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The Astonishing Relevance of Cinema: Five 20th Century Classics that Need to be Watched


There are certain films whose relevance transcends the boundaries of time and age. Here is a list of five cinematic masterpieces that are startlingly relevant as the tumultuous first quarter of the 21st century nears its end.

The great importance of cinema lies in its ability to define and embody its times; in its unique power to offer a slice of contemporary zeitgeist that subsequent generations can learn and watch with the benefit of hindsight.

But there are certain films whose relevance transcends the boundaries of time and age. By embracing the leitmotifs of human struggle across the ages, such films appear to be true witnesses of the past and foretellers of the future all at once. Here is a list of five such films that are startlingly relevant as the tumultuous first quarter of the 21st century nears its end:  

Neecha Nagar (1946)

Directed by Chetan Anand, Neecha Nagar remains the only Indian film to be ever awarded a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Inspired by Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar was one of the earliest specimens of social realism in Indian cinema. The film revolves around an avaricious builder named Sarkar who orders the diversion of sewage into a stream that runs through “Neecha Nagar” or “low town” – inhabited by the working classes. Backed by a capitalist lobby, Sarkar wants to drive out the residents in order that he may build apartments for the wealthy on the reclaimed land. When Sarkar builds a hospital for the residents of Neecha Nagar, who increasingly succumb to cholera and death caused by the sewage-filled stream, the intrepid young Balraj and his sister Rupa galvanize the impoverished residents into boycotting the hospital as a mark of protest against Sarkar’s evil designs. In a sub-plot, Sarkar’s daughter Maya and Balraj love one another but choose to part ways, even as Maya continues to vacillate between her idealistic lover and ambitious father. The ensuing struggle between the powerful Sarkar and powerless masses forms the rest of the story.

‘Neecha Nagar’ explores themes that will likely be relevant forever – the role of capitalism in intensifying social disparities, the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, and the ultimate triumph of humanism.

Neecha Nagar explores themes that will likely be relevant forever – the role of capitalism in intensifying social disparities, the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, the cold and oft-phoney philanthropy of the wealthy, the venality of a few poor men bringing disrepute to all, and the ultimate triumph of humanism. Apart from its enduring storyline, Neecha Nagar is widely regarded as a classic for its brilliant screenplay, camera work, and editing.

Neecha Nagar

Tokyo Story (1953)

Shorn of its artistry, Tokyo Story (‘Tokyo Monogatari’ in Japanese), a Japanese drama film directed by Yasujirō Ozu, revisits a familiar trope – an aged couple visits their children and grandchildren in the city where the children are incommoded by their presence and have little time to spare for them. In contrast, the widowed daughter-in-law receives them with kindness. The couple returns home. A few days later, the wife dies and this time the children make a homeward journey.

‘Tokyo Story’ touches upon universal themes of families drifting apart, of parental disillusionment, of the loneliness of city life suppressed hopes, and concomitance of love and loss, joy and sorrow in life.

Notwithstanding its ostensible simplicity, Tokyo Story touches upon universal themes of families drifting apart, of parental disillusionment, of the loneliness of city life despite the rigours of routine, of buried regrets, unspoken disappointments, suppressed hopes, and concomitance of love and loss, joy and sorrow in life. Remarkably, the movie resolutely steers clear of the trap of melodrama, even as it moves the viewer to tears and compels her/him to ponder the importance of family in one’s life. The film has also received acclaim for its minimalistic camera work and visual imagery characterized by ordinary images of everyday life. The late film critic Roger Ebert said of the film, “It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”  Can a film possibly achieve more?

Tokyo Story

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Based on Harper Lee‘s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is regarded as one of the finest American classics and is likely the most well-known film on this list. Set during the Great Depression, the film is narrated by a six-year-old girl, “Scout” Finch who lives with her 10-year old brother and widowed father Atticus Finch in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. When their father agrees to defend a black man falsely charged with raping a white woman, the children are prematurely exposed to the racial prejudices of small-town America, but also learn valuable lessons in compassion, courage, and eschewing prejudice.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ remains a painful reminder of just how little progress has been made on the issues hurting African-Americans. The very fact that the film’s dominant theme resonates in the post-George Floyd era is an unmistakable indication of its greatness.

Given the many praiseworthy films made on racial injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t stand out for its extraordinary subject or storyline. What makes it rich and relevant, however, is its refreshing topicality nearly threescore years after it was made. To Kill a Mockingbird remains a painful reminder of just how little progress has been made on the issues hurting African-Americans most – racial discrimination, the ease with which a white woman can implicate a black man without a shred of evidence (remember the recent Amy Cooper incident?), and a highly flawed criminal justice system. Though the film has been criticized in recent decades for patronizing black Americans and alluding to their dependence on the magnanimity of white men, the very fact that the film’s dominant theme resonates in the post-George Floyd era is an unmistakable indication of its greatness.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Girls (1968)

If women-dominated films, both in Hollywood and outside, continue to be an exception in 2020, they were an unthinkable aberration 50 years ago. Directed by the Swedish actress and film-maker Mai Zetterling, The Girls (“Flickorna“, in Swedish) is about three young actresses performing in a touring production of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata” in which Athenian women attempt to end the Peloponnesian War by depriving their menfolk of sex. As the women perform the play on tour, each one’s experiences demonstrate the relevance of the themes of the play. While Liz is a star with a philandering husband, Marianne is a single mother, and Gunilla, a mother of four young children whose husband wants her to stay home and look after the family. The ending of the film points to how women can shape their individual destinies, but must risk conflict in the process.

The ability of ‘The Girls’ to touch upon issues that still resonate with women the world over – entrenched chauvinism of society, the battle of the sexes, objectification of women, obstacles faced by them – makes the film quite relevant.

One of the early specimens of avant-garde cinema in Europe, The Girls offers a realistic picture of the condition of white, middle-class women, foregrounding it against contemporary feminist ideas. Visually, the film stands out on account of its fine frames, brilliant cinematography, and artistic screenplay in which flashbacks and reveries related to the protagonists are interwoven into the play. But its universal relevance lies, above all, in its ability to touch upon issues that still resonate with women the world over – entrenched chauvinism of society, the battle of the sexes, objectification of women, women’s desire for power, and the many obstacles they must overcome on their path to emancipation.  

The Girls
A Special Day (1977)

Directed by Ettore Scola, A Special Day (‘Una giornata particolare‘ in Italian), is an Italian drama film set on the day Adolf Hitler visited Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1938. The film chronicles the day in the lives of two people who are not participating in the parade, namely a housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren), and her neighbour Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni). Gabriele is a former radio broadcaster who is about to be deported to Sardinia on account of his homosexuality and anti-fascist stance, while Antonietta is the wife of a fascist, and herself a supporter of the regime who looks forward to the government bonus she will receive on having her seventh child. But despite being on opposite ends of the spectrum, intimacy develops between the two, leading them to seek sympathy and solace in one another. While nothing changes dramatically towards the end of the film, the viewer is left with a deep sense of empathy for the protagonists who are deemed to have little worth in an ultra-nationalist regime.

The stunning relevance of ‘A Special Day’ cannot be overstated in a world increasingly dominated by authoritarian right-wing figures. The film examines how autocratic regimes condition men and women, socially and politically, to subserve the state.

A Special Day’s stunning relevance cannot be overstated in a world increasingly dominated by authoritarian right-wing figures. Throwing light on the dark chapters of fascism in Italy, the film trenchantly examines how autocratic regimes define traditional gender roles, punish those who don’t conform, and socially and politically condition men and women such that they begin viewing themselves as mere instruments meant to subserve the state. The film’s cinematic techniques – unusually long takes, stylistic frames – and sepia tone – underlining the bleakness of the “special day” – add to its exceptionality.

A Special Day

The themes of the aforementioned films – class conflict and divide, the decay of filial ties, racial prejudice and inadequacies of the criminal justice system, deep-rooted patriarchy and sexism, gender politics practiced by totalitarian regimes – are indubitably universal in nature. Additionally, the cogency and conviction with which the subjects are dealt render these films unique.

They may not be the absolute best of films but are decidedly the most relevant of films!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author solely. TheRise.co.in neither endorses nor is responsible for them.

About the author

Nandini Sen is an independent, Delhi-based writer specializing in politics and culture. Her writings cover the most intriguing, subtle, and hidden aspects of both.


Nandini Sen

Nandini Sen is an independent, Delhi-based writer specializing in politics and culture. Her writings cover the most intriguing, subtle, and hidden aspects of both.

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