And now I would like to offer a few more movie recommendations for the uninitiated, from the only-recently initiated. I’ve never been one for plot summary. Instead, I’ll tell you a snippet about what struck me, while also trying to convey a little something about why Bollywood has captured my heart. (BTW — if you’re only going to watch one — skip to the end of the list.)
In no particular order:
Dil To Pagal Hai (“The Heart Is Crazy”). This movie contained a lot of silly stuff about fate, a very silly ending, and some spectacularly silly scenes of people frolicking in fields, including a few places where Madhuri Dixit throws herself to the ground with romantic abandon, except that every time, it looks like she just tripped, so you’re worried, until you realize that she is prostrate due to being enraptured rather than injured. Despite all that silliness, three things in this movie charmed me completely. (1) It’s a movie about a dance troupe; consequently, the dancing is really, really good. (2) By the end of the movie, I just adored the character of Nisha (played by Karisma Kapoor). There’s a scene where she’s angry with god and yells at the sky; I loved it, and also loved Rahul for being such a good friend to her (a lot of people in his situation wouldn’t be). (3) The song/dance “Koi Ladki Hai” wins the prize for cuteness, in addition to which, it demonstrates one of my favorite things about Bollywood movies: they use monsoons to great dramatic effect ^_^. Watch it here — really, do — and as you watch it, keep in mind these lyrics. The children sing: “With the gait of a horse, with the majesty of an elephant, O king of the rains, where are you from?” The guy sings: “I know a girl, when she smiles, it rains.” The girl sings: “I know a boy, when he sings it rains.” So cute! I especially love the part where they go to the hospital to cheer up Nisha, who sneaks out against her doctors’ orders. I… can’t explain the part where they roll Shah Rukh Khan back and forth on a table. Just… don’t ask me. This movie is directed by Yash Chopra and stars Karisma Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, and Madhuri Dixit.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”). This movie is hysterically funny both when it means to be and when it doesn’t. The actress Preity Zinta stole my heart in this one. Shah Rukh Khan wears a pair of orange cargo pants at one point that should be banned, but I forgive him completely due to this dance at the best engagement party ever. This movie is directed by Nikhil Advani and stars Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan, and Saif Ali Khan.
Chalte Chalte (“While Walking”). This movie is funny and surprisingly sweet-but-not-too-sweet. It includes a moment I love love LOVE when the man, Raj, is crying, and the woman, Priya, goes to him to see what’s wrong. His response: “I just felt like crying.” One thing I love about Bollywood is that tears are not a sign of weakness. Strong people, both men and women, are always crying. And then they get up and do strong things, just like a lot of frequent criers do in real life. I just love this! Chalte Chalte is directed by Aziz Mirza and stars Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji (whose name I’ve seen transliterated in various ways: Mukherjee, Mukherji, Mukerjee).
Veer-Zaara. Another movie that uses the monsoon to great dramatic effect, in a gorgeous and dramatic scene that is peppered with the world’s most hilarious subtitled lyrics. For example, “A besotted lover has appeared at your door” and “Your love story has reached a critical juncture.” I don’t know how accurate these translations are, or, if accurate, whether the sentiment is as funny/sweet in Hindi as it is in English — in this sense, the movie I watch will always be different from the movie a Hindi-speaker watches — but the surprising use of language is one of the things I love about these movies. It’s especially touching when a dramatic or sad scene is awkwardly expressed in the English subs. Somehow, the feeling still comes across and lodges itself in my heart even as I’m laughing. With Veer-Zaara, I’m not kidding about the beauty and the drama — this movie is sad and powerful (and very, very long. I mean, they’re all long, but some feel longer than others). This movie is directed by Yash Chopra and stars Shah Rukh Khan (in the role of Veer), Preity Zinta (in the role of Zaara), and Rani Mukerji (IMO, in the role of the hero!).
Billu. Billu is a barber who claims to have once been friends with the man who is now the country’s biggest movie star — and now that superstar has come to town to shoot a movie. The superstar character, named Sahir Khan and played by Shah Rukh Khan, actually made me uncomfortable at times, because someone made the directorial decision to reference Shah Rukh Khan’s real-life fame and real-life resumé (rather than giving his character a made-up resumé), which kept kicking me out of the pretend world of the movie. For example, Sahir Khan wears a coat that says “King Khan” across the back — well, that’s one of Shah Rukh Khan’s real-life nicknames. And posters of Sahir Khan’s movies are hanging all over the town — but actually, they’re posters of Shah Rukh’s real-life movies. Add to this the way Sahir Khan is utterly revered to the point of absurdity, and Sahir’s Khan’s seeming arrogance about the level of reverence afforded him (though only in the beginning of the movie), and it started to feel a little bit gross. On the other hand, it did say some interesting things about the surreality of Shah Rukh Khan’s actual celebrity, which is, IMO, one of the most fascinating fame phenomena currently happening in the world. I’m just not sure that that particular commentary fit into this movie. It overwhelmed the Billu portions of the movie at times, and a similar point about the surreality of fame could have been made without real-life SRK being referenced so often. I wonder what the movie would have been like if SRK had played the barber and Irrfan Khan the superstar? The reason to watch this movie — aside from the fame stuff that will give you a lot to think about — is Irrfan Khan’s sweet and understated performance as Billu the barber. It’s directed by Priyadarshan and stars Irrfan Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Lara Dutta — AND — for those hesitant to sit down to a 3-hour film — this one clocks in at a tidy 2 hours and 17 minutes.
Dhoom (“Blast”). Um. I didn’t actually love this movie. But I thought it was time I showed some evidence that I do watch Bollywood movies that don’t star Shah Rukh Khan. :D? This one had motorcycles and badass cops and robbers and I got a little tired of the way the women were depicted. But I liked actor Uday Chopra. He’s a goofball. Plus, this movie was referenced in a couple of other movies I saw, and it was nice to get the references. Dhoom was very successful in India; Dhoom 2 has since been released. It was directed by Sanjay Gadhvi and stars Abhishek Bachchan, Uday Chopra, John Abraham, Esha Deol, and Rimi Sen.
Swades (“Homeland”). To counteract the icky, this movie has a woman named Gita, played by Gayatri Joshi, whose head is in the right place. Of course, the man is still the hero. You weren’t thinking otherwise, were you? You crazypants you! But I really, really liked Gita. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and starring Joshi and — all together now — Shah Rukh Khan as Mohan, an engineer working for NASA who goes back home to India for a visit. Shenanigans ensue. I wonder what Indians thought of this movie? As I watched it, I wished I had an Indian cultural understanding of all that was going on. Gita accuses Mohan of being a “Non-Returning Indian” at one point, which is a play on the acronym “NRI,” which means “Non-Resident Indian.” There was clearly political, economic, and cultural stuff going on that I wasn’t getting completely. I was also dealing with my own discomfort with movies in which a person from the USA goes to some distressed part of the world and saves that place with his “superior American-ness.” That happens so often in American movies and it usually grosses me out. But this wasn’t an American movie, this was an Indian movie, and the man who brings positive change is not actually American, he’s Indian. My triggers don’t know what to do with that. The wikipedia article is interesting. Apparently Swades it was well-received critically in India but a flop at the box office. There seems to be ambivalence. Anyway, I liked the characters and relationships.
Devdas (the version directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali). I’m not going to say, “Poor Devdas,” because Devdas is cruel, pathetic, and destructive — but don’t take that to mean that I didn’t care about him or love the movie. This is the first Bollywood movie to make me cry my eyes out. It’s based on a book by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay that I haven’t read, and there are earlier movie versions that I haven’t seen. This version is apparently quite different, and one complaint I’ve read is that in this version, the prostitute (Chandramukhi) and the high-class lady (Paro), both of whom love Devdas, become friends with each other, which never happened in the original. Well. That was actually my favorite thing about the movie. I liked that the women had lives and relationships of their own and could recognize that they had something in common at heart despite drastically different social standings (though ironically identical social circles); I liked that while Devdas went off and destroyed himself, he couldn’t quite destroy them, because they were, in fact, in touch with the parts of themselves that weren’t about him. It’s hard to know what happens after the credits roll — Paro, in particular, is in a desperately depressing situation — but I was left with the feeling that she would make sure life continued somehow. Am I grasping at straws if I think Paro and Chandramukhi have lives outside Devdas? Maybe. Iffy, overly-optimistic interpretations happen sometimes when you hate systemic sexism in the media but love movies and want to be comfortable loving movies. Sometimes you try to convince yourself that female characters are more fully-realized characters, more relevant, than they actually are; sometimes you want to believe that the women in whatever movie you’re watching are strong and that they matter, just because you’re so tired of so many other movies where they’re not and don’t. (You know what? That feels like something worth yelling. IT’S HARD IN THIS WORLD WHEN YOU HATE SYSTEMIC SEXISM AND LOVE MOVIES. SOMEONE FIX THIS PROBLEM SO THAT WE CAN CONTINUE TO LOVE MOVIES BUT NOT FEEL SO TIRED ALL THE TIME ABOUT WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT WOMEN IN THE WORLD.) But I don’t think I’m imagining what I saw in Devdas. I saw strength in Paro, in Chandramukhi, and in Paro’s mother, too. Directed by Bhansali and starring SRK, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai.
And finally. FINALLY! Are you ready for this?
Om Shanti Om. Oh, my word. I don’t even know where to start. If you’re only ever going to watch one Bollywood movie, watch this one. If you’re going to watch a few, watch this one last so that you’re better able to get the inside jokes. This movie is about the Bollywood film industry — it takes place on Bollywood film sets — and as such, it parodies its own art form. This gives the movie license to be even MORE over the top and even MORE ridiculous than these movies usually are. It’s hilarious, it’s completely sweet, it’s beautiful and flashy, and when you buy the DVD, it comes with this hysterical foldout poster of a shirtless Shah Rukh Khan that I don’t know what to do with because I’m no longer in high school and therefore don’t have a locker. This movie is awesome. There are no words. And there are a few specific things about it that make me really happy. For example, it was directed by a kickass woman, Farah Khan (who directed Main Hoon Na, which I’ve plugged here before). Also, in this movie’s item number (follow the link for a definition), instead of the usual item girl slinking around pointlessly, there’s an item boy, and gracious me, he embraces his item-ness with the appropriate fervor. This movie, and especially that song/dance I just linked to, could be the dictionary definition for “over the top.” Some of the lyrics: “There was a time when flowers were blooming all around…. What a time, when I was drunk on youth! But that time was short and I got hurt. Now I’m a wanderer, and a lover of disco, and as I wander around, my heart is full of the pain of disco. Pain of disco, pain of disco, my heart is full of the pain of disco!” When I watched it with a friend last week, she kept saying “OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.” If you watch the dance, be sure to appreciate the “earth-wind-water-fire” theme. The special features are also worth watching, and are even subtitled, so you won’t get a headache from people switching from Hindi to English and back again five times in the course of a single sentence. Watch the bloopers. It’s really funny to see SRK cracking up while filming “Dard e Disco.” Oh — and in Om Shanti Om, unlike in Billu, all the reference to the actual lives of SRK and of many other real-life actors feel completely adorable and appropriate, rather than distracting. And the fate stuff that’s so common in Bollywood movies and often has me rolling my eyes — that also fit perfectly into this movie. Directed by Farah Khan, starring SRK and introducing Deepika Padukone, who I thought did a wonderful job. WATCH THIS MOVIE.
(Relatedly, my friend and fellow writer Sarah Prineas just got back from India and has a fun Om Shanti Om-related story — read about it here. ^_^)
Goodness, this post is so long. I was going to mention more movies (there are some really important ones I haven’t mentioned yet!) and also list some of the books I’m reading, but I’ve already been going on for way too long, so I’ll merely mention the book sitting next to me at this very moment: The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History, by Jyotika Virdi. I’m trying to educate myself so that I can better understand what I’m watching. I have no doubt that I’ll post about Bollywood again. And next time, it probably won’t be All Shah Rukh All The Time. He has been my gateway drug, but I’ve got a bunch of movies in my queue now that star other people. I solemnly swear that this is true.
Penultimately, a disclaimer: the term “Bollywood” makes a lot of people unhappy. It’s a name that wasn’t chosen by the industry itself — I’ve read in the Virdi book and elsewhere that it was invented by the Indian English press — and as such, it sort of suggests that Bollywood is Hollywood’s poor cousin, or its imitator, or that Bollywood’s identity depends, in some large way, on Hollywood, none of which are true. Unfortunately, the term has stuck and is used now by the industry itself. So I use it, too, for lack of another term, and as a shortcut for the Mumbai film industry.
And finally: here are a couple rare moments of (adorable) joy from Devdas. The first is a song called “Chalak Chalak.” It basically extols the merits of madeira (sample line: “this madeira showers a rain of memories”), it’s sung by Udit Narayan, Vinod Rathod and Shreya Ghoshal, and it’s danced here by SRK (as Devdas), Jackie Shroff (as Devdas’s friend Chunnilal), and Madhuri Dixit (as Chandramukhi).
And here are my strong women, one proper lady and one prostitute, finding friendship and joy in life. This song is called “Dola Re Dola,” is sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy, Shreya Ghoshal and Kay Kay, and is danced here by Aishwarya Rai (as Paro) and Madhuri Dixit (as Chandramukhi).
How I love those ladies!