Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bollywood for the curious

Inspired by Filmi Girl's Top Ten Bollywood Films For Beginners and Bollywhat?'s Rental Guide, I've put together my own list of films for people who are curious about Bollywood movies.

As with Filmi Girl's choices, this isn't a list of the "best" Bollywood movies, although all the films on it are very enjoyable. This list also excludes films like Deepa Mehta's powerful Elements trilogy (Fire (1996), Earth: 1947 (1998), and Water (2005)), Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001), or Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008), because although they feature Hindi film stars, they aren't really Bollywood movies. Mainly, I'm retracing our own first encounters with Bollywood films, and picking out the ones that I think are good places to begin for someone approaching Bollywood for the first time.

This list is, of course, personal, and the movies chosen reflect my own tastes in actors, directors, genres, and music. There's no attempt to be comprehensive--if you enjoy any of these films, you'll definitely want to continue exploring on your own. The Bollywood blogs and sites listed to the left are excellent guides to your further exploration.

But for now, if you're looking for an entry into the world of Bollywood, here's...

The Exotic and Irrational Guide to Bollywood for the Curious

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)

The story: Three friends in New York City learn to live, laugh, and love...but one of them is concealing a tragic secret.

Why you might like it: With its setting in modern-day New York, two characters who are second-generation Indian-Americans, and pop-inflected soundtrack, Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come) is a pretty atypical Bollywood film. But it was our own first Bollywood movie, and it's still our favorite (an entirely objective choice, of course!). The clever script, appealing stars and razor-sharp editing make KHNH an excellent candidate for a Bollywood conversion experience. It's a film that gets better with multiple viewings, as more of its Bollywood in-jokes become comprehensible. But while it's fun to get the references, we can attest that the movie is also highly enjoyable without any previous experience of Bollywood.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan

If you like this one...:

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998) features Shah Rukh Khan as a man who doesn't realize that his best college friend Anjali (Kajol) is actually in love with him. Eight years later, his daughter sets out to reunite Anjali and her now-widowed father--only, Anjali's wedding has already been arranged...

Salaam Namaste (2005) is an attempt to regenerate the star chemistry that Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan shared in KHNH, and it mainly succeeds. The plot, centered on an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, is rather daring by Bollywood standards.

Dil Chahta Hai (What the Heart Desires, 2001) offers the intertwined stories of three friends and their relationships. Saif Ali Khan is featured as an incurable romantic who thinks he's in love with every woman he's momentarily attracted to--until he experiences the real thing. Preity Zinta also stars as the victim of a cruelly heartbreaking prank played by Aamir Khan; when she unexpectedly encounters him again, should she give him a second chance?

Hum Tum (Me and You, 2004) also features Saif Ali Khan, this time romancing a reluctant Rani Mukherji.

Here's a taste: "Kuch To Hua Hai" from Kal Ho Naa Ho, with Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, and Shah Rukh Khan

Veer-Zaara (2004)

The story: Veer, an Indian man, and Zaara, a Pakistani woman, fall in love on the eve of her arranged marriage to another man. The lovers' fates become entangled in the political conflict between their countries.

Why you might like it: Strong performances, the lush direction of Yash Chopra, and a sweeping score make this film surprisingly powerful.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherji

If you like this one...:

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take The Bride, 1995), universally referred to as DDLJ, is a now-classic film starring Shah Rukh and Kajol as Raj and Simran, young British Indians who fall in love on a post-collegiate tour of Europe. They're separated when Simran's father takes her back to India for an arranged marriage with a man she has never met; Raj follows to try to win her back.

Black (2006) features Rani Mukherji as a blind and deaf woman who blossoms under the tutelage of an extraordinary teacher (Amitabh Bachchan).

Paheli (Confusion, 2005) is a retelling of a folktale in which a spirit falls in love with a new bride and disguises himself as her absent husband. Shah Rukh stars in the dual role as the neglectful husband and the loving spirit; Rani Mukherji is the wife who is faced with the choice between fidelity and fulfillment.

Here's a taste: "Main Yahaan Hoon" from Veer-Zaara, with Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta

Devdas (2002)

The story: When childhood playmates Devdas and Paro grow up to become adult lovers, class and caste differences come between them with tragic results.

Why you might like it: One of the most visually stunning films ever made, thanks to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Devdas also has an all-star cast and a brilliant score. The dance numbers are unusually well integrated into the narrative, and in fact each one imparts crucial information that advances the story. A must-see for Madhuri Dixit's affecting performance and stunning dancing as the courtesan Chandramukhi.

The stars: Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit

If you like this one...:

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To Another, 1998): see below.

Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) is another visually stylish story starring Shah Rukh about lovers who are torn apart by political conflict.

Shah Rukh and Aishwarya starred once before as tragic lovers in Mohabbatein (Love Stories, 2001). The strict headmaster of a boarding school thwarts his daughter's blossoming love with a student. Years later the student returns to the school as a teacher determined to defy the headmaster's rigid rules and insure that his student's loves don't meet the same fate.

Madhuri Dixit is renowned for her dancing, but she's also an excellent actress. Alas, she's generally much better than the movies she's in. For a recent sample of both her acting and dancing talents, try Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me, 2007).

Here's a taste: "Kahe Chhed Mohe" from Devdas, with Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit, and Shah Rukh Khan

Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003)

The story: A gangster boss decides to become a doctor to redeem himself in his father's eyes. In the process he creates comic havoc, but also teaches some lessons in compassion to the teachers and students of a medical college.

Why you might like it: Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (Brother Munna, M.D.) is a warm-hearted comedy featuring the terrific buddy act of Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi. Munna Bhai is Dutt's career-defining character, a shambolic, sad-eyed gangster with a heart of gold.

The stars: Sanjay Dutt, Arshad Warsi, Gracy Singh

If you like this one...:

You'll want to see the sequel, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Munna Bhai Meets Gandhi, 2006), in which Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi reprise their roles as Munna Bhai and Circuit. Satyagraha becomes a source of comedy when the gang leader Munna Bhai makes a pledge of Gandhian nonviolence. His resolution is tested, however, when greedy developers evict the elderly residents of a rest home.

Arshad Warsi, who should be a major star in his own right, is far too enjoyable in sidekick roles for his career's good; he does another excellent job as Saif Ali Khan's friend in Salaam Namaste (2005).

Gracy Singh has a featured role in Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), in which a ragtag group of villagers must play a crack British army cricket squad with the future of the village at stake. It's some people's favorite Bollywood movie; not mine, but it's definitely worth seeing and has an excellent soundtrack.

Here's a taste: "Munna Bhai M.B.B.S." with Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi

Bunty aur Babli (2005)

The story: A pair of lovers try to escape the stultifying life of their village by turning conmen and heading for the glamorous city. Their escape is complicated, though, by a policeman's relentless pursuit.

Why you might like it: While the comic energy flags somewhat in the second half, Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli) is buoyed by the performances of the real-life father-son team of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. Rani Mukherji does her usual superlative job as Abhishek's partner in love and crime, and Aishwarya Rai (now Mrs. Abishek Bachchan) puts in an appearance in the terrific item number "Kajra re."

The stars: Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukherji, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai

If you like this one...:

Chori Chori (Secretly, 2005) features Rani Mukherji in a role that might be Babli's sister--a young woman who feels that in an unjust world, a little deceit is sometimes necessary to get what you want.

Kuch Naa Kaho (Say Nothing, 2002) offers Abhishek and Aishwarya in a pleasant comedy carried mainly by the appeal of its stars.

Abhishek, Amitabh, and Rani were reunited in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye, 2006). Be forewarned: the story of two unhappily married couples, it's not exactly a comedy. But Abhishek in particular offers one of his best performances.

Here's a taste: "Dhadak dhadak" from Bunty aur Babli, with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherji

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998)

The story: A young woman must choose between a youthful crush and her husband's steadfast love.

Why you might like it: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To Another) combines the attractions of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous settings, the young Aishwarya Rai's astonishing dancing (and astonishing beauty), and Ajay Devgan's understated and affecting performance as the husband.

The stars: Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan

If you like this one...:

Devdas (2002): see above.

Aishwarya Rai's item number "Kajra Re" in Bunty aur Babli (see above) is a near-perfect mix of humor, playful sexiness and spectacular dancing.

Chori Chori (Secretly, 2003) features Ajay Devgan in another understated role as a frustrated architect trying to achieve his dreams with the aid of uninvited houseguest Rani Mukherji.

Here's a taste: "Aankhon Ki Gustakiya" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, with Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai

More recommendations for first-time Bollywood viewers, or stories about your own Bollywood conversion experience, are welcome!


  1. love your recs! Have sent a link to this post to some of my friends. :-)

    my list would include (but not be limited to)
    -Bombay (Mani Ratnam)
    -Hu Tu Tu (1999)
    -Dil to Pagal Hain
    -Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
    -Earth (1998)
    -Umrao Jaan (1981)
    -Anand (1971)
    -Amar Akbar Anthony

    Admittedly some of these (older ones?) will not be as accessible to beginners... oh well... :-)

  2. Why, thanks for your comment and your additional recommendations. I haven't seen all of them, so I've got some new titles to explore.

    I was hesitant to include films older than the mid-90s only because they sometimes lack the technical polish of the better-financed American and European films. But perhaps I'm being too careful. The 1981 version of Umrao Jaan, for example, has one of the best soundtracks ever, and a great performance by Rekha in the title role. Adventurous viewers who are willing to make some allowances for the technical aspects of the earlier movies will find many rewards.

    Thanks again!

  3. KHNH was one of the first (like, in the first five if I recall correctly) B'wood movies I ever saw, and its high production values (in-sync sound, for one) were part of what helped me walk the bridge between American expectations and filmi standards. It helped that it was also only the second thing I'd seen SRK in so I didn't know he could be better. ;-)

  4. oh and about Dil To Pagal Hain... In late 1998 an old friend of mine (American) traveled with me to India. Pre-India trip she had no affinity to Bollywood stuff... it was strange to her. Post-India trip (after viewing first Pardes and then Dil To Pagal Hain) she became a cautious fan. To this day she still remembers lyrics from Dil To Pagal Hain songs and has been known to surprise desi toll collectors by the music playing in her car.

  5. Ajnabi, one of Shah Rukh's early colleagues, Ashutosh Gowariker (later director of Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004)) was quoted in Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood as saying of him that "If there was an emotion given to him, he would multiply it twenty times" (p. 83). I know that Shah Rukh's emotional performances deeply divide Bollywood fans, but as a friend of mine said, "It's not over the top if you're right there with him."

    In KHNH, I'm right there with him. Yes, he's given more understated performances, which I also enjoy (Swades and Chak De India (2007) spring to mind), but few as powerful as this one (at least for me). This is the movie that made us the helpless Shah Rukh fans that we are. I'm embarrassed to say how many times I've watched KHNH, and I appreciate it more with every viewing.

    It's certainly the film that allowed us, too, (as you put it so well) to "walk the bridge between American expectations and filmi standards." I hope it will do the same for many other curious viewers.

    Thanks for your comment!

  6. Why, Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997) pretty much swept the Filmfare awards for that year, winning best film, actor (Shah Rukh), actress (Madhuri Dixit), supporting actress (Karisma Kapoor), music director (Utam Singh) and more. It's great to hear that your friend enjoyed it so much.

    I have to say that, despite all the acclaim, it doesn't fully work for me. It sounds like I'm in the distinct minority, though, so thanks for putting it on your list (and describing your friend's experience).

  7. Great list!! My only quibble would be that Shahrukh is really OTT in Kal Ho Naa Ho, which may turn off some people used to "naturalistic" American-style acting... :)

  8. Filmi Girl, thanks for your comment--your Top Ten Bollywood FIlms for Beginners is what inspired me to put this post together, and it's a great resource for anyone looking for more recommendations.

    For me one of the delights of Bollywood films is how male actors can unashamedly display emotion. I remember how overwhelmed we were the first time we saw KHNH--we were absolutely riveted, and as I wrote in my response to Ajnabi, right there with Shah Rukh. I also think that in the case of KHNH, the intensity of Shah Rukh's performance is appropriate for the character of Aman and his situation.

    KHNH is the movie that hooked us on Bollywood. My hope in putting it at the top of my list is that others will find it to be as enjoyable as we did, and then be inspired, as we were, to explore further.

  9. Excellent post and good recommendations for first time viewing of hindi movies.

    I am with you about Dik to Pagal Hai - it is a blotched remake of the Hollywood movie "Fast Forward" (1981). While the songs are enjoyable (on tape/CD/ Radio) - the movie itself was boring - yawn!