Monday, November 1, 2010

Filmi Girl Takes on Time Magazine's List of "Essential" Bollywood Films (Part 1)

A few days ago, Time Magazine posted a list of their essential “Bollywood” movies - you can read it here.

I read it and went, ‘meh.’

The problem with this list of essential “Bollywood” aimed at Westerners is that the “Bollywood” that it captures is neither the Bollywood of Western stereotype nor the Bollywood of, well, Mumbai. It’s the essential “Bollywood” of film school nerds like
Roger Moore - who gave a remarkably craptacular and culturally insensitive review to the Tamil superhit Endhiran. It favors slow moving parallel cinema, overly earnest black and white films, and a heavy dose of self-important contemporary films. Yes, there are a couple of nods to the colorful masala films I love but over all, I think they did a really poor job of gathering “essential” Bollywood.

While I’m still pondering my “essentials” - let’s take a look at the list of
Top 5 Bollywood Films to Netflix from the same article:

3 Idiots



Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

Dil Se

Keeping in mind that this list is aimed at Westerners who might never have seen an Indian movie or at the very most, have seen
Slumdog Millionaire, how do you, Bollywood fans, think it measures up?

Here is my take:

3 Idiots is heavily steeped in the contemporary culture of middle-class India and much of its appeal rested on a sense of nostalgia for college days past or on an identification with the main characters. Despite the fact that it was super popular and quite a few people enjoyed it, I would have to say that its Casual Western Viewer score = bad choice.

Jodhaa-Akbar is beautifully shot but way too long and the plot is too convoluted. I was bored through large stretches of the movie and I like long, complicated films. People thought LOTR was too long and Jodhaa-Akbar is no LOTR, which means that its Casual Western Viewer score = bad choice.

Lagaan was a finalist for the foreign language Oscar and masterfully combines the melodrama and song-dance of mainstream Bollywood with a sense of the epic often missing from films these days while still remaining comprehensible to the viewer at home. From personal experience of seeing this in an American art house cinema, I say the Casual Western Viewer score = good choice.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a film that many of us know and love. However, some others of us find it cloying and really cliched. The costuming and camera choices are really dated - which some of us find adorable but may appear unintentionally comical. The performances remain fantastic but overall, the Casual Western Viewer score = bad choice.

Dil Se is a film that I love and have watched multiple times but it’s also one that many other people can’t stand. The songs are gorgeous and the entire film is beautifully shot but the character motivations can be opaque and if one isn’t morbidly fascinated with terrorism like I am, then one might be bored. Casual Western Viewer score = bad choice.

All of this is a long way of introducing MY
Top 5 Bollywood Movies to Netflix for the casual Western viewer who has perhaps seen Slumdog Millionaire and has maybe started watching Outsourced:

Lagaan (2001) starring Aamir Khan is an excellent choice for casual Western viewers who want to get a taste of epic Bollywood. There is a sympathetic Western character played by a competent actress (Rachel Shelly from The L-Word) to give an entrance point and the story is easy to follow. Plus the music is wonderful and the picturizations are mostly set in the ‘real world’ of the film. I would recommend anybody Netflix this one.

Munnabhai MBBS (2003) starring Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi to take the place of 3 Idiots.

Unlike 3I, Munnabhai MBBS is less rooted in a specifically Indian rite-of-passage and the idea of a cold and heartless health care system is one that many Americans, in particular, will identify with. The humor is the kind you can laugh with, not at, and the subtitles even substitute names of Western celebrities for Indian ones at certain points, which should keep the casual viewer in the game. Again, the performances are wonderful, the picturizations are mostly set in the ‘real world’ of the film and the music is (mostly) great.

Veer in place of Jodhaa-Akbar. Just kidding! The big budget historical epic isn’t a Bollywood thing these days and while I think the casual Western viewer would probably enjoy something like Mangal Pandey, it isn’t really representative of the kinds of films Bollywood tends to make. So I’m going for... Devdas (2002).

Starring Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit, the film has an epic scale, epic romance, and a melodramatic tone just like Jodhaa-Akbar but in its favor, it also has a less convoluted script, a shorter run time, and - most importantly - plenty of song-dance. And unlike Jodhaa-Akbar, there aren’t extended sequences where Hrithik is supposed to be regal but just looks like he doesn’t understand a single word his advisers are saying. (And to be fair, Duggu, I don’t blame you. I didn’t understand a word they said either.)

Jab We Met (2007) starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor (no relation) for KKHH.

Now, I know this might seem like sacrilege for some of you but before you start sending me hate mail keep in mind that I’m trying to think of the casual Western viewer. And that casual viewer would probably be too busy laughing at the outfits and filmi conventions (which I love) in KKHH to pay attention to the story. Jab We Met is much more modern, with fun performances from Bebo and Shahid and a story that has echoes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Add snappy dialogues and a concise runtime and I think rom-com fans will love it.

5. Finally, just to firmly
refudiate everything that misguided list stood for, I would substitute Om Shanti Om (2008) for Dil Se.

Where Dil Se is artsy, deliberately difficult, and emotionally draining, Om Shanti Om is both a party-in-a-can AND a pretty good intro to the conventions of mainstream Bollywood films. The songs are fun, the characters are fun, the performances are great, the songs are great, and, best of all, the film tends to inspire a desire to seek out every filmi reference. The humor is pretty easy to grasp on to, even if the casual Western view wouldn’t get every joke and it will introduce a whole host of faces that the casual Western viewer can then spot playing on the television in their local Indian restaurant. It’s Bollywood 101 in a film and a much better choice than Dil Se to somebody looking to get a taste of BOLLYWOOD.

Also, unlike
Dil Se, Om Shanti Om is much beloved (by people other than me and my fellow terroromance fans).

Hooray for Bollywood!


dustdevil liz said...

I like your alternate suggestions.

Of course, the irony of the original list is that neither Lagaan nor 3 Idiots is currently available on Netflix. (Doesn't Time have interns to look this stuff up?)

Kaitlyn said...

Dustdevil, it's so hard to go to and type in a movie name! I mean really.

I agree about Dil Se - I love it, but it requires a lot from the viewer. Though it may be perfect for the stereotypical "foreign film lover" that Americans think of - full of symbolism and whatnot.

But a good intro to Bollywood? No. (Though it was the first one I saw, but I'd already read a bit and wasn't going in cold.) The next one, of course, was Om Shanti Om.

Liz said...

When I introduce my friends to Bollywood I use Dostana, because to me, it's very close to American cinema, and it kind of helps ease into the whole, "oh my god, there's singing and dancing!? What is this!?" aspect. But Jab We Met kind of fits that bill too.

I think for a new Bollywood watcher, Om Shanti Om is too much. I showed it to my mom who doesn't know anything about Bollywood, and she was not only lost on the allusions to other films, but overwhelmed by cultural differences. That being said, I adore that film.

Filmi Girl said...

@dustdevil liz Heeee! Apparently, I don't either... but you know, if a library was going to have any Bollywood, then it would probably be Lagaan. I think I checked it out from my local library a few years ago.

3 Idiots... well, I do put that on Time for not checking.

@Kaitlyn I agree that "foreign film" lovers would probably like Dil Se - I mean, I did! - but it's not representative of BOLLYWOOD at all and it's certainly not an "essential" Bollywood film...

@Liz Dostana is a good choice for sure! You know, I showed Om Shanti Om to a friend of mine who knew nothing about Bollywood and she loved it - but then she loves campy musicals like HSM. You're never going to please everyone but it just seems like a more representative film than Dil Se.

Yunus Perveez said...

Yes, the old intro to Bollywood question, I have struggled with it many times.

I think you need to figure out what the person you are recommending to likes first of all as there is no one size fits all aproach that seems to work.

I have recommended Taare Zameen Par and some people cried and wanted a copy and others fell asleep.

Action afficionado's I lend them Ghajini as most have seen Memento or even something like Sholay if they've seen the Magnificient 7 and are up for a long movie! ( I do recommend remakes as it seems to ground it for newbies in conventions they know)

For Full out Masala I prefer Main Hoon Na over Om Shanti Om just because a lot of OMO is playing with Bollywood tropes.

Jab We Met and Jaane Tu Na Jaane Na are high on the list for Raomantic comedies.

I avoid comedies and historical so Lagaan, Devdas or Andaz apna apna would not be on my list :-)

redsarah said...

Plus never underestimate the effect of Hrithik in Jodhaa-Akbar on a woman who has never seen him before. She'll fall in love - with the genre, of course, lol.

florence-craye said...

Am I the only Westerner who had to fast forward through most of Lagaan? Those interminable cricket scenes... oh so boring! Sorry, but I wanted more romance and drama from that movie, and less cricket and Western woman. I didn't sympathize with her at all and hated her singing. But by then, I'd watched many Indian films, so I didn't need someone to ease me in to them. I also think the 4-hour run time might be a bit off-putting to Bollywood newbies.

My first Bollywood movie was Dil Chata Hai, and I didn't realize it would be so long... I kept waiting for it to end after what I thought was the ending, and then it kept going! LOL I was up all night. I think that is a major problem for newbies to the form.

And I don't like terromances, but I do love Dil Se... or at least its songs/picturizations. I have recommended Sholay and Don, as well as DDLJ as 1. I love some Big B and 2. it's hard to resist DDLJ's charms, despite its cliches. Or some of Mani Ratnam's other films, such as Alaipayuthey, Kannathil Muthamittal, or Bombay. I think those would play well with Western audiences.

Btw, this is my first comment here, but I love your blog! I have Disco Dancer at home now, thanks to your post. can't wait to see it! XD

Magpie Ima said...

I know it's too new to be considered a classic but I think Dabangg is one of the very best Bollywood movies ever. I don't even like Salman Khan and I loved it!

robd said...

Hi there.
Just to point out that the length of hindi movies is merely a legend now. Most movies are 2 hours long. Some approach the three hour mark but it is quite rare nowadays.

On the other hand, hollywood movies are getting longer and longer. And they don't offer intermission or anything either. Especially their famous movies are quite long: inception (148 min), Titanic (198 min), Avatar (168 min), etc. I remember getting quite tired when seeing Inception at the theater, although the movie wasn't bad.

To me, if a movie is good, I'd like it to be as long as possible. A bad movie can be cut to half an hour that I wouldn't care.

So I don't think length of a movie matters when seeing it, be it a hindi cinema introduction. I showed Jodhaa Akbar to a friend and she loved it. She was into this genre. My cousin who is not into this kind of historical movies got bored (and same thing happened when he watched Lagaan or Mangal Pandey).

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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