So we are still on community quarantine and that means you are probably sitting in front of your computer wondering what else to watch because you have already burned through your bookmarked episodes of TV shows, Netflix series, and movies. If you are at a loss as to what shows to line up next now that you have so much free time, fret not, my friend!
Throughout the years, I have held some sort of reputation among my friends as that guy who is crazy about anything Indian. I must admit that it is also a weird and inexplicable fascination for Indian culture, art, food, people, and of course, film. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I feel a very strong connection to India and this has manifested in my devotion to Hindi cinema, or in colloquial terms, BOLLYWOOD! Unbeknownst to many, I almost finished my Masters’ thesis in Political Science which was supposed to be on the soft power implications of exporting Hindi-language films. You see, films and media have a huge power to make a country more inviting and desirable for others. This is what Japan and Korea did with J-Pop and K-Pop respectively. I may have enjoyed watching hundreds of Bollywood films that I never got to do much of writing part.
Bollywood movies have a reputation for being long, boring, dragging, and clichéd, but what have you got to lose? You’re stuck at home with nothing to watch. However, like anyone who was fascinated by the seminal 3 Idiots, people just need a good gateway drug to be able to enjoy this whole new world of film. Lucky for you, I took the liberty of compiling the list of Hindi-language films that I really enjoyed. There are simply hundreds and hundreds of great Bollywood classics, but I am giving you the ones that are readily available for your viewing pleasure on Netflix. I have curated this list to be a good tour of Indian cinema, so I suggest you watch it in the recommended order.
Let’s start with:
(1) Bombay Talkies/Lust Stories
If your only initiation to Bollywood is 3 Idiots and want to delve deeper into the core of Hindi cinema, these two movies (related anthologies by different Bollywood superstar directors) are a good primer to very culturally specific themes that are prevalent in Hindi movies. You have caste and class struggles, taboo topics of sexuality and sexual identity, sex, poverty, and the Indian dream of making it big in Bollywood. These movies represent the new breed of Hindi cinema which tackles touchy and sensitive political topics that almost exclusively used to belong to the indie genre. These movies do not belong to the masala genre, which is what most people’s assumption of what Bollywood is (more on this later). You will also get a first state of who’s who in Bollywood, as these well-made collection of mini-films feature the biggest and brightest stars in the pantheon of Hindi cinema gods and goddesses (wait until the closing credits of Bombay Talkies for a curtain call of Bollywood’s billionaire superstars).
(2) Om Shanti Om
The masala style that is typical in Bollywood is usually characterised by melodrama, action, suspense, and romance, usually 3-hour long format that requires serious commitment. Squeaky falsetto singing, erupting into dance, and almost too cheesy love story plants, they’ve got it all for you! If you want a taste of what actual Bollywood is and should be, this film, which features none other than Bollywood’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, is a good starting base. It also features Deepika Padukone, who is quite frankly the most stunningly gorgeous among the Bollywood heroines. Throw in a subplot about reincarnation (yes I know, you can’t get any more India than that) and you’ll have a merry go round of light, satisfying, and and cutesy feels all throughout.
(3) Jodha Akbar
Speaking of stunningly gorgeous heroines, Aishwarya Rai makes an appearance as Hindu Rajput princess who was set to marry a Muslim emperor (this line of Mughal emperors eventually gave us the Taj Mahal, fyi). This historical epic is a must-watch, not only because of the scale and the grandeur of the battle scenes, but also because of how cute Hrithik Roshan is in all of his scenes (of course). At the time of its filming, the movie set budget records since it had thousands of extras in certain dance and fight scenes. This movie also gives some historical context to the age-old conflict of Muslim-Hindi intermarriages, which you’ll find as a very common theme in subsequent movies.
After the Mughal conquests, let’s fast forward a bit to the British occupation of India. If you don’t know a single damn thing about cricket, this movie will be a very good introduction to the Commonwealth’s favourite sport. Like Jodha Akbar, the scale of the movie Lagaan was so massive that a documentary (bonus: it’s also on Netflix) detailed how difficult it was to pull off this movie, which was shot in a very hot, very dry, very dusty desert I liked this movie because it gave me a good understanding of how cricket is played, and of course, because everyone wants a triumphant and inspiring sports movie. The song numbers are also quite infectious. This is a very important Hindi language film, above all things, because it marries India’s two favourite past-times: cinema and cricket. It also features Aamir Khan of 3 Idiots fame. Bonus: Another Aamir Khan sports victory movie is Dangal, which is a true-to-life story of girls who made it to the Indian National Olympic Wrestling teams; also available on Netflix.
After back-to-back historical and period epics, let’s cleanse our palates with an ultra-modern Disney hit (just like Lagaan, Disney also produced this movie). I recommend this movie, not for its substance or depth but for its glitz and gloss. Sonam Kapoor isn’t much of an actress (at least in this movie. If you can find her other movie, Neerja, watch it! No spoilers here), but this movie, in all its saccharine teenybopper superficiality, is redeemed by the bloody attractive Fawad Khan who never has a bad angle. Inside chismis: Fawad Khan is actually Pakistani, and after a few light roles in several Hindi movies where he did nothing but ooze sex appeal in every scene, he got banned from making films in India due to age-old conflicts between the two countries. Geopolitical issues figure in Bollywood, of course, and India and Pakistan are figurative oil and water. (Note: not a lot of people know that Urdu and Hindi are pretty much the same language, and save for a few differences, Pakistani actors can actually successfully fare in Hindi cinema).
(6) Delhi Belly (7) Andhadhun (8) Kahaani
After the sickly sweet treat that is Khoobsurat, explore the darker side of Hindi cinema with these dark comedy features. I love Delhi for its classic noir comedy style. Andhadhun’s plot is just so clever and very, very original (Ayushmann Khuranna is also not bad looking, like, at all). Kahaani’s plot twist is very intriguing, and this one is a very good peek into non-traditional Bollywood plots that really push the envelope in terms of social commentary. These three “woke” films are the future of Bollywood.
I would certainly be remiss if I did not include at least one Amitabh Bachchan movie in this list. It would be sacrilege to the OG King of Bollywood. This procedural/crime drama tackles one of India’s most pressing issues: rape and sexual violence against women. I give this film 6 stars out of five.
(10) Zindagi na Milegi Dobara
And finally, after a comprehensive tour of Indian cinema, let’s round off this list with a stag party trip to Spain with these ogle-worthy Bollywood crushes: Abhay Deol, Hrithik Roshan, and Farhan Akhtar. I included this one in the list because of the star-studded cast (it co-stars Kalki Koechlin and Katrina Kaif, both raised in Europe from half Indian backgrounds, and made it big in Bollywood as heroines). I also wanted to include this one because it offers a peek into the dimensions of Indian cinema that were the central themes of my thesis proposal (before I bunked off and called it quits, since I could not quite defend to my panel why a Political Science major wanted to write a dissertation on attractive Indian men): a, that Indian cinema has increasingly catered to its NRI (expat Indians living abroad) market, b. that Bollywood has renewed its interest in bringing audiences to new destinations (it has done this in the past. Just remember Kajol, thinly clad in a chiffon sari, running around the snowy mountains of Switzerland, absolutely freezing her ass off), and in turn, boosting Indian tourism to those areas, and lastly, c. the universal appeal of conveying the image of India that is modern and progressive.
I hope this exhaustive list can get you started on a binge on more Indian films, because there is simply too many of them that it would take you ages to even make a dent. Give these titles a go and let me know what you think!