Ah, the early 2000’s—an era marked by Y2K, flip phones, and no social media. Hollywood was thriving with its fully fledged superstars, a concept that has begun to vanish as we near 2020.
Across the ocean in India, Bollywood was similarly coasting on the star power of a select few household names. This was the decade where Shah Rukh Khan fully leaned into his nickname “King Khan,” dominating the box office; Aamir Khan started to transition from being a reliable on-screen star to calling the shots off-screen; and Hrithik Roshan continued his rise as India’s heartthrob. The films themselves varied from thrillers to romance epics, often mixing genres as Bollywood’s “masala flicks” generally do.
Here are 20 of Bollywood’s best from the early aughts, many of which are timeless classics and crucial views for anyone intrigued by the Hindi film industry.
Director: Farhan Akhtar
Bollywood’s OG gangster flick, Don (in its multiple iterations) can be likened to India’s version of The Godfather. This 2006 version remake of the original 1978 film follows the underworld crime lord “Don” (Shah Rukh Khan) and his contingent of goons, as well as a layman named Vijay (also SRK) who has the unfortunate fate of looking exactly like the gangster. Vijay is recruited by the police to go undercover and impersonate Don amongst his crew, leading to a precarious balancing act and an earned twist ending. For your action and dishoom sound effect cravings, Don will do the trick.
Director: Kunal Kohli
Mujhse Dosti Karoge follows a love triangle between childhood friends aided into existence by your typical case of mistaken identity. When Raj (Hrithik Roshan) moves away, he vows to stay in touch with his crush, Tina (Kareena Kapoor). But Tina quickly loses interest in writing emails to Raj, so Pooja (Rani Mukherji) takes up the romantic mantle, waxing philosophically under Tina’s name. When Raj finally returns to India, the charade quickly falls apart and lies come to the surface, most notably in an iconic song-and-dance number in which Raj’s unraveling is set to a medley of famous Bollywood oldies. Mujhse Dosti Karoge is something of a pre-MTV Catfish, with plenty of hacky early 2000s online flirtation to warm your cold, nostalgic heart.
Director: Rakesh Roshan
One of the more unique films to come out of the ’00s, Koi… Mil Gaya can most easily be likened to the ’80s blockbuster E.T.. A mentally disabled teenager, Rohit (Hrithik Roshan), discovers his late scientist father’s computer, which was designed to make contact with extraterrestrials, and accidentally summons them to earth. One alien is left behind, and Rohit names him Jadoo (“magic”). Jadoo transforms Rohit’s physical appearance and gives him superhuman strength, allowing him to win over his crush, Nisha (Preity Zinta), and fight the boys that bullied him before. But after the police discover Jadoo’s presence, Rohit must find a way to keep his new life in tact. Featuring one of the best performances of Hrithik Roshan’s career, Koi… Mil Gaya is the perfect feel-good family drama.
Director: Rajkumar Santoshi
A group of Indian police officers (in excellent turns from Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar and Tusshar Kapoor) set out on a chase to bring in an accused terrorist, Aangre (Ajay Devgn), from a small town outside of Bombay. Knowing the officers are hot on his trail, Aangre sets off a series of events to throw them off his scent. A classic cop film with dramatic twists and unpredictable turns, Khakee is an enthralling thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Director: Farah Khan
Situated in contemporary India-Pakistan tensions, Major Ram Prasad Sharma (Shah Rukh Khan) is assigned to “Project Milaap,” a top-secret mission that would release captured civilians from both countries in an effort to drive peace in the region. As part of this assignment, Sharma must go undercover at a school to protect his boss’s daughter, who has become a target of Project Milaap’s foe. On his father’s deathbed, Sharma finds out he has a half-brother—of course, another student at the same school—which further colors the mission for him. Though he makes some hilarious missteps, Sharma ultimately wins the two over until they find out the secrets he’s hiding. Main Hoon Na is a politically inclined action comedy, and a heartwarming look at love and family under the threat of warfare.
Director: Aditya Chopra
Translating to literally mean “Love Stories,” Mohabbatein tells four concurrent love stories set at an all-boys college. The school’s extremely strict headmaster (Amitabh Bachchan) forbids romantic relationships of any kind, but three students (played by Uday Chopra, Jimmy Sheirgill and Jugal Hansraj) disobey the rules and fall in love anyway. A new music teacher (Shah Rukh Khan) joins the school and preaches the power of love, challenging the backwards philosophies of the school and the headmaster. A weepy drama, Mohabbatein is one of those films to turn to if you’re in need of a good cry.
A contemporary look at tensions between Muslim and Hindu groups in and around India and Pakistan, Veer-Zaara peers through the lens of Indian cinema’s favorite theme: love. Veer (Shah Rukh Khan), an Indian Air Force pilot, and Zaara (Preity Zinta), a Pakistani woman, fall in love in India. Zaara is engaged to an overbearing Muslim man, and Veer travels to Pakistan to win her and her family over, but he is ultimately jailed. The film was rightly lauded by critics and fans alike for its portrayal of the region’s shared history and conflicts, as well as for the performances by Khan and Zinta. For those interested in learning more about India-Pakistan relations and embedding themselves in a forbidden relationship between members of these two combative groups, Veer-Zaara is the perfect choice.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Bollywood loves forbidden unions, be it religious, cultural, class or otherwise. An epic period drama based on a regal (and controversial) Hindu-Muslim union, Akbar (Hrithik Roshan), a Mughal king, is betrothed to Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai), a Rajput princess, as an alliance between the two regions. But as their marriage becomes real, so does their love—despite external forces trying to break them apart. Jodhaa Akbar excels in its opulent visuals, rich costume design and original soundtrack borrowing its sound from Qawwali spiritual style. It’s a portrait of a loving relationship in a trying, war-stricken time, and paints a picture of 16th century India that can scratch any historical itch.
Director: Shimit Amin
Did you know field hockey is India’s national sport? I’d wager to say that neither did most of the Indian diaspora until Chak De! India was released. The sports drama addresses the tense relations between Pakistan and India head on, as a former, disgraced player from the men’s national Indian team (Shah Rukh Khan) takes over coaching duties for the national women’s team years after he is suspected of throwing a match against Pakistan. In his new coaching role, he molds the women from various states in India to overcome the prejudices they hold against each other and operate as a team. The best sports movies are disguises for deeper, more meaningful conversations, and Chak De! India is a surefire goal.
Director: Neeraj Pandey
Retiring police officer Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) describes the most difficult case of his career, which unfolded over the course of a Wednesday afternoon. The case, a bomb threat spread across the city of Mumbai, was never filed and the details are only known to those who witnessed it, and continues to haunt Rathod to this day. A Wednesday is an expertly plotted action thriller that draws well-deserved comparisons to Die Hard and keeps you guessing until the end.
Director: Shaad Ali
Born into two different societal circumstances, Aditya (Vivek Oberoi, at his peak) and Suhani (Rani Mukerji) elope after their parents reject their planned nuptials. However, life after marriage proves to be just as difficult and multiple arguments threaten to tear them apart. After one particular fight, when Suhani doesn’t come home, Aditya is left to search the streets for his love, ultimately finding her in an unimaginable place. Saathiya is one of the rare Bollywood films that shows marital strife in such a raw manner—and the beautifully composed soundtrack by A.R. Rahman only adds to its charm.
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
A foreign filmmaker casts a group of friends in her film about India’s freedom fighters, but soon finds life mirroring art. What starts as an easygoing encounter (and film) suddenly turns more serious; after one of the friends is killed at the hands of the corrupt Indian government, the group trades in their passivity for the revolution. Rang de Basanti is about having love for your country even when it directly opposes your values, and in today’s political climate it may ignite a fire within you to stand up and do something.
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Three engineering students—Rancho (Aamir Khan), Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi)—are navigating college together, constantly under fire from their tyrant-like headmaster (Boman Irani). Eventually the trio convince him of their abilities and he allows them to graduate. But after graduation, ringleader Rancho disappears from their lives and, years later, the group sets out to find him. 3 Idiots’s charm isn’t just in the story of college friends challenging and supporting one another, or that it does so in comedic moments full of heart. It’s also that the story makes a point to comment on the rigorous expectations of Indian schooling, which sometimes drives students to extreme decisions like suicide.
Director: Nikkhil Advani
Based in New York City, Kal Ho Naa Ho presents a love triangle bound to have you crying by the Hudson River. Naina (Preity Zinta) falls in love with her quirky neighbor Aman (Shah Rukh Khan), who is in turn trying to set her up with her best friend Rohan (Saif Ali Khan). It’s his way to hide his true feelings and shield her from the truth behind his jovial smile—he’s slowly dying. Interfamily drama, commentary on immigrants in America and homosexuality within the Indian community, and a remix to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” (that will 100% get stuck in your head) all combine in this engaging weepy.
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
A modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, Omkara is a politically minded action thriller. Omkara (Ajay Devgn) is a gang leader and political enforcer, who steals a bride (Kareena Kapoor) on her wedding night to keep as his own wife, and later runs for office himself. Leaving his old position vacant, he appoints one of his former lieutenants, Kesu (Vivek Oberoi), to lead the force, which only causes the other loyal servant, Langda (Saif Ali Khan), to seethe in jealousy. Langda sets in motion an elaborate plan to bring down Kesu, but ends up ruining much more than his career. Omkara drew international praise for its performances, story and direction, and is still one of the finest Bollywood films of this century.
Director: Sanjay Leela Bansali
Just like Hollywood, Bollywood has certain stories it keeps coming back to, and Devdas is one of the industry’s favorites. This 2002 film is the third iteration, starring Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, a man who turns to alcohol and the company of a courtesan after his marriage to his childhood sweetheart is rejected by their families. The period piece is a devastating view of how caste and class have played a role in Indian society, and a depressing end to an epic love story. Grab your tissues for this one.
Director: Karan Johar
Featuring Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan (one of Bollywood’s most prominent on-screen duos), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G) is a tale of class warfare. When Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) falls in love with Anjali (Kajol), his father (Amitabh Bachchan) forbids him from marrying her because of her lower economic status. Driven by love, Rahul disobeys his father and is banished from his household and from the family. K3G embodies the Indian value of respecting your elders even when they’re wrong, and demonstrates the idea that even the most stubborn people can come around when prodded by love. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll most definitely find yourself Googling the film’s songs afterwards.
Director: Farhan Akhtar
A story of youngsters finding themselves, Dil Chahta Hai set the stage for many contemporary Bollywood films when it premiered at the start of the decade. The film is an exploration of mid-20s angst and unrest, of following unconventional desires, of finding happiness amidst the madness. Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) chases a girl out of his league; Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna) lusts after an older divorcee; Akash (Aamir Khan) tries to reconnect with someone from his past. Their decisions test each other and themselves, and cause rifts in their seemingly unbreakable friendship. Dil Chahta Hai is about the bonds of friendship, and just how far they can be stretched.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
You may have heard of Lagaan, one of the most easy entryways into Bollywood. The film famously received India’s third-ever Academy Award nomination in 2001 and is rooted in a rich entanglement of a high-stakes sports game and a forbidden romance. An epic sports drama based in colonial India, Lagaan is the story of a group of Indian villagers who challenge their British colonizers to a game of cricket in exchange for the removal of their increasingly growing taxes. We get recruiting and training montages, drama amongst teammates, an intercultural flirtation, and a bangin’ soundtrack from the legend A.R. Rahman. It has everything and has been rightfully hailed as one of India’s most entertaining and thoughtful productions that seems to only get better with age.
Director: Aamir Khan
A reliable tearjerker, Taare Zameen Par shows us the power of love and acceptance through the relationship of an eight-year-old child with dyslexia and his compassionate teacher, the only adult who is able to pin down his disability. Traditional Indian educational systems are notoriously unsympathetic to mental and learning disabilities; that this film tackled the subject caused a groundswell of positive conversation during its release in 2007. It’s one of the most beautiful films of this century, and is unconventional as far as Bollywood goes—there’s noted realism to the story and virtually no song-and-dance numbers—but taps into the heart of cinema: love conquers all, and love can save us, too.