10 Essential Films from Hindi Cinema, Part 3
The Hindi movie industry is one of the largest in the world. The industry, affectionately called Bollywood, has something for everyone with passionate melodramas, exciting action hits, swooning romances, and thrilling social dramas. I’ve compiled a list of ten films to check out for an introduction to Hindi cinema, as a complement to Part 1 and Part 2 of this list.
Amar Prem, “Immortal Love” (Shakti Samanta, 1972)
Three strangers find each other to build a makeshift family: Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore), a woman thrown out of her married and paternal home; Anand (Rajesh Khanna), a businessman neglected by a social climbing wife; and Nandu (Bobby), a little boy abused by his stepfamily. This sensitive, contemplative melodrama brings together these societal cast-offs, who crave kindness and find it with each other. Samanta made a number of “fallen woman” melodramas exploring the hypocrisies and injustices leveled at women. Here, Pushpa finds fulfillment in taking on a maternal role even under these unconventional circumstances. Amar Prem is soft and thoughtful, sparingly indulging in high theatrics.
Sangam, “Union” (Raj Kapoor, 1964)
A love triangle between two friends Gopal (Rajendra Kumar) and Sunder (director Raj Kapoor himself) and the woman they both love Radha (Vyjayanthimala). Running almost four hours, Sangam was an immensely popular film at the time, and quite trendsetting. It was one of the first films to shoot in Europe. The main theme of male friendship and loyalty is effective. Hubris, pride, and stubborn fidelity are what keep these people from finding true love with each other. The film’s poetic dialogue and breathtaking camerawork give this ordinary story mythic proportions; it seems like the fate of the world rests on the outcome of the love triangle.
Om Shanti Om, literal translation: “Peace to All Mankind” (Farah Khan, 2007)
Farah Khan’s showbiz satire/romantic drama is an exhilarating good time. Featuring committed lead performances, send-ups of current and past Bollywood, and an eye-catching visual palette, this movie is a feast for the senses. Khan has such a singular vision; she takes “masala” iconography and tropes, and twists them into something new. Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan finds new depths to his star persona, poking fun at himself and reminding his audience why we love him. The foot-tapping music, backed by stunning visuals, is another highlight of the film. The costume and production design are just gorgeous as well in this pop masterpiece.
Mr. India (Shekhar Kapur, 1987)
This Bollywood superhero movie is one of the most memorable and exciting films of the 1980s. It has enjoyed a strong legacy over the last thirty years, and it holds up remarkably well. Arun (Anil Kapoor) is an orphan, who suddenly inherits a gold watch from his scientist father that makes the wearer invisible. Supported by his journalist girlfriend Seema (Sridevi in a brilliant comic performance), Arun must defeat the super villain Mogambo (Amrish Puri, in his most famous role) using this mysterious device. Mr. India became an instant hit, with its classic quotes, amazing songs, and well-executed set-pieces.
Dil Dhadakne Do “Let the Heart Beat” (Zoya Akhtar, 2015)
Fans of the 2018 rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asiansmight want to take a look at Akhtar’s dramedy about the ups and downs of New Delhi’s high society. Taking place on an excessively lavish cruise vacation, this film balances between social satire and compelling family drama. The film takes on classism, repression, and societal pressure within this elitist group. Akhtar has a gift for finding emotional authenticity even within some over-the-top characters. Her camera and blocking finds room for the ensemble cast, including some incredible actors like Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, and an outstanding Priyanka Chopra.
Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, “We are Travelers on Love’s Journey” (Mahesh Bhatt, 1993)
Two of Bollywood’s most popular actors, Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla, star in this delightful comedy about a bachelor who is given custody of his niece and nephews after his sister and brother-in-law die suddenly. The movie is effortlessly charming, with some madcap situations, lovable songs, and clever one-liners. It’s a simple movie, made memorable through its sheer earnestness and high entertainment value. Chawla is the highlight as a runaway heiress who becomes the kids’ governess. Her precise comic timing and empathetic sincerity bring such vitality to the film. HHRPK is a sweet movie, without a single bad bone in its body.
Lipstick Under My Burkha (Alankrita Shrivastava, 2016)
Four disparate women are trapped in a respressive society, and long for the freedom to express their own independence. This black comedy exposes the invisible prisons we lock women in, by both degrading them and placing them on pedestals (sometimes simultaneously). While the film deals with heavy topics, it can be quite funny and often uplifting. Causing a sizable controversy around its release due to the film’s content, the film is brutally honest and unwavering in its themes. Boasting of strong performances, intelligent writing, and a modernist lens, Lipstick Under My Burkha is one of the most important films of the 21st Century.
Zanjeer, “The Chain” (Prakash Mehra, 1973)
Amitabh Bachchan is one of the most enduring stars in Indian cinema, and he was most famous for his “angry young man” persona. That was created in this biting, brutal crime thriller about a decent policeman corrupted by revenge. It’s gritty yet thoughtful, thanks to Salim-Javed, two prolific and insightful writers from 1970s Bollywood. Bachchan is angry in this movie, and he uses his eyes and imposing stature to great effect. Mehra’s camera is bursting with energy; this is one anxious movie. The action scenes were trendsetting at the time, and the villain Teja (played by Ajit) became an archetype in Hindi crime thrillers.
Jab We Met, “When We Met” (Imtiaz Ali, 2007)
For me, one of the best Bollywood rom-coms is Imtiaz Ali’s It Happened One Night sendup Jab We Met. Ali takes the older film’s premise and transforms it into a sparkling, hilarious, introspective comedy. Kareena Kapoor’s lead performance is jaw dropping, as an endearingly annoying chatterbox about to suffer a major heartbreak. She is a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl to co-star Shahid Kapur. Yet in the second half they switch roles, providing the cliché setup with extra bounce. The script is perfect, the road trip journey allows for a scenic view of northern India, and the film is engaging and heartwarming.
Woh Kaun Thi?, “Who Was She?” (Raj Khosla, 1964)
An eerie, somber ghost story, Who Kaun Thi? has such a moody, tantalizing atmosphere. The striking camerawork, utilizing shadow and darkness very effectively, is the biggest settling point. The visuals in this film are stunning, giving the right background for this mystery film. The sound design, playing with diegetic and non-diegetic music, is arresting as well. The film’s lead actress, Sadhana, has such a unique face and presence. She’s entrancing and dangerous, and her performance is stellar. Manoj Kumar, as the hapless everyman caught in this plot, matches Sadhana’s peculiar energy quite well. The film is a creepy genre exercise, with some exciting sequences.