India is known for having the most prolific film industry, producing upwards of 1,000 new films every year. This staggering figure is attributed to various regional production centers within the country, but ask most persons around the world and they'll tell you that Bollywood represents Indian cinema. This Bombay-based industry has grown from strength to strength over the years and now, it offers a platform for a diverse range of voices. From small arthouse films to big blockbusters, comedy to drama, and everything in between, there's something to suit every taste.
Indeed, it's impossible to run out of good Bollywood films to watch, which can be both a daunting and exciting prospect (especially for newbies). To get you started however, I highly recommend this sampler of 10 Must-See Bollywood Films:
(directed by Rajkumar Hirani)
Released in 2009 to record-shattering box office, Rajkumar Hirani's "3 Idiots" is one of the most successful Bollywood films of all time. The film follows a trio of best friends at a prestigious engineering college, whose academic interests lie elsewhere and conflict with the school's - and by extension, Indian society as a whole - rigid curriculum and expectations. In retaliation, the boys get into all sorts of trouble and mischief, but the harsh reality of their situation soon hits them when an unexpected tragedy rocks the school. Much of the film is told in flashback, as two of the titular friends search all across for India for their friend Rancho (played by Aamir Khan), the outspoken genius who went missing after graduation. As they reflect on their time together, this comedy-drama gets into very goofy territory, but underneath lies an important message about following your own dreams and passions.
Chak De! India
(directed by Shimit Amin)
While the formulaic sports movie has been popular in Hollywood for a long time, Bollywood has rarely been interested in this sub-genre. One of the exceptions came in 2007's "Chak De! India", a film about a ragtag group of female hockey players who defy expectations to bring India's national team to world-class level. Lead by a disgraced former hockey player as their coach (Shahrukh Khan), the film follows their journey from the earliest recruitment to their eventual tour at the World Cup. Filled with the usual rousing training montages and dramatic conflicts within and outside the team, "Chak De! India" feels much like your typical sports movie. But it's more than that, providing an inspiring metaphor for the power of Indian unity, as the players come from all over the country and from widely different ends of the caste hierarchy.
(directed by Sanjay Gadhvi)
Just like Hollywood, India has started to cash in on the popularity of action franchises, none more so than the "Dhoom" trilogy, which is the biggest of them all. But similarly to those American blockbusters, the quality varies with each successive film and in this case, the best is the middle installment "Dhoom: 2". The film continues the story of buddy cops Jai Dixit and Ali, who must track down a mysterious thief who evades capture by using high-tech gadgets and disguises. As they embark on their mission, the film takes us on international romp, from Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro, with narrative tropes that bear similarities to the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. With sex appeal for days and awe-inspiring stunts, "Dhoom: 2" proved that Bollywood could produce thrilling adventure and awe-inspiring stunts on par with those of their Western counterparts.
(directed by Tarun Mansukhani)
After I watched the seemingly underrated comedy "Dostana", I remember instantly putting it under a "guilty pleasure" label. Indeed, the fact that it is essentially a re-working of "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" doesn't help either. But the years have been kind to the film, which I now consider a truly well-made comedy. It stars Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham as a pair of womanizers who must pretend to be gay in order to secure places in an awesome apartment, alongside a beautiful woman named Neha (Priyanka Chopra). Of course, the two end up falling for their new roommate/best friend, and as they struggle to keep up appearances, hilarity ensues. Set in sunny Miami, this film is a warm delight, with both men fully committing to their roles and creating amazing chemistry Chopra. Furthermore, the film is filled with side-splitting visual humour and wonderful musical numbers (like "Desi Girl", which I've had on repeat ever since). It's easily the funniest Bollywood film I've seen.
The Elements Trilogy - Fire, Earth & Water
(directed by Deepa Mehta)
In discussions of some of the great trilogies in cinema, one set of films that deserves a mention is Deepa Mehta's "Elements Trilogy". Comprising of "Fire", "Earth" and "Water", these masterful Indo-Canadian productions examine some of the most topical issues within Indian society. "Fire" deals with anti-gay stigma, as a pair of neglected wives find love and comfort in each other. "Earth" chronicles the tumultuous legacy of religious conflict associated with the Partition of India in 1947. Finally, the culminating film "Water" explores the mistreatment of women, exploring the lives of widows forced to live in a monastery. All three were critically acclaimed (especially the Oscar-nominated "Water"), with Mehta receiving praise for her hard-hitting, insightful filmmaking.
Luck by Chance
(directed by Zoya Akhtar)
For a crash course in Bollyood film, look no further than "Luck By Chance", the remarkable debut feature from Zoya Akhtar. This Inside Bollywood satire follows a pair of young actors (played by Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen Sharma) trying to make it in the competitive film industry. The plot plays like an inverse of "A Star is Born", as the man becomes the star while the woman is left to struggle, putting a strain on their blossoming romance. "Luck by Chance" manages to be both celebratory and critical of Bollywood, with cameos galore and a compelling anti-hero as the focal point.
(directed by Mehboob Khan)
Despite its distinction as India's first Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, little seems to be known (among non-Indians at least) about Mehboob Khan's "Mother India" outside of this one anecdote. When I finally approached the film however, I was greeted with a visceral audiovisual experience of the highest order. "Mother India" stars Bollywood icon Nargis as a woman beset with adversity, who strives to overcome all obstacles for the sake of her children and her own dignity. As we see her go from marital bliss to devastating misfortune, the actress is absolutely sublime in the role, as well as Sajid Khan, who gives a knockout child performance as her youngest son. But the most impressive aspect is the film's visual language, creating some of the most powerful images put to screen, like the one on the poster where Nargis drags a plough through a field to provide for her sons.
Rang De Basanti
(directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra)
After the lukewarm reception of his debut feature, few would have expected Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra capable of the tour de force of his sophomore outing "Rang De Basanti". The film tells the story of six disaffected young Indians who get a life-changing experience when an English documentary filmmaker enlists them to re-enact scenes from India's historic independence movement. As the events of the past start to mirror themselves in present day injustice, the group of friends go from carefree slackers to full-blown social activists. And with the aid of a brilliant ensemble cast and impressive direction from Mehra, their evolution is thoroughly involving, sure to leave you in emotional distress by film's end.
(directed by Mira Nair)
Decades after "Mother India" in 1957, India earned its 2nd Oscar nomination when Mira Nair arrived on the scene with a bona fide masterpiece called "Salaam Bombay". Set on the streets of Bombay, the film centers around a boy named Krishna who is abandoned by his mother and told to earn 500 rupees if he wants to return home, a punishment for destroying his brother's bike. When I watched the film a few years ago I described it as the anti-Slumdog Millionaire, in light of Nair's stark, gritty approach to the material. Reminiscent of the classics of Italian neorealism, the film gives a brutal, but exceptional portrait of the real India that Bollywood often tries to hide.
Taare Zameen Par
(directed by Aamir Khan)
Having already established himself as one of Bollywood's most valuable actors, Aamir Khan assumed the director's chair's in 2007 for his debut feature "Taare Zameen Par". The result: one of the best Bollywood films of the last 10 years. Similarly to his work in "3 Idiots", Khan also stars in the film, once again playing a character who challenges India's traditional education system which leaves no room for alternative perspectives and abilities. In this instance, he plays the art teacher of a dyslexic child (played by newcomer Darsheel Safary) who has a vivid imagination but struggles academically. As teacher and student form a relationship, they bring out the best in each other, much like the performances of the actors playing them. Indeed, Khan and Safary are pitch-perfect, bringing to life this heartwarming tale that deserved all the accolades bestowed on it that year.