The term "Bollywood" is problematic but inescapable, as Rachel Dwyer notes in the introduction to her 100 Bollywood Films (BFI Screen Guides, 2005). It persists because it's a useful shorthand: other alternatives are clunky ("Hindi commercial cinema"), only partly descriptive ("Hindi cinema" ignores films in Urdu) or misleading ("Hindi popular cinema" conceals the power of media industries in shaping popular taste).
Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London, but her book is free of film studies jargon and is highly readable. As its title implies, it consists of 100 short (2-page) reviews of Bollywood movies from the early sound era to the present. The main criteria for inclusion are language (Hindi-Urdu), production and distribution (mainstream commercial), "importance in the history of Hindi cinema," and representation of the work of significant directors, stars, music directors, writers, and playback singers. Many of the films she chooses are obviously personal favorites as well. She excludes parallel cinema, so there are no films by, say, Satyajit Ray. Dwyer does find room for Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (1976), though not his Zubeidaa (2001), which featured major Bollywood stars and a score by A. R. Rahman.
Of course, no selection of 100 (I actually count 101) Bollywood movies can be comprehensive. I'd argue with some of Dwyer's choices, such as Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2001), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) (which she says "will be seen in the future as a landmark film"; I have my doubts), and Disco Dancer (1982)—all big hits, of course. I'd also prefer a chronological rather than alphabetical organization, but it's likely that Dwyer inherited the format from the other books in the series. On the plus side, names are indexed as well as titles, so it's easy to look up all of the films in the book that feature a particular director or actor. Especially if you're beginning to explore Golden and Silver Age films (movies released before 1980 account for nearly two-thirds of the entries), you'll find 100 Bollywood Films to be a useful compact guide.
Subhash K. Jha is a journalist, and it shows in the breeziness of the prose in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli Books, 2005), which covers about twice as many films as Dwyer's guide. Jha's capsule reviews are shorter than Dwyer's, but he packs a maximum amount of summary, analysis and context into a small word-count. The Essential Guide is also liberally illustrated with film and promotional stills, with a majority in color (100 Bollywood Films has fewer illustrations and they're all in black and white). Nearly every right-hand page also features a short sidebar focussing on a particular film or star. And while Jha includes only one pre-independence film (Dwyer discusses 9), he offers a substantial section on parallel cinema (22 films) and has entries for 18 films from the early 2000s (Dwyer includes only 5).
Jha divides his choices rather unhelpfully into genres among which the distinctions aren't always clear—for example, he includes three kinds of drama, "War Drama," "Family Drama" and just plain "Drama," with the last taking up fully half of the book. The "War Drama," "Historical" and "Action" sections are only four pages long, and (shockingly) the "Romance" section only covers 12 films. Better, probably, to have fewer and larger sections, or to simply arrange the films chronologically. Fortunately, there's a name and title index; unfortunately, the index doesn't indicate which page contains the major entry for a film (Dwyer's index prints the main entry page numbers in bold type).
Jha's book is a good choice for its sheer breadth of coverage and its author's obvious enthusiasm for his subject. Both Dwyer's and Jha's guides are now somewhat outdated, though, and I hope new editions are being prepared.
Finally, there's William van der Heide's hilariously mistitled Bollywood Babylon (Berg, 2006). Far from the lurid exposé that the title promises, the book instead consists of extensive interviews with writer/director Shyam Benegal. While Benegal has employed actors, music directors, and playback singers that have also worked in mainstream Bollywood, his films are generally classified as parallel cinema. They are often realistic, morally ambiguous stories of women struggling against the constraints of a patriarchal society. And Benegal has had the good fortune (or good taste) to work repeatedly with extraordinary actors, including Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.
The book is organized into chapters on Satyajit Ray, Benegal's beginnings as a filmmaker, his views on Indian cinema, and a film-by-film survey of nearly all of his work up to 2006. This approach is similar to Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, Revised edition, 1984) or José de la Colina and Tómas Pérez Turrent's Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel (Marsilio, 1992). And it offers similar rewards: you don't have to be an evangelist for the auteur theory to feel that a director has a uniquely important perspective on his own work.
Van der Heide is a knowledgeable interviewer, perhaps to a fault—he is sometimes so busy telling Benegal his own interpretation of Benegal's films, or elicting Benegal's response to the criticism and comments of other writers, that he neglects to fully draw out Benegal's own views. The interviews are presented as uninterrupted transcripts; all explanatory material is given in the endnotes to each chapter. Those endnotes are so extensive, though, that it might have been better to try to integrate some of them (the film synopses, for example) into the main text.
Still, if you are interested in Benegal's work or parallel cinema in general, Van der Heide's book is essential reading. It, too, though, will need updating, whenever Benegal decides that he's through making films. Although he's in his mid-70s he's still going strong, having released Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba! (2010) since this book was published.