(Good) Bollywood Movies I’ve Seen
About Bollywood. There are certain things you should know going into a Bollywood movie-watching experience. First of all, most movies that you rent or see in a theater have English subtitles, so fear not. You may have a Bollywood theater in your area – an internet search for your city will tell you. In Houston, we have two, for example. Bollywood movies are typically quite long, from western standards…ranging from 2 ½ hours to 3 ½. They are usually portioned into two halves, with an intermission in the logical middle. Sometimes the two halves of the movie will vary greatly in tone and topic; sometimes not. You will rarely see any kissing or similar physical contact in Bollywood movies, as they remain very traditional and family-friendly. Production values on Bollywood films are sometimes low – the grainy quality reminiscent of Hollywood movies from the 1970s or earlier – but they have recently gotten much better. Their big blockbusters are now comparable to Hollywood ones. Oh yes – Bollywood films often recycle the same premises from American movies, as you’ll see in the list below. Many Bollywood movies contain similar components and formulae – a love triangle, a stern father, a deceased parent, a bride intended for the wrong man, elaborate weddings and parties, pure villains, a couple that starts off hating each other and ends up loving each other, and lots and lots of drama. Not all Bollywood films are set in India. Some take place in London, Australia, the U.S., even Singapore. You may see (unknown) western actors in them. And one final but important note – virtually all Bollywood movies are musicals. You’ll experience at least four major song-and-dance numbers in each. Some people find this aspect quite corny; others, like myself, actually look forward to the songs. You’ll see exotic locales and sets, numerous costume changes, lots of colors and bling, and the universal theme of love in almost every song.
About this list. Bollywood is the most prolific movie industry in the world, churning out more than 800 movies every year. Needless to say, not all of those are gems. With this list, I’ve attempted to spare you from some of the duds by steering you towards some of the greats. Of course I’ve not seen every Bollywood movie, but I will update this list frequently as I see more. This list is specifically intended to help give westerners an introduction to this world that they might be reluctant to sample without a guide. I hope I can be that guide, and introduce you to a world of color, dancing, music, drama, and fun. Enjoy!
* * *
Bombay. This is a difficult movie for me to recommend, because although it was well made and brilliantly acted, the subject matter is controversial, passionate, and often difficult to watch. However, it is a great movie and a classic, and because of its message should really be watched by all persons. It’s about a young Hindu man, home for a visit in his small Indian village from his job as a journalist in Bombay. The man, who comes from a reputable family, falls in love with a Muslim girl in the village. Both their fathers predictably protest, and their offense is so vehement that they come close to physical violence against each other’s families. But the couple elopes to Bombay, has children, and a tenuous peace settles over them. But the Hindu-Muslim clash soon manifests itself again, this time in the city, on a much grander scale. These riots really did happen, as recently as the mid-1990s, with disastrous results. The second half of the movie shows the family’s struggle for survival in the bleak, chaotic landscape. The lead actress (also the lead in Dil Se) delivers a wonderfully moving performance where she doesn’t hold anything back. Her children, who are five years old in the movie, are superb actors and show appropriate emotion. The husband keeps us informed of the events and the ridiculous cycle of violence through his journalism, and has a cathartic monologue near the end. There is a touching sub-plot involving the families of the two lovers attempting to reconcile. The movie clocks in at just over two hours; short, for Bollywood standards.
Bunty aur Babli. This is one of my favorites, starring Rani Mukherjee and Abhishek Bachchan, two major Bollywood stars. It’s Bonnie & Clyde meets Robin Hood meets Catch Me if you Can. In this comedy, the young couple cons various bad people and mostly gets away with it, while being pursued by a relentless cop played by Amitab Bachchan, Abhishek’s real-life father. I LOVE the song numbers in this movie. There’s a lot of energy and it’s fun to watch.
Devdas. I have to recommend this movie because of the awesome set pieces, musical numbers, costumes, locations, traditional reenactments, and beautiful cast (Aishwarya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit). I must also warn that this is 184 minutes of depressing plot. But the music and dancing is unmatched. The plot does labor towards an inevitable downer (no spoiler; you’ll see it coming), but this is still a must-see for any Bollywood-phile or inductee. Aishwarya shows her range in this movie, playing Shah Rukh’s (Devdas’s) childhood sweetheart. He returns after 10 years of studying abroad in England as something of a pompous, spoiled young man. His family is richer and more reputable than hers, and his parents forbid him to marry her. Ruination ensues.
Dil Se. This drama starring Shah Rukh Khan is considered one of the Bollywood classics. It has a surprisingly low cheese factor for a Bollywood movie. The plot involves SRK meeting a strange, secretive, beautiful young woman on a train platform. She barely acknowledges him before she boards a train and departs, but he is smitten and tracks her down (repeatedly) throughout the rest of the movie, having fallen in love with her and determined for her to requite. But she remains aloof and distant, and we eventually learn she has ties to a terrorist organization. What are her plans with them? Will SRK be sucked in? Lives are at stake in this suspenseful drama. The best part may be the songs, composed by India’s most famous contemporary composer, A. R. Rahman. The songs are not only musically brilliant, but their corresponding video is a sometimes haunting contrast to the catchy melodies. For example, the title song “Dil Se” shows the two lovers in a fantasy sequence where they embrace tenderly amidst exploding bombs and other war carnage. Such visual imagery and ideals are frequently juxtaposed in Dil Se. After the movie ended, I went back and just watched the song numbers again, because they were so amazing: “Chaya Chaya” was filmed entirely on a moving train, which still seems impossible that they could get all the shots right. Then there’s “Satrangi Re,” with its exotic costumes and traditional/contemporary choreography that defines desert chic, and “Jiya Jale” with its gorgeous cinematography and set-pieces. The ending was both expected and unexpected; you’ll have to watch to see what I mean.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Affectionately referred to as DDLJ, this movie apparently helped resurrect Bollywood and catapault it into the modern era, while still retaining a lot of traditional Bollywood elements, such as the woman getting married to the wrong man, and the young hero who must jump through endless hoops to stop it. It stars Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan, two more big stars. They meet and fall in love on a European tour with their friends, but the young woman’s father intends her for another man. SRK falls for Kajol immediately, but she is repulsed by him, especially after he plays a series of funny yet cruel pranks on her. But after the two get separated from their tour and have to make their way across the countryside together, a bond forms which eventually proves unbreakable. Typical Bollywood cheese factor applies.
Don. This is a rather escapist action movie, with lots of random plot twists thrown in for fun, then twists on the twists, but it is still quite entertaining. Shah Rukh Khan plays a crime boss who is amazingly captured by a tireless cop early in the film. Don is wounded and apparently dies in the process, but the cop knows about a good-natured look-alike, who he persuades to masquerade as Don, infiltrate his circle, and act as an informant. A love interest has also penetrated Don’s circle, but she’s actually there to get revenge on Don…but she doesn’t know Don’s identity, and he doesn’t know hers. Sounds complicated, but it’s fun. SRK plays a good bad guy in this one and handles the multiple roles nicely, which is a refreshing departure from his usual goody-goody characters. There’s a few songs that are excellent, especially the energetic one right before intermission.
Dor. This is an independent Bollywood movie, so it’s less cheesy and more thoughtful and deep than most. It follows two women who are brought together by their respective husbands, who were roommates, until one of the men dies. The other husband is suspected in the death, but all who know him know it was an accident. His wife first befriends then finally appeals to the dead man’s wife, asking her to forgive her husband…otherwise he’ll receive the death penalty. There are no black and whites in this movie, but the conclusion is earned and appropriate.
Fanaa. This is a sweet and tragic drama starring Kajol and Amir Khan, who is my favorite Bollywood actor. In the first half, we see him as a local tour guide who falls for Kajol, who plays a blind girl venturing out into the world on her own for the first time. He’s a womanizer, but she is different, and captures his heart, although she and we suspect it won’t end well. In the middle of the film, Kajol has an operation that restores her sight, but Amir takes off before she can see his face. She believes he has died. The second half of the movie takes place seven years later…and a touching reunion happens in the beautiful snowy mountains of Kashmir. You’ll have to watch for yourself what eventually transpires. The music in this movie is incredibly beautiful and haunting.
Guru. This biopic is based on the life of businessman Gurukant Desai, who shook up the textile trading market in the mid 1900s. Aishwarya Rai (most famous Bollywood actress, former miss world, also voted most beautiful woman alive) plays his wife – a free spirit who supports her husband but also provides him with timely and honest advice. Guru is flawed but we know he is a good person and definitely a good provider for his family. There is great music in this movie also, written by A. R. Rahman, who is probably the greatest living composer of Bollywood scores.
Hum Aapke hain Koun. If you want another taste of traditional Bollywood, with all the familiar elements (a young couple who start off hating each other, fall in secret love, and the woman intended for another), this is your movie – a good introduction to Bollywood. Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, fairly big names, play the lovers. There is a significant element of cheese, but also some beautiful locales, costumes, and song-and-dance numbers.
Kal Ho Naa Ho. One of my favorites. We’ve got the familiar ingredients of boy meets girl, boy is annoying and taunts girl, girl hates boy, then, oh wait a minute, girl loves boy. Girl is Preity Zinta and boy is Shah Rukh Khan. When Preity realizes she loves him, there are substantial obstacles, which may prevent them from being together, despite their mutual affection. In the mix is Saif Ali Khan, Preity’s goofy friend, who has always loved her, and is ready to catch her if she falls. There are some really touching moments in this movie and it is indeed a tearjerker. Particularly moving was a reconciliation of Preity’s mother and paternal grandmother, who’ve been at odds since Preity’s father committed suicide. Yes, there is much drama, but much sweetness also, and a beautiful soundtrack. Well worth watching, more than once.
Koi… Mil Gaya. This drama is Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets E.T. meets Flowers for Algernon. …Yes, you heard right. There are even a couple of elements directly lifted from David Lynch’s Dune. This description will either appeal to you greatly, or not at all. It’s about a young man, Rohit, and his mother in Northern India. There was a father, a scientist attempting to contact alien life, who dies early in the film in an accident which also renders Rohit mentally retarded. When he becomes a young man, he is still slow, but endearing – I was surprised by how much I fell for his sweet character. He stumbles across his dad’s old equipment and accidentally summons an alien race. One alien is left behind by his spaceship (think E.T.), and soon comes under Rohit’s protection. The alien grants Rohit an adult intellect, super strength, and confidence, which he uses to impress his love interest, played by Preity Zinta. Of course there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. There is a high cheese factor in this movie, and the “scientific” parts are embarrassingly awful, so I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. The song numbers are very entertaining and I found myself wanting to watch the movie again as soon as it was over. If you like it, you may enjoy its sequel (not quite as good), Krrish, starring the same actor who played Rohit, now playing Rohit’s son, Krishna, who seems to have inherited some of Rohit’s special alien-granted super powers.
Lagaan. This was my first Bollywood experience, and after that I was hooked. It stars my favorite actor, Amir Khan. This 3 ½ hour tour-de-force tells the story of a legendary cricket match between some delightfully evil British army officers (during British rule), and a group of poor local Indian villagers, led by Amir. The head British bad guy makes them a bet: beat them in cricket (they’ve never played), and no taxes for three years. Lose, and pay triple taxes. The villagers are predictably pissed when Amir accepts the bet, but he soon rallies them and they learn the sport with the aid of the bad guy’s sister, a sweet lady named Elizabeth. She falls for Amir, but he’s already smitten with Gauri from his village. The villagers are quite colorful and endearing. The songs are inspiring and fun, especially when paired with the dancing. Who will win the cricket match? Who will win Amir? You may think 3.5 hours is a long time to arrive at the logical conclusion, but it’s well worth the ride. I’ve seen this movie at least three times and haven’t tired of it.
Lage Raho Munna Bhai. I liked this movie a lot more than its prequel, Munna Bhai MBBS, where the same actor playing Munna, a loveable crime boss, masquerades as a doctor. In this comedy, Munna masquerades as a history teacher to impress a local DJ and win her heart. His sidekick, Circuit, provides a lot of comic relief. Munna pretends to be a Ghandi expert in order to win a radio contest, but has a good heart and not only learns a lot about Ghandi in the process, but actually starts to see him in visions. This vision guides him through several increasingly important moral dilemmas in the film. There is a strong undercurrent of Ghandi’s teaching throughout this movie, despite its slapstick humor. There’s a touching and appropriate ending.
Mohabbatein. This drama takes its base from Dead Poet’s Society, with some additional elements thrown in. It focuses just as much on the dynamic teacher (Shah Rukh Khan) who comes to shake things up at the stuffy conservative boys’ school, as it does on the stern principal (Amitab Bachchan) and the three students who share a room and become friends for life. Aishwarya Rai has a disembodied role.
Rang de Basanti. This is a very powerful movie, despite the unavoidable cheesy elements that pepper virtually every Bollywood movie. My favorite actor (Amir Khan) is back, playing a slacker at a college in India with a tight group of friends who are similarly immature. Then a pretty young blonde filmmaker arrives from England to make a documentary about some historic Indian men whom her grandfather had known and written about in a diary. The young group of college men are a natural fit for the roles she’s trying to fill in her film. At first they respond with juvenile behavior, but soon become transformed as they learn about their character counterparts who gave their lives for their country. All are intensely affected by the filming and also by events that subsequently happen in real life, in which they become entangled in a way that somewhat mirrors the documentary’s story. The first half of the movie is light and entertaining; the second half grows dark and tragic, and I found the ending somewhat unnecessary, but it’s just as compelling…get the tissues out, but don’t miss this movie. It’s one of my favorites.
Salaam-E-Ishq. This is a romantic comedy drama everything movie…at a running time of around 3 and a half hours, they can easily fit all dramatic elements in. But the movie went by quickly; it didn’t seem that long at all. It’s a loose remake of the American film Love Actually, in that is has six different (mostly) interlocking story lines and a large ensemble cast. I in particular related to the story line of the white woman who goes to India to find her Indian boyfriend who’s gone there to marry an Indian woman, and the local cab driver who assists her, and who truly cares about her. Because of the language barrier between the two, this story line is reminiscent of Colin Firth and his foreign housekeeper in Love Actually. There’s also an engaged couple where the would-be groom gets cold feet and backs out. There’s a long-married couple where the husband has grown restless and tired of his suburban life (think Alan Rickman in Love Actually). There’s a movie star who’s tired of getting “item girl” roles and wants to play a tragic heroine, so she invents a boyfriend to make her more sympathetic to the press, and is surprised when the “boyfriend” actually shows up in real life, for a price. Perhaps the most involving story line was a young husband and wife very much in love when tragedy strikes and causes the wife to have amnesia, completely forgetting her husband and their love. The end of the movie ties everything up a little too neatly, but hey, it’s Bollywood. That’s what the people pay to see. But the ending is also hilarious – the best part of the movie. At that point you care so much about all the characters, and when they all come together at the end I was laughing hard at the ensuing quirky events.
Salaam Namaste. This comedy is another one of my favorites, starring Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan. They do that thing where they start off hating and end up loving, but it’s hilariously done. The two leads are so quirky and stubborn that their chemistry is brilliant. It has all the familiar elements, but the writing is so great and the coming timing is perfect. The songs are modern but energetic and fun. You really start to care about the characters and love them. And…this is one of the rare Bollywood movies where you’ll see kissing…and more!
Taal. This was the second Bollywood movie I ever saw, after Lagaan, which was released in the U.S. Taal was not, but it was recommended as a rental by film critic Roger Ebert. This was when I was first exposed to the cheese factor and (until recently) low production values typical of Bollywood, but I was also exposed for the first time to Bollywood princess Aishwarya Rai. There are some really good songs in this movie, which also help. Aishwarya is a country girl who meets a big city boy, and they fall in love. But city boy goes back to the city and doesn’t really stand up for her there when she visits him. Then she herself becomes a big city girl and finds another boy…but never forgets her roots or her first love.
Veer-Zara. This is a fairly contemporary love story that spans many years. I found it to be beautiful and touching with an unexpected ending. We begin by meeting an Indian prisoner held in a Pakistan jail. It is Veer, played by Shah-Rukh Khan. A young but determined human rights lawyer, played by Rani Mukherjee, believes he is innocent and tries to get him to open up about his past and how he ended up in the jail. Slowly, he reveals in flashbacks how he met a Pakistani girl named Zara, played by Priety Zinta. He falls in love with her, but then it is revealed that she is promised (of course) to another. Will said engagement come to marriage? Will Veer stop it? How did he end up in jail for the last 22 years? Will he ever get out? Watch and see.
Hum Ko Deewana Kar Gaye