Netflix has a huge stash of movies from India, which makes it a great source, but it’s a lot to wade through even if you have some idea what to look for. To make it easier, whether you’re familiar with Indian film or not, here’s a list of gems from romance to action, modern and classic, to add to the top of your list.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Hindi)
In this charming romantic comedy, star Shah Rukh Khan plays Sunil, an energetic young musician more interested in fun than school. A love triangle between Sunil, his friend Chris, and their mutual crush Anna is at the center of the plot, but the real heart of this movie is Sunil’s struggle to grow up and balance his passion for music with his father’s expectations. The boy’s emotional, bumbling journey into maturity and the dreamy atmosphere make this a special experience with more depth than your typical “boy chases girl” story. Filled with catchy songs, lovely cinematography, bright colors, detailed set designs, and fun ’90s fashion (plus, of course, some gangsters), Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is a perfect comfort movie that gets better with each watch.
A mystery about traffic accidents might not sound exciting, but U-Turn is a strange and surprisingly dark thriller about a journalist who sets out to write about rule-breaking motorists and ends up investigating murder. It’s a nice twisty story with some real surprises, and especially worth watching because of its stark style — steeped in yellow-tinted nighttime lighting, the city streets take on an otherworldly quality, and a few scenes border on horror territory. The wild story is anchored by a strong natural performance from Shraddha Srinath, and the video footage shown during the end credits will give you a memorable chill.
Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan gives a powerhouse performance in this intense action-drama about a gangster who spends his life obsessed with avenging his father’s death. Of course it has plenty of classic Bollywood elements — some comedic relief, fun dance numbers, outlandish action, and lots of melodrama — but Agneepath is first and foremost a cool crime thriller, genius because of how it will also break your heart.
Minsara Kanavu (Tamil)
This movie follows a girl who decides to become a nun, and the drama that ensues when a boy who is in love with her enlists the help of a fun-loving friend to attempt to dissuade her. Featuring engrossing performances from Kajol, Prabhu Deva, and Arvind Swamy, the story is sweet and engaging, but the highlight is its achingly beautiful songs and dance sequences, perfectly capturing the dreamy thoughts and romantic indecision of youth.
Virata Parvam (Telugu)
A romantic political drama, Virata Parvam focuses on a young woman in 1990s Telangana who falls in love with a communist leader via his poetry. It works as a small-scale period piece about the Naxalite movement, but more than a history lesson, it is first and foremost a story of love and loyalty and how emotions and ideology intertwine. Led by brilliant actor Sai Pallavi, her radiant presence is full of a passion and purity that is mesmerizing throughout the film. The beautiful photography and music are the perfect background to this story that is both thrilling and heart-wrenching.
Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam)
This slice-of-life drama is an unexpectedly exhilarating piece of filmmaking that was a hit with both audiences and critics. The loose plot, about a tight-knit group of boys who go into business as butchers and get mixed up with crime, is a fairly simple framework to showcase a city in Kerala filled with good and bad extremes, vibrant lights and testosterone-fueled fights, young romance and simple folk music blending with ambient noise. Humor and violence are always perfectly balanced as one entity, and the natural performances from first-time actors combined with the expansive sound design and intimate camerawork make for a truly immersive experience — the opening credit close-ups of food and drink draw you in immediately. All of this energy explodes with a stunning 12-minute unbroken take of a chase through nighttime streets that is the perfect encapsulation of the movie’s “live fast, die young” heart.
Maya Memsaab (Hindi)
In this surreal adaptation of the novel Madame Bovary, Maya is a woman consumed with romantic ideals that lead her into disastrous affairs, and eventually her disappearance. Deepa Sahi’s wonderful performance as the radiant and strange Maya is pitch-perfect, and the cinematography is strange and gorgeous, mirroring her fantasies as well as her feeling of being trapped and deprived of passion. This abstract, sensual art house fare is one of the best films in any language Netflix has to offer.
An atmospheric mystery about a cop investigating the death of a famous actor, Talaash doubles as an exploration of grief, depression, and a crumbling marriage, as the protagonist (brilliantly played by Aamir Khan) spirals deeper down into the case and his own personal demons. The moody magical-realism aesthetic and fantastic twist make this an enthralling watch, with some moments of stirring emotion stronger than your average crime thriller.
It wouldn’t be a list of recommendations without superstar Rajinikanth — if you aren’t familiar with the massively popular Tamil hero, there’s no better time than now to get acquainted. This comedy about a servant and his master falling in love with the same woman is a silly, breezy introduction to his charms. Packed with wacky antics, over-the-top fantasy musical numbers, and a truly epic horse carriage race that very likely caused some real-life injuries, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Rajni in this feel-good adventure.
Dil Se.. and the films of Mani Ratnam
Beloved director Mani Ratnam is one of the few Indian filmmakers to achieve international critical acclaim and success. Dil Se.. is his most well known, and it isn’t hard to understand why. It’s a stunningly beautiful drama of politics and colonization masquerading as a star-crossed love story with some of the most unforgettable images and songs in Bollywood. Several of Ratnam’s other films are also streaming — the Hindi dramas Yuva and Guru, as well as Tamil classics Bombay, Kannathil Muthamittal, and O Kadhal Kanmani. All six are well worth your time, and if you haven’t explored Indian cinema yet, his filmography is a great way to begin.
Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om
Two of Farah Khan’s four directorial outings are available to stream, and both are simply magical. The longtime choreographer who helped popularize some of Bollywood’s biggest stars also has a wonderful talent for directing, and her films are perfect if you need a pick-me-up. Khan’s most prominent skill is her deft way of weaving together classic tropes and references — filled with cameos and meta in-jokes, they are the work of someone deeply in love with the art of cinema, her various obsessions effortlessly blended into her own signature style. Main Hoon Na is the story of an army major who goes undercover at a college, and Om Shanti Om is an epic of romance and reincarnation following a young man whose life is changed after he encounters his favorite actress. Both have plenty of comedy, romance, action, and joy — plus, the more you learn about Bollywood, the more rewarding they’ll be on rewatch. Make sure and stick around for the end credits!
Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya
Ishqiya has a tone unlike any other movie — a buddy road trip comedy that is heartwarming without being saccharine, funny yet dark and sad, Ishqiya is steeped in a love for classic Hindi music and art. Three perfect lead performances from Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, and Arshad Warsi combined with lovely photography and witty writing give a modern indie vibe to Ishqiya’s classic Bollywood framework. It and the equally brilliant sequel, Dedh Ishqiya, make a funny, sexy, and exciting saga.
The Bengali novel Devdas, about a man who descends into depression and alcoholism after losing the woman he loves, has had several screen adaptations, but Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D is a very different beast. Taking place in modern times, Dev.D follows Dev, a spoiled young slacker who turns to drugs after breaking up with his childhood love, and who eventually meets a similarly haunted sex worker who changes his life. Dev.D is a very black comedy laced with drugs and abuse, with a colorful and deranged energy that plays almost as a parody to its lavish predecessors. The subversive retelling pushes back against the reverence for its tragic hero, while still offering the possibility for forgiveness and redemption. This subversive film with a huge cult following still feels fresh and raw over a decade after it was released.
A period piece rich with detailed costumes and sets, Amrapali takes place in 500 B.C. and is the story of an insatiable king determined to ruthlessly conquer every city he can. Along the way he meets the dancer Amrapali, played by the radiant actress Vyjayanthimala, who eventually makes him question his values. Somewhat of a flop on release, this film is heavy with the erotic energy of violence, power, and hypnotic classical dance that play beautifully today.
Andhadhun was such a hit on release that it already has two remakes, with a third in the works. The story of a blind musician getting dragged into a murder mystery with a femme fatale is pure Hitchcock, and this is the rare homage to the master that blends classic and modern techniques in a way that doesn’t feel tired or derivative. Not only does it deliver big on surprises, it’s impeccably shot and performed, with leading actors Tabu and Ayushmann Khurrana deftly switching from suspense to dark humor with a depth not usually found in the genre. This will appeal to anyone looking for something offbeat, and those who miss the formerly dime-a-dozen thrillers of Hollywood.
Jodhaa Akbar (Hindi)
A true epic, this drama set in the Mughal Empire in the 16th century has everything you could want from a big-budget period piece. Royal intrigue, lavish costumes and sets, great music, and action are the perfect backdrop for the longing romance between gorgeous stars Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at its center. They truly don’t make them like this anymore — the big budget dedicated primarily to aesthetic pleasures and the slow burn of both a relationship and an empire in turmoil is a pleasure to sink into and escape for a few hours.