The Beginner’s Guide: Bollywood

Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Dev Anand, Vyjayanthimala, Guru Dutt, Madhubala, Raaj Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Meena Kumari, Shashi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Sanjeev Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Anil Kapoor, Madhuri Dixit, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Aamir Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone.

To a majority of westerners these names will have very little resonance, if any at all. For many cinemagoers on the Indian subcontinent, however, these highly-revered and much-followed household names together epitomise the most significant cultural product in the region: Bollywood.

What exactly is Bollywood and what does it mean?

The term ‘Bollywood’ is itself a rather problematic concept. Its origins remain ambiguous, with many claiming credit for its creation; whilst others condemn it as pejorative term that unfavourably links the film industry to its Hollywood counterpart. Yet for many the term Bollywood is seen as a brand name that has come to represent the burgeoning film industry that for decades was known as Hindi cinema.

Since the 1970s, the Indian film industry has gone on record as being the biggest in the world, producing well over one thousand films each year – more than the combined output of both the US and Chinese film industries. In 2014 alone, 1,966 films were produced in India, compared to 707 films in the US, 618 films in China, 615 films in Japan, 258 films in France and 223 films in the UK. What’s more, over one billion more tickets are sold each year for Indian films than for Hollywood films, despite India having only having around 8 screens per million people in comparison to 117 screens per million people in the US.

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Nargis, Raj Kapoor & Dilip Kumar in Andaz (1949) – source: Mehboob Productions

However, what makes the Indian film industry so fascinating is that it is comprised of many different regional cinemas. These regional cinemas have their roots in the nation’s post-independence history, wherein each Indian state was reorganised on a linguistic basis. Thus, for almost seventy years, Indian cinema has been a multi-lingual affair, with films produced in over twenty different languages, including Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Bengali.

Although early cinema in India was silent like much of the rest of the world – including the nation’s first feature length film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra – it is the Hindi language film industry based in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) that, since the coming of sound, has historically been the most prolific in its film production. As a result, this Bombay-based cinema, utilising a combination of both Hindi and Urdu, and synonymous with the highly commercialised epic melodrama, has become the most dominant form of cinema within India, and is often what filmgoers and critics refer to when they use the term ‘Bollywood’.

Historically, Bombay has been a city linked with film from the very beginning, ever since brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere visited there briefly in 1896 on a voyage to Australia to showcase their latest cinematic invention. Moreover, during the early 1930s several major studios became established within the city; and with Partition in 1947, many involved in the film industries in Lahore and Calcutta relocated to Bombay, bringing with them their skills and expertise.

However, there are some academics who link the term Bollywood with India’s recent economic liberalization over the past two decades: to them Bollywood is a brand name for a global film industry that is built on the success of the Hindi film industry, but which, since the mid-1990s, has focused its efforts on reaching out to the growing Indian diasporic audience around the world. Today, Hindi films are not only made for an Indian audience at home, but also for diasporic and non-diasporic viewers in other parts of Asia, as well as in North America, Europe and Australia.

The basis of Bollywood films

Bollywood films, although consisting of many different genres, are also marked out by a particular stylistic set of conventions which can make them instantly recognisable. It should be noted, however, that although frequently employed, not all Bollywood films adhere to these conventions. That being said, Hindi-language films are traditionally 150-180 minutes in length (sometimes longer). They often employsuch narrative techniques as flashbacks and voice-over narration, with a plot that focuses on a blossoming romance between the two central characters. More-often-than-not this is set against the backdrop of objections relating to family, social caste or religious affiliation, which mostly consist of several song-and-dance sequences which feature little relevance to the actual plot but rather work to visualise the internal emotions of the characters.

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Kareena Kapoor in K3G (2001) – source: Yash Raj Films

These song-and-dance sequences normally feature actors miming along to lyrics that will be performed instead by a playback singer. With the introduction of sound within Hindi cinema, the role of the playback singer became of paramount importance to a film’s overall success. It also changed how these sequences were filmed: whereas before actors would sing the songs live before the recording cameras, now they could concentrate fully on the dance routine in the knowledge that the vocals would be superimposed onto the image later. The most famous of all the playback singers is Lata Mangeshkar, who has recorded thousands of songs in a career that has spanned over seventy years, from the 1940s to the present day.

Bollywood is thus the largest and foremost form of Indian cinema, reaching a global viewership that continues to grow year on year. It has a star system like no other: with the exception perhaps of the national cricket team, Bollywood superstars are the most celebrated and worshipped people in India, with many accumulating an almost demigod-like status amongst their devoted fans. Many of these actors and actresses have been bestowed with several Filmfare Awards, established in 1954 and seen by many as Bollywood’s equivalent to the Academy Awards.

To many cynics in the west, Bollywood cinema is detrimentally viewed as too melodramatic and too long, interrupted by hyperbolic song-and-dance sequences. However, upon closer examination, there is much to be admired and enjoyed within these films. If you are a novice, looking to begin your journey into Hindi cinema, then the following films should provide for a useful starting point from which to begin.

Awaara (‘Tramp’, 1951, Raj Kapoor)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Awaara (1951) – source:R.K. Films

In 1951, R.K. Films released Awaara, a Dickensian melodrama surrounding the trial of a vagabond accused of attempting to murder a highly respected court judge. The film reunited actor/director Raj Kapoor with Nargis, following the pair’s highly successful collaboration on Kapoor’s 1949 smash hit, Barsaat. As with many Hindi films of the 1950s, Awaara narrates the story of Raj through flashback, recounting how he became a helpless vagabond due an ongoing personal battle between his father, the wealthy Judge Raghunath, and a sinister bandit called Jagga.

Kapoor borrowed the vagabond character from his cinematic idol Charlie Chaplin, utilising it to deliver a social message to a newly independent India. Raj is a victim of circumstance and poverty, sent to juvenile prison for attempting to steal a loaf of bread for his starving mother. Later in the film, he makes a genuine attempt to leave his criminal past behind and begin a respectable career as a working man, only to be fired when Jagga informs his boss that he is a convicted thief.

Raj’s only salvation appears to be the love shared between him and Rita, an orphaned girl whose parents were close family friends of the wealthy judge and who is taken in by him following their death. Although madly in love, the judge prohibits the two from marrying due to the large divide in their caste and social status. Tensions finally boil over when Raj finally discovers that the man standing in the way of his future happiness is also the man who in the past abandoned him and his mother due a false accusation of infidelity. Raj, however, refuses to play the victim; vowing to shed his vagabond life and become the man he was originally destined to be.

Awaara is Bollywood’s Citizen Kane. The film is a technical, stylistic and thematic marvel which encapsulates all the qualities of Hindi cinema. The on-screen chemistry between Kapoor and Nargis is palpable in every scene (owing to the pair’s romantic involvement off-screen during this period), and the hallucinatory dream sequence that symbolises Raj’s inner turmoil – with Rita, high above the clouds, rescuing him from a hell-like realm – is pure spectacle. Awaara was also a family affair: Raj Kapoor’s father, Prithviraj, excels as the stubborn and authoritarian judge Raghunath, and his little brother Shashi makes an early onscreen performance as the juvenile Raj.

The film was to become an overwhelming box office and critical success, with the film’s socialist undertones proving a hit not just in India, but also in the former Soviet Union, South America and Africa. Rumour also has it that Awaara was Mao Zedong’s favourite film. Kapoor’s vagabond character, as well the film’s most notable song ‘Awaara Hoon’, have since accrued legendary status. He and Nargis would make another ten films together during the decade, culminating in Chori Chori.

Devdas (1955, Bimal Roy)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Devdas (1955) – source: Bimal Roy Production

There have been an array of cinematic adaptations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 Bengali romance novel over the decades; beginning with the 1928 silent film, and followed by several Bengali and Hindi versions, including the 2002 film starring Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit, which at the time of production was the most expensive Bollywood film ever made. However, it is filmmaker Bimal Roy’s 1955 film adaptation of Devdas which remains the most revered amongst fans of Hindi cinema. Starring ‘tragedy king’ Dilip Kumar as the eponymous Devdas, the film’s plot centres on the tragic romance of Devdas and Paro.

Set during the early 1900s in a rural Bengal village, Roy shows the initial childhood friendship between the pair as they go to school and play together. However, Devdas is a troubled child and is soon sent off by his father to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for his own benefit. Paro is left behind in the village and is sad and lonely without her best friend. Fast-forward fifteen years or so, when Devdas returns following the news that he has been transformed into a true gentleman. Upon his arrival, he immediately visits his old friend with the love shared between them highly evident.

However, Devdas is from a wealthy high caste family whereas Paro is not. When Paro’s grandmother asks Devdas’ parents for permission to have the pair married, they refuse. Outraged by this, Paro’s father plans to have his daughter married to someone even wealthier than Devdas, much to Paro’s disappointment. She desperately longs to be married to Devdas, and when her lifelong dream appears all but lost she goes to visit him late one night and begs him to marry her. Devdas too wants to marry Paro, but when his father refuses the grant permission he returns to Calcutta, once again leaving Paro behind.

In Calcutta, the highly temperamental and impulsive young Devdas begins to drink heavily to hide his sorrows, and is introduced to an erotic dancer named Chandramukhi, who soon falls in love with him. Both she and the now-unhappily-married Paro become worried about Devdas’ increasing alcoholism, with both women asking him to promise not to drink, which he refuses.

With its tragic Shakespearean ending, the inherent nihilism of Devdas has proven popular with Indian audiences time and again. Roy’s sensitive approach to the source material, alongside his mixing of both Hindi and Bengali filmmaking styles – including, most importantly, his employment of mood lighting to represent Devdas’ emotional torment – made for an instant classic. No actor was better suited to play the role of the brooding and emasculated young alcoholic than Dilip Kumar, here delivering one of his most esteemed performances alongside robust support from both Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala as Paro and Chandramukhi, respectively. Many subsequent adaptations have tried hard to surpass its greatness, but as of yet all have failed.

Mother India (1957, Mehboob Kahn)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Mother India (1957) – source: BFI

The title of Mother India was carefully chosen by the film’s director and producers to counter the 1927 book of the same name by American author Katherine Mayo, which had cast a disparaging glance on India and its culture. Thirty years later, this was to be India’s rebuttal: the nation’s chance to show the world what India truly was. Filmmaker Mehboob Khan had been able to succeed where Raj Kapoor could not in convincing Nargis to break with R.K. Films and portray a woman almost twice her actual age. Often described as India’s Gone With the Wind, Mother India is melodrama on a grand scale: the epic story of one woman’s battle against the odds and a symbolic visual representation of India itself during the end of the 1950s.

The film is told via one long flashback, bookmarked by the ceremonious opening of a water canal by the village elder, Radha – a reference to the developments in agriculture and infrastructure commissioned by the Nehru government of the time. Radha thus recounts how both she and the village have arrived at this particular moment, beginning with her wedding day ceremony almost twenty years earlier. It is quickly revealed that Radha’s new mother-in-law has mortgaged her land to pay for her son’s grand and expensive wedding. Following a land ownership dispute with a local money-lender named Lala, the village hierarchy decides in favour of Lala, forcing Radha and her husband, Shamu, to work long hard hours on the land to pay off their debts.

As well as being the devoted wife, Radha soon gives birth to three young children. However, their life is full of hardship and poverty: Radha often goes hungry, preferring to give her food to her malnourished children. Tragedy suddenly strikes when, working the land, Shamu gets crushed under a large rock, resulting in him losing both arms. With her husband unable to help, it is left to Radha to work the land herself, and ultimately Shamu abandons his family out of both shame and guilt late one evening.

Radha vows to plough on, refusing to give herself over to the slimy Lala. A dissolve takes us to when her two boys are grown into men: they help their mother toil the land over the years, with the much older Radha now the matriarch of the village. However, although grown, her youngest son Birju maintains his rebellious childhood temperament, upsetting most of the village members. He is especially determined to destroy the livelihood of Lala, whom he views as the main cause of all his family’s problems.

At the heart of Mother India is a woman determined to succeed, with Radha acting as a nationalist statement of strength and defiance, loyalty and humility. Dealing with difficult yet relevant issues such as poverty, tradition and family, the film is undoubtedly a hallmark of Hindi cinema. Nargis was never better than in her role as Radha, complemented at first by Raaj Kumar as her on-screen husband, and then later in the film by her soon-to-be real-life husband Sunil Dutt as the older Birju – the latter lending the film’s Oedipal relationship an additional layer of complexity.

Mother India was an overnight success, gaining millions of fans all across the country on its way to becoming the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (‘Paper Flowers’, 1959, Guru Dutt)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) – source: Gala Global

Buoyant from the overwhelming success bestowed upon his 1957 film Pyaasa, filmmaker Guru Dutt would embark on a project that would set him apart as the greatest auteur in all of Hindi cinema. Known for his poignant lyrical films, on this occasion he would turn his introspective gaze towards the Bombay film industry itself. Kaagaz Ke Phool, it can thus be argued, is Bollywood’s Sunset Blvd. Moreover, the film would reunite Dutt with actress Waheeda Rehman, taking their professional, as well as their personal relationship, to a whole new level.

Beginning with an elderly man wandering around a rather run-down film studio, the majority of the film’s action plays out via one long flashback, lamenting the studio’s bygone glory days when Suresh Sinha was the hottest director in town. Ever-equipped with pipe in hand, the powerful and authoritarian filmmaker is currently in pre-production on his own cinematic adaptation of Devdas. However, we soon learn that all is not well in Suresh’s personal life: his daughter has been sent off to boarding school and he has been estranged from his wife (who resides in Delhi) for several years.

During an impromptu visit to Delhi, Suresh makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Shanti and gives her his jacket to protect her from the heavy rain. Shanti, touched by his kindness and generosity, travels to Bombay to return the jacket, stumbling on to one of Suresh’s film sets one day and accidentally interrupting the shot. Suresh, amazed by her on-screen innocence, realises that he finally has his Paro – the leading female character from Devdas – and casts her in his film. However, word soon gets around about the blossoming romance between the pair, which Suresh’s young daughter, Pammi, gets teased about at boarding school.

Pammi thus travels to Bombay to visit her father, and warns Shanti from any further romantic or professional involvement with her father. Shanti reluctantly agrees, vowing to never act again.

Kaagaz Ke Phool was India’s first Cinemascope film, with Dutt taking full advantage of the new format’s widescreen capabilities to deliver a film stylistically different from any India had experienced before. No sequence exemplifies this better than the ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ moment in which Suresh and Shanti reveal their unspoken love for each other within an empty studio lot – influenced in part, no doubt, by the ‘You Were Meant for Me’ sequence from Singin’ in the Rain. Unfortunately, Kaagaz Ke Phool was too ahead of its time for Indian filmgoers of the late 1950s, becoming a box office disaster upon its initial release. It has since, however, gained the recognition is deserves and is now seen as a classic of Hindi cinema.

In a sad case of life imitating art, Guru Dutt’s life and career was to mirror that of his onscreen counterpart, Suresh. The overwhelming commercial failure of Kaagaz Ke Phool disappointed Dutt immensely and he decided that he would no longer direct. Moreover, his marriage to prominent singer Geeta Dutt collapsed, and after a brief relationship with his co-star Waheeda Rehman ended, he sank into depression, drinking and smoking heavily to ease the pain. Although he acted in a handful of films during the early 1960s, he died of a suicidal overdose in 1964. He was only thirty-nine at the time.

Mughal-e-Azam (‘The Emperor of the Mughals’, 1960, K. Asif)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Mughal-e-Azam (1960) – source: UTV Motion Pictures

Indian cinemagoers during the 1950s could have been forgiven for believing that they would never see another film from director K. Asif. His previous film had been 1945’s Phool and his latest project – a historical epic set during the time of Mughal rule – had been seventeen years in development and production, delayed on numerous occasions due to endless script rewrites, several cast changes to major characters and an ever-increasing budget. In 1960, however, Asif finally delivered his new film and rewarded his viewers for their patience. With an all-star cast including Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, Mughal-e-Azam is a film Cecil B. DeMille would have been proud to put his name to.

Emperor Akbar seeks an heir to his throne. When divine intervention grants him a son, he believes his problems have been solved and he trains the young prince to become emperor. However, young Prince Salim is insubordinate and is sentenced to life on the battlefield as punishment. Many victories in combat soon turn the young prince into a man and eventually he is commanded by his father to return to court.

Upon his return he quickly falls in love with a court dancer named Anarkali, focusing solely on her and neglecting his duties as heir. When Akbar discovers their blossoming romance he is furious and has Anarkali arrested and placed in the cells. Salim is irate and demands for her immediate release, arguing that he has the right to choose his own wife. When Salim threatens to destroy his father’s empire if Anarkali is not released, the emperor consents but demands that she convince Salim that she never loved him.

However, despite her promises to the emperor, Anarkali cannot hide her true love for Salim, once again putting her own life in jeopardy. With Anarkali now placed back in the cells, Salim warns: “If she dies, India will become a vast burial ground for the corpse of the Mughal Empire.”

Mughal-e-Azam is the grandest love story in all of Hindi cinema, with some of the most opulent costumes and set designs, in addition to some of the most iconic dialogue. The narrative unfolds like a Greek tragedy, with the fate of Anarkali, as well as the Mughal Empire, constantly in doubt. The unwavering stubbornness of both Akbar and Salim – played with aplomb through the contrasting acting styles of Kapoor and Kumar – offers little guarantees to the eventual outcome of the tale. But the film is also a symbol: for although the film is riddled with historical inaccuracies (there was no Anarkali), Asif used India’s past to reinforce the nation’s current devotion to secularism, utilizing the characters of Akbar and his wife Queen Jodhabai to show how historically Hindus and Muslims had co-existed peacefully within India for centuries.

That being said, the true highlight of the film is undoubtedly Madhubala as the eternally devoted and self-sacrificing Anarkali. The scenes between her and Kumar are some of the most passionate in all of Bollywood, in particular one incredibly lustful and erotic scene involving a feather. Furthermore, the film’s most famous sequence has Anarkali dance before the royal family, wherein she makes her love for Salim abundantly clear through her performance of the song ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’.

Although the film was originally released in black-and-white, in 2004 it was digitally restored and re-released in full colour, allowing newer viewers to observe Asif’s impeccable mastery of both camera placement and staging in all its glory.

Pakeezah (‘Pure’, 1972, Kamal Amrohi)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Pakeezah (1972) – source: Shemaroo Video Pvt. Ltd.

Writer/director Kamal Amrohi was best known for his 1949 film Mahal, as well as being one of the dialogue writers on Mughal-e-Azam, when in 1972 he released what was to become his defining cinematic achievement, Pakeezah. Starring Amrohi’s then estranged wife, ‘tragedy queen’ Meena Kumari, in the title role, the film – which was in development for well over a decade – would showcase the meticulous perfectionism for which Amrohi had become closely associated.

When courtesan singer Nargis is denied the right to marry Shahab, the man she longs to marry, she spends the final few months of her life alone in a graveyard where she gives birth to a young daughter, Sahibjaan. Nargis’ sister, Nawabjaan, discovers her dead body and adopts the child as her own. Seventeen years later, Shahab receives a letter, written by Nargis before her death, informing him that he is now a father. He visits the grave of Nargis before travelling to the brothel where Nawabjaan works to take custody of his child.

However, when Shahab returns the next day to collect Sahibjaan, Nawabjaan has already fled with her. One night on the train, a male stranger enters their cabin whilst they sleep and becomes besotted with Sahibjaan’s red-painted feet. The next morning, she discovers a letter he has left behind for her telling her that her feet are beautiful. The young girl is then sent to a lavish bungalow where she becomes a high-class courtesan like her mother. Whilst there, the tenacious and aggressive Nawab tries to buy her love, yet she remains disinterested in him, preferring each night to gaze at train which passes nearby in hope that the stranger who wrote the note will return to her.

Pakeezah is a cinematic masterstroke that on initial viewing can appear deceptively straightforward. Yet the film’s intricate narrative structure, exquisite dance numbers and deployment of subtle visual metaphors only serve to further reinforce Amrohi’s reputation as a filmmaking genius. Meena Kumari delivers an impeccable performance as the benevolent caged bird who desperately seeks to fly to her freedom. In Sahibhjaan, she is the epitome of heartbreak and sorrow, channelling her own real-life struggle, for Kumari was terminally ill during the making of Pakeezah and died a month after the film’s release at the tender age of thirty-nine.

Deewaar (‘The Wall’, 1975, Yash Chopra)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Deewaar (1975) – source: Eros Entertainment

By the mid-1970s India was in political and economic turmoil. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency from 1975 to 1977, suspending elections and curtailing civil liberties. The nation was angry and looked to its cinema for both escapism and guidance. This overwhelming anger and tension inherent in the country would manifest itself in the ‘angry young man’ character, which no actor would better personify than Amitabh Bachchan. If Dilip Kumar was Bollywood’s equivalent to Marlon Brando, then Bachchan was to be its Jack Nicholson: his wide-ranging and seemingly-effortless acting abilities would revolutionise the industry and within a few short years the ‘Big B’ would find himself the biggest movie star in the world.

Emerging as one of the industry’s most promising new actors through his performances in a string of hits that included 1971’s Anand and 1973’s Zanjeer, Bachchan was to star in a film that, unbeknownst to him, was to launch his career onto a whole new level. Directed by the great Yash Chopra, Deewaar is a film about two brothers who find themselves on opposing sides of the law. The film would pair Bachchan alongside fellow actor Shashi Kapoor – a formidable on-screen partnership that was to become a hallmark of Hindi cinema throughout the decade.

Told mostly via one long flashback, the film is bookended by a police officer awards ceremony. The youngest brother Ravi has been awarded a medal for bravery, yet he declares that it is not he who deserves the medal but rather his mother, who solemnly accepts the award. Twenty years earlier we are shown a miners strike in a rural Indian village, wherein the strike’s leader is forced to concede to the demands of the mine owner after his family is kidnapped and their lives placed in danger. The other members of the strike react angrily to this, beating their leader, and through a deep sense of guilt he flees the village.

However, the family he has left behind still suffer the consequences of his actions. His oldest son, Vijay, is one day forced by a local group of men to have a tattoo marked on his arm with the words: “My father is a thief!” This permanent reminder will come to define the young boy for the rest of his life. The mother decides it is best for them also to leave and they move to Bombay, where they walk along the famous promenade. Experiencing hardship and poverty, they live in squalor under a bridge alongside fellow other homeless victims.

Vijay, however, decides that he will help work so that the money he and his mother earn will go towards sending his little brother, Ravi, to school. Although their mother is religious and visits the local temple daily, the stubborn young Vijay refuses to go inside, stating that he “wants nothing to do with God.” Fast-forward twenty years or so, with Vijay working manual labour at the local Bombay docks and Ravi, now an educated graduate, searching aimlessly for employment. Vijay soon lands himself in trouble, in the process working for a local crime boss and quickly rising through the ranks to the very top.

Meanwhile, a frustrated Ravi decides to become a police offer, with his first official assignment that of bringing an end to the crimes led by his brother. Thus, Vijay and Ravi are placed on opposing ends of the law, with both relentless in their desire to succeed.

Deewaar is one of Hindi cinema’s very best films, with both Bachchan and Kapoor at the peak of their acting powers. Never more so is this true than in the film’s iconic confrontation scene between Vijay and Ravi under the bridge where they once lived in abject poverty, ending in the immortal line from Ravi: “Mere Paas Maa Hai”. It is the highlight of the entire film, demonstrating the sublime quality of the dialogue produced by writing-duo Salim-Javed. However, above all else this is Bachchan’s film. Never was he better than the temperamental, violent and vengeful Vijay: an essentially good man forced into the criminal underworld through external pressures and circumstance.

Sholay (1975, Ramesh Sippy)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Sholay (1975) – source: Eros Entertainment

If there is one film that can be said to define the very essence of what constitutes Hindi cinema, then Sholay is that film. Directed by Ramesh Sippy and written by the formidable Salim-Javed, Sholay is the ultimate ‘masala film’, mixing multiple genres and influences that range from Japanese samurai epics to Spaghetti westerns. Sholay has everything: romance, action, songs, dance, comedy, tragedy. Moreover, the film features an impressive all-star ensemble, including Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan and Amjad Khan as the film’s notorious villain Gabbar.

Sholay focuses on two well-known criminals, Veeru and Jai, who are hired by a retired police officer, Thakur, to capture Gabbar, the villainous bandit terrorising his village. Thakur had previously arrested this pair of “thieves of the first order” when he was serving policeman, and the film begins with a high-action flashback showcasing an attempted train robbery by a group of local bandits. Although his prisoners, Veeru and Jai assist Thakur is defeating the bandits before ending up in prison.

Over the next few years, the pair falls in and out of prison. Upon their release, Thakur hires them to capture Gabbar – who has a 50,000 rupee police reward over his head – and bring him back alive. They reluctantly agree, tossing a coin to decide whether to accept or not. Arriving at Thakur’s village, the pair meet a simple and highly-talkative local girl named Basanti whom Veeru immediately falls in love with. When Gabbar and his men ransack the village, Veeru and Jai demand to know why Thakur does not defend himself.

What follows is another flashback sequence which details how Thakur once arrested Gabbar, putting him in prison. However, Gabbar vows to escape and vows to enact revenge on Thakur. He fulfils this promise, breaking out of prison and callously murdering all of Thakur’s family, with the exception of his now-widowed daughter-in-law. When Thakur discovers this he emotionally confronts Gabbar, but is tied up by the bandit’s men and has both his arms violently severed off. Upon hearing this, Veeru and Jai promise to deliver the justice which Thakur seeks for his family.

In one of the film’s many iconic sequences, Basanti is forced to prove her love for Veeru by dancing barefoot over broken glass: for the moment she stops dancing, Gabbar will execute Veeru. Jai intervenes and an epic gunfight follows in which Jai singlehandedly kills most of Gabbar’s bandits.

Sholay is a rollercoaster of a film; the ultimate adrenaline rush, full to the brim with action and suspense. Surprisingly for a film of its scale, each character is incredibly well-defined, with stellar performances from everyone involved. As Veeru and Jai, Dharmendra and Bachchan provide an inspired onscreen pairing; the former comical and tempestuous, the latter cool and collected. Amjad Khan, in one of his earliest screen roles, is a tour de force as Gabbar, stealing the limelight with a performance he found almost impossible to shed over the next two decades.

When Sholay was initially released, it opened to a dismal reception and was written off as a flop after only one week at the box office. However, as the weeks rolled on, Sholay’s audience was to grow in numbers to an incredible scale. It would go on to become not only the biggest film of the year, but the biggest film in the history of Hindi cinema. The Star Wars or Titanic of Bollywood, Sholay’s fans still flock to the cinema whenever it is re-released, with most able to quote the film’s dialogue purely from memory. The film’s soundtrack has itself become iconic, in particular the song ‘Yeh Dosti’ highlighting the enduring friendship shared between Bollywood’s most lovable criminals.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (‘The Big-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride’, 1995, Aditya Chopra)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
DDLJ (1995) – Yash Raj Films

Hindi cinema had been rather dismal during the 1980s. However, following the unexpected box office triumph that was 1994’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! the industry began to move away from its more violent stories towards more family orientated content. When filmmaker Yash Chopra asked his son, Aditya, to develop an idea for a new movie he returned with what would eventually become Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or DDLJ. Deciding that he would himself direct, Aditya cast Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in the film’s leading roles as Raj and Simran, cementing an on-screen partnership that would become as iconic as the pairing of Raj Kapoor and Nargis over forty years earlier.

The film opens in London’s Trafalgar Square, with non-resident Indian Chaudhary Baldev Singh feeding the birds. Although having left India over twenty years earlier, he still maintains a strong affinity for his homeland and longs for the lush green meadows of the Punjab. He is authoritarian and traditional; the head of a middle-class immigrant family who own a local shop in London. His oldest daughter Simran dreams idealistically of her future husband, and has been invited to travel Europe with her friends. Soon to be married to the son of her father’s closest friend in India – a man she has never met – she is granted permission by her father to travel.

Meanwhile, Raj Malhotra is a fellow Indian living in London, stemming from a less traditional and more liberal family. Early in the film, he as an altercation with Baldev Singh, who refuses to sell Raj and his friends beer. After completing college he too decides that a trip to Europe is in his best interests. On the train to Switzerland, Raj and Simran meet for the first time and initially don’t get along – she finds him exceedingly annoying and immature for his age. However, when the pair’s friends leave on the train to Zurich without them, Raj and Simran are forced together through circumstance.

Whilst alone, Simran begins to see a new side to Raj and the two quickly fall in love. When she returns home, however, Baldev overhears Simran telling her mother that she loves Raj. Irate and accusing her of betraying her trust, he orders Simran to forget about this boy and informs his family that the next morning they will return to India permanently. Meanwhile, Raj pines for Simran, and, encouraged by his father to “bring her home”, decides he will fight to make Simran his wife.

DDLJ marked the beginning of a new era in Hindi cinema, shifting the focus of the narrative towards non-resident Indians and acknowledging the growing diasporic market for these films. It cleverly combined foreign locations and modern costumes with traditional Indian themes and customs. Through its characters, the film demonstrated how members of the diaspora could retain their traditional values despite geographical separation from the homeland. Moreover, by insisting on a return to Punjab wherein Raj must prove his marital worth through his cultural competence, DDLJ proved that even the most Western of non-resident Indians remained Indian at heart.

The film proved to be an overwhelming success for all involved, becoming the biggest box office hit of the year and winning a record ten Filmfare Awards. DDLJ is also well known for being the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema, having been screened continuously over the past twenty years at the Maratha Mandir movie theatre in Mumbai. The film has arguably the greatest soundtrack in all of Bollywood cinema, with many of its songs – including the sublime ‘Tujhe Dekha To’ – becoming deeply ingrained within Indian popular culture. DDLJ would also lay the foundations for Shah Rukh Khan’s astronomical rise to superstardom, becoming the biggest actor since Amitabh Bachchan during the 1970s.

Lagaan (2001, Ashutosh Gowariker)

The Beginner's Guide: Bollywood
Lagaan (2001) – source: Eros International

When filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker approached actor Aamir Khan with his latest idea about a film set during the time of the British Raj and detailing the introduction of cricket within India, Khan initially refused to star in his film. Gowariker, however, remained undeterred and later returned with a completed screenplay. Khan was overwhelmed by what he read, deciding not only to star in the lead role but also to produce the film himself after several high-profile producers declined involvement. It was to prove an inspired decision, with Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India benefitting from Khan’s infamous obsessive attention to detail, and becoming one of the most critically acclaimed films in Bollywood history.

Set during the year 1893, Lagaan takes placing during the height of British rule in India. In villages all over the country the people depend on agriculture to survive. The farmers of each village submit a portion of their harvest to the local Rajah as a tax called “lagaan”. Each Rajah would keep his share of the tax and give the rest to the British as payment for their protection from other Rajahs.

In the village of Champaner, however, a lack of rain means that they have not been able to grow any new crops. The local British officer, Captain Russell, is a harsh imperialist who dislikes the country and people he rules over, and when the local Rajah refuses to eat meat during lunch one day – since he is vegetarian due to his religion – Russell ruthlessly demands double the amount of lagaan. When the villagers of Champaner hear of this unfair punishment they go to protest to the Rajah, and whilst there they witness the local British officers playing the game of cricket.

Russell then challenges the villagers – in particular the character of Bhuvan, to whom he has taken a personal disliking – to a game of cricket: if the villagers beat the officers then they won’t have to pay lagaan for the next three years, but if they lose the match then they will have to pay triple lagaan. Bhuvan accepts Russell’s challenge, much to the anger and astonishment of his fellow villagers. Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, believes the bet is unfair and sympathises with the people of Champaner. She therefore volunteers to secretly help teach and prepare the villagers in how to play the game of cricket.

A love-triangle subplot soon develops, involving Elizabeth, Bhuvan and a local village girl named Gauri. However, this takes a back seat once the day of the match arrives. Played out over three consecutive days, the British choose to bat first and set a target score of 322 for the villagers to chase down. What follows is an epic struggle, as this eccentric yet likeable group of inexperienced players attempt to defeat the British at their own game. The stakes could not be higher, but for Bhuvan and Russell the game has become a personal mission to defeat the other.

For an almost four hour film about cricket set in rural India, Lagaan is surprisingly gripping. Following the same narrative formula as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the action focuses mainly on the formation of this makeshift group of cricketers who unite to defeat a common foe. As with Mother India, Lagaan also functions as a symbol of national strength and determination, presenting India as the historical underdog who, through togetherness, overcame all the odds and defeated the might of the British Empire. The climactic cricket match is enthralling, packed full of tension and suspense, ultimately making Lagaan one of world cinema’s greatest sports films.

Lagaan also features one of Bollywood’s greatest soundtracks, composed by the award-winning and highly acclaimed A. R. Rahman. Aamir Khan excels in the role of Bhuvan, and is backed up with strong performances from both Gracy Singh as Gauri and Paul Blackthorne as the contemptable Captain Russell. Hailed as a triumph, the film gained overwhelming critical recognition upon its original release, becoming only the third Indian film in history to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Lagaan opened up Hindi cinema to a whole new audience and set the standard for Bollywood filmmaking, with the film’s leading star Khan going on to become one the biggest and most respected actors of the new century.


Bollywood is one of the world’s great film industries with more viewers and fans than ever before, not just within India but also amongst diasporic and non-diasporic audiences around the globe. Furthermore, Bollywood is totally unique: there is no other form of cinema anywhere in the world like it.

With bigger budgets, higher production values, stronger scripts, an assortment of impressive new acting and directing talent, as well as an increasing number of multiplex theatres being erected across the country, the future of Hindi cinema will certainly be worth keeping a close eye on. It seems highly likely that as India continues to develop throughout the twenty-first century, so too will the nation’s most valuable cultural commodity.

Wish to explore more?

Also check out: Andaz (1949), Pyaasa (1957), Madhumati (1958), Guide (1965), Anand (1971) Salaam Bombay! (1988), Hum Aapke Hain Houn…! (1994), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Black (2005), Jab We Met (2007), 3 Idiots (2009), The Lunchbox (2013)


What is your favourite Bollywood film? Would you like to see Bollywood films become more accessible to western filmgoers? What interests you most about Hindi cinema?

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