India’s film culture is vast, venerable and beautiful. The history of their film industry stretches back a full 120 years to 1899, when pioneering director H. S. Bhatavdekar made the documentary short, The Wrestlers – the first pebble in what was to become a mountain of cinema.
Now, oh so many years down the track, India produces almost 2000 feature films a year – more than any other nation on Earth. And while films are produced across the length and breadth of India, it’s the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) whose name was melded with “Hollywood” to give us “Bollywood”.
Technically, Bollywood films are only those films from India that use the Hindustani language, with films in Tamil and other languages forming their own subset of the Indian film industry. However, Bollywood’s cultural footprint outside India is so massive that the term has effectively become what the general public use to refer to all Indian cinema, for good or ill.
Bollywood movies are characterised by their length (Indian audiences demand a lot of bang for their buck), their narrative complexity, their willingness to mash together genres and tones, and their music. Nearly every Bollywood movie includes elaborate musical numbers, and a lot of their charm is seeing, for example, a frenetic chase scene or a fraught dramatic exchange suddenly turn into a choreographed song and dance routine.
There are exceptions, though – Indian cinema is a very broad church. So while the populist, colourful, relatively conservative Bollywood mainstream still dominates, an increasing number of provocative social dramas, crime thrillers, political parables and more have emerged in the past decade or two.
This month sees a veritable wealth of Indian movies hitting SBS On Demand, and every single one of them is worth your time. If you’re a Bollywood veteran, you know the spectacle you’re in for. If you’re new to all this, you’re in for a heck of a treat.
Small time crooks Veeru and Jai (Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan) are hired by a former cop (Sanjeev Kumar) to hunt down the feared bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) in this crime blockbuster from director Ramesh Sippy. Sholay marries the stylistic excesses of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns with the typical Bollywood sprawl to create something tougher and leaner – essentially a Bollywood Western.
Ramesh Sippy followed up Sholay with this revenge thriller that sees brothers Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) team up with a ragtag group of heroes, including sniper Rakesh (Shatrughan Sinha) and conman Abdul (Mazhar Khan), to take down the criminal who assassinated their cop brother. Shaan is Bollywood meets Bond – big action sequences, exotic locales, dry double entendres and beautiful women abound.
Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992)
An ambitious engineering student, Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) finds himself caught up in a love triangle between pretty secretary Renu (Juhi Chawla) and his boss’s spoiled daughter, Sapna (Amrita Singh) in this freewheeling romantic comedy. Director Aziz Mirza injects more class consciousness than you might expect into the proceedings, and the film’s surprising success in, of all places, Japan, kicked off a Bollywood mini-boom after it was released there in 1997.
Boozing gambler Pratap (Nana Patekar) gets radicalised by crusading journalist Megha Dixit (Dimple Kapadia) in this epic actioner, a gleefully brutal social revenge fantasy in which our hero butchers corrupt officials in the name of the people. The 2010 sequel, Krantiveer: The Revolution, sees the next generation take up the struggle, but lacks the original’s fierceness.
Bandit Queen (1994)
Controversial on release, this biopic of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) did well on the international arthouse circuit and gave director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) a rare opportunity to cross over into English language filmmaking. Tracing Devi’s journey from abused lower-caste bride to feared gang leader, Bandit Queen is an unflinching look at misogyny in Indian culture, and a cracking historical drama.
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001)
Hired as a surrogate mother for upper class couple Raj (Salman Khan) and Priya Malhotra (Rani Mukerji), sex worker Madhu (Preity Zinta) soon finds herself having second thoughts – and feelings for Raj. Best shorthanded as India’s Pretty Woman, Chori Chori is a surprisingly risqué example of Indian film, but still manages to work in the standard themes of familial loyalty and duty.
One 2 Ka 4 (2001)
After his partner is killed in the line of duty, drug squad cop Arun (Shah Rukh Khan) must take on vicious mob boss KKV (Nirmal Pandey) on his own – and take care of his partner’s four kids in the meantime. Luckily, he has the beautiful Geeta (Juhi Chawla) to help in that department. One 2 Ka 4 boasts the usual mix of action, melodrama, romance and broad comedy, but this time with a Michael Bay sheen layered over the proceedings.
The first in director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy, Maqbool is simply Macbeth transposed to the Mumbai criminal underworld, with Irrfan Khan as the titular ambitious underling who usurps his boss (Pankaj Kapur), at the urging of the latter’s duplicitous mistress, Nimmi (Tabu). A rare Bollywood film that sticks to one sombre tone, it was followed by Omkara (Othello) in 2006 and Haider (Hamlet) in 2014.
Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)
A sprawling historical epic that flips the script on the usual Anglocentric colonial adventures, Mangal Pandey centres on Mangal (Aamir Khan), an Indian soldier whose execution by the British sparked off the first war of Indian independence. This is effectively India’s Braveheart, with all that entails: stirring patriotism, fantastic action, epic sweep and the odd loose interpretation of facts.
Amitabh Bachchan is the titular crime lord in this Indian riff on The Godfather, while Abhishek Bachchan is Shankar, the film’s version of Michael Corleone. Sarkar is exactly what it says on the tin, so if you want a multi-generational crime saga with Indian cultural cues replacing Sicilian ones, this is the film for you.
The Stoneman Murders (2009)
A true crime thriller in the mode of Zodiac or Mindhunters, The Stoneman Murders follows disgraced cop Sanjay Shellar (Kay Kay Menon) as he tries to solve a string of murders targeting Bombay’s homeless population. Based on a series of actual killings that took place in the early 1980s, this is as slick and polished a production as any Hollywood thriller.
Isabelle, Parisian artist, divorced mother, is looking for love, true love, at last.
During the Blitz of World War II, a female screenwriter (Gemma Arterton) works on a film celebrating England's resilience as a way to buoy a weary populace's spirits. Her efforts to dramatise the true story of two sisters (Lily Knight and Francesca Knight) who undertook their own maritime mission to rescue wounded soldiers are met with mixed feelings by a dismissive all-male staff.