First, an apology: This is not going to be about books or even the written word. I hope that is occasionally forgivable for a book blog.
Second, a little information: America had, for a long time, the biggest film industry in the world, but times change. India now ranks #1 in the world for total film output, with America and China taking the #2 and #3 spot, respectively. Bollywood is the largest industry within India, referring to Hindi-language films produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, hence the B in Bollywood), but it is far from the only one and I have tried to reflect some of that diversity in my list. Lastly, the Indian diaspora is huge and hungry for these films, so they are available everywhere, including (sometimes) new releases at movie theaters.
Disclosure: I am a white girl who has never lived in or been to India, but almost all of these movies come from a class I took on Indian film that had an Indian teacher. I’m going to recommend one to start, and then split the other eight into musicals and non-musicals, for you to more easily navigate with your tastes.
Without further ado, here are the nine movies that I would recommend for people wanting to get into Indian film:
Start off with 1. Monsoon Wedding, which is about, you can probably guess, a family preparing for a wedding during the monsoon season. It’s less conservative than Bollywood and was made for both Indian and Western audiences, which is why I recommend it for people unfamiliar with Indian film or culture. Plus it’s a great movie! (This was, in fact, the first film we watched in the aforementioned class.)
2. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – If that admittedly small picture doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. This is my favorite Bollywood musical, about friendship and love and loss. It’s a love story that takes years to tell, which I like, and that doesn’t pretend that you can only ever love once or best, which I fucking adore more than I can even express. Plus there is a wonderfully cheesy 90s-esque dance scene.
3. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – This movie, which came out in 1995 did for Bollywood what The Little Mermaid did for animation. That is, it completely changed the game. It features the first time Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, the same couple from Kuch Kuch, graced the screen together. It’s about a young man and woman who fall in love on a European tour.
4. Swades – Also stars SRK (Shahrukh). What can I say? He is my favorite Bollywood actor. I like this one because it is a typical Bollywood musical but also has a little more politics than the ones above. Swades means homeland in Hindi and the main character is a NRI – Non-Resident Indian, aka a member of the Indian diaspora, who goes back to India for reasons I won’t go into here. But! Will he find a reason to stay?
5. Parzania – This may be harder to find, but it is a must-see for the mob scene in the beginning. Here is a little reading (two Wikipedia pages shouldn’t be too much) that will help with the background. The film is about one family that was affected by the Hindu/Muslim rioting (srsly go read those links). I really cannot stress how much I want more people to see this film. (Okay, I just realized you should also know a little about Parsis, the bigger group of Zoroastrians in Indian. The key thing, really, is that they are not Hindu or Muslim.)
6. Rang de Basanti is a very political and modern film, and as such a necessity. It’s about, to boil it down, Indian nationalism. If you do watch this, or have seen it, I’d love to talk to you about it. I have mixed feelings that I want to work through. :P
7, 8, 9. Any/all of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy: Fire, Earth, Water – These are more political, too, to the point of causing controversy in South Asia. Fire is about two women who fall in love with each other in, if I recall correctly, contemporary India. Earth is set in 1947 about Hindus/Muslims and the separation of India into India and Pakistan (this, like Parzania, involves a Parsi family*). And lastly, Water is set in 1938 about a child widow.
So there you go! Nine movies. That’s totally doable, so get started!
There are so many great Indian films and this is a really small selection, designed to get you going in Indian film without overwhelming you. Here is a more extensive (but still curated) list of Bollywood films to look at once you’re ready to take the next step!
A note to end: A crap ton of Indian films are on Netflix as of right now. Rang de Basanti, Dilwale dulhania le jayenge, Swades for my list and My Name is Khan, Jodhaa Akbar, Hum Tum, Chak de India, Dhobi Ghat, Udaan, No One Killed Jessica for the other list. I’m sure I’m missing some great movies that I haven’t seen, but you get the picture! I know a lot of people don’t have Netflix, but if you do, there is no excuse! Go watch some of these. That’s an order.
*Did you notice that the two films about Hindu and Muslim conflict feature Parsi families as protagonists? Interesting, no?