So you want to impress the Indian love interest in your life? Or maybe it’s your desi mother-in-law that needs some buttering up. Well I am going to help you with my ultimate guide to Bollywood for Beginners!
I truly did not know how many people from all walks of life love Bollywood movies and how many want to get into them but feel intimidated to do so. It was only last week that I posted on Instagram that I was watching one on Netflix and suddenly I had my Chinese-American, Arab, Turkish & Kenyan followers also expressing their love for Hindi cinematic pieces. Many of my non-desi friends confessed that they would love to watch one in order to understand more about the culture and asked me for recommendations. And that’s how this list was born- these are my recommendations for non-desi people to ease themselves into the masala-filled world of Bollywood movies.
Pretty sure Bollywood is not your thing?
Stick around, I may just persuade you. (I’m pretty persuasive.)
Note: This Bollywood for Beginners guide covers what Bollywood is, where to start watching and with some helpful pointers and slightly biased recommendations, give you enough to bluff through any conversation with an Indian Aunty. You’ll be quite proficient when we’re through. Let’s get started!
So what is Bollywood?
Bollywood is the popular name for the mainstream Hindi film industry based in Mumbai, which each year produces around 800 films and sells 4 billion tickets. Historically Bollywood’s appeal has been based around family-friendly entertainment, with songs, elaborate dance sequences and heroic action scenes sprinkled across 180 minutes of escapist, tear-jerking melodrama. Unfortunately this term has also become synonymous with images of movies with weak storylines, an overload of dance sequences and poor acting. However try any of the movies on my list and you’ll find this image to be very much wrong!
Note: Bollywood is only a small part of all the Indian film industry and there are much more movies in other Indian languages such as Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam etc.
Where to watch these?
All of the movies mentioned are available to rent via iTunes or Amazon — quite a few are streaming on Netflix. And if you’re hooked, pick up the Amazon Prime add-on channel Heera which has Bollywood movies for days.
There’s nothing that qualifies me to compile this list (despite a degree in Media Studies with a minor in film studies) other than the fact that Bollywood movies were a massive part of my childhood and represent one of the aspects of my culture that I do occasionally enjoy. Please note that I’ve never been a huge aficionado of Indian cinema and only watch 1-2 Bollywood movies a year; I look for strong storylines and powerful acting.
P.S. I’m only Indian by ethnicity and English is my first language.
So if you’re interested in delving into this world, here is my guide to Bollywood for Beginners!
Start with the movies that have been released in the last 20 years… as lovely as Bollywood may have been in the 90’s and earlier, it was also incredibly cheesy and predictable.
Best to get started with…
3 Idiots (2009)
One of the most commercially-successful Bollywood films of all time, I didn’t realise the universal appeal of this movie until I moved to South Korea and saw it playing in Korean cinemas! The movie highlights the struggles of the strict education system in India, the gendered nature of the system and its dire consequences. The lead actor, Aamir Khan, is unarguably one of the most versatile actors in the industry and you’ll see his name pop up a few times on this list.
Best for anyone…
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)
A movie that really has everything going for it from humour, great songs, family drama and a plot twist, this is the best movie to start with if you’ve never watched a Bollywood movie before. The film is incredibly touching and just hearing some of the songs move me. Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta … the film teamed these fine actors and created a collage of romance, comedy and of course tragedy. Polar has watched this movie twice that’s saying something!
Best for being totally captivated…
The love story of an Indian Sikh and a Pakistani Muslim. This is one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful films to come out of Bollywood. The film highlights that it is not religion or nationality which brings two people close together, but humanity. The outfits, Preity Zinta’s wardrobe, the injustice of a cruel world and the INSANELY good music makes this movie one of my all-time favourites. Divya Dutta and Rani Mukherjee also do a wonderful job as supporting actors here. Forget Romeo and Juliet, Veer and Zaara have stolen the crown as the greatest love story ever told.
Best for an understanding of British Colonialism…
Set in 1893, the story focuses on an Indian village standing up against colonial cruelty by challenging the British to a cricket match. With this fascinating premise, it’s no wonder that it was the first Indian film in almost 50 years to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and garnered universal critical acclaim along with tremendous commercial success. Lagaan is a full blown Bollywood epic starring Aamir Khan and showcasing a love of cricket (told you he would feature again!). If you want an idea of what life was like in India during British rule, this is a good place to start.
Best for relevant social issues…
Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
On the surface level, this is a story about a family of rich socialites that seem to not have a care in the world, but they all suffer from problems rooted in larger societal issues such as gender inequality, the stigma of divorce, class difference, adultery and so many others. This film was a recent watch of mine and I could relate to so many aspects of toxic desi culture that I myself have been on a victim of.
Best for an understanding into family dynamics…
Kapoor & Sons (2016)
A movie about family dysfunction that all of us can relate to- desi or not. A gentle movie that showcases family flaws, wounds, losses, resentments and regrets. It’s about the pain families inflict on each other – the slights, big and small. And it’s about the ties that bind and the love that endures. A slow movie with well-developed characters which seems disjointed in the first half, but comes together beautifully in the latter half.
Best for seeing how Indian communities handle same sex love…
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2001)
An unconventional choice to be on this list, I really think this movie is sorely underrated. This movie is for the ones who are shunned, who are never accepted into the fold of ‘mainstream’ society. The love stories that are not spoken about. Still very much a taboo in the community, this was the first mainstream Bollywood movie to tackle same sex love. It is an important film for the times we live in. It was not a blockbuster. But it might just have changed the way you look at love.
Let’s move on to the classics; once you have an understanding of the basic premise of modern Bollywood movies, you can move on to the iconic ones. These were the movies that shaped us, gave us unrealistic expectations about love and references to them are still found in modern pop culture. Put on a song from any of these movies and I guarantee that any desi person nearby will know all the lyrics (and possibly dance routines too)!
Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gham (2001)
Also known as K3G, it is perhaps the most renowned Bollywood film in history, nominated for 26 domestic awards, of which it won 17. This is as Bollywood as Bollywood can get. Melodramatic overacting, tangled love stories, emotional drama, 50,000 songs. This is a film about the importance of family and the devastating consequences of conflict based on outdated social prejudices.
How could it not be a favourite? If this film doesn’t give you all the feels you may be broken inside.
A play off one of Robin Williams’s finest films- Dead Poet’s Society- this movie gives it a twist of Bollywood melodrama. Mohabbatein is a battle between what two stellar men, Narayan Shankar and Raj Aryan, stand for. Two stubborn men that live their lives with completely opposing principles. One who stands for love and everything that the heart encompasses and the other who stands for discipline and fear and who believes that love only leads to pain and weakness. It is only the eventual outcome of the love stories of 3 young students that will decide what will finally triumph- love or fear.
Adapted from a classic novel by the same name, the film’s magnificent sets, stunning costumes and glorious songs based on Indian classical music, Devdas is—if nothing else—a spectacle to behold. The son of a nobleman, Devdas spirals after his family stop him marrying the love of his life who happens to be the daughter of a former dancer. Shah Rukh Khan shines in this emotional story.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
I love and hate this movie with equal measure which is probably why you should definitely watch it. The most famous love triangle in Bollywood, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai focuses on the story of Rahul, Anjali and Tina, and the love that is expressed and goes unspoken between them. While it goes off the rails in some parts, for many of us nineties kids, it was the most famous Bollywood movie and the most memorable. Sink into the melodrama and ridiculously good music.
Dilwale Dhilhunia Lejayenge
Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj and Kajol’s Simran along with Amrish Puri’s Bauji have become a part of Hindi cinema’s legacy and still continue to enchant audiences 27 years later. A story of forbidden love as Shahrukh Khan romances his way through Europe and then half of India for the love of his life, Simran. Its everything you want a Bollywood movie to be complete with dancing in a field of flowers to disapproving dads. The beautifully composed melodies from this movie are still remembered as one of the pillars of 90s Hindi film music and you can find them playing at any wedding even today! A generation shift has happened since the release of DDLJ but for us- the ones who grew up watching Raj and Simran- we will always be just a little too invested in their world.
This list is by no means comprehensive and there are many more movies I would love to recommend (Rang de Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, Queen, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Chak De! India & many more), but these are the ones I think would be best to for you to slip into the wonderful world of Bollywood.
If you have other recommendations please leave them in the comment box below or alternatively, let me know which movie from this list you watch first!