Sunday, 9 February 2014

Maharashtra - Ten Bollywood Movies

I'm a big fan of Bollywood movies, so blogging about Maharashtra has given me the perfect opportunity to spend some time watching Bollywood classics, as well as researching the origins of Indian cinema.  To help with my research, I read a really good introduction by Kush Varia called Bollywood: Gods, Glamour and Gossip (2013).  This book is part of Columbia University Press's 'Short Cuts' series (published by Wallflower Press), which is intended to introduce the main themes of film studies.  I have a feeling this won't be the last book I read in the Short Cuts series!

I find it interesting that, despite the fact many of the 'big' movies are in Hindi or Urdu, Bollywood is located in Mumbai, Maharashtra, far from Delhi and centres of Hindi and Urdu culture.  Varia is quick to point out that Indian cinema isn't all about Bollywood/Hindi productions and that there are also thriving film industries in Bengali, Telugu, Tamil and other language centres.

Traditionally, the Marathi film industry was based in Pune, Maharashtra's cultural capital, but many Marathi films are now also made in Bollywood.  It's interesting that there has been a lot of resistance, on an official/government level, to the growth of the Bollywood film industry and it's only been in recent years that the Indian government has seen the importance of Bollywood as an expression of Indian culture.

For the purposes of this blog, I have taken a wider angle on Indian cinema and not restricted myself to Bollywood/Hindi/Urdu cinema.  Here are the ten movies that I watched, in the order that I watched them:

1. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham - dir. Karan Johar (2001), Hindi/Urdu/English

I fell in love with Bollywood because of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham - I heard the soundtrack during my first visit to India in 2002 - it was everywhere, ads on the TV, blaring from shops in Paharganj - I bought a copy of the soundtrack CD and listened to it again and again!  Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham is a BIG Bollywood movie - the most expensive Indian movie ever made, at the time of its release, it was a hit, not just in India, but around the world.  Filming locations included Egypt, London and (rather bizarrely) Bicester!

Critics of modern Bollywood movies will say that they lack the gravitas of early Indian cinema and that the songs and dances aren't as good as they used to be.  I defy anyone to listen to/watch the following video of Say 'Shava Shava' and tell me that this isn't just fantastic!

2. Pyaasa - dir. Guru Dutt (1957), Hindi

Scene from Pyaasa (1957)
Armed with a list of great Indian movies, mentioned by Kush Varia, I set off on my exploration of Bollywood by watching the 1950's classic Pyaasa.  It's a poignant movie, which tells the story of an unrecognised poet and how badly he is treated by the society he lives in.  He struggles to make a living and only becomes famous when he is (mistakenly) declared to be dead.  It's a heart-rending watch and very different to the lighter, more colourful movies of the modern age.

Indian cinema of the 1950's was often quite political, as the newly-independent country wrestled with its own identity and tried to find equality in a caste-based post-colonial society.  There is an important scene at the end of Pyaasa where the poet rejects the accolades that society has suddenly decided to bestow upon him.  Guru Dutt starred in and directed the movie, a dual role that is less common these days.

3. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai - dir. Karan Johar (1998), Hindi/Urdu/English

The third movie I watched, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is another big hit by Karan Johar and, like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, also stars Shah Rukh Khan, the Mumbai-born actress Kajol and the Bengali star Rani Mukerji.  These modern Bollywood movies are most definitely shot in a world of 'beautiful people' and stars like the three mentioned above are well-known celebrities in India and around the world.  I must admit, I've got a soft spot for Shah Rukh Khan - he's quite cute, cheeky and good at playing the clown, as he often does in Johar's movies.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is sad, funny, entertaining - a good introduction to the modern Bollywood genre.  I didn't think the music was as good as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, but I found it interesting the way the main characters seemed to embrace a US college-student lifestyle. 

4. Seeta aur Geeta - dir. Ramesh Sippy (1972), Hindi

Going from the Americanised 90's, right back to the 70's was a bit of a culture shock and Seeta aur Geeta is a brilliant movie that you should definitely watch if you are interested in Bollywood cinema.  It covers some of the main themes of Indian cinema - separation of siblings, mistaken identity, differences of caste.  It's also a very funny, interesting and psychedelic movie - although I'm sure the story could be retold in a modern context, the movie is very much of its time. 

I watched this movie with my sister, quite appropriately and I think this was her first time to see a Bollywood movie, so she's got a lasting impression of Indian cinema based on this film! 

5. Bombay - dir. Mani Ratnam (1995), Tamil/Hindi/Telugu

Bombay is a brilliant movie and a must-watch, I absolutely loved it!  It deals with really important political topics and tells the story of a love relationship between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman, set against the backdrop of the 1992 religious riots in Mumbai/Bombay.  Mani Ratnam is one of the most famous film directors from Tamil-language cinema, based in Chennai (Madras).  Bombay is a good example of a movie that has crossed the linguistic divide.  It also contains one of my favourite songs from an Indian movie, the Hindi version is called Kehna Hi Kya and you can see a video from YouTube below.

The soundtrack of Bombay was composed by A.R. Rahman, the 'Mozart of Madras', a Tamil composer who is known around the world for his musical scores which include the soundtrack for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

6. Pinjar - dir. Chandra Prakash Dwivedi (2003), Hindi/Urdu

Scene from Pinjar (2003)
Pinjar is quite a serious movie, based on the novel of the same name by Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam.  It deals with the partition of 'Hindustan' and the position of women in Indian society.  Like other Bollywood movies, it's sad, beautiful and entertaining in equal measure.

7. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - dir. Aditya Chopra (1995), Hindi/Urdu/English/Panjabi

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is a great movie - one of the first to feature Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.  The story is interesting, the music is great and it's very typical of a Bollywood movie from the 1990's - glamorous, big-budget and targeting the Indian diaspora as much as the 'home' audience.  Apparently Chopra originally wanted to cast Tom Cruise in the main role, which might have been an interesting development for Bollywood cinema - presuming he'd accepted of course!

It's shot in England, India and Switzerland and, as I was watching the movie, I realised that I'd seen it before, on a train from Samarkand to Tashkent in 2002!  I say 'seen' and not watched, as I had no real idea of what the movie was about and couldn't understand the Russian-language dubbing due to the general noise on the train. 

I was surprised to learn that Indian cinema is quite popular in Russia and many of the big Indian movies of the 60's and 70's will be familiar to Russians of a certain age-group.  Whilst the glitzy, commercialised 90's Bollywood movies might not appeal to a Russian audience, movies like Dilwale are popular across Central Asia, including countries like Uzbekistan.

The clip below shows a very famous scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge where Kajol is dancing around in her towel!

8. My Brother Nikhil - dir. Onir (2005), Hindi/English

My Brother Nikhil is a very important movie and deals with the issue of HIV/AIDs.  It's set in Goa and follows the story of a Goan state swimmer who is gay and is diagnosed with HIV.  The movie is a long way from the glitz and glamour of Johar or Chopra, but I think it's in keeping with the older Bollywood tradition of raising important social issues.  the director, Onir, was born in Bhutan and is one of the few openly gay film directors in Bollywood.

With their traditional themes of male/female love and family values, Bollywood movies don't often deal with LGBT issues and I wonder if this will change, as India gets used to the 21st century?

9. Mughal-e-Azam - dir. K. Asif (1960), Urdu

Scene from Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Mughal-e-Azam is an iconic movie of Indian cinema.  It took more than ten years to make and has an epic quality - for example, battle scenes with 8,000 movie extras - that reminds me of the Hollywood movie Ben-Hur (1959).  Urdu was the language of choice for literature and the arts in colonial India and I can see why - the booming narrative voice of Mughal-e-Azam sounds beautiful in Urdu and is poetic, as well as frightening.

Mughal-e-Azam is not like any movie I've ever seen before - it's incredibly beautiful, dreamy and transcendental.  It's not an easy movie to watch and, at 197 minutes, is even longer than the other 3-hour movies that I watched. 

10. Pakeezah - dir. Kamal Amrohi (1972), Urdu

Pakeezah is another movie that took more than ten years to film.  By all accounts, the director, Kamal Amrohi was somewhat of a perfectionist and didn't want to finish a scene until it was exactly right.  The production is exquisite and it's an incredibly beautiful movie.  It follows the life of a prostitute who has aspirations for real love, as opposed to the 'paid-for' love she gives to rich men in the brothel where she works.  The final scene (last minute or so of the clip below) where Sahibjaan dances barefoot on broken glass is one of the most amazing cinematic climaxes I've ever seen.  A fitting finale to almost 30 hours of movie watching!

Image credits:

The images of stills from the movies are from photos taken by me. These stills are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote Indian cinema. By publishing these photos, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These photos are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to promote the amazing performances of the actors in these movies.

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