As the leaves on the trees turn orange and drop off, the Hindu holiday of Diwali comes around again. This year the holiday falls in early November (7th-11th) and for lots of people one of the ways they celebrate Diwali is irresponsibly long Bollywood marathons. With this in mind, as a seasoned Bollywood fan and as someone who forces their friends to watch Bollywood every Diwali, I thought I would break down Bollywood for a beginner audience.
So let’s start with the simplest question, what actually is Bollywood? Bollywood is often used to describe Indian cinema, but it actually is only referring to the Hindi film industry (the ‘Bolly’ is derived from the city Bombay where most films are made). India has many different film industries to reflect the many different languages spoken in the different regions of the country, so as well as Bollywood you have Tollywood (Telugu cinema), Kollywood (Tamil cinema), and Pollywood (Punjabi cinema) among many other industries. With that being said, Bollywood is by far the most globally and culturally significant. Bollywood is also often treated like it is a genre of film instead of an industry of films, and we think of it with a lot of stereotypes such as over dramatic special effects, long song and dance numbers and heavy melodramatics. This isn’t inaccurate but it is only one type of Bollywood movie. Bollywood is as old as Hollywood and much like Hollywood it has gone through highs, lows, and recognisable trends. The Hindi film industry has experienced a lot of history, and at every point in that history classic films have been made that to this day are fixtures of Desi culture.
So now you have an idea of what Bollywood is, how about what films you should start with? The answer to this really depends, so here are a few of my recommendations of some new films, some classics, and some down right iconic Bollywood films to get you acquainted with the wonder that is Hindi cinema.
Mughal-E-Azam: This is by far the oldest film on this list, starring the iconic actress Madhubala, Mughal-E-Azam was a definitive film in Bollywood’s history. The film solidified Madhubala as a household name in India, she later would be known as the Marilyn Monroe of India due to her beauty and untimely death at the age of 36. Mughal-E-Azam follows a historical account of the Emperor Akbar and his hunt for a male heir to continue his family’s rule over India, the cinematography is beautiful and holds many early examples of Bollywood Staples.
Mr India: Another iconic film from 1987, the film stars the late Sridevi and Anil Kapoor in an action packed plotline keeping you on the edge of your seat the whole run of the film. If you like an action movie with a great storyline you will love this movie. Sridevi and Anil act brilliantly throughout and even get a few laughs in too along the way.
Khabi Kushi Khabie Gham (K3G): This film is THE Bollywood film, with a star studded cast of six of India’s most impactful actors this movie will turn you into a Bollywood fanatic within the first hour. Jam packed full of emotion, amazing songs and dance, iconic quotable lines and one of the best stories in Indian cinema history, this film has something for everyone. Don’t believe me? It has a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Jab We Met: The second Kareena Kapoor film on this list (the first being K3G) this film follows an unlikely pair as they try to catch trains, get over hurtful exes and explore the beautiful landscape of the Indian Himalayas. You also get a taste of Punjab where much of the film takes place, which is a truly beautiful part of India. The film also has the very first on screen kiss in the history of Bollywood and a soundtrack that will make it impossible to keep still listening to.
Bajirao Mastani: If you’re a history buff, you will love this film. Starring fiances Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, with Priyanka Chopra in a supporting role. The film is the second in a trilogy of films directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, famous for their regal filmography, mesmerizing music and gripping storylines. Bajirao Mastani is based on the lives of Bajirao Ballard and his second wife Mastani, dealing with religious intolerance, war, politics and the complexities of love, grab a box of tissues and settle in for a visual experience.
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani: A classical Bollywood romance story, the film again stars Deepika this time opposite Ranbir Kapoor, where she plays a nerdy girl who run off on a hike and finds a little more than adventure. Yeh Jawaani is a true feel good film that is guaranteed to turn any crappy day around. For newbies to Bollywood there’s a lot of the classical features of Bollywood movies present here such as an item number (a sexually suggestive dance routine from a guest actress) and an amazing storyline that will make this film a new favourite.
Padmavat: Easily the most controversial film on this list, this 2018 release ruffled feathers with conservative Hindu groups in India. The movie follows the life of Padmavati (played by Deepika) and her bold move to commit Jauhar (mass self immolation) to avoid her kingdom falling to a blood thirsty invading sultan. Another Bhansali film, it is full of brilliant plot, excellent costume, cinematography and a heartbreaking ending that will leave you conflicted and inspired.
Veere Di Wedding: The most recent release on this list, Veere Di Wedding is a new leaf in Bollywood, covering the topic of female sexuality and pressures of marriage in a chick flick styled package that makes the viewer laugh, gasp and root for the four main characters. Starring Kareena Kapoor and newcomer Sonam Kapoor, the film is well worth a watch with a bottle of wine and some of your closest gal pals.
So there you have it, a list of just a few of the great Bollywood films that you can watch to dip your toes into Indian cinema with this Diwali. Remember that this is only a tiny list of hundreds upon hundreds of brilliant Hindi movies from across Bollywood’s long, glamourous history, so explore more titles and jam out to some of those intoxicating Bollywood beats.