Bollywood for Beginners: 10 Best Films From the Past

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Handsome heroes and gorgeous heroines that break into song and dance, running through spectacular vistas, longing looks, melodrama, romance. Bollywood is a whirlwind of colors and emotions, a rosy fantasy world in which (after much cajoling and a few dance numbers) the guy generally gets the girl. Traditionally called Masala films because they freely incorporate everything from comedy, drama, action, song, dance, and romance in their often lengthy films, to those for whom Bollywood is new, knowing what movies to watch to get a flavor of the genre can be daunting. The following list is a mixture of some of the more successful and some of my favorite films to come out of the industry in the last 25 years.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

Perhaps THE film to start with, it was released in 1995 but due to its great success, it can still be seen on the big screen at the Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai. It is the archetypal example of the Bollywood film with all the components of a typical Masala film. The look and songs may be a bit outdated but the story is solid and it’s also an introduction to two of the biggest stars in Bollywood – Shahrukh Khan and Kajol – and the directorial debut of Aditiya Chopra, the son of Yash Chopra (of the production house Yash Raj Films) and of one of the most influential filmy families in the industry.

It tells the story of Raj (Kahn) and Simran (Kajol) who are both traveling Europe with their friends before returning to their families and assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. They meet and though it is not love at first sight, their lives and emotions quickly become entangled. However, Simran is promised in marriage to someone else – what will they do?

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

Reuniting the superstar couple Shahrukh Khan and Kajol and the directorial debut of another big name in Bollywood, Karan Johar, this film tells the love story of Rahul (Kahn) and Anjali (Kajol) two highschool friends. Years after Rahul lost his wife in childbirth, his daughter, prompted by letters from her mother, takes it upon herself to give her father a second chance at love.

This film also saw the launch of star Rani Mukerji, cousin to Kajol (both of whom are from filmy families) and also features another big name of the industry, Salmaan Khan.

Salaam Namaste (2005)

Set in Melbourn, Australia, the film follows the rom-com story of Nick (Saif Ali Khan) and Amber (Preity Zinta) as they try to navigate a modern relationship. This film stands out because it looks at a romance outside of marriage in which they (gasp) kiss and even have sex, something rarely seen in Bollywood films. It, therefore, gives the room to explore ideas and themes that others don’t. The leads have wicked chemistry, there is some good songs and it takes advantage of the Australian coastal landscape to make it one of my favorite ‘girl meets boy’ films.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006)

It was hugely successful out of India but tanked on home turf, this film deals with the culturally delicate theme of adultery while still delivering the typical Bollywood look and feel. It is entertaining and has strong performances from the star-studded cast, including the ever-present Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Abishek Bachan, his super-star father Amitath Batchan, and Kirron Kher, all Bollywood royalty. Set in New York, the story deals with Dev (Khan) and Maya (Mukerji), two married people whose friendship, born from the need to share their troubles as they try to save their failing marriage, deepens into love and the dilemma that ensues. Directed by Karan Johar.

Fanaa (2006)

This film saw the return of Kajol to the film industry after a hiatus of five years following her marriage and the birth of her daughter. Paired with Aamir Khan (yet another superstar of the Bollywood industry) the film takes a look at a love shrouded in deceit and the consequence of it. Kajol plays Zooni, a blind Kashmiri girl who is seduced by Rehan (Kahn), but he hides a secret that will see Zooni’s life change forever. A lovely soundtrack and the dramatic wintery landscapes of Kashmir make this a beautiful film. If you can forgive the rather miraculous recovery of Zooni’s eyesight, a definite must on the ‘to see’ list.

Don – The Chase Begins (2006)

Originally made in 1978, this remake is a souped-up, action-adventure of Hollywood proportions but wrapped up in the Bollywood style. Shahrukh Khan is Don, the lieutenant to a drug lord and a wanted man by the Indian authorities as he is the key to the drug operation. With James Bond-style chases aplenty and an ass-kicking girl with a secret (Priyanka Chopra), this film delivers twists plenty and a good song or two.

Chak De! India (2007)

A sports film can never go far wrong – it is not a song and dance number, but features a lot of fresh, first time performances and the feel-good Bollywood factor. It stars Shahrukh Khan in the role of Kabir Khan, a thwarted sportsman who chooses to coach India’s woman hockey team, drawing on players from every corner of the nation. Getting them to play cohesively is a challenge, however, when it becomes apparent that their widely differing backgrounds threaten to pull the team apart.

Laaga Chunari Mein Daag: Journey of a Woman (2007)

This is perhaps not a common film to see listed on a must-see, however, it makes an appearance here because it delves into the murky waters of what Babki (Rani Mukerji) must do in order to support her family in a harsh world. It stands out because it looks at the woman in a patriarchal, traditional culture where choices are still limited, while still retaining the aesthetic of a Bollywood film. A good performance by Mukerji which focuses on the woman’s story for once.

3 Idiots (2009)

I’m not generally a fan of Hindi comedy, the tendency is to fall into over the top acting and bad slapstick humor (Housefull, 2010, is a prime example of what NOT to watch), however, this one hits a nice level with some good laugh out loud moments. It follows the life of three Engineer students (Aamir Khan, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi) and the various trials and tribulations as they seek to define themselves as men. There is the obligatory love interest played by Kareena Kapoor and a twist or two you can be forgiven for not seeing. A hugely successful film in India and certainly entertaining.

Kite (2010)

It was interestingly filmed in both English and Hindi in order to reach a wider audience and did a good job of combining the best aspects of traditional Hollywood and Bollywood. Hritik Roshan plays J (another big Bollywood name). He marries Linda (Barbara Mori), a Mexican woman for a green card, expecting never to see her again, only to meet her years later as the fiancée to Tony, the son of a powerful casino owner. Meeting in secret, Tony discovers them and flies into a rage. In order to protect Linda, J hits him over the head and they flee to Mexico, Tony, and the police close behind. Thrilling action scenes and great chemistry between the leads.

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