South Asian Cinema (Straight from the Heart)

Cinema of South Asia

Explore the very best movies from South Asia, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

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AfghanistanBangladeshIndiaNepalSri Lanka

The History of South Asian Cinema

South Asia’s cinematic landscape is largely dominated by the massive Indian film industry. Producing over 1,500 films per year, the industry’s influences can be felt across the Asian continent. The country’s masala films (musical films that combine song and dance with romantic storylines), as well as its more serious productions, have entertained audiences around the world and have reached universal acclaim.

As in African and Middle Eastern cinema, religion plays a crucial role in the narratives of South Asia’s cinematic output. Though Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are still primarily Islamic nations, two other major religions emerged in the region: Hinduism and Buddhism. Islamic films from South Asia often deal with the role of women in society and Hindu films shed light on social restrictions, while Buddhism-inspired productions often take a more spiritual stance on life.

South Asian Cinema (Straight from the Heart)
(Credit: Straight from the Heart / Dil Ka Rishta, India)

Western imperialism in South Asia mostly affected India and Sri Lanka, which were situated on-route to the riches of Southeast Asia. British colonization in the area established English as an official language in India and led to the introduction of Pakistani English in Pakistan. Due to their popularity, as well as their English speaking abilities, several Indian stars have crossed over from Hollywood to Bollywood, among which Irrfan Khan, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai.

The Best Films from South Asia

Join us in following the Silk Road into Afghanistan, scaling the mountains of Nepal on our way to infamous Bollywood in India, before touching upon the shores of Buddhist Sri Lanka and traveling onwards to rural Bangladesh.

Afghanistan: The Patience Stone

Directed by: Atiq Rahimi, 2012.

World Cinema 062 - Afghanistan (The Patience Stone)
(Credit: The Patience Stone / Syngué Sabour, Pierre de Patience)

Though situated between the prolific nations of Iran and India and situated on the ancient Silk Road, Afghan cinema was slow to start. The first Afghan film wasn’t made until 1946. Most Afghan films produced in the following decades were either documentaries or news films, shown in cinemas before the main (Indian) features. Though the Soviet Union offered aspiring film professionals from Afghanistan a chance to educate themselves abroad, the country itself never established a proper film school. Once the Taliban took control of the country in 1996 they enforced a strict interpretation of Shari’a law, wrecking film theatres and burning films.

Following the September 11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The country’s regime was overthrown, and soon after Afghanistan presented the world with its first post-Taliban films. An excellent example of modern-day Afghan filmmaking is Siddiq Barmak’s Osama, which follows Osama, a preteen girl living in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. To be able to work in a nearby shop and support her family, Osama disguises herself as a boy.

Over the years, Afghan cinema slowly re-emerged, though talent is still sparse. Looking at Atiq Rhahimi’s novel-adaptation The Patience Stone (original title: Syngué Sabour, Pierre de Patience, 2012), you will instantly notice the presence of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Farahani made a name for herself starring in two-time Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film About Elly (2009), as well as the Kurdish-Iraqi drama My Sweet Pepper Land by Hiner Saleem. Farahani was also the first Iranian actress to star in an American film, namely Body of Lies (2008), which she followed up with an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017). Due to her role in Body of Lies (2008) she was restricted from leaving her home country for six months.

Though utilizing foreign talents to complete its cast and crew, the story of The Patience Stone is still very much Afghan-based. In the film, Farahani’s unnamed character watches over her comatose husband, while most of her neighbors and family members flee their neighborhood as rivaling mujahidin fight each other in the streets. Hoping to get through to her husband, the protagonist’s monologues gradually turn into confessions, gaining a therapeutic value.

While watching over her husband who is left in a comatose state by a bullet lodged in the back of his neck, a young woman confesses the secrets she could never share with him while he was conscious.

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Nepal: Himalaya

Directed by: Eric Valli, 1999.

World Cinema 063 - Nepal (Himalaya)
(Credit: Himalaya / Himalaya: l’enfance d’un chef)

The Nepali film industry is relatively young, and still rather small. The first film produced in Nepal is the governmental informational film Mother (1964). Largely aided by India and often starring Indian actors, the Nepali film industry slowly grew between the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, a handful of movies were produced, including several Bollywood-inspired musicals.

In the 1980s, Nepali cinema reached its ‘golden age’. The successful release of the musical Samjhana (1983) brought fame for its leading actors Bhuwan K.C. and the Indian Tripti Nadakar, whose on-screen chemistry led to the production of three more collaborations. The Nepalese Civil War, brought on by the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal, halted the sprouting film industry’s progress. During this time, however, filmmakers moved away from the Bollywood-style films and started crafting more creative, realistic films.

One of these films is French director Éric Valli’s Himalaya (original title: Himalaya: l’enfance d’un chef, 1999). Himalaya was co-produced by France to allow wider distribution of the film. The film details the story of a caravan of villagers and yaks carrying rock salt from the Himalayan mountains to the country’s lowlands. The salt is to be traded for grain in order to feed the village during winter, but inner turmoil within the tribe complicates the already very difficult journey. Himalaya is set against the backdrop of the remote, snow-covered mountain region of Dolpa and stars real chiefs, llamas, and villagers, displaying a unique aspect of Nepali life.

Himalaya details a journey of survival in the Nepalese Himalayas, where a caravan must prevail in trading salt for grain in the country’s lowlands to allow its villagers to survive during winter. The death of the local tribal chief, however, complicates matters as to who will lead the caravan through the mountains.

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India: Love Stories

Directed by: Aditya Chopra, 2000.

World Cinema 064A - India (Love Stories)
(Credit: Love Stories / Mohabbatein)

Situated in the heart of Asia, right in-between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, India is surrounded by a large number of countries that have relatively small national film industries. The geographical market that lies at India’s disposal is quite large, even without taking the country’s own population of 1.3 billion into account. Additionally, millions of Indian emigrants still chose to watch Indian films while abroad, accounting for 12% of the annual revenue from India’s film industry. It all started before the turn of the century in 1898, when Hiralal Sen, an Indian photographer, shot a short documentary film in his home country. Pioneering Indian feature film making, Dadasaheb Phalke then directed India’s first feature, Raja Harischandra (1913), paving the way for future filmmakers. The low cost of movie tickets in India further aided the growth in popularity of film within the country.

Colonial power Britain had little influence on the development of India’s film industry. After gaining independence in 1947, the country’s industry continued to grow without restrain. The 1940s ushered in the Golden Age of Indian cinema and introduced the world to the Indian masala film: musical films that combined song and dance with romantic, often melodramatic storylines. Though quite theatrical and more often than not overflowing with clichés, throwing logic out of the window for the sake of a compelling story, the films became incredibly popular and are still produced up until today. The epic masala film Mother India (1957) was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1957, followed by the colonial period drama Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) in 2001.

Though Hindi-language Bollywood films make up for a large share of India’s yearly cinematic output, the country’s Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada industries are also quite large. Indian films are produced nationwide, in over 25 different languages. Films are often remade several times to tailor to new audiences, such as the comedy-drama musical Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003), which received Indian remakes in Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada, as well as a Sinhala version in Sri Lanka.

One of India’s modern-day success stories in the masala genre is the romantic drama Love Stories (original title: Mohabbatein, 2000), which became a worldwide critical and commercial success. Starring two of India’s most popular actors, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan (as well as Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai in a supporting role), the film remains one of the most popular modern-day Hindi films. Running at 216 minutes, Love Stories is slightly longer than the average Indian film, which usually lasts around three hours. Still, aside from two seemingly never-ending monologues near the film’s end, every minute of the happy, inspiring, and heart-warming musical is worth the watch.

Three students attending an all-male boarding school ruled by the strict Headmaster Narayan Shankar fall in love with three young ladies attending a nearby school. The arrival of music teacher Raj Aryan soon sparks a battle between love and fear at the illustrious institution.

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India (II): Crematorium

Directed by: Neeraj Ghaywan, 2015.

World Cinema 064B - India (Crematorium)
(Credit: Crematorium / Masaan)

Nowadays, the Indian film industry produces over 1500 films per year; almost double the amount of Hollywood’s yearly output. Ticket sales for Indian films outpace Hollywood films around the world, selling over three times more seats than American films. Love Stories came out over forty years after the country’s first Masala film. Though the genre still stands tall, both Bollywood, as well as India’s other film industries, have slowly started moving away from the cliché-riding musical dramas of the past.

The 21st century saw the production of a series of impressive social and cultural dramas, shying away from the peppy Bollywood musicals of the 20th century. Great examples include Anurag Kashyap’s two-part crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Ritesh Batra’s affectionate drama The Lunchbox (2013), Rajkumar Hiran’s quirky evaluation of religion PK (2014), Jeffrey D. Brown’s human trafficking drama Sold (2014) and Amit V Masurkar’s political comedy-drama Newton (2017).

In 2015, Neeraj Ghaywan directed the controversial, poignant drama Crematorium (original title: Masaan, 2015), focusing on two sensitive subjects hidden within Indian society: premarital sex and the country’s oppressive caste system. In the movie, student Devi Pathak is caught having sex with her boyfriend Piyush in a hotel, after the hotel’s staff tips off the police suspecting Devi and Piyush checked in to indulge in “indecent behavior”.

Crematorium’s second story narrates the efforts of Deepak Kumar, a young man from the Dom community, one of India’s lowest castes. Working in the cremation ghats, burning funeral pyres on the Ganges, Deepak falls in love with a high caste Hindu girl. Crematorium’s tragic story is a far stretch from Bollywood’s singing and dancing and showcases a completely different side of Indian society.

The tragic story of a young woman involved in a sex scandal intersects with that of a poor funeral pyre worker in love with a girl from a higher caste.

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Sri Lanka: Machan

Directed by: Uberto Pasolini, 2008.

World Cinema 065 - Sri Lanka (Machan)
(Credit: Machan)

The film industry of colonial Sri Lanka – known as British Ceylon – followed the conventions of Indian cinema. Gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka only gradually built its own national film industry. Most themes, storylines, and scripts were copied from Indian films, and original Sri Lankan films remained sparse for decades. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that a new generation of Sri Lankan directors attempted to breathe new life into the industry.

The 1980s saw the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which led to a decline in the country’s film industry. Though the war didn’t end until 2009, a new wave of films sharpened the industry’s focus during the 1990s, allowing it to start flourishing once again. The new Sri Lankan films moved away from Indian style productions and focused more on their country’s own social and cultural aspects. Many examples of such films centered on the civil war. Focusing on another important cultural aspect of Sri Lanka, Saman Weeraman’s film Siddhartha the Buddha (2013) detailed the history of the Nepali Prince Siddhartha, also known as Gautama Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of over 70% of the population of Sri Lanka, making it the country’s principal religion.

In 2004, Sri Lanka made headlines worldwide when its national handball team disappeared overnight while attending a tournament in Germany. Contacting Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Sport, German authorities soon discovered that the country didn’t have any handball teams, let alone a national one. Matching a hint of drama with a dash of comedy, Italian director Uberto Pasolini brought the heartfelt backstory of the false team to life in Machan (2008). In the film, Manoj and Stanley, two poor Sri Lankans in search of a better life, hope to immigrate to Germany. When they find an invitation to a handball tournament in Bavaria, the two friends decide to submit a team in order to finally get their visa applications approved.

A group of poor residents living in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka, decide to fake a handball team to be able to apply for a handball tournament organized in Bavaria.

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Bangladesh: Television

Directed by: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, 2012.

World Cinema 066 - Bangladesh (Television)
(Credit: Television)

After the partition of British India, current-day Bangladesh became part of the Dominion of Pakistan and was renamed East Pakistan. This led to the Bangladesh Liberation War, sparked by West Pakistan’s military operation against the Bengali nationalist movement. Surviving 1971’s bloody genocide, Bangladesh eventually gained its independence from Pakistan. Due to its shared history with India before the partition of British India in 1947, Bangladesh’s film industry still has close connections to India’s.

Bangladesh’s Bengali film industry, nicknamed Dhallywood, is primarily based in the capital Dhaka. After Indian photographer Hiralal Sen pioneered cinema in the region, the industry rapidly expanded. Unlike in other Islamic countries, filmmaking was encouraged in the Dominion of Pakistan. This allowed the Bangladeshi film industry to prosper: by the time independence was gained, the country produced over 40 films a year; a number which has since then grown to over 60. Many post-independence films focused on the country’s period of unrest, such as Tareque Masud’s The Clay Bird (2002), but these films did not replace the many Bollywood-style films that were being produced.

Heavily influenced by India, Bangladeshi films are often colorful, melodramatic musicals akin to the Indian masala genre. Additionally, the Bengali film industry often remakes Indian films for the local market, starring a new cast enacting the literal translations of scripts written for the Indian market. What makes original Bangladeshi film productions stand out is their uniqueness: Bangladeshi films copy the vivid colors and comedy of Hindi cinema, but often focus on the restrains and restrictions dictated by Islam. An example of such a film is Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Television (2012), in which Islamic Chairman Amin, the leader of a water-locked community, bans every kind of image in his village, including television. Deeming “riding the horse of imagination” a great sin, Amin does everything in his power to keep photography, television, and cell phones out of his secluded community.

In Television, Islamic Chairman Amin, the leader of the local community situated on a small island, bans the use of photography, television and cell phones, claiming them to be sinful. Tension rises within the village when a local Hindu man is reluctantly allowed to own a television, given that he does not allow his Muslim neighbors to watch.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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