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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Your Intro to Bollywood

Even though I have been surrounded by Indian philosophy all my life, I am very new to the culture. Six years ago I started Bharatnatyam classes and found myself spending a lot of time around Indians and absolutely loving it.

At that time the only thing I knew about Bollywood was that people make fun of it. I had heard that the movies were long and overly dramatic and Americans I knew who had seen them rolled their eyes about them. But I was curious to see for myself, so I asked the girls in my dance class to recommend a first one to see.

They suggested Dil Se. I don't agree that it makes a good intro! It's very intense and very dark, and of course very long. I felt thrown in the deep end with that one. I would like to rewatch it now, since it's been several years and I've gotten a much better feel for Bollywood movies.

Now the term "Bollywood" refers to Hindi films being produced in Mumbai. There are also films in Marathi, in Tamil, and in many other Indian languages and those have their own following and are called other things. There are also movies known as "cross over." Those are movies that are either more Western in style or are filmed in the West. Mira Nair's movies are usually called cross-over (she did Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake).

I had seen Monsoon Wedding when it was in theaters, but that is far from a Bollywood style.

If people ask me now how they should get started with Bollywood movies, I recommend Swades.

I saw that one very early on too, long before I knew that the main actor in both Swades and Dil Se is one of the most popular heartthrobs, named Shahrukh Khan or SRK. I had no idea at all.

Of course, when I first saw Swades, I pronounced it "Sway-deez," which is pretty much the way that combination of letters would be pronounced in English. It wasn't until I watched it again recently and saw the title in devanagari letters in the opening that I realized it was "swah-desh" And from that I was able to understand what the title meant! This is a perfect example of why it is a mistake to write Indian languages in Roman script. :)

Swades is a good introduction because the story is easy to follow, it starts out in America so it's a good grounding for Americans trying to get into it, and the music is well integrated into the story.

After that, there are a lot of directions you could go. There are tragic epics like Dil Se or Raincoat (these aren't really my style, and I never ended up finishing watching Raincoat!), there are loads of romantic comedies like Kuch Naa Kaho, there are classics from the the 1950s like Pyaasa (which I have not seen) and Madhumati (apparently responsible for starting to spread the idea of reincarnation to the West), there are gangster movies and there are buddy comedies like 3 Idiots that came out earlier this year and I haven't been able to see yet.

The 1970s was, apparently, when the term "Bollywood" was coined, as India overtook America as the largest film producer in the world. There has been a lot of borrowing back and forth between Hindi cinema and American movies. Though probably more of a cross-over movie, Bride and Prejudice was a brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to modern India. And going the other way, the director of Moulin Rouge said he was directly inspired by Bollywood.

Music has also had a great sharing between India and America. Both filmi music (the music in Hindi movies) and Bhangra have influenced American hip-hop and vice versa.

There have been some Indian style movies written and produced in other places with various degrees of success. Slumdog Millionaire was written, directed and produced in Britain, but was based on a book by an Indian author. Marigold was a 2007 attempt done in Hollywood. I watched it recently and found it fell flat, though I can't really put my finger on why. One fantastic attempt was a Direct TV miniseries called Bollywood Hero. It stars Chris Kattan playing himself. He's frustrated that no one takes him seriously in Hollywood and he stumbles onto an opportunity to be a leading man in India, so he takes off for adventures in creating a Bollywood movie. It's very funny and it's available from Netflix.

Netflix is a great source of Hindi movies. Much more so than Blockbuster and I switched from Blockbuster to Netflix for that reason. I found that once I got the feel for it, I loved the music and dance and the long stories.


  1. Oh Bollywood! I started watching Bollywood movies about 5 or 10 years ago and I can't imagine *not* watching them now! I rent one every few months from Netflix - they have such a good selection as compared to the movie stores.

    I think that a good 'intro to Bollywood' movie might be something like Aishwarya Rai(Bachchan)'s "Bride & Prejudice" because its got the singing and dancing (along with the romantic comedy background) with English speaking actors in it.
    Admittedly, I'm partial to SRK and Aishwarya Rai movies and also romantic comedies.

  2. If you do get a chance, you should watch Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (I think I spelt it right). It's such a beautiful story and I think it's quite the 'intro to bollywood'. Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai act in that movie. It was and is my mum's all time favorite Hindi movie. Another good movie that portrays relationships and Indian society well is Karan Johar's Khabhi Khushi Khabhi Gham. It's got SRK *drools*. And Om Shanti Om - cult classic of 2008 if I'm not wrong. I watched it in excess of 20 times. Telugu cinema is also on par if not better (just my opinion)- Arundhati is one such film, try and see if they have that film with english subs, worth watching. And also Tamil cinema - Alaipayuthey portrays marital relationships and Agni Nachathiram - family relationships are all such cult films - there should be some floating about on the net with english subs. Although to be fair all around, everyone is coming up with pretty crap movies these days.

    As Mouse said, I'm also partial to SRK and Rai movies as well as Nasrudhin Shah and Nana Patekar. There is a world of cinema that beckons you Aamba.

  3. If you like hindi movies, you might like this blog.

  4. I can't believe I forgot to mention Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam! Oh my gosh, that one is my favorite of all the ones I've watched. I bought that one, I watch it over and over. So romantic!

    Om Shanti Om is on my list.

    I am also very partial to Aishwarya Rai movies. I think she is probably the most beautiful woman ever.

  5. Devdas!! I totally forgot about that movie! It's such an awesome movie. Oh and Aamba and Mouse, if you're interested in non-commercial type Hindi films, I suggest you guys watch Gulaal - the songs are magic and the movie is so good.

    Poor Aishwarya has always copped alot of fleck for being fake, it's something I never understood. The woman is trying her very best and has set a benchmark of married women still playing the lead role and all everyone can say is how plastic she is. I personally think she's a headstrong, bold and passionate woman as well as immensely intelligent and diplomatic and who can forget beautiful.

  6. These are all time favourite Hindi movies: Anand, Mili , Do Ankhen Bara Haath , Abhimaan , Geeth Gaayan Patharon Ne , Mughal-e-Azam ..I could give u the complete list if you are interested...It needs some digging out from memory :)

  7. One of my favorite Bollywood movies is Lagaan. It was probably one of the first that I watched. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend it.

    When introducing people to Bollywood movies (or at least the common romantic comedies) I tell them to get ready for a certain amount of cheesiness. If you are ready for it, I think people can embrace it more.

    There is a movie theater a few towns over from me that shows one Bollywood movie along with all the American movies. I went there for the first time a few weeks ago and the guy at the ticket counter thought I was confused when I told him what movie I wanted to watch... "um, you know that's our Indian movie, right?" I said, "it has subtitles, doesn't it?" and he said, "yeah" so I said, "alright then... thanks for the ticket!"

  8. Everyone's suggestions are welcome, keep posting them!

    Another that I enjoyed recently was Jodha Akbaar.

  9. Amba, this is about the way 'Swades 'is spellt in English. This is more about Indian Phonotics/pronouciation/dialect than about the roman spelling not matching the Devanagari one.In Bihar the 'sha' sound is pronounced as 'sa'-So Swades is pronounced that way though it is spelt swadesh in Devanagari.I can't recall similar examples right now but its there.

  10. I've often wondered this, Sita, is there a standardized way of transcribing Indian languages into roman characters?

    My trouble is simply that as an English speaker, when I see the letters "swades," I'm going to say "sway-deez." That's simply how those letters in that combination are pronounced in English. As an English speaker, I would have no way at all of knowing that that's not the pronunciation.

  11. I suppose there is but usually we go by the way we pronounce sounds in our mother tongue and try to get the similar sounds from the English alphabet.
    But people generally use the Capital letter or writing the vowel twice when indicating the long vowels,which English generally does not use.]Also I think the way we pronounce the English alphabet sounds would be different to how American,Australian or British speakers of English use.Trying to get some of the sounds right is difficult even for us ,but somehow we manage to read it right.for example distinguishing the 'd' sound of drum/damaru and the "the' sound of hindi/Dharma/then is difficult.Same for the 'N' sounds -the nga,~na[also written as gna[gnanam],N,Gna[yaGnam].I am sorry .I don't know Hindi[which we pronounce as hinthi[not the 'th' of think but the 'th' of this],and I have heard pronouncd by most westerners as 'HinDi[the sound 'D' as Dog/drum] .I have read the Bslokas in the my prayer books in English or Tamil,which also has a similar handicap when transliterating from Sanskrit. Another thing is each region has their own way of pronouncing the sounds of the sanskrit alphabet.Especially the North Indian Hindi speakers way of pronouncing Sanskrit is different from the way South Indians do.Even amongst the South Indians one can distinguish a Tamil from a Kannadiga/telugu/malayalam speakers of both English and Sanskrit.
    just my 2 paise worth ;I hope it helps.

  12. An old classic that is a must watch for connoiseurs of Indian cinema (before the "Bollywood era") is Do Bhiga Zameen (two acres of land). It is the story of a farmer whose land gets acquired by an usurer. To get back the land the hero goes to the city to become a rickshaw driver. An unforgettable line from the movie (which also pretty much summarizes Hinduism's association with Nature) is: Hero to usurer - "Dharthi to Kisan ki Maa hai...Aur Aap keh rahen hai ki mein apni Maa ko Bhej doon?". Land is the farmer's mother...and you, sir, are suggesting that I sell my mother? Touches of communism/City of Joy/Grapes of Wrath all entwine in this poignant sage. It is available in parts on youtube. (Search for "Do Bhiga Zameen part 1"). I am unsure if you would be able to understand the Hindi though.

  13. It's interesting what happens when you watch enough Bollywood ("you" in this case being an non-Indian person who hasn't grown up with it); you start to feel the same way about Bollywood stars as you do about Hollywood stars. SRK, once sort of exotic, becomes very familiar and comfortable, and you can't imagine a film without him in it (or Kareena Kapoor or Preity Zinta or Aamir Khan).

    I am fond of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and no modern Hindi film experience is complete without Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham. It's got pretty much everybody in it. I also like Luck By Chance and Mangal Pandey.

  14. Very interesting, Sita. I'll have to listen to different people chanting Sanskrit and see if I can hear differences. The way the chanting is at Chinmaya is very similar to how my parents do it, so my parents must have learned from South Indians.

    Laura, so true. If you like celebrity gossip, there's plenty there in Bollywood too. I'm on some Facebook groups for Bollywood gossip :)

    KalBhairav, thanks for the suggestion, I'll check that out! It will be a good test to see how much of the Hindi I can get!

  15. i really hurts me when someone thinks that bollywood means indian movies of all far as i have what bollywood makes is rip-off from hollywood or remake of some telugu or tamil movie.though there r some good directors in hindi, i am among many who feel that indian movies r light years behind offence intended bcoz,i'm myself an indian,n there is no denial of truth.i request that dont confine urself to hindi,india has many other languages n good movies r made in other languages.i am happy that u have mentioned the fact that india has many film industries.i would like to point out some facts about indian film industry.highest paid actor n highest paid director in indiar not from hindi.the highest budgeted movie made in india is not from hindi.the world's largest film studio(bigger than hollywood) is not that of hindi films.the highest producer of movies in india is not bollywood but tollywood(telugu films).i dont want to little hindi,but stating the fact that south indian films r not inferior to bollywood in any aspect.with this i want to make some suggestions regarding movies in other languages.

    telugu-magadheera,bommarillu,shankarabharanam(a classic on dying indian traditional art forms),arundathi,tagore(a political thriller on indian politics)

    tamil-endhiran(india's highest budgeted movie),anniyan,indian(movie on curruption),vinnaytandi varuvaya(rom-com)

    kannada-mungaru male

    marathi-harishchandrachi factory

    thank q

  16. I'm aware of movies made in other Indian languages, but I'm focused on the Bollywood right now because I'm working on learning Hindi.

    Not sure what language I'll work on next, but it will almost certainly be an Indian one and I'll be quick to find the movies!

  17. Hi Aamba, just stumbled upon your blog and I find it very interesting.

    Since you are into Bharatanatyam, I suggest some Telugu movies which are based on South Indian dance and Carnatic music.

    Shankarabaranam,Saagara sangamam,Sruthilayalu,Swathi Kiranam,Swarna Kamalam, Swathi muthyam are some of the movies on classical music by a legendary director named K.Vishwanath. You might find them online or on youtube with English subtitles.


  18. Thank you for the suggestions! I love to watch classical dancers and I do enjoy carnatic music.