10 Essential Films from Hindi Cinema, Part 2
Hindi cinema, popularly known as Bollywood, is a behemoth industry offering a vast selection of films. The industry offers four quadrant blockbusters, searing social pictures, exciting action-adventures, thoughtful dramas, among other genres. I wrote a similar list last year, featuring what I consider “homework” movies for those interested in Hindi films. This time around, I’m providing a collection of really outstanding films that gives a sampling of what Bollywood can offer.
Udta Punjab, “Punjab on a High” (Abhishek Chaubey, 2016)
A searing expose on the drug epidemic in the Indian state of Punjab, Udta Punjab is one of the most important movies released in the last few years. The film sparked a controversy with the Central Board of Film Certification. Udta Punjab was deemed incendiary because of its frank depiction of drug abuse and political corruption, though the industry rallied to ensure its release. The film received widespread acclaim, for its unflinching look at the drug problem and for its inventive, darkly funny style. The performances are powerful, especially Alia Bhatt as a farm laborer who becomes forcibly addicted to drugs and is gang raped, and Shahid Kapoor as a drug-addicted rock star whom Bhatt’s character comes across when trying to escape. The film explores the many sides of drug abuse from victims to the people who profit off addiction. It’s a troubling movie, but not without glimmers of hope and kindness.
ChaalBaaz, “Trickster” (Pankaj Parashar, 1989)
When the legendary Sridevi passed away this year, Indian cinema lost one of its brightest stars. The actress’s legacy includes many iconic roles and popular films. But one of her most cherished performances is in a double role as twin sisters separated at birth. In ChaalBaaz, Sridevi plays Anju (an heiress abused by her scheming uncle) and Manju (a street-smart hustler), whose lives change when they switch places by accident. Sridevi’s remarkable comic timing, command over her physicality, and astonishing dancing are on full display here. The depiction of domestic abuse is shockingly dark, though the film’s gender politics are a bit more progressive than you’d think. ChaalBaaz is a wild star vehicle, with some creative filmmaking and a wonderful lead performance. The Charlie Chaplin-inspired and award winning dance number “Na jaane kahaan se aayi hai” is an especially dazzling showcase for Sridevi as a performer.
Guide (Vijay Anand, 1965)
A spiritual, unwieldy love story, Guide was a bold, progressive film in its time. Indian legend Dev Anand (brother to writer/director Vijay Anand) stars as Raju, a tour guide who falls in love with an unhappy woman Rosy (the sublime Waheeda Rehman). Raju helps Rosy leave her abusive husband, and the two begin a strange relationship. The narrative is heavy in plot, with Raju transforming from a literal tour guide to a spiritual guide. These characters break social norms, and social upheaval is a metaphor for the modernization of society. The filmmaking is unconventional, with some fluid camerawork balanced by sharp editing. The music is also quite famous, with melodious songs visualized with care and imagination. The dialogue is symbolic and rich. A major theme is communication, and the process of persuasion through language. Guide is quite a moving, sensual, enlightening experience with incredible performances from the perfectly paired lead actors.
Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, “If It Moves, It’s a Car” (Satyen Bose, 1958)
Three auto mechanic brothers (played by real life brothers Ashok, Anoop, and Kishore Kumar) have sworn off women, which is fine except two of them have fallen in love. This madcap comedy runs almost three hours, and yet the film never stops moving while going through its convoluted plot. The chemistry between the Kumar brothers is the best ingredient, as they trade barbs and Three Stooge- level physical gags. The incandescent Madhubala stars as Kishore’s love interest, and she is luminous, charming, and just as crazy. The movie makes the smart choice to have the brothers hate love, rather than women in general. This movie was hugely successful in its time, and the comedy feels timeless, like a Shakespearean comedy of errors. Chalti Ka Naam Gaddi was influential for comedy in the industry, as it was one of the first hit movies to combine witty character comedy with slapstick jokes.
Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapur, 1994)
Seema Biswas delivers an award winning performance in this wrenching, unpleasant biopic of notorious gang leader Phoolan Devi. Controversial in its time for its stark depiction of sexual abuse, Bandit Queen was celebrated for its unflinching cinematography and ferocious performances. The film is a tough watch, with unrelenting scenes of violence. The film steers clear of glorifying with Phoolan Devi, who commits her own set of crimes but does delve into her wounded life. Biswas’ performances showcases Phoolan Devi’s rage and psychopathic impulses. The film won three National Awards (India’s most prestigious award) for Best Feature Film in Hindi, Best Actress, and Best Costume Design. It also received Best Director and Cinematography at the Filmfare Awards. Bandit Queen is a movie about the violence that a woman’s anger can wreak, but one that denies the audience the pleasure of witnessing her vengeance.
Anand, (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1971)
Known for simple, enriching films about ordinary people, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was one of India’s most sensitive writer/director/editors. Perhaps his best film is the sentimental, life-affirming Anand, in which a disillusioned doctor (Amitabh Bachchan) befriends the jubilant, kind Anand (“India’s first superstar” Rajesh Khanna), a cancer patient with only a few months to live. The film is funny and sweet, with Khanna at his most charming, with just a hint of underlying grief. A throughline in the film is how India is changing, from the traditional to the modern; the opening credits is set to a montage of the bustling city. Anand features some heartbreaking close-ups of the lovable supporting cast. Anand is quite a character, who touches the lives of the people around him. The screenplay is funny and authentic, and the performances are heartfelt and genuine. Much like these people, our lives are a little better after knowing Anand.
Margarita with a Straw (Shonali Bose, 2014)
Much like films in the west, depictions of characters with disability in Hindi cinema can be rather insulting. Margarita with a Straw is a groundbreaking film about Laila (Kalki Koechlin), a young woman with cerebral palsy who immigrates from India to the U.S. after receiving a scholarship to NYU. The film’s frank, tender, unflinching depiction of queer sexuality is taboo-breaking in and of itself for Indian cinema, let alone in a story centering around a woman with a disability. Laila is a funny, vulnerable, imperfect, and compelling protagonist, and she’s played with affection and understanding by Koechlin. The themes of inclusion and self-acceptance are interesting, and the characters are unique, complicated, and charming. This film was criticized for casting an able-bodied actress in the lead role, and for its depiction of bisexuality. But the film’s visual palette is bright and vibrant, and does so much right by its characters.
Pyaasa, “Thirst” (Guru Dutt, 1957)
A somber film about the cruelty of commerce in the face of art, Pyaasa has been a staple of Hindi cinema. Placed on a few world best cinema lists, Guru Dutt’s film has wrenching performances from Dutt himself, Sharmila Tagore, and Mala Sinha. The cinematography is quite lovely, with stunning close-ups and brilliant use of shadow. The songs are quite poetic, full of longing. The struggle between of commerce and art is well-worn territory, but in this film, the two wage war over a man’s soul. The film presents its two heroines as opposites of each other, each representing art or commerce. The setup is conventional, but the film is full of memorable characters and an earnestness that is compelling. Guru Dutt’s films were famous for their emotional complexity and stirring performances. Pyaasa represents the best of his work, with its strong screenplay and beautiful visuals.
Deewaar, “The Wall” (Yash Chopra, 1976)
Yash Chopra was known for his classic romances, but his best film is the social drama, Deewaar. Reflecting the political upheaval in 1970s India, Deewaar is an anti-establishment crime drama about two brothers who grow up on opposite sides of the law. Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan took his famous Angry Young Man persona to new depths. Opposite him is Shashi Kapoor, one of the most respected and popular actors, as his cop brother out for justice. This film represented a shift in Indian cinema; it was a groundbreaking film that gave voice to the impoverished communities in Indian cities. Bachchan’s angry vigilante was seen as an anti-hero, who took on the injustice of the government. And yet their mother (Nirupa Roy) has to reject her son for his criminal behavior. Here we see India represented as a nurturing but conflicted mother. The action choreography was unprecedented, taking inspiration from martial arts films.
Qurbani, “Sacrifice” (Feroz Khan, 1980)
Taking cues from Sergio Leone, Roger Moore’s 007 movies, and Clint Eastwood, Qurbani is an outrageous gangster action movie. With outlandish fight choreography, loud costumes and hairstyles, ludicrous characters, and a bumping score, Qurbani is a classic 80s blockbuster. The plot is so convoluted you just gotta let it wash over you. Feroz Khan stars with heartthrob Vinod Khanna as two criminals who cross paths and become friends devoted to each other. The sensual, quite talented Zeenat Aman plays the leading lady between them, though the film isn’t a traditional love triangle. Qurbani boasts a classic soundtrack, including one of the most popular “Bollywood disco” tracks, “Aap jaisa koi.” That song is just wonderful, and the film around it just deliciously bonkers. Feroz Khan was famous for these over-the-top action movies (including the more insane, dirtier, and grimier 1986 film Janbaaz) but Qurbani is his most celebrated film.