(List subject to change. Check back often.)
Edit, Feb 17 2008: Gave up on trying to keep it to ten, and have decided to just include everything, dammit.
1. Dil Se (1998). The rest of this list isn't in any order, but this is definitely number one. There's no easy introduction to Bollywood, and this is probably the worst: not quite Bollywood, not quite art cinema, misunderstood by many, inevitably provoking strong feelings of love or hate in most. Shah Rukh Khan packs a lot of punch as a sort of demented Romeo, obsessively chasing his terrorist Juliet into the Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh. This film was the first Bollywood film to make it into the UK's top ten, yet it was a box office failure back in India. It's beautiful, disturbing, intelligent, and completely unique.
2. Umrao Jaan (1980). Look beyond the cheap camera technology, have patience with the luxuriously paced storyline, and you will reap great rewards. A beautiful introduction to the historical courtesan movie, this film has gorgeous Urdu music and a wonderful performance by Rekha, one of our favorite actresses. You'll find shades of Umrao Jaan all over Bollywood: Devdas, Pakeezah, and see below. There's nothing sadder than a courtesan's ghazal.
3. Mandi (1983). 1983 was a good year for the art cinema of India, also called the Parallel Cinema, and Shyam Benegal, who directed Mandi, was one of its best directors. This is a great introduction to that genre of Indian film which arose in the 1970s and 1980s and challenged the conventional song-and-dance escapism of the Bollywood mainstream. Not only do all the major art cinema players star in this (Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Om Puri...), but it also has wonderful humanity and realism. While the mainstream, helmed by Amitabh Bachchan, was soaring away into never-never lands of pomp and doppelgangers, the Parallel Cinema kept us rooted in the realities of India - from the growing middle classes to the slums, from social development to government corruption.
4. Don (1978). The end-all, be-all from that golden age of funky 1970s Bollywood. Marvel at superstar Amitabh Bachchan when he was on top of his game in not one, but two roles, in this escapist bonanza of cops, robbers, look-alikes, and disco. The music is, from start to finish, one of the best soundtrack we've ever heard - a sample from one of the songs, Yeh Mera Dil, even had a bit of a post-Y2K renaissance thanks to Don't Phunk With My Heart, by the Black-Eyed Peas. Also watch out also for our favorite actor - Pran - wearing a super-primped wig and women's blouse (shoulder pads included!), who plays a limping tight-rope-walking paternally-minded safe-cracker. Who knew?!
5. Chakra (1981). Gritty realism at its best, this day in the life of a Mumbai slum shows us another India (and, some would argue, a "realer" India). And rather than chiding us into action via melodramatic stories of poverty and noble suffering, everything is presented with the flat, Altman-esque pan of hyperrealism, complete with ambiguous characters and a meandering narrative. One of Naseeruddin Shah's more offbeat roles as a syphillitic pimp, while Smita Patil shines as the protagonist. This is a film where Western cinema gurus can ease slowly into Hindi cinema.
6. Maqbool (2003). Who knew Shakespeare could mesh so well with the Mumbai mafia genre? Transplanting the Bard's Scottish tragedy to a criminal underworld on the other side of the planet may seem farfetched and fanciful, but this film proves that not only will it be an interesting experiment, but also incredibly inventive. In an underworld dominated by Muslims, the witches are two aging, corrupt Hindu cops (Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri). Watch out for an excellent use of a Sufi qawwali, as well as Irrfan Khan and Tabu's (both later chosen by Mira Nair to be part of the new batch of exportable Indian actors in her film, The Namesake) wonderful performances as the Thain and his Lady.
7. Awaara (1951). A golden oldie that is practically a Kapoor clown car, this film was loved by Chairman Mao and then basically ripped off to make Disney's Lady and the Tramp. A wonderful introduction to the Kapoor dynasty, as patriarch Prithviraj stars alongside the golden eldest son Raj as well as the beautiful (and personal PPCC favorite) youngest son Shashi. Here is a visionary, intelligent, and ultimately gorgeous film with on-screen chemistry between the two leads that is so strong you'll feel like a peeping Tom. Perfect songs, perfect shots, perfect everything.
8. Masoom (1983). There's a reason Naseeruddin Shah is so lovable, and this movie is that reason. And only the stone-hearted could resist the charms of child actor, Jugal Hansraj, in this tale of marital infidelity among the bourgeousie of Delhi. Short on songs but big on heart, this was also the first film of director Shekhar Kapur, who later went onto Western mainstream fame with Elizabeth and The Four Feathers.
9. Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006). Director Karan Johar's films are like eating an entire chocolate cake in one sitting. The most guiltiest and pleasurablest of guilty pleasures which sometimes leave you feeling a little nauseous. Somewhere between the gritty realism of Bridget Jones and the emotional subtlety of a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom com, there is KANK. Shah Rukh Khan stars as Lord Byron, while the Bachchan father-son pair shake their booties to fusion techno. While there are brief moments of nearly transcendental aesthetic (the nuzzle fest on the pier! the train station climax!), it's better to just expect the fluffy worst and then be pleasantly surprised by its moments of profundity.
10. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). We should probably keep a Devdas-reference up in the Recommended list, and since we found the 2002 version with SRK so odious, we'll put the slightly-less-odious (OK, actually really well-made) 1978 Amitabh version. To know Devdas is to despair.
11. Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965). As far as Shashi Heaven is concerned, 1973's Aa Gale Lag Jaa is probably a better choice. At least, that film won't leave you so irritated by its ridiculous gender politics. That said, that's what makes JJPK so fascinating as well. It's a wonderfully made film with an awful message (it takes many a jab jab at feminism, nyuk nyuk nyuk), starring the PPCC darling, Shashi Kapoor, a goat, the mountains of Kashmir, and female oppression.
12. Bombay (1995). An important look into the communal violence of 1990s Bombay, and an important introduction to many sociocultural aspects of modern day India. Lacklustre music from usual powerhouse A.R. Rehman and a big ol' wollop of didacticism don't take away from the power of this film. Bring a box of tissues and steel your heart.
13. Om Shanti Om (2007). A magnificent modern masala movie for lovers of magnificent old style masala movies. Part parody, part tribute, all gorgeous. Takes a dip after the intermission, but transcendentally glorious songs in the first half more than make up for this. Watch Shah Rukh Khan play his two settings: nerdy and romantic (A+), arrogant and macho (F). Shreyas Talpade decides he isn't just an indie film star anymore. And Farah Khan, the director, is a genius.
14. Chor Sipahee (1977). The thinking person's masala movie, where religious pluralism and Shashi Kapoor's aesthetic are explored with equal vigour. Is Shashi a Christ-like figure or does Shashi look better with the big tinted glasses? You decide. Vinod Khanna also stars, as well as Parveen Babi and an underused Shabana Azmi. Two songs - Mujhse Mera Naam Na Puccho and Duniya Hai Aati Jaati - are sublime.
15. And along that vein... the slightly socialist masala classics of the 1970s, namely: Immaan Dharam (1977), Kaala Patthar (1979), and Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974). Where everyone's a lot poorer but the songs no less magnificent. These movies, which are meat and potatoes comfort food for the PPCC soul, are salt o' the earth, gritty, brimming with humanity and, of course, those indispensable, golden Shashi smiles. Come, bask in the glow of socioeconomic justice and Shashi Kapoor's hotness!
16. Chori Chori (1956). A remake of It Happened One Night, starring Raj Kapoor and Nargis in their final onscreen pairing. One of those rare Hindi films without loads of irony and coincidence, this is a sweet, snarky take on the "benign nihilism" that is love. Sublime music.
17. Virasat (1997). A harshly intelligent and thought-provoking examination of the East/West, urban/rural cultural divides, with gorgeous songs and beautiful cinematography. It makes the later, much-touted Swades look like a dumbed-down, facile version of the same story. If you can survive Anil Kapoor's Meatloaf-style mullet in the first act, you'll see one of his best performances and hopefully get hooked. The best thing about Anil Kapoor is that he puts in great performances in radically different films. The bad thing about this is that it's hard to pick one film as exemplary, so we recommend following this up with the zany fun of cult classic Mr. India - and behold his range (and oddly improved mullet)!