Bollywood Period Dramas reflect the grand and grim side of South Asian history.
These cinematic masterpieces take viewers back to a range of eras – Mughal-era, Colonial era, Modern history and more.
Regardless of setting, they manage to give us some of the most stunning visuals that have left a lasting impression.
Not to forget the most beautiful costumes and situational musical sequences.
DESIblitz takes a look at 20 of the best Bollywood period dramas, along with what we can expect from the future.
Stars: Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Durga Khote
Probably the most famous Bollywood period drama of all time, Mughal-E-Azam takes place during the reign of Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor). Akbar’s prayers for a male heir are answered when his wife, Jodhabai gives birth to a boy, Salim (Dilip Kumar).
To teach his son discipline and respect, Akbar sends Prince Salim to war. Upon returning 14 years later, Salim falls into a forbidden love with the court dancer, Anarkali (Madhubala).
This epic was the first black-and-white Hindi film to be digitally coloured and re-released in 2004. Gaining commercial success, the film achieved universal acclaim. It is celebrated today as one of the finest Hindi films ever made.
The costumes in the film are simply mesmerising.
Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)
Director: Ketan Mehta
Stars: Aamir Khan, Rani Mukerji, Toby Stephens, Ameesha Patel, Kirron Kher
The film narrates the life of late Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), a soldier of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry. The story tells of how he sparks the Indian rebellion of 1857 aganist the British.
The film had a premiere during the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Analysing the movie, film critic, Taran Adarsh said:
“On the whole, Mangal Pandey is a film of epic proportions. A genuine attempt at bringing alive a great hero on celluloid, the film will only bring pride and prestige in the domestic market as well as on the international platform.”
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Stars: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranvir Singh
A controversial film revolving around the Urdu epic poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi from the 13th Century. Padmaavat is about Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), a Rajput Queen and the second wife of Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor).
Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranvir Singh) hears of her unmatchable beauty and invades Padmavati’s kingdom, to claim her as his prize.
With regal costumes, stunning cinematography and a beautiful soundtrack, Padmaavat is one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of 2018. It is definitely a must-watch.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Stars: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Paul Blackthorne, Rachel Shelley
An Academy Award-nominating film for Best Foreign Language, Lagaan is set during the Victorian-era of British Raj. The film is about villagers of Champaner, Gujarat, who have to face the curse of high taxes and drought.
An arrogant officer (Paul Blackthorne) offers to cancel the taxes if the villagers are able to defeat his team in a game of cricket. However, a loss for the villagers would result in the taxes tripling.
Ranking at No.55 in Empire Magazine’s “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema,” Lagaan is overall one of the greatest Hindi films of all time.
Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Stars: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai
This epic transports us to the Mughal era at the time of Akbar the Great. The film takes a look at the interfaith romance between Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar and the Rajput princess, Jodhaa Bai.
The film also explores Akbar’s tolerance and inclusivity of other faiths across his own agenda and policies.
Jodhaa Akbar did receive critical acclaim, winning 5 Filmfare Awards. Rajeev Masand said:
“I’ve never felt this way about any other film, but sitting there in my seat watching Jodhaa Akbar, I felt privileged as a moviegoer.”
“Privileged that such a film had been made, and privileged that it had been made in our times so we can form our own opinions of the film rather than adopt the opinions of previous generations, which we invariably must when looking at older classics.”
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Stars: Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit
Who doesn’t love this epic romance set in the early 1900s? Devdas is an adaptation of the namesake Bangla novel written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
Devdas (SRK) is a law graduate who returns home from London to marry his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai).
Unfortunately, Devdas’ family opposed the marriage, leading to his mental deterioration and alcoholism. He eventually seeks refuge at a brothel where a courtesan, Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit), falls for him.
Debuting at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, this film gave us iconic numbers like ‘Dola Re Dola’ and ‘Maar Dala’.
Bajirao Mastani (2016)
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Stars: Deepika Padukone, Ranvir Singh, Priyanka Chopra
This is another visual delight by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Bajirao Mastani is about Maratha Peshwa, Bajirao (Ranvir Singh) (1700-40) and his relationship with his second wife, Mastani (Deepika Padukone), daughter of Rajput King Chhatrasal and Ruhani Bai.
The story also takes a look at how the marriage causes relationship problems with his first wife, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra).
This film had been years in the making, Bhansali initially came up with the idea in the mid-90s and making an announcement in 2003.
Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai were the original choices in the titular roles until their famous breakup. Then Khan and Kareena Kapoor with Rani Mukerji as Kashibai came into the equation.
However, the two ladies went onto accept other film roles, with Bajirao Mastani coming to a halt. This may have been a blessing in disguise as Deepika, Ranvir and Priyanka together were the perfect trio!
Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)
Director: Rajkumar Santoshi
Stars: Ajay Devgn, Sushant Singh, D. Santosh, Akhilendra Mishra
A patriotic film about revolutionaries who vow to free India from the British.
This biographical drama narrates the life of the socialist revolutionary, Bhagat Singh – a witness of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919.
It stars Ajay Devgn in the titular role, performing exceptionally well. Sushant Singh who portrays Sukhdev Thapar also displays a good performance.
Most of all, the film did receive praises for its direction, story, screenplay, cinematography and production design. Furthermore, it was a good attempt to depict the freedom struggle of that time.
Director: Manoj Kumar
Stars: Dilip Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Shatrughan Sinha, Parveen Babi, Sarika, Nirupa Roy, Prem Chopra
Kranti takes place in 19th Century British India. It covers the years 1825-1875, during the first fight for independence.
The film tells the story of a group of men fighting against the British rule. They are Sanga (Dilip Kumar), Bharat (Manoj Kumar) both known as Kranti, a prince (Shashi Kapoor) and a freedom fighter (Shatrughan Sinha).
The late Tom Alter stereotypically personifies the ‘Angrez’ (English) who commits mass atrocities against the Indians in the film.
This multi-starrer epic did get an appreciation for its dialogue, action and score. Kranti will not disappoint!
Director: Sohrab Modi
Stars: Prithviraj Kapoor, Zahur Raja, Shakir, Vanmala, Meena Shorey
One of the earliest period drama’s made by the Indian film industry. Sikandar is the story of Alexander the Great.
Set in 326 B.C. the film starts after Alexander the Great, called Sikandar in Hindi and Urdu, is approaching the Indian border at Jhelum. This is after he has successfully conquered Persia and the Kabul valley.
In the lead roles, it stars Prithviraj Kapoor as Alexander the Great, Sohrab Modi the director as Indian king Puru (Porus to the Greeks), Shakir as Aristotle and Sikander’s love interest, Rukhsana an Iranian girl, played by Vanmala.
The story is about the confrontation between king Puru and Sikandar. Whilst Sikandar has great respect for Aristotle and he wants to conquer king Puru like other kings he had intimidated in the past.
However, Puru shows bravery and courage and gathers neighbouring kingdoms to unite and fight Sikandar.
After entering his Puru’s court in disguise as an ambassador, Sikandar defeats the king.
He then asks Puru how he would like to be treated, to which Puru replies: “the same way a king is treated by another king” after which Sikander releases the king being impressed with his response.
This is an interesting scene in the film where Modi and Kapoor come face-to-face when they discuss the merits of war and battle woven in with the ethics in a philosophical deliberation.
1947 Earth (1998)
Director: Deepa Mehta
Stars: Aamir Khan, Rahul Khanna, Nandita Das, Maia Sethna
India’s entry for the 1999 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language, 1947 Earth gives the modern audience an insight on the horrific ordeal of partition.
The film is set in Lahore, Punjab, India (now Pakistan). Audiences observe how the closest of relationships crumble due to the religious unrest as a result of Partition.
It is an adaptation of the novel by Bapsi Sidhwa.
The film features excellent actors playing important roles. These include Aamir Khan (Dil Navaz), Nandita Das (Shanta) and Rahul Khanna (Hassan).
Jhansi Ki Rani (1953)
Director: Sohrab Modi
Stars: Sohrab Modi, Mehtab, Sapru, Mubarak
Set in the backdrop of the 1857 Mutiny, the historical film tells the story of the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai (Mehtab).
A brave queen, Lakshmibai was one of the first Indians to lead an army against the British.
The film was released as a black and white version in India in 1952.
It was then released as one of the first Technicolour films in India in 1953, Modi sought the support of Hollywood technicians and British editor Russell Lloyd.
Audiences enjoyed the use of colour and the direction of Modi.
It was released in the USA with the title The Tiger and The Flame in 1956 and dubbed in English with no songs.
The once Parsi Theatre actor Sohrab plays the role of Rajguru. Attentive to detail, the film did well at the box office.
Director: Ketan Mehta
Stars: Paresh Rawal, Annu Kapoor, Benjamin Gilani, Tom Alter
Sardar is an Independence Day-thematic film. It is a biographical drama about the life of Indian freedom fighter, Vallabhbhai “Sardar” Patel (1875-1950).
Paresh Rawal takes on the lead role, as he organises Satyagraha’s throughout Gujarat and joins the “Quit India Movement” with Mahatma Gandhi (Annu Kapoor).
The film also touches upon the initial differences Sardar has with Jawaharlal Nehru.
Director Ketan Mehta presents an honest and intricate account. This is definitely one to watch if you are feeling a little patriotic.
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Stars: Ranveer Singh, Sonakshi Sinha
Loosely based on the short story, The Last Leaf (1907) by O. Henry, Lootera is set in the newly independent India. Manikpur in West Bengal is the precise setting of the film.
The story is about a writer, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) and an archaeologist, Varun (Ranveer Singh) who romance each other over their love for art. However, tragedy soon follows as deceit and heartbreak strain the loving relationship.
Praising the film, Taran Ardash mentions:
“On the whole, Lootera is an intrinsically earnest and profoundly heartwarming story that stays in your heart. An absolute must for those who love romantic films or are romantic at heart. This one’s a cinematic gem!”
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Stars: Farhan Akhtar
This biographical sports drama is based on the life of former Indian Olympian, Milkha Singh. The film came about after Singh and his daughter Sonia, wrote an autobiography titled, The Race of My Life published in 2013.
Farhan Akhtar takes on the role of Singh. The film begins with Milkha competing at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
The film also covers the impact of Partition on him as a child. His parents were killed amongst the violence.
Singh sold the rights to the film for one rupee on the condition that a share would go to his charity, Milkha Singh Charitable Trust. This is a charity for underprivileged athletes.
Director: Kamal Amrohi
Stars: Hema Malini, Dharmendra, Parveen Babi
Hema Malini portrays the first and only female Sultan of Delhi, Razia Sultan (1205-1240).
In the film, there are rumours of her having an affair with Jamal ud-din Yaqut (Dharmendra), an Abyssinian slave.
Consequently the two tie the knot. Yaqut on-screen acts as an obedient husband, along with being a faithful warrior.
During the song ‘Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega,’ it is hinted Hema and Parveen Babi, who plays Khakun, share somewhat of a lesbian moment. This controversial scene was cut from numerous releases of the film.
Director: Santosh Sivan
Stars: Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Ajith Kumar, Hrishita Bhatt
Shahrukh Khan stars as the lead actor in this epic about the 3rd century BCE emperor of the Maury Dynasty.
Conflicting with his half-brother over the throne, Asoka’s mother sends him away to live as a commoner. While away, he meets the Princess of Kalinga, Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor). The two fall in love and marry.
The film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival with rave reviews.
Chris Tookey of the Daily Mail wrote: “Here, at last, is a Bollywood movie that deserves to be seen by everyone.
“A majestic epic on the scale of Gladiator. The battle scenes are as impressive as anything in Braveheart, and were achieved for a tiny fraction of the budget.”
Umrao Jaan (1981)
Director: Muzzafar Ali
Stars: Rekha, Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Gajanan Jagirdar, Shaukat Kaifi
This film gave us the timeless Rekha hit, ‘In Aankhon Ki Masti’ sung by Asha Bhosle.
Umrao Jaan, based on the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada, is about Ameeran (Rekha) who is kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Lucknow. There she is renamed Umrao raised as a courtesan. She is educated in Urdu and Persian and becomes a skilled poet.
Umrao falls in love with a client, Nawab Sultan (Naseeruddin Shah), an aristocrat. However, heartache soon follows when he marries someone else.
This film proves that ‘old is gold.’ The 2006 remake with Aishwarya Rai as Umrao did not live up to the standards of the 1981 Lucknowi version.
Bandit Queen (1994)
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Stars: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Rajesh Vivek
India’s entry for the 1995 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Bandit Queen, tackles the horrors of sexual abuse within the caste system.
It is based on the true story of Phoolan Devi the “Bandit Queen” played by Seema Biswas. She faced years of sexual violence by upper caste men.
The abuse begins at the age of 11 when she was married off to a man in his twenties, Putilal (Aditya Shrivastava).
It tells the story of how she becomes the leader of her own bandit group who exacts revenge on the men who brutally abused her. She receives help from Vikram Malla Mastana played by Nirmal Pandey.
The film received critical acclaim after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994.
It was outcast by the Indian censor board as ‘disgusting and revolting and obscene’ due to the cuss words, torture scenes, rape sequences and frontal nudity.
Bobby Bedi the producer of the film said:
“We knew it would have trouble, but we weren’t expecting the kind of trouble it got.”
The CBFC forced over 100 edits to the film before it was allowed to be shown in cinemas in 1996.
Raag Desh (2017)
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Stars: Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah, Mrudula Murali
This period drama takes place in 1945, during the trials of the India National Army at the Red Fort in Delhi.
The film garnered positive reviews, especially for its compelling story. Nandini Ramnath of Scroll praises the film. She writes:
“Despite numerous rousing speeches for freedom, the movie never slides into chest-thumping jingoism, and at 137 minutes, provides an absorbing account of a fascinating and underexplored chapter of the freedom struggle.”
The list does not have to stop there just yet. Bollywood fans can anticipate more period dramas featuring much more grandeur as film budgets increase.
The future of Bollywood period dramas looks bright with many more promising films to release.
Filmmakers continue to innovate with a vision to recreate epic moments of history or storytelling. With production and technology developing rapidly, expect even more grandeur in the years to come.