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The ten best Bollywood actors

Hollywood’s leading men may have their fans, but in Hindi cinema, these guys are basically gods

Ashanti Omkar
Written by
Anil Sinanan
Written by
Ashanti Omkar
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As he told David Letterman in 2019, Shah Rukh Khan boasts 3.5 billion fans aross includes his home land, the wider Indian diaspora and even Greece, Switzerland, and Egypt. Three point five BILLION. Such is the extraordinary levels of fame attained by India’s most famous actor and his only-slightly-less-famous acting peers in the country’s film industry. Hollywood stars can only dream of those numbers. But who sits alongside Khan at the top of that very big, very lush tree? There are a whole host to choose from, including OGs like Mammootty, Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Hrithik Roshan, and a new generation of rising stars like Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil, Prabhas and Vijay Devarakonda. Picking a top ten is no easy task. Here are our picks. 

1. Amitabh Bachchan

Key films:Deewaar’ (1975), ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ (1976), ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ (1977)

Active: 1969 to present

With his breakthrough hit, the ‘Dirty Harry’-style ‘Zanjeer’ in 1973, Amitabh Bachchan (born 1942) shattered all Hindi film hero norms. He looked unconventional. He was thin, tall and had a deep baritone voice.

From there, his regular angry young man roles saw his characters taking up arms against a corrupt, unjust society. This resonated with mid-1970s Indian audiences, who were becoming increasingly disillusioned with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s rule and the emergency suspension of civil liberties in 1975.

Bachchan proved his versatility from the off by also taking on romantic and comic roles with equal success. The ‘Big B’ has constantly reinvented himself, having also been a politician and television host, and he continues to take elder statesman screen roles today.

Read our interview with Amitabh Bachchan

2. Shah Rukh Khan

Key films: ‘Baazigar’ (1993), ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995), ‘Swades’ (2004)

Active: 1992 to present

The massive successes of Shah Rukh Khan’s NRI (‘Non Resident Indian’)-themed films were directly responsible for establishing Bollywood on the global film map.

A former TV actor, Khan (born 1965) started off playing antiheroes before graduating to romantic roles, which made him the boy all girls (and boys) wanted to take home to meet their parents.

He is also an eager brand ambassador for many luxury products in India. With his latest film ‘Happy New Year’ (2014) raking in the box-office bucks, Bollywood’s ‘King Khan’ looks firmly ensconced in his throne.

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3. Kamal Haasan

Key films: ‘Sadma’ (1983), ‘Nayakan’ (1987), ‘Indian’ (1996)

Active: 1960 to present

Debuting as a child star, Kamal Haasan aged six, won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Child Actor for his debut film, Kalathur Kannamma. He’s gone on to become the Tom Cruise of India, starring in myriad genres from action to drama and popularised the lip-to-lip kiss in Indian cinema (even if Bollywood did it in 1933).

So popular was his 1987 Tamil film Nayakan, Haasan dubbed himself in Hindi version, helping make it a pan-Indian hit. It is based on the life of the Bombay underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar juxtaposed with the cinematic style of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

His global fans still hope he will revive his unfinished magnum opus, Marudhanayagam, a biopic of actor Dilip Kumar, which Queen Elizabeth launched very publicly during her 1997 visit to India. His fascination with Hollywood took him to LA, to find technicians, frequently collaborating with Star Trek make-up wizard Michael Westmore.

4. Aamir Khan

Key films: ‘Raja Hindustani’ (1996), ‘Lagaan’ (2001), ‘3 Idiots’ (2009)

Active: 1984 to present

Aamir Khan (born 1965) is now considered Bollywood’s most intelligent and versatile A-list actor. After debuting as a romantic hero in the late 1980s, he starred in several duds, forcing him into a rethink. Instead, he decided to look for sensible scripts and act in just one film at a time, going against the Bollywood norm that sees actors overlapping various projects.

The strategy worked, and Khan has been responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed and successful films of recent years, including the Oscar-nominated ‘Lagaan’ (which he produced) and the recent and controversial ‘PK’ (2014), which questioned blind religious faith.

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5. Salman Khan

Key films:Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ (1994), ‘Tere Naam’ (2003), ‘Dabangg’ (2010)

Active: 1988 to present

Along with Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan (no relation), Salman Khan (born 1965) has dominated Bollywood for at least two decades. Audiences loved his romantic image in his early films, especially his clean-cut looks and gym-toned body. Since 2000, Khan has buffed up even further and now specialises in playing mean and moody, lovable characters who kick ass and flash washboard abs.

His devoted fans, mostly young men, worship him and turn out in their millions to see his films, regardless of their quality or the hero’s dubious acting skills. As a result, Khan has consistently churned out mega-blockbusters in the last few years. To his fans, ‘Sallu-bhai’ (brother) can do no wrong.

6. Rajinikanth

Key films: ‘Andha Kanoon’ (1983), ‘Thalapathi’ (1991), ‘2.0’ (2018)

Active: 1975 to present

Known as ‘Superstar’ in India, Rajinikanth has worked in over 160 films in several Indian languages, since his explosive debut as a nefarious villain. He starting off his career as an go-to villain, before moving on to more dramatic roles, becoming a style icon in the process. When the word ‘Superstar’ appears on screens before his films, fans still get up and scream.

His screen presence, iconic moves with a cigarette and sheer finesse as an action star have also earned him a massive fanbase in Japan. His 1998 genre-mash ‘Muthu’ became the highest-grossing Indian film in Japan, until it was surpassed by ‘RRR’ in 2022. Japanese fans cosplay as him even to this day.

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7. Dev Anand

Key films:Guide’ (1965), ‘Jewel Thief’ (1967), ‘Johny Mera Naam’ (1970)

Active: 1946-2011

India’s Gregory Peck, Dev Anand (1923-2011) perfected the image of the ultimate suave and debonair romantic hero. He established his own banner, Navketan Films, and produced, directed and acted in many blockbusters.

He had a keen eye for spotting new talent, especially young actresses. Several top heroines like Zeenat Aman, Tina Munim, Shabana Azmi and Padmini Kolhapure received their big break in his films.

He continued making and acting in films in the latter part of his life, but he was never able to recreate the ‘Dev magic’ of his golden period in the 1960s.

8. Dilip Kumar

Key films:Devdas’ (1955), ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960), ‘Gunga Jumna’ (1961)

Active: 1944-1998

Known as the ‘tragedy King’, Dilip Kumar (born 1922) brought a refreshing naturalistic style to Bollywood acting and specialised in romantic roles often portraying the Indian male as a weak, sad and selfish loser.

In his later roles, he successfully experimented with various genres and took up key character roles as the morally upright elder. Along with Amitabh Bachchan, Kumar is regarded as perhaps India’s greatest ever actor. Satyajit Ray called him the ‘ultimate method actor’.

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9. Raj Kapoor

Key films:Awara’ (1951), ‘Sangam’ (1964), ‘Teesri Kasam’ (1966)

Active: 1935-1982

Raj Kapoor (1924-1988) perfected a screen image of a lovable, Chaplin-like tramp with roles that often saw him playing an innocent lad in an unjust society, especially in the bleak economic years following Indian independence.

Gaining the nickname ‘The Showman’, Kapoor then established his own company, RK Films, and produced and directed several iconic and lavish films starring himself and his muse, Nargis, and his films became extremely popular outside India too, especially in the former USSR.

In the latter part of his career, Kapoor developed an obsession with female sexuality, often pushing the boundaries of permitted norms. His father, brothers, sons and grandchildren were or are successful actors, and the Kapoors are known as the premiere Bollywood ‘filmi’ family.

10. Ranbir Kapoor

Key films:Rockstar’ (2011), ‘Barfi!’ (2012), ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ (2013)

Active: 2007 to present

Grandson of the legendary Raj, Ranbir Kapoor famously dropped his towel to reveal his bare buttocks in his debut movie, ‘Saawariya’ (2007) – but the film crashed at the box office. Kapoor soon bounced back by accepting diverse and complex roles in films that proved his real acting talent and dancing skills.

He symbolises a new type of bold and brash Bollywood actor – one who’s willing to take risks with challenging subjects, while still keeping a foot firmly in the mainstream of Hindi cinema.

More from the world of Bollywood

The 100 best Bollywood movies
  • Film

What does Bollywood mean to you? India, music, romance, song, drama, dance, comedy, action? All of the above? Here, we celebrate the popular, mainstream face of Hindi movies – the big films that have been entertaining audiences in India and across the globe for more than six decades.

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