Bollywood for Beginners

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Many of you, dear readers, are totally bollyobsessed and can name a film from just one line. However, some of you are just starting out discovering this magical world and so since I was once like you, and would have loved to have this article, I thought why not write it? So now we present Bollywood for Beginners.

When you first saw the word Bollywood you probably thought, “Bollywood”? What is that, a typo? But do not worry, you read correctly. The Indian (aka Hindi) Film Industry is more commonly known as “Bollywood”. Many of the big film production companies are based in Mumbai, India, formerly known as Bombay, and the “B” was borrowed along with an homage to Hollywood, and we have Bollywood! It is the largest film industry in the world, producing over 800 films a year, with ticket sales in the billions. Bollywood productions are mostly romantic musicals, much like the old Hollywood classics with absolutely beautiful costumes, photography and scenery. They have great stories, excellent performances, and the music and dance sequences are so wonderful to watch. But I am getting ahead of myself.

To share my love, some would call obsession, with Bollywood movies, I need to give you a bit of background on how I first learned about them. With a lot of time on my hands because of an illness, I was catching up on some movies I had missed and one of those was Bend It Like Beckham. After seeing and really enjoying it, I thought I would like to see other films by the director Gurinder Chadha. I went to the Internet and read that her next film was going to be a version of Pride and Prejudice, one of my absolute favorite books. The film, called Bride and Prejudice, is a musical Indian-infused version of the book. I rented it and within the first few moments I was entranced. About halfway through I was ready to start watching it again. (To me, that is a sign of a movie to go on my all-time-favorite-I-must-buy-now list!). The colors were gorgeous, the music wonderful, the story so well done. The songs enhanced the movie and made it so different from the many films I had seen. The film starred Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson. As a matter of interest, Aishwarya Rai is one of the biggest stars in Bollywood today. I loved it so much that I watched the DVD extras, and in “the making of” segment the director said that it was her tribute to Bollywood. Since I had never heard of Bollywood before I went to the Internet again to find out more information. To make a long story short, I found out that Netflix had just bought a Bollywood library so I logged on, searched for Bollywood, picked a film and the rest as they say is history.

That film was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and one of the reasons I chose it was that it said it is the longest running film in Bollywood history. In fact, it is still running in theaters today after debuting in 1995. Again, halfway through I was ready to start watching the film from the beginning – I called my husband and told him I had found the “perfect movie”. This gem is the epitome of what Bollywood films are, encompassing all that makes it great: brilliant actors, spectacular musical numbers, outstanding scenery and costumes and a wonderful moving story. The plot centers around the classic boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy falls in love with girl and she does too but does not realize it storyline … I would tell you more but I really want you to see this film and don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say this film began my wonderful journey into the world of Bollywood and forever will be one of my favorite films.

But enough about me – let me whet your Bolly-appetite some more. Bollywood covers every genre: drama, comedy, action and, of course, romance. A single film can even have all of that rolled into one; in Bollywood that film is called a masala, which means, “spice mixture” in Hindi. (Yes, I have begun Hindi lessons.) Many stories revolve around forbidden relationships but can also be about crime, betrayal, friendship, war, fate and did I mention romance yet? Family and cultural traditions play an immense role in the films, especially in the older movies. In most of the films you will never see the boy and girl kiss, however times are a changing and in some of the newer films it is starting to happen more. These thoroughly entertaining movies can run anywhere from 2 hours to 4 hours, but no matter what the length, you always wish they did not end. Let me warn you, though many are happy endings, you do not find out if they end up together until the very last second: it is maddening!! The movies are filmed all around India, with frequent location shoots in Switzerland, England, Australia and, more recently, the United States. All the films are in Hindi but if seen on DVD or in a theater here in the States they will have subtitles. You will also notice that they do speak some “Hindlish”: a mixture of Hindi and English. For example, “Woh actor, Vivek Oberoi, bahut handsome hai!” (That actor is very handsome.)

An integral part of the films and what makes Bollywood, well, Bollywood, are the song and dance numbers. Most films will have 4 to 6 songs and the numbers fit perfectly within the movie; they serve both to entertain and to move the story along. The music encompasses every musical style, not only Indian, and in one album you can hear a ballad, a hip/hop song, a pure Punjabi Bhangra, and some songs even have a mix of all them. The music is brilliant, the singers incredible, and, as they would say, “it is just too good!” The soundtracks for the movies release a month or so before the films open in theaters, and sometimes the albums are more eagerly anticipated than the films. Even though I only understand a word or two, my iTunes and iPod are full of the songs – in fact it is about the only thing I listen to now.

A little fun fact that I did not find out until after watching a few films films is that the actors and actresses are not actually doing the singing: they are lip-synching to what are called “playback singers”. For the biggest stars, it can be the same playback singer for each film, but sometimes it is someone else, and it can seem odd when you have to match different voices to the same face. The singers, who you might expect to be uncredited, are actually famous in their own right in Bollywood, and after a bit you recognize when you hear a certain singer even if they are singing playback for different actors. Fans have their favorites as well, and at award shows there are categories for Best Song and Best Playback singer, male and female. Some of the more famous are Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan.

The fantastic choreography encompasses all types of dance including: classical Indian dance, jazz/hip hop, modern and sometimes a fusion of all these styles. Often there is also one number called an “item number” which has a special guest appearance of a star, usually doing a very sexy number. Like in many stylized films, sometimes you have to suspend reality a bit – during some songs, the city-bound hero and heroine are suddenly in the snow on a mountain in Switzerland, bounding through blooming sunflower fields, or riding on the top of a bus surrounded with singing people (you will see this kind of thing a lot). Just go with it, enjoy it, and hey, if you can escape into another world, that is one of the joys of watching movies hai na? (Hindi: Right?) Though not a part of what we are used to in Hollywood films, the song and dance sequences are one of my favorite things. They enrich the film and make the movies even better. I know you will love them!

On to movie recommendations. I will just list a few here, but believe me I have many many more favorite films. For your first Bollywoodish film I would definitely recommend Bride and Prejudice (2005, dir. Gurinder Chadha). The language is English, but will give you a taste of what Bollywood is like. It is not a “true Bollywood film”, and many of my Indian friends and fellow bolly buffs would gasp at me suggesting this but watching this movie is what hooked me and made me want to see more!!

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995, dir. Aditya Chopra, lit. “The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride”) is another must-see. Starring two of the superstars of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, it is everything that makes a Bollywood film wonderful. Remember the lead pair’s names if you continue on your journey, because you will be seeing them a lot. In fact, another great film with the two of them is Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998, dir. Karan Johar, lit. “Something Is Happening”): add that to your list of Bollywood movies to see.

Parineeta (2005, dir, Pradeep Sarkar, lit. “The Married Woman”) is one of my top-of-the-list favorites. It is another love story, but old-fashioned, based on a classic Indian novel. The hero and heroine are brilliant in their roles as Shekhar and Lolita (not that Lolita!). The music for this film is also one of my very favorites. It is a good “introduction to Bollywood” film and, at only just under 2 hours, it’s a good one to get used to reading subtitles!

Two of my favorite actors, Rani Mukerji and Vivek Oberoi, starred opposite each other in a film called Saathiya (2002, dir. Shaad Ali, lit. “Partner”). This is an intriguing film from a Bollywood perspective, because it takes the couple-in-love beyond marriage and into the rough waters beyond. Definitely add this one to your list. Doesn’t hurt that they are both absolutely gorgeous!

Chori Chori (2003, dir. Milan Luthria, lit. “Stealthily Stealthily”) is a remake of the film Hollywood film Housesitter, which starred Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin. I think Chori Chori is the better film, although I enjoyed both, because it adds in the music and a few extra facets to the story. A great performance by the lead pair, Rani Mukerji and Ajay Devgan, makes the movie really enjoyable. Have watched this one many times!

Mujhse Dosti Karoge (2003, dir. Kunal Kohli, lit. “Will you be my friend”) is another favorite film of mine, starring the gorgeous Hrithik Roshan, Rani Mukerji and Kareena Kapoor. I have watched this movie over and over again and never tire of it. If you like him (which I am sure you will) he was also in India’s first ever Superhero movie, Krrish (2006, dir. Rakesh Roshan, name of character) A great film, that is full of romance, action and coolness. One of 2006 biggest hits!

Jab We Met (2007, dir. Imtiaz Ali, lit. “When We Met”) just came out last year and it was one of the most popular movies of 2007. The lead actress Kareena Kapoor won a Filmfare award (along the same lines as an Oscar) for her portrayal as Geet and her co-star Shahid Kapoor was also nominated! Brilliant romantic fun film!

If you love dance then a must see is Aaja Nachle, (2007, dir. Anil Mehta, lit. “Come Dance with Me”). It is my personal favorite film of 2007. This one has an ensemble cast, with each actor portraying their role perfectly. A dancer makes it in America, but comes home to India to save her teacher’s school. The highlight of the film is the 30-minute play at the end, put on by the townspeople; brilliant, stunning and lots of other adjectives!

I have many more to recommend but I will stop there…oh wait you must see Bunty aur Babli (2005, dir, Shaad Ali, lit. Bunty and Babli are the names of the two main characters) which is a Bonnie-and-Clyde-with-hearts-of-gold comedy that has disguises, cons, music, a cool, neck-cracking cop, one of the best item numbers ever done, and, of course, love.

Those should get you started for the romances; there are also a few dramas that will show you the depth and outstanding talent of these actors.

Black (2005, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali), pure art. I sat stunned at the end of this movie; the actors’ performances are some of the best I have ever seen in any film.

Veer Zaara (2004, dir. Yash Chopra, Veer and Zaara are the names of the hero and heroine), is another love story but not in the classic sense, just one you really should experience. (It is my husband’s favorite Bollywood movie.)

Devdas (2002, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, name of title character) a sad but brilliant film again based on a classic Indian novel.

Rang De Basanti’s (2006, dir. Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, lit. “Paint it Saffron”) ensemble cast is incredible, released in 2006 this film was India’s entry for both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. This movie tops the list of many people’s Must See Bollywood films.

Jodhaa Akbar (2008, dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, names of lead characters) is an epic along the lines of Cleopatra. It stars two of the biggest names in Bollywood, the gorgeous Hrithik Roshan and the beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The majesty of the film is truly amazing and the performances WAH! (Bravo!) This one has to go on your I must see this film list!

Again, I have many many more recommendations; these will just give you a taste. Ooh I have to mention that when this film comes out on DVD it is a MUST see Taare Zameen Par (2007, dir. Aamir Khan, lit. “Stars on Earth”).

So how can you see one of these films? Netflix has a full library – they have all of the films I have recommended to you and the many more I would if I could go on and on and on. I believe Blockbuster is getting more and more titles as well. A visit to your friendly neighborhood or perhaps across town Indian grocery store will surely have films to rent. If you follow in my footsteps and come to love these films you will begin to eagerly await new releases, and fortunately many of Bollywood’s new releases are now being shown in movie theaters all over the US and the world. However, if you can’t get to the theater, or if like me you live in a small town, Netflix usually gets them a few weeks after they release on DVD so you can get your fix!

I could praise Bollywood for many more pages but I hope I have given you a glimpse into this exciting genre of movies. If you want a night of really good entertainment I can highly recommend getting lost in a Bollywood film! If you love unique stories, colorful pageantry, real human emotion, music, seeing and learning about other cultures, and great films containing some of the best actors and actresses in the world, then be sure to GO BOLLYWOOD!

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