Bollywood Binge: Must-Watch Films In Indian Cinema

Bollywood Graffiti~1

Photo Credit: Shashank Mehrotra at Pixabay

To prepare for my first visit to India this September, I have been reading poems by Vikram Seth, reading E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, listening to the BBC Radio 4 podcast series Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Professor Sunil Khilnani, watching documentaries and films featured in the BBC’s British Asian Summer, and watching Indian films on Netflix. Here are the most worthwhile of the films that I have watched, from oldest to the most recent – so far I haven’t come across a boring one.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – a masala movie with family and relationship issues, stunning costumes, all-out theatricality, palatial settings, mass-choreographed dances, catchy musical numbers, an agglomeration of major movie genres all rolled into one, and – of course – the classic happy ending. Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), the son of a business tycoon in Delhi, falls in love with Anjali (Kajol) but is forbidden from marrying her as she is from a poor family. This movie marathon is part photo-shoot, part music video, part cinematic travel guide featuring London, and a great introduction to Bollywood.

Read my full review here.

3 Idiots – a satire about the Indian education system. College friends Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) search for their friend Rancho (Aamir Khan), who disappeared after graduation. The antics of the trio at the ICE in Delhi and Rancho’s falling in love with the director’s daughter Pia (Kareena Kapoor) are told through flashbacks. Bollywood’s answer to Hollywood’s college movies is genuinely funny but predictable: Rancho is a flawless hero, not at all an “idiot”.

Read my full review here.

The Lunchbox – a slow-burning romance set in Mumbai. Housewife Ila (Nimraut Kaur) whose marriage is stuck in a rut one day sends a lunchbox meant for her husband to another man (Irrfan Khan), thanks to a mistake by the dabbawala, a system that delivers lunchboxes from households and restaurants to workplaces and returns them later on in the day. The two correspond through letters that they hide in the lunchbox and fall in love. This realistic film lacks the thrill of a blockbuster, masala, or odds-defying movie, but is more relatable.

PK – a satire about India’s conflicting religions and cults. An alien (Aamir Khan), an Indian Mr Bean if you will, lands on Earth to research its inhabitants, but loses his transponder. In his quest to recover it and return to his spacecraft he gets his name peekay (Hindi for “drunk”), encounters the many religions of India, and befriends a journalist (Anushka Sharma) in Delhi. The start of the film has a beautiful music video segment featuring a duet sung through the streets and canals of Bruges.

Dangal – one of Aamir Khan’s moving films where the protagonist defies convention to compete in a male dominated sport. Former amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trains his daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) to become champion wrestlers as their “punishment” for getting into a fight and beating up the village boys in Balali. This romanticised version of the real-life story of the Phogat sisters has witty dialogue and a modern feel. Aamir gained 30kg for his role :O

Lagaan – one of Aamir Khan’s moving films where the protagonist defies the odds to save his village from unfair taxation (‘lagaan’). Villager Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) accepts the challenge of British officer Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) to compete in a high-stakes game of cricket: win and his province will be exempt from tax for 3 years; lose and they will have to pay triple tax. The traditional style songs are catchy. This is not the origin story of India’s cricket success but you’ll wish it was.

Secret Superstar – one of Aamir Khan’s moving films where the protagonist defies the odds to fulfil her dream. Schoolgirl Insia (Zaira Wasim) living in Baroda pursues her dream of becoming a singing superstar by anonymously posting her songs on YouTube to avoid the wrath of her strict and domestically abusive father. Supported by her mother, brother, and a smitten classmate, she becomes famous and is talent scouted by disgraced singer Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan). The songs keep playing in your head long after the movie has finished.

Taare Zameen Par – a heartwarming family drama. Schoolboy Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) is sent to boarding school by his parents to curb his naughtiness and improve his school performance. Though he is punished by teachers who, like those at his old school, are at wits’ end with him, his dyslexia is diagnosed by temporary art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan), who recognises his innate intelligence and coaches him using more suitable methods. See the world through the boy’s boundless imagination.

Chennai Express – an action-packed romantic comedy that largely unfolds in south India, where the colours of the landscape, buildings, and the dress styles, is jaw-droppingly bright. On his way to Goa on the Chennai Express train, confectioner Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) unwittingly gets involved with the daughter of a mafia boss in Tamil Nadu (Deepika Padukone). The two fall in love while pretending to be engaged to one another. An epic story set against an epic backdrop.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha – a love story about a man’s mission to keep the love of his wife. Villager Keshav (Akshay Kumar) falls in love with and marries class-topper student Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), only to disappoint her when she realises that his home does not have a toilet. He struggles to come to terms with her simple demand and must fulfil his promise to fight the world for her. This film has amazing Holi scenes, which are not gratuitous but add meaning to the story being told. A confusing start (what’s up with the buffalo and the girl in the hay?) but a very worthwhile film.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – a film that follows three friends on a life-defining road trip. Kabir (Abhay Deol), Imran (Farhan Akhtar) and Arjun (Hrithik Roshan) are the Three Musketeers, and for Kabir’s stag holiday they are going on a long-overdue trip through Spain. Together again, they have the time of their life, meet new friends, face their fears, find love, and re-evaluate the meaning of life. Has the party glow of Mamma Mia but less of the casual summer fling vibe. Features La Tomatina festival, the Running of the Bulls, and a Hindi-flamenco mash-up!

Pad Man – a film based on the contemporary and real life struggle of social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham to raise awareness and improve the standards of female hygiene during menstruation. Villager Lakshmikant (Akshay Kumar) risks losing his marriage, family, home, job money, and reputation, in order to create affordable sanitary pads and keep his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte*) safe from diseases. You won’t stop nodding to Lakshmi’s brilliant speech near the end of the film and wishing that all men were as caring as him.

* I first saw the actress in Netflix’s Sacred Games, the first Indian TV drama I ever watched and would recommend. Be patient – the pace quickens gradually.

Update since publication (2018): after my first visit to India and beyond, I continued to watch Indian films. Here are some additions to the must-watch list.

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran – a patriotic movie about India’s struggle to conduct the nuclear bomb tests in 1998 (parmanu means ‘atom’) without being detected by the intelligence agencies of other nations. What was at stake? India’s ability to maintain its policy of non-alignment with the Cold War superpowers. The story of Pokhran is told mainly through the eyes of (fictionalised) project leader Ashwath Raina (John Abraham). The plot is straightforward enough to understand if, like me, you watched it first in India without subtitles. But watch it with subtitles to get the occasional joke in this otherwise serious film.


In Search of England: Cornwall

Botallack Mines, used in the filming of the BBC drama series Poldark

Botallack Mines

For the late May bank holiday last year we took a road trip down to Cornwall from East Sussex, driving through Thomas Hardy country and Poldark country. One year later, I’ve finally finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the entire Poldark saga, and am ready to relive my holiday.

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Flanders: An easy getaway for the romantic and sweet toothed

The murals at Gent-St-Pieters Station depicting the Flemish cities of Bruges, Ghent and Ostend

The murals at Gent-St-Pieters Station

Holidaying in Bruges for Easter was an easy decision to make for my friend Charles and I. I have a habit of refusing to go to places I’ve been to before, and the places that Charles wanted to go to were mostly places I’d already been to. So after a quick process of elimination we settled on Bruges, which Charles was excited about for the history and award-winning film In Bruges, and I liked for the art and architecture. We holidayed in Flanders from our base in Bruges for 4 full days and 4 nights, visiting Ghent on a day trip and Brussels before taking the Eurostar back to London. Below is some advice for first-time visitors to Bruges, especially if you are travelling via the Eurostar and at around Easter time. All three cities considered, Bruges is the best preserved historically and very touristy, Ghent is more affordable and hipster, and Brussels is the the only one that feels like a city.

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In Search of England: Winchester

A Bank Holiday Monday fête at the cathedral square in Winchester with a bouncy castle modelled on Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral Square

As the final episode of Channel 4’s documentary Britain’s Most Historic Towns airs tonight, I am going to recount my August bank holiday weekend 2017 in Winchester to add to my account of escapades in York in July 2015. Two historic towns down, four more to go (not counting my school visit to Cheltenham for the Cheltenham Literary Festival)! Here are tips on holidaying in “Britain’s most Norman town”, including 5 must-see places.

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Copenhagen: An underappreciated city

Famous landmarks of Copenhagen in silhouette

From left to right, on the silhouette pasted onto our hotel room wall: The Little Mermaid, The National Opera, Tivoli Gardens, statue of Christian X, Amalienborg, Town Hall.

Lydia, a friend of my friend Qi, told me last January that Copenhagen was doable in a weekend. I had written Copenhagen down as a potential city to visit by then and this had disheartened me. In a ‘which European country should you move to’ personality quiz I took in 2016, Denmark was apparently my ideal post-Brexit home. Nevertheless, the price of flights at the time that I wanted to travel was right, so I did go in the end, with my Mum. We visited over Halloween, flying there on one day, spending four full days in the city without venturing beyond it, and flying back on the 6th day. In my experience, I would say that the opening statement is true if you want to tick off all the things that Copenhagen is famous for, since the Denmark is similar to England in terms of weather and food (mostly gloomy and plain). However, you need more time to see the things that I think Copenhagen should be famous for.

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In Search of England: Whitstable Oyster Festival

Whitstable Oyster Co. stall

Sells local oysters, from small oysters to jumbo oysters the size of my face

My colleague Heather recommended the Whitstable Oyster Festival to me this year, and having been I can confirm that it was worth the 2 hour drive from our home in East Sussex. Do pay a visit to the Whitstable Oyster Festival if you like to spend your Saturdays driving through the garden of England, relaxing on the beach, listening to live bands, and eating fresh seafood.

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In Search of England: Her Majesty’s Official 90th Birthday Parade

Trooping the Colour
It’s almost Her Majesty’s birthday again, thus also Trooping the Colour, and here is my guide* to watching the day’s events in front of Buckingham Palace, with thanks to the lady who stood beside me – my “neighbour” – when I went in 2016 for her 90th official birthday. It was my first time spectating, and I had a good enough time that the Queen, touch wood, should see me for her 100th birthday!

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