The title of this post means “Pain, Disco, Life” and was inspired by a Hindi movie title (Love Break-ups Zindagi) and an item number from Om Shanti Om (Dard-E-Disco). Because you can’t do Bollywood without doing inside jokes.
A few months ago I fell into a Hindi cinema hole so large I’m picking-up a new language. My oldest daughter (22) asked me for a curated list of Bollywood movies available on Netflix Canada to get started and I was all too happy to oblige. Netflix Canada’s Bollywood selection varies, with movies going in and expiring out of its roster. It makes drawing a proper list somewhat tricky but I’m not one to shrink before a good challenge, especially when it involves watching a lot of movies.
Before we get into it, a little Bollywood 101 goes a long way in smoothing-out the culture shock. Hindi cinema has its own Gestalt, its own tropes and its own psychology, not to mention its own star system. The singularities of Hindi cinema can be jarring, endearing or puzzling, sometimes all three at the same time.
1. Bollywood is a place (or a language), not a genre.* (see update below this paragraph) The term “Bollywood” refers to either the movie industry based in Mumbai or the Hindi-language movie industry. The term Bollywood is often used by non-Indians to describe Masala — like the spice mix — movies, a particular genre of highly produced entertainment in which mega-stars lead a mash-up of action, romance, and musical comedy. But Bollywood also releases small independent films, films about serious topics and art-house type projects. Moreover, the Hindi-language movie industry represents about half of India’s total movie output. Regional movie scenes such as the South Indian film industry include five more film cultures, as does Northern India with the Punjabi movie scene, and Western India with the Marathi movie industry. It goes on
* I was corrected on Twitter for writing that Bollywood was a place not a genre. Two different points were brought up: (1) The Marathi (a language) movie industry is also based in Mumbai, so Bollywood cannot be the movie industry based in Mumbai since that would include the Marathi movie industry; and (2) Bollywood is actually a genre, describing the mainstream Hindi movie industry. I’m posting this correction as an update to the original post rather than a full-on correction because opinions vary amongst observers and writers, and also because “mainstream” is not a genre. I read enough different takes on what exactely is Bollywood to know one thing: ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So here’s the Wikipedia entry for the term “Bollywood” where it’s described as “the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai” and a bunch of other things too. Do with it what you please and have fun!
Bollywood is a questionable term anyway. The term “Bollywood” conflates the words “Bombay” and “Hollywood” and suggests a comparison between the two film-making industries, placing “Hollywood” as the standard against which Hindi cinema is measured. The Hindi cinema industry stands on its own and doesn’t need to be compared to Hollywood. In fact, it eclipses Hollywood both in terms of output and ticket sales. Bollywood Stars are also better-known in Asia, Russia (because of years of embargo on U.S. movies) and the Middle-East than Hollywood Stars, although American movie stars are better paid and tend to rank higher on “Best Paid Actors” list worldwide. In this post, I’ll use the term Bollywood because it’s more readily understood than “Hindi cinema” but as a rule I prefer using “Hindi cinema” to describe, well… Hindi cinema.
2. Bollywood actors are lip-syncing marvels. For all the singing and dancing in Indian movies, I don’t know a lot of Indian actors who are genuine singing-dancing-and-acting “triple threats.” Actors act and dance but the songs are lip-synced. Movie songs are performed by playback singers, a class of performers with its own cult following and its own credits. Hollywood loves to believe that performers do everything but Bollywood has no such qualms.
3. Bollywood is a dream world for movie geeks because it loves referencing itself. Once you start spotting the references to other movies you can’t stop. All the biggest movies — and some smaller ones — feature cameo appearances (called “friendlies”). Sometimes, the biggest artists will make a 2-minute appearance as a side-character somewhere in the corner of a movie, sometimes they’ll come and dance for a music number. Like self-reference, spotting the friendlies is one of the most entertaining parts of watching Hindi movies. In this video, Bollywood’s Man of the Hour Ranbir Kapoor makes a 30 second appearance in the very last scene of Love per Square Foot. Just a little Easter egg for the fans:
4. Bollywood is a family business. In Indian cinema, nepotism is the name of the game. Several stars have questionable acting chops but the right family name and it’s not uncommon to hear of an actor doing engineering school in America or Great Britain and returning to Mumbai to start his or her film career. They just step into it. Some notable exceptions are mega star Shah Rukh Khan and critics’ darlings Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
5. In Bollywood, most movies have a romantic and coming-of-age story rolled into their primary genre. Since my favourite movies are coming of age stories and rom-coms, I fell madly deeply in love with Bollywood. Bollywood producers pride themselves in using little to no special effects, which makes their action movies an acquired taste. This list reflects my personal preferences and the fact that I haven’t watched everything available on Netflix (yet). Actor Shah Rukh Khan’s production company, Red Chiles Entertainment, made its catalogue available on Netflix which explains — beyond my own infatuation with the guy — why so many movies on my list have him in the lead. There are other actors in Bollywood. Or so I’m told.
Let’s get started!!
Two rom coms:
Love per Square Foot is the first Netflix original movie from India and the first Hindi movie that turned up on my suggested list. It features Vicky Kaushal *swoon* in the lead … and other people too. This movie does a good job of relating the crowded working class feel of Mumbai in a light-hearted way. As an intro to Hindi movies, Love per Square Foot introduces a few mainstays of Hindi cinema such as a train scene, a wedding, meddling relatives and the happy mishmash of religion and culture within the Indian lived experience.
Jab We Met was the second Hindi movie I saw on Netflix, before I understood how different Hindi cinema was from Hollywood tropes. I stopped watching after the first half-hour, just after hero Aditya runs into heroine Geet. In Hollywood, every scene following the meet-cute propels the story in the same direction and toward the same conclusion. I didn’t think I could handle two more hours of Geet talking Aditya’s ear off and him looking pissed. Big mistake. This movie introduced me to the conventional structure of Indian movies where a story and its sequel inhabit a 2.5 hour running time. Both lead actors were critically acclaimed but there is little argument that Kareena Kapoor’s versatile performance made the film the classic it became. This movie hits all the squares of Bollywood bingo with a train scene, a road trip, a rain scene and the beginning of a wedding. The soundtrack by Pritam is still popular today. In the clip below, Jab We Met director Imtiaz Ali explains the “Hotel Decent” scene. This is the scene that turned the movie around for me, when I realized that there was more to the characters of Aditya and Geet than I first thought. The movie excerpts in the You Tube video are not subtitled but Imtiaz Ali explains them in English so you’ll get the gist of it:
One thing India does really well is the plucky underdog story. Here are two sports movies that showcase the Indian competitive spirit in all its beauty (Lagaan) and questionable implications (Dangal):
Lagaan was one of only three Indian movies ever nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category. It was shot in the Kutch desert in a village created out of nothing for the purpose of the movie. Starring Aamir Khan (who also produced the movie with his then-wife ), it used over 2000 extras from neighbouring villages, many of whom had never seen a movie. The making-of Lagaan, Madness in the Desert (also available on Netflix Canada) will give you a new perspective on the labour of love involved in producing this stunning epic. The soundtrack by A.R. Rhaman is, in my opinion, one of the best soundtracks Bollywood has produced and it’s available on Spotify. One thing I particularly enjoy about Hindi cinema is its ability to tell a story where circumstances are the villain, without having to add villainous characters and twisted plot lines to rub it in. In Lagaan, two worthy women fall in love with the same man and the cricket game is played — and won — fair and square.
Also produced and lead by Aamir Khan, Dangal is a biopic about wresler-turned-father-turned-coach Mahavir Phogat. Worthy of note: the opening scene of the movie depicting younger Mahavir was filmed last. Aamir Khan gained weight to play older Mahavir then took three months to work-off the weight and re-buff to be his best-looking-self for the film’s promotion. The soundtrack by Pritam kicks ass and is available on iTunes. Here is one of the songs from Dangal in which Mahavir works his daughters to exhaustion:
Bollywood loves referencing itself and nowhere is that celebrated like it is in movies about Bollywood. Here are two movies from Bollywood about Bollywood:
Billu is a comedy-drama featuring two of my favourite actors, my artsy side Irrfan Khan and my guilty pleasure Shah Rukh Khan. Irrfan Khan is the main character of the story and Shah Rukh plays himself in what amounts to an extended cameo. The three song numbers featured in Billu were choreographed by Farah Khan and act a subtle spoofs of Shah Rukh’s typical roles. In each number, he is accompanied by one of the three biggest actresses in Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor, also making surprise appearances. I would love to see sequel of Billu with Shah Rukh and Irrfan hitting the road together.
Om Shanti Om is a cult classic and a solid 3h of pure entertainment. Directed by Farah Khan and introducing Deepika Padukone in her debut role, it is a giant celebration of Bollywood deftly threading between self-reference, self-congratulation and self-deprecation. It’s so full of Bollywood geekery that you have to re-watch it at regular intervals as you discover Hindi cinema to get the jokes you previously missed. A parody of the Filmfare Awards — India’s main award show — has about 60 cameos from Bollywood royalty (see clip below).
A mainstay of Bollywood criticism is that it’s all about entitled actors lip-syncing while gyrating around trees. Here are two movies showing that Bollywood can tackle tough topics without sacrificing lip-syncing, gyrating and Bollywood royalty:
I stopped watching the first 30 minutes of this movie three times before I finished it. It has been revealing itself to me ever since. One interesting thing about discovering a foreign movie scene is discovering a new culture through its cinematic tropes. Hindi romantic movies have a bit of a stalker trope that I found off-putting as a white Canadian. In the first half of Dil Se, Shah Rukh Khan’s character Amar pursues a woman with an insistence that made me uncomfortable but I assumed it was a cultural idiosyncrasy rather than a plot point. I later realized that the arc of the two main characters ran in parallel: one pursuing love to the point of obsession and one pursuing revolutionary goals to the same irrational point. Meghna believes that violence can avenge the past, Amar believes that love can erase the past, both are wrong and both are pursuing their ideals with single-minded passion. The movie opens with Shah Rukh Khan dancing on top of a moving train in one of Hindi cinema’s most iconic item number, Chaiyya Chaiyya. The lyrics of the song, written by Gulzar, preface the progression of Amar’s love from curiosity to infatuation to love to obsession toward its dramatic conclusion. It’s a tour-de-force that shows what a group of creative people at the top of their game can accomplish together.
Udta Punjab! is a drama about the drug abuse crisis in the Indian state of Punjab. It pairs two established actors (Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor) with two of the most promising up-and-coming actors in Bollywood (Alia Bhatt and Diljit Dosangh, a Punjabi musician who made his film debut in Udta Punjab!). Udta Punjab! manages to break difficult and dramatic storylines with moments of pure levity. Shahid Kapoor gives a performance unlike any he’s given before and Kareena Kapoor Khan shows (once again) that she is secure enough in her stardom to take understated roles and let lesser-known actors shine around her.
Two (three) excellent movies about modern India in its many shapes:
Swades is an uplifting drama from Ashutosh Gowarinker, the creative force behind Lagaan. It features Shah Rukh Khan in one of his most restrained (and celebrated) performances. Swades was inspired by the true life story of a non-resident Indian couple who returned to India to develop a pedal power generator providing electricity to remote, off-the-grid village schools. Like every movie I have recommended so far, it has an excellent soundtrack composed by A.R. Rahman with lyrics by Javed Akhtar.
The Parallel Cinema movement in India presents an alternative to the mainstream movies associated with Bollywood. It usually delves in sociopolitical issues and rejects the song-and-dance numbers many associate with Hindi cinema. Dhobi Ghat is a mesmerizing dive into the interconnected lives of four characters. It starred Aamir Khan who had to fight the director — his wife Kiran Rao — to get the part. Rao was concerned that Aamir’s popularity would prevent the shooting team from filming Mumbai in its natural state, since crowds would surely follow Aamir everywhere he went. Aamir’s part was shot almost entirely from inside a flat in an older locality of Mumbai, where he moved incognito in the middle of the night and didn’t leave for 3 weeks. The movie opened at the Toronto International Film Festival to critical acclaim.
I had to add a third one to this list after seeing it. This is not a singing-and-dancing Bollywood but it manages to wrap a hopeful ending into a difficult narrative. Set in present-day Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Masaan is an exploration of gender and class under a strict moral code and an unforgiving caste system. It was Vicky Kaushal’s breakthrough performance. Visually, the film does a superb job of conveying the bustling — and often conflicting — interaction of ancient culture and modern life in a city considered the spiritual capital of India.
India has yet to win an Oscar for the best Foreign Film. Here are two Indian submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (neither were nominated):
Paheli is a charming romantic fantasy starring Rani Mukherji, one of Bollywood’s finest actresses, alongside Shah Rukh Khan playing a double role. Double roles are, if not a mainstay of Bollywood, at least one of its idiosyncrasies. Most of the time, each role will have a distinct physical or environmental component to carry the audience along. In Paheli, both roles are physically identical and played in locales that are at least similar so the differentiation between Kishan-the-ghost and Kishan-the-merchant’s-son relies entirely on Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. Sometimes, the mischievousness of the ghost and the insecurity of the man are held in a look or a smile, but I was never confused as to which character Shah Rukh was playing at any given time, except at the very end. A fine performance and a visual feast of colour. If you dig the Shah Rukh/Rani jodi (pairing), their 2003 romance Chalte Chalte is also available on Netflix Canada.
Taare Zameen Par (2007)
Taare Zameen Par is a drama exploring the challenges and imagination of an 8 year-old boy who suffers from an unidentified learning disability. Believed to be in turns careless, recalcitrant and mentally handicapped by the adults in his life, he is sent to boarding school where he meets a teacher who can see his potential. The Star-Director of the movie, Aamir Khan, doesn’t appear until the end of the first half of the movie, casting the child as the gravitational force of the story. Unlike Dangal, in which the adult’s perspective is leading the story with little consideration given directly to its affect on the children, Taare Zameer Par is about how the adults’ perspective and assumptions affect the child. There is not too much music and dancing in that one but we’ll survive.
Ok, I’m adding this bonus to the Academy Award Category because there’s only three of these on Netflix and it seems a little disingenuous to pick only two, especially when the third one is excellent (but maybe not the best introduction to Hindi Cinema, unless you are a movie-lover). Liar’s Dice is a quiet road drama exploring the cost of human migration to cities and the exploitation of migrant labourers. It features Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a versatile Indian actor who is consistently excellent. He won a Filmfare Award for his supporting role in The Lunchbox, also on Netflix Canada (a quiet romantic drama about the budding friendship between two lonely people brought together by a rare mistake in the Mumbai lunchbox delivery system.) Nawazuddin Siddiqui also stars in the first Netflix Original series from India released worldwide on the platform, Sacred Games.
Two epic historical dramas:
Asoka is a dramatized chronicle of the early life of Emperor Ashoka the Great who ruled most of the Indian sub-continent in the 3rd century BC. Emperor Ashoka is credited with the spread of Bhuddism following his conversion. The movie depicts the star-crossed — and fictional — romance between Prince Ashoka and Princess Kaurwaki, which leads him to destructive madness and repentance. It stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor in lead roles and was critically acclaimed despite a lukewarm box office reception. Like Dil Se, this movie fully exploits the range of Shah Rukh Khan’s talent, first portraying him as the carefree romantic hero, then transforming him into the vengeful Chandashoka (evil Ashoka). Asoka was filmed using minimal special effects by Santosh Sivan, the man behind the lens for Dil Se’s Chaiyya Chaiyya, which was filmed atop a moving train with no special effects or post-production tricks.
Mughal-E-Azam is believed to be the highest grossing Hindi movie of all time when adjusted for inflation. It is certainly considered one of Bollywood’s finest. Everything about Mughal-E-Azam was extravagant for the times: the music — the budget for a single song sequence exceeded that of entire movies; the design — some sets took 6 weeks to put together; the photography — each sequence was filmed three times, once in Hindi/Urdu, once in Tamil and once in English; it was shot over 500 days — a normal schedule being between 60 and 125 days; production was delayed by the rioting surrounding India’s partition and independence in 1947; the two lead actors — who had been dating for 9 years — separated during the shoot. It goes on. But beyond the challenges it faced, this movie is worth seeing for its exploration of romantic love defeating religion, political hierarchy, social class, family and duty. A colorized re-mastered version was released in 2004 but Netflix Canada is still showing the black-and-white version except for a 30 minute interval of colour in the middle. This YouTube video is from the re-mastered release. Madhubala (the actress) and Lata Mageshkar (the voice) are hypnotizing.
Indian cinema is more than Bollywood. Segmented by language, the Hindi-language film industry is known as Bollywood. That said, the Indian regional movie industry is also thriving. Here are two Indian movies from the regional movie industry:
Baahubali – The Beginning and The Conclusion (Telugu) (2015)
Baahubali is an epic action film shot in Telugu that became a box-office phenomenon, breaking every box office record in India and becoming the third highest grossing Indian film of all time worldwide. Netflix Canada has an Hindi-dubbed version with English subtitles and a Tamil-dubbed version with English subs available. I found that the Tamil version sounded and looked less dubbed than the Hindi version, maybe because Tamil is closer to Telugu than Hindi? I have no idea. The first movie has two distinct halves. In the first half, lead actor and hunk to end all hunks Prabhas plays young Mahendra Baahubali, a curious young man rescued as an infant by a family of villagers, who falls in love with a girl. He is playful and carefree. In the second half, he plays Mahendra’s biological father Amarendra, a virtuous and beloved warrior-prince defending his kingdom against an attacking army of blood-thirsty savages. Prabhas is in his element as the latter. I found his turn as Mahendra to be a little over the top silly but didn’t realize why until he transformed into Amarendra. Prabhas has the physicality, the presence and the charisma of a king, not a starry-eyed villager.
Ok, this is the last movie I saw before writing this list and honestly I’m still processing it. Sairat, man, what can I write about this movie? Sairat’s Wikipedia page describes it as a “musical romantic drama”, which I guess it is in part, but it’s not really. In its first half, it’s the story of two college students from different castes who fall in love. Typical Bollywood? No, in fact, Sairat upends all the Bollywood cliches by having the plucky rich girl very much in charge of the relationship. The second half of the movie is an unflinching exploration of the fallout from that forbidden relationship. I read Marathi cinema described as “low on cash and high on art” and it’s an apt description of what makes Sairat stand out. It was filmed on location in rural Maharashtra on a shoestring budget of 4 crore rupees (about $500,000 US). It eventually grossed 1.10 billion rupees at the box office ($16 million US) and was remade in Punjabi and Kannada in 2017. Two young people with no acting backgrounds were cast in the lead roles. They grabbed me, put me through the wringer and haven’t let go yet. A much-awaited Hindi remake titled Dhadak will be released this Summer. I’m not sure how a mainstream Bollywood production company like Dharma Production will pull-off the doomed love story, the gritty crowded world where there is no justice, only good luck and bad luck, where modern amenities share space with feudal mentalities and violence. Sairat’s filmmaker Nagraj Majule described his movie as “a reaction to Bollywood” so it’s anyone guess whether Bollywood will honour that spirit or counter it. In the meantime, here is a video of the song Zingaat from Sairat. You can also find the remade Hindi version with Janhvi Kapoor and Isshan Khatter on YouTube, where it is surely trending. Watching both video will give you a sense of the difference between both movies at a glance.
Other movies I really enjoyed:
Hum Aapke Hain Koun
Main Hoon Na
At this point you’re probably wondering “Véronique, when does a mother of 9 children find time to watch so many movies?” and to this I will reply “Whenever” but usually while other people are sleeping. I function better on 5-6h of sleep: more and I get insomnia, less and I get migraines (so basically if I sleep more than 6h I get insomnia, which leads to sleeping fewer hours, which lead to migraines. I know it sounds like fun.) That said, the evening hours are not very productive because I’m not very focused. So I watch movies. Someday I hope to stop watching movies and start writing one. But for now, this is the stage my life will allow.