India has – and has had for most of cinema’s history – the second most prolific film industry in the world behind the United States. I confess, however, that I don’t know very much about Indian movies, in large part because any enthusiasm I’ve felt towards Bollywood, the insanely popular mainstream Hindi-language film industry known for their epic musicals, has always been tempered by a certain befuddlement. Something in me is always baffled by their unique and nutty combination of extreme melodrama, strict censorship and 15-minute song-and-dance numbers; some culture gaps, alas, feel well-nigh insurmountable. Nonetheless, I am a fan of Bengali art cinema and I have seen just enough Hindi movies that I do admire that I was able to put together not so much a national cinema primer but what is probably more appropriately referred to as a bluffer’s guide to Indian film. I can wholeheartedly recommend the following dozen movies, the best I have seen to come out of one of the world’s most celebrated and interesting film industries.
Awara (Kapoor, 1951)
Raj Kapoor both directed and starred in this outrageously contrived Dickensian melodrama, considered one of the essential Hindi films of the Fifties. There are elements of Neorealism, Surrealism and Hollywood-style star-crossed romance in this story of a judge who disowns his pregnant wife, believing her to be unfaithful. The child grows up to a be a charismatic, Chaplin-esque thief unaware of his true father’s identity. Eventually he meets and falls in love with Rita (the sensual Nargis Dutt), a beautiful young female lawyer who turns out to be – you guessed it – the judge’s adopted daughter. My favorite sequence in the film’s three hour-plus running time is a wild musical number/dream scene featuring massive sets depicting heaven and hell that look like they could have been designed by Salvador Dali. But all of the scenes between Kapoor and Dutt delight in their eyebrow-raising eroticism.
The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955 – 1959)
Satyajit Ray began his film career by creating this celebrated trilogy of films released over a span of five years. It consists of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparjito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), although the movies work so well as a whole it is arguably more meaningful to consider them that way as opposed to stand alone works. Over the course of these films we witness the coming of age of Apu, a little boy in a rural Bengali village, his growing awareness of both death and the outside world, his unlikely success at school, his blossoming career as a writer and, eventually, his own experiences with marriage and fatherhood. As much as any great work of art, these humane, wise, ultra-realistic and heartbreaking films capture the very essence of what it means to live. The soundtrack for each also features an excellent original score by Ravi Shankar (RIP).
Pyaasa (Dutt, 1957)
One of the key films of the golden age of Hindi cinema is this dark melodrama/musical about an unemployed alcoholic poet named Vijay and his relationships to two very different women – the college girlfriend who left him for a man with better financial prospects (and thus inspired much of his poetry) and the prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold who supports his burgeoning literary career. Director Guru Dutt, who certainly must have identified with his tortured-artist protagonist, is credited as the first director of Hindi musicals to seamlessly integrate songs into his storylines (not unlike what Vincente Minnelli did in Hollywood). Stylishly shot in black and white, this shows a better grasp of film aesthetics than any Bollywood film I’ve seen in more recent decades.
The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)
Next to Satyajit Ray, the most prominent exponent of Indian art cinema is the Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak, whose film The Cloud-Capped Star is generally regarded as his finest work. It tells the story of a family of Pakistani refugees living on the outskirts of Calcutta. The protagonist is Nita, the beautiful youngest daughter of the family, who sacrifices her education, her fiance and, eventually, her life, to ensure the well-being of her brothers, sister and parents. This study of female suffering and self-sacrifice is like an Indian version of one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s mature masterpieces – minus, of course, the prostitution. In other words, an overwhelming emotional experience.
Mughal-E-Azam (K. Asif, 1960)
This impressive period drama is based on a popular Indian folk tale about a 16th century Hindustan prince who falls in love with a slave girl (well, more like a lowly “court dancer”) over the objections of his Emperor father. This conflict eventually causes the prince to incite his father’s army into rebellion, causing a full-blown civil war. While all of the narrative ingredients of this film are familiar from Hollywood, what really makes it noteworthy is the ridiculously epic scale: opulent set and costume design for which no expenses were spared, a battle scene with thousands of extras that feels like something out of Eisenstein, and, best of all, ravishing Technicolor sequences for some of the musical numbers. Director K. Asif only directed one other film besides this and it’s no wonder; it took him the better part of a decade to complete. A milestone in Indian cinema.
Charulata (Ray, 1964)
My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.
A River Called Titas (Ghatak, 1973)
Ritwik Ghatak adapts a popular Bengali novel by Advaita Malo Barman for this powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. The film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this film so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms.
Sholay (Sippy, 1975)
I would characterize most of the Bollywood films I’ve seen as hokey, sloppily made and just downright bizarre (and I say this as someone who thinks the populist Hong Kong cinema of the late 20th century arguably represents the greatest era for any regional cinema ever). However, even I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor. This has it all: endearing protagonists, a memorably hateful villain, broad comedy, a love subplot, terrific action set pieces that boast impressive stunts, crisp editing and slow-motion, as well as vibrant color cinematography and, yes, musical numbers. For anyone curious about yet unfamiliar with Bollywood, this is the movie you should see first.
Purana Mandir (Ramsay/Ramsay, 1984)
Made by the famous Ramsay brothers, this batshit crazy horror/comedy/romance/musical hybrid begins with the origin story of an ancient curse placed on a royal family by a demon. The curse prohibits any of the family’s female heirs from marrying lest they die in childbirth. The film then flashes forward to the present where a recently-engaged female descendant travels with her fiance and another couple to the old temple where the demon, Samri, is buried, in an attempt to break the curse. This ridiculous concoction mixes low-comedy with big scares (Samri’s make-up is genuinely creepy), and features, yes, many musical numbers besides. Think of a Bollywood version of The Evil Dead and you’ll have some idea of what the Ramsay brothers are up to – though the filmmakers also manage to improbably shoehorn in plot elements borrowed from Sholay and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Ajit Singh’s musical score, which alternates between romantic ballads and atmospheric horror movie music, is a consistent delight.
Lagaan (Gowariker, 2001)
In the late 19th century, British colonialists strike a deal with the impoverished Indian villagers under their rule: if the natives can defeat the Brits in a game of cricket (a sport heretofore unknown in India), they won’t have to pay “lagaan” (i.e., land tax) for the next three years. But if the Indians lose, they’ll have to pay triple the amount they usually owe. It is up to Bhuvan (producer/lead actor Amir Khan), a humble but courageous farmer, to teach his fellow villagers cricket for the big match to be held in just three months time. This is considered one of the best Bollywood films of the 21st century and it’s certainly one of the most accessible to non-devotees: there are no abrupt tonal shifts or out-of-the-blue climactic fistfights that mar so many films from this industry. What you have instead is a rousing, three-and-a-half-hour underdog sports drama – think Rocky with musical numbers – crossed with the rousing, anti-colonialist message of something like Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China.