Growing up in India, one thing that I have realised about my culture is the fact that we love telling stories and if there is anything we love more than telling stories, it is living them through cinema. This is perhaps why my native country is home to one of the largest entertainment industries in the world, fondly called "Bollywood" and formally called " Hindi Cinema" .
Bollywood is more than colorful costumes, amazing dance numbers and attractive faces. It is about exploring experiences through an artful lens, a lens which more often than not contextualizes quotidian activities with regards to the social fabric of India.
Before this article tells you more about it though, let us begin at the most basic level by answering the question:
What is Bollywood?
Image credit: Brian McGowan on Unsplash
"Bollywood" is a portmanteau of "Bombay" and "Hollywood". Almost all of the big-wigs in the Bollywood industry resided in Bombay( present-day Mumbai) when Bollywood was still on the cusp of becoming massively popular worldwide. Any production house that had made a name for itself in the nascent stages of film production in India was also very likely located in Bombay, leading to Mumbai's established reputation as the 'Film Capital of India' and a wide usage of the term Bollywood itself.
A Misconception Behind the Curtains
Image credit: Monica Silvestre on Pexels
One of the most erroneous conceptions about Bollywood is that all movies produced and made in India are Bollywood movies, which is not true. Bollywood is just a very small part of the Indian film industry, and refers only to the Hindi films that are made every year. Movies in regional languages like Tamil, Malayalam and Marathi are products of their respective regional cinema industries and are loved and lauded by the masses in their own right.
Beginning, Middle and Beyond: Hindi Cinema so Far
Image credit: JudaM on Pixabay
The early movies made by the Lumière brothers were screened in Bombay in 1896 and drove Harishchandra Sukharam (a photographer back then) to shoot 'The Wrestlers' using a camera he bought in England. The piece is still considered as the earliest motion picture in Indian cinema. However, it was not until 1913 that the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke would produce, direct and edit 'Raja Harischandra', a silent movie which etched its name in history for being the first full-length feature film in the country.
Mr. Phalke oversaw all major departments, like cinematography, make-up, screenwriting and creative direction all by himself.
In the 1930s, the slowly advancing Indian film industry was swept off its feet due to the arrival of the 'talkie' films. India's first talkie movie was titled 'Alam Ara' and was directed by Ardeshir Irani. The soundtracks that Bollywood is widely known for today were also Alam Ara's gift to the industry because the first ever song was also recorded for it specifically.
Image credit: ElisaRiva on Pixabay
Bollywood movies in the beginning of 1940s usually had some undertones of a nationalist sentiment in them and regional cinema also started flourishing during this time frame. Modern Hindi cinema was born in 1947 and ace directors like Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray gained popularity for their focus on the hardships of the common-man in their projects.
From 1947 followed the 'Golden Era of Bollywood' till 1962. Actors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand with actresses like Madhubala (still known to be the prettiest heroine in Indian cinema), Nargis and Meena Kumari were hugely popular during this time and starred in the most iconic and acclaimed films in Hindi cinema.
In the 1970s , Hindi cinema was spiced up by the advent of 'Masala films'. Masala is a Hindi word literally meaning spices and the Masala movies so produced were a mix of elements from all genres. During this time, movies that depicted underworld crime also came to the fore and set the trend for upcoming action movies.
After a brief period of decline at the box office in late 1980s, Bollywood as we know it today finally completed its primary round of evolution. Films during this period to that of 1990s focused on a little bit of everything, from romance to family drama, to social issues and so on and were shot with exorbitantly high production budgets.
Below is the list of some Bollywood movies that are a great place to start if you want to dig deeper into the Hindi tinseltown. The list curated tries to cover almost everything that Bollywood has to offer across various timeframes (and I apologise in advance if I forgot to mention some really iconic actors and movies).
Flicks You Cannot Miss
1. Mother India, 1957
( Image via: Wikimedia Commons, Nargis in a still from the film)
Known for its archetypal portrayal of an Indian woman and the excellent performances by Nargis, Sunil Dutt and other members from the supporting cast, Mother India to this day retains its status as one of the most critically acclaimed box office hits ever produced by the industry of Hindi cinema. The Mehboob directorial was also the first movie to be nominated for an Academy Award and it lost by just a single vote.
Today, the movie is remembered for its didactic depiction of what it means to be a mother, as the plot revolves around the struggles of Radha, a single mother raising her children in a poverty-stricken rural Indian village.
2. Mughal-e-Azam, 1960 ( translation: The Great Mughal)
( Image via: Wikimedia Commons, Madhubala in 'Mughal-e-Azam')
Are you in love with movies that have resplendent costumes, phenomenal music, elaborate movie sets accompanied with amazing acting skills? If yes, then Mughal-e-Azam is surely going to be one of your favorite movies of all time after you finish watching it and, in case your answer is no to the question asked above, you should still give this movie a try. I assure you, you will never regret it.
Starring the bewitchingly beautiful Madhubala (who was equally talented, by the way) and the pioneer of method acting in India, Dilip Kumar, the movie showcases the tragic romance of Salim, a Mughal prince, and Anarkali, a courtesan. Although its historical accuracy is up for debate, the fact that Mughal-e-Azam ruled the box office as the highest earning film for 15 years straight definitely articulates why it has made it to every list ever about Bollywood cult classics you cannot skip watching.
3. Anand, 1971 (translation: Happiness)
A heartwarming tale of friendship between a pessimistic doctor and a terminally ill patient who is adamant about living his life to the fullest, Anand is hailed as one of the finest Bollywood movies, even though it garnered modest monetary success upon its release. This film was mega superstar Rajesh Khanna's 17th consecutive box office hit and Amitabh Bacchan's performance as the pessimistic oncologist just catapulted him into the limelight even more.
4. Sholay, 1975 (translation: High Flames)
The truest example of a culture-defining masala movie, Sholay, is a film that most people in India know for its iconic dialogues and deftly crafted characters. Sporting an ensemble cast of Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan, the movie is about friendship, bravery and morality as it takes you on the rollercoaster journey of nabbing the notorious dacoit Gabbar Singh ( hands down the best villain in Bollywood) alongwith Jai and Veeru, two criminals determined to succeed at any cost.
5. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, 1995 (translation:The Big Hearted Will Take the Bride)
(Image via: Wikimedia Commons, SRK and Kajol, the leads of DDLJ)
Fondly known by the initialism DDLJ, this movie was single-handedly responsible for defining love for generations to come. The longest running film till date, DDLJ stars Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) and Kajol, an on-screen pair with such sizzling chemistry that most kids in the 90s thought that they were actually together in real life.
The plot focuses on Simran and Raj, a non-resident Indian couple that fall in love on a European vacation but face problems when Raj realises that Simran has been promised to a man back in India. The movie is memorable not only for its catchy songs and scenic visuals, but also for Raj's resilience to fight against all odds and win his ladylove back.
6. Swades, 2004 ( translation: Homeland)
(Image via: Wikimedia Commons, a still from 'Swades')
A movie ahead of its time in terms of ideological positioning, Swades is a story about an expatriate, Mohan Bhargav returning to India to look for his nanny in a village. He ends up extending his stay to help the villagers and makes them realise the power of unity to bring about change in society. Praised for its soundtrack and plot critically, the film is one of the best in SRK's filmography and does a great job at engaging the viewers throughout without seeming preachy.
7. Jab We Met, 2007 (translation: When We Met)
Take a sunshine character and a grumpy character and make them Indian. To top it off, add some songs that will stay with people till the end of the 2000s, dialogues that can be used in colloquial settings with effortless ease and a hefty dose of romance. This is what Jab We Met precisely is. The movie stays with you not because of how the leading pair looks, but because its direction and plot are simple yet inimitable.
8. 3 Idiots, 2009
( Image via: Wikimedia Commons, actor Aamir Khan who plays Rancho in the film) )
At surface level , 3 Idiots seems like a film that should not be taken seriously considering that it focuses on three friends- Raju, Farhan and Rancho primarily during their time as college students, but at its very core, it dismantles every conventionally parochial about education, success and life in general in the Indian society. With its cultural impact as massive as that of Sholay in the late 70s and 80s, the movie blends comedy, drama, relatability and the tiniest bit of romance to transform into a cult classic that every kid born in the 2000s knows of.
9. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 2011 ( translation: You Only Live Once)
( Image via: Wikimedia Commons, a still from ZNMD)
Popularly known as ZNMD, the film follows three friends that decide to take a trip to Spain in order to face their worst fears. With a music album as refreshing as its conceptualization of camaraderie and romantic relationships, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara will carve a niche into your heart with the extraordinary performances from its star cast and dialogues that stay with you forever.
P.S- It will strongly make you plan a lavish, European road trip with your pals!
10. Bajirao Mastani, 2015
Documenting the epic romance of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao and his second wife Mastani, Bajirao Mastani has a string of specialities like the grandeur of its sets, the finesse of its music and the enthralling characters that come to life due to how well they have been portrayed by the actors. Lauded by critics for being one of the finest movies made in the 2010s, the film has set new standards for cinematic production and direction. You start watching the movie to be enchanted by everything it has to offer and end it by feeling nothing but a deep empathy for the protagonists.
Having thrived in a cultural context that changes swiftly, Bollywood is now expanding its dimensions and being more liberal with creative restrictions on film media now. The best of Hindi Cinema is yet to come according to many movie buffs in India but till then, you can catch up by watching some cult classics mentioned above or just taking a deep dive into Bollywood trivia with popcorn in hand.