Before Alia Bhatt-Varun Dhawan’s Kalank, 5 epic dramas that made it to Bollywood’s hall of fame | bollywood


Karan Johar’s ambitious period drama Kalank will hit the screens on April 17. The makers have teased audiences with its gorgeous sets (one of them is a recreated version of Hira Mandi of Lahore) and given us a peek into lives of strong characters in an era before the Partition.

With stars like Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Sonakshi Sinha and Aditya Roy Kapoor, the film is loaded with stars. Everything about the film plays out on an epic scale – the clothes, the jewellery, the songs, the dances. This is a tale high on emotions and set against turbulent times. However, this is not the first time such an attempt has been made. Before Kalank’s release, here’s a look at five iconic films that have gone down this path.


Meena Kumari plays Sahibjaan.

Set at the turn of last century (1890s-1900s) in the city of Lucknow, Pakeezah tells the story of a tawaaif (courtesan) who wants love and a family of her own. A simple desire, but given her situation in life, it is an uphill task as she has to fight prejudice, rejection and exploitation in the process.

Pakeezah is replete with songs and dances.

Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari), a beautiful courtesan falls in love with a forest ranger Salim Ahmed Khan (Raaj Kumar), reading his letter, when their paths crossed in a train. Later, they meet and fall in love for good. The only glitch being he is high born and she a courtesan. Salim’s family objects to a dancing girl as a daughter-in-law while she is trying hard to vend off aggressive advances of a patron, Nawab Zafar Ali Khan. Matters turn from bad to worse and Sahibjaan finds herself performing mujra (dance) at the wedding of Salim. As events unfold, it comes to light that Sahibjaan is the illegitimate daughter of Salim’s uncle Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar). The film ends with a dying Shahabuddin asking Salim to marry his daughter. The film ends with Salim’s baraat (groom’s party) reaching a tawaaif’s kothi (quarters), symbolic of changing times and mores.

The pathos of Sahibjaan.

The film’s spectacular sets, its canvass, the family drama, conflicting emotions, the songs and dances were so magical, the film continues to enthral viewers more than 40 years of its release. Meena Kumari in a double role of Nargis and Sahibjaan was painfully perfect in the role, which was to be her swansong as well. The star cast too was stellar — Ashok Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Sapru, Kamal Kapoor apart from Meena Kumari gave the film its heft.

Umrao Jaan

Farooq Shaikh and Rekha in Umrao Jaan.

Often regarded as a classic, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan as an achingly beautiful story of courtesan set during the turbulent years of 1857 in Lucknow. Starring Rekha in a career-defining role of a doomed courtesan, the story is based on a novel a 1905 Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada. A girl called Amiran from Faizabad (in Uttar Pradesh) gets kidnapped and sold to a madam at brothel, who teaches courtesans the art of captivating the rich and wealthy. As she blossoms into a young woman, now renamed as Umrao, she becomes skilful in dance and music and is the toast of Lucknow high society. What’s more, Umrao is also a gifted poetess. One such a person is is Nawab Sultan who trips for her charms and so does she. However, their budding romance is nipped in the bud when Sultan declares that he has to marry a woman of his family’s choice.

Rekha as Umrao Jaan.

As turbulence breaks out and Lucknow is caught in the middle of a revolt, Umrao gets infatuated with bandit chieftain Faiz Ali, with whom she elopes. Matters turn bad as he gets killed by the British forces and she finds herself at her childhood residence in Faizabad. Her mother is glad to see her though all others can’t recognise her and ask her to perform. Wanting to unite with her family, Umrao is forced to leave as her brother doesn’t want her around. She returns to Lucknow, only to find the brothel in shambles.

The film was iconic on many scales — it is perhaps the first realistic drama, despite being cast in a commercial film format. Rekha’s performance is superlative as she dives into the pathos, the loss, the confusion, the beauty, the aesthetics and the sophistication of Umrao Jaan. The film’s scale is massive; the Lucknow high society of 1840s and the ravages of revolt give the film its timelessness. Headlined by Rekha, the films also features late Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Dina Pathak, Satish Shah, Shaukat Kaifi, Prema Narayan and late Bharat Bhushan.


The vintage drama, starring Balraj Sahni, Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore, Sadhana and Achala Sachdev in prominent roles, is an epic family drama set against catastrophic times. Lala Kedarnath is a wealthy merchant who leads a happy and prosperous life with wife Laxmi (Achala) and three young sons — Raju, Ravi and Vijay. He is warned by an astrologer to be wary of fate and not be proud of his achievements, but Kedarnath couldn’t care less.

As fate would have it, on the night of his sons’ birthday celebrations, disaster strikes and the town is hit by a deadly earthquake. In hours his life is shattered — his two elder sons get lost and his wife, youngest son and he are left paupers. He is jailed for a crime, his eldest son becomes a thief, the second son is adopted by a wealthy family and his wife and youngest son are forced to live a life of penury. How the different strands of the story criss-cross, identities revealed and how romances culminate into marriages form the rest of the story.


Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai in Devdas.

Bengali novelist’s epic family drama, set in the British era, has captivated cine goers and movie makers from time immemorial. No wonder the story has been made thrice in Hindi alone and 19 times in various Indian languages. A role, made famous by Dilip Kumar, the story revolves around a scion of an aristocratic Bengali family named Devdas who falls in love with a girl called Paro, of a lower strata than his. He loves her too but doesn’t have the guts to stand up to his family’s objection to Paro as a daughter-in-law, despite the fact that she has grown up in the household (the families are neighbours).

Madhuri Dixit in Devdas.

A bold Paro steps out of her house to meet him and asks him to marry her, something unheard of in those times, only to find a spineless lover in him. She accuses him of being a coward and decides to marry a much older but wealthy widower arranged by her family. A confused Devdas goes away to Calcutta, only to realise his mistake. He rushes back to confess his love but it is too late. Her marriage preparation is in full swing and can’t be reversed. Dejected, he returns to Calcutta and into the arms of a large-hearted courtesan Chandramukhi, who falls of him knowing fully well that he doesn’t love her. The film ends with the death of Devdas on the doorsteps of Paro’s new home.

The story is a staggering narration of its times — 19th century India, complete with its prejudices and weaknesses and helplessness of its principle characters.

While the Bimal Ray version starring Dilip, Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala was modest in its presentation, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 classic was a lavish drama with a huge canvass, massive set pieces and high drama. The film’s star cast too was star heavy with Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Kirron Kher among others leading the charge.


Sholay was written by Salim Javed and directed by Ramesh Sippy.

No mention of films with epic scale is complete without mentioning 1975 classic Sholay. With an ensemble star including Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri and Ajmad Khan, Sholay was expected to be ‘big deal’ even by the 1970s standard. A story of an ex-cop and landlord (Thakur) avenging the death of his family members including a child at the hands of an infamous dacoit (Gabbar Singh), this was a classic good-versus-bad tale. But the manner in which it was mounted, its dialogues and its action, Sholay walked straight into the Hindi film industry’s hall of fame.

Amjad Khan (Gabbar Singh) in the Kalia scene.

Thakur hires two local thugs (Jay and Veeru), sharp with guns and guile, to kill an infamous dacoit Gabbar Singh, whose men have kept villagers on tenterhooks, looting and plundering at will. He asks them to catch Gabbar for the payment of a princely amount of Rs 50,000 (with the lure of giving them an extra Rs 30,000 if he is caught alive). The two agree; have skirmishes with the dacoits and let them know of their intent. The two clearly start liking village life, Veeru tripping for the vivacious but talkative Basanti while Jay develops feelings for Thakur’s young and widowed daughter-in-law Radha.

The day of reckoning arrives and Jay and Veeru take on the might of Gabbar. In the ensuing action, Jay loses his life but Thakur gets Gabbar alive, only to kill him with his spiked shoes and have his revenge. The film’s scale with its train action sequences, horse chases, fist and gun fights and its classic message of the victory of good over evil has a special place in the hearts and minds of Indians.

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First Published:
Apr 13, 2019 10:40 IST

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