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.