultimate rulebook of all rulebooks of romance, DDLJ became the longest running film in the history of Indian cinema (surpassing the action classic Sholay). Aditya Chopra’s debut film gave us memorable screen characters in Raj and Simran, that epitomised love. The record-breaking cult film set benchmarks for romantic dramas to come. No Bollywood list is quite complete without this one.
2. Dil Chahta Hai (2001) | Dir: Farhan Akhtar
Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut explored friendship and love with a subtle, indie sensibility. It was a generational shift in our style of storytelling. Recounting his insecurities as a filmmaker in his biography, An Unsuitable Boy, Karan Johar says, “there was a part of me that got a little afraid,” post the release of Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai. “I felt in that year, the syntax of cinema had changed… What was really, intrinsically, authentically cool was Farhan Akhtar’s depiction of urban youth, the way they dressed, spoke, the mannerisms. My sensibilities were mixed up with those of the filmmakers of yore – Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Raj Kapoor.”
3. Saathiya (2002) | Dir: Shaad Ali
Mani Ratnam’s protege Shaad Ali delivered a winner in this Tamil film remake. The film smoothly transitions from mostly a light, zippy first half to a dark, grim latter half. The non-linear narrative tightly edited (except the last few minutes) kept up the pace and attention. Rani Mukerji held the film with an impressive performance. Vivek Oberoi came off his dark avatar and took on the loverboy mantle charming his way through to Suhani’s (Rani Mukerji) and our hearts. From Yaar Milade Saiyya to Chupke Se, A.R. Rahman’s soulful music added another character to the film.
4. Socha Na Tha (2004) | Dir: Imtiaz Ali
Critics loved it but the box office snubbed it. The film was a commercial failure, possibly because it had no big names to boast of or bring audience to the theatres. It was a first for director Imtiaz Ali and actor Abhay Deol, while Ayesha Takia had two flops behind her, the same year. It was much later when moviegoers warmed up to it. I happened to watch it five months after its release. Even today, it’s hard to keep away from each time it’s on TV. Socha Na Tha is mainstream romance done right. And Imtiaz is among the very few filmmakers who nail this genre.
5. Hum Tum (2004) | Dir: Kunal Kohli
If there’s one film every romcom lover will swear by, it’s this one. This love story pans years and continents. It wasn’t a routine boy-meets-girl and lives-happily-ever-after story. There’s more drama and animosity that either of them can handle, helped by the battle-of-the-sexes theme (a cliched theme but done well, in this case!). The sweet nothings, mush and cheese come in much later. Saif and Rani make a cute couple and turn in endearing performances. Kirron Kher and Rishi Kapoor deserve equal credit for turning this modern love story into one of the most successful romantic films of our time.
6. Salaam Namaste (2005) | Dir: Siddharth Anand
From Dil Chahta Hai (2001) to Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Hum Tum (2004) to Salaam Namaste (2005) and later Love Aj Kal (2009), Saif was on a roll in the 2000s. He turned in one (romcom) hit after another. Somewhere around the early 2000s, Hindi cinema’s poster boy for romance Shah Rukh Khan passed on the baton to the newer, younger crop. Bollywood found its new-age, urban loverboy in Saif. A lover who wasn’t a ‘hero’ in the real sense of the word. A lover who was far from perfect. He made mistakes. He was one of us. And Saif neatly fitted the definition (possibly also because of the events that parallel-y transpired in his real life around the time).
Siddharth Anand keeps it real and relatable, and has you engaged throughout its runtime with great performances from Preity and Saif and the roaring bromance between Saif and Arshad Warsi. (Tidbit: Did you know Habib Faisal, who wrote Band Baaja Baraat, co-wrote Salaam Namaste with Siddharth Anand?)
7. Jab We Met (2007) | Dir: Imtiaz Ali
Another gem from the great storyteller, Jab We Met was the defining film of Imtiaz’s career. It had everything going for itself. Well-written characters, memorable performances, crackling chemistry and a solid script that was well narrated. Most importantly, it had a heart! I did this thrice on the theatre and umpteen times on the TV and DVD. Kareena immortalized Geet (which was at one point the title of the film) and Shahid Kapoor finally delivered his first major hit. It spawned several remakes and clones, but nothing matched the success of this modern love epic.
8. Wake Up Sid (2009) | Dir: Ayan Mukerji
Another modern classic that refuses to grow stale is this coming of age drama comedy. Wake Up Sid is a story of young, carefree, urban boy Siddharth Mehra whose life transforms after falling in love with a woman, who happens to be a writer. A woman with dreams, aspirations and a path cut out for herself. Unlike Sid, who’s still lost but hasn’t tried to figure out life yet. Not until he meets this woman. She gives him a new perspective to life. A reason to live. With believable characters and an indie flavour, Wake Up Sid feels fresh in every viewing.
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9. Band Baaja Baraat (2010) | Dir: Maneesh Sharma
From writer Habib Faisal and first-time director Maneesh Sharma came a film which will be remembered long beyond the films of its decade. A well-written script engagingly screenplayed and honest performances from Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma make this a winner. Add to it the Delhi milieu which comes alive as another character in the film. Even repeated viewings don’t dilute the initial impact of the film. Debutant Ranveer Singh carried the ‘newcomer’ title with ease and pride, nearly owning the film. Little did we know this was just the beginning for this abundantly talented actor.
Recommended: What is it like to meet Ranveer Singh?
10. Zindagi Na Milega Dobara (2011) | Dir: Zoya Akhtar
Zoya Akhtar skilfully marries artistic and mainstream sensibilities to create this gem. A film about friendship and travel, Zindagi Ne Milegi Dobara is a simple story with its heart in the right place. The poems by Javed Akhtar aid the narrative. We find a little bit of ourselves in all the characters. Characters with simple aspirations. Characters that speak our language. They along with a simple, relatable story elevate this film to a cult level.
11. Queen (2013) | Dir: Vikas Bahl
Queen defied Bollywood tradition in how it wasn’t the usual fall-in-love-and-live-happily-ever-after story. While it did involve falling in love and living happily ever after, it chronicled the journey of a woman falling in love with herself – two elements Bollywood has barely explored. And Kangana Ranaut nailed it with a career-best performance. How often does mainstream Bollywood subvert storytelling norms? It’s an icing on the cake when it gets it right.