Bollywood Film Recommendations from Sonali Dev and Asha Ganesan

NB: After gushing about RT17’s Bollywood Romance panel, we invited author Sonali Dev and guest poster Asha Ganesan to provide some recommendations for those who missed the panel.

Award winning author, Sonali Dev, writes Bollywood-style love stories that let her explore issues faced by women around the world while still indulging her faith in a happily ever after.

Sonali’s novels have been on Library Journal, NPR, Washington Post and Kirkus Best Books lists. She won the American Library Association’s award for best romance in 2014 and the RT Reviewer Choice Award in 2016, is a RITA nominee, and winner of the RT Seal of Excellence. Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog. Find out more at sonalidev.com.

The one thing I get asked for at every single reader event is recommendations for Bollywood films. The only thing I get asked more is which of my books is my favorite. Since I’m never answering that one (What? Mommy loves all her children equally!), here is a list of my favorite Hindi language films.

But first a tiny bit of context. Bollywood is the sometimes controversial label slapped on the Mumbai film industry. The origins of the term lie in the oh so imaginative splicing together of the words ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Bombay,’ which is what Mumbai used to be called until the nineties.

Today, Bollywood is generally used to denote commercial Hindi cinema characterized by much singing and dancing and hyper-emotionality, but I’m going to throw in some films that might not fall under the strict definition of Bollywood.

Ah, forget it, there’s no strict definition. And if you have one, site a source and I’m all ears. Until then, here you go…

Dil Dhadakne Do (2015):
A fun and layered cruise-ship set romp, with an ensemble cast of fully fleshed out characters. The best part for me was the family dynamics— the roles of sons and daughters and powerful fathers and mothers struggling to hold their worlds together. And it epitomizes Bollywood’s fabulous first rule: Put beautiful people in beautiful places, then make them question who they are.

Piku movie poster. An apprehensive woman in the foreground with her aging dad sitting on a suitcase in the background and a guy lifting a car over his head.Piku (2015)
A story about a single girl who has no interest in dating because she’s too busy taking care of her aging father (who’s quite a handful) and her business. Piku is my favorite kind of heroine— a badass who has zero fucks to give and a hero who is perpetually baffled by her and unable to look away. All in all this is the sweetest, most whimsical story that’s at once hilarious and heartwarming.

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013):
A classic opposites attract story with the nerdy good girl who’s ready to sink roots and the free-spirited bad boy who has things to do and places to see. They have one wild madly-romantic vacation together after they graduate from college, but the timing is all wrong and they go their separate ways. Then comes the reunion at a friend’s wedding years later. This might be the most beautiful wedding in a movie ever. The chemistry, the colors, the music, the existential struggle, this movie is magic all around.

Ishaqzaade (2012)
A spin on Romeo and Juliet with a gritty Indian twist. The hero and heroine belong to warring political families in the rural heartland where the violent battle for power is the law of the land. As these two firebrands try to bring each other down, the game turns on them, but not the way you’d expect. There’s this lovely dark and wild quality to this one that I loved.

Jab We Met (2007)
A screwball roadtrip romcom with a heartbroken billionaire who’s trying to run away and a madcap runaway heroine who foils his plans. Like all good journey stories, there is much finding of oneself and losing of innocence and chasing down of dreams that suddenly become important. It’s fresh and simple and altogether too adorable to miss.

Parineeta (2005)
A period drama set in colonial India, this childhood friends-to-young lovers story is lyrical and intense, but what’s most beautiful about it is the rich texture of context. It explores the power structure between rich and poor, male and female, and the choices we make when love and ego get tangled up and tradition and family-dynamics only add to the mess.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
This is possibly my favorite of all time. It’s a coming of age story of three friends and it changed my perception of Hindi films from being stories I watched from the outside to stories about me. In fact, I believe it altered Bollywood storytelling definitively and for the first time ever made the narrative relatable instead of awe-inspiring. It adheres to all the traditional elements of Bollywood style— the music, the drama— but does all that without taking itself too seriously. As a result what you get is a film that’s hilarious and poignant and has this lovely sense of being a slice of life you were lucky enough to share with the utterly delightful characters.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham movie poster. A family dressed in black and red.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001)
A Magnum Opus if you’ve ever seen one. If taking itself too seriously is the benchmark of traditional Bollywood cinema then this one succeeds sweepingly. It actually does everything sweepingly. But the drama at the heart of it is also sweeping and that somehow saves it. A much cherished adopted child is cast away for not toeing the line of obedience when he’s forced to choose love over family. Until years later a younger brother goes in search of his older brother and tries to bring his broken family back together while navigating egos even larger than the film’s grand canvas.

Classics:

Kabhi Kabhie (1976)
In my opinion this is the most timeless of Bollywood classics. Possibly because it was so ahead of its time while still being such a snapshot of India in the seventies. Not only does it have the most gorgeous Urdu poetry but it takes on themes of adoption, the voice of women in marriage and society, and emotional infidelity— all beautifully subverted into a hyper-romantic multigenerational saga.

Sholay (1975)
Sholay is arguably (maybe even unarguably) the most popular of all popular Bollywood cinema. Almost anyone who was alive in India in the 70s and two decades after that can recite almost the entire three hour long film from memory, in their sleep. It’s a story of two petty criminals who are roped into defeating the most dangerous dacoit of all time by a cop who lost his entire family to the dacoit’s ruthlessness. But the true beauty of this film is in the characters— tropes and archetypes epitomized into perfection.

There’s a whole bunch more like Dabangg, the story of a wrestling champion who trains his daughters for Olympic gold; Life In A Metro that’s an interweaving of several stories set in the teaming metropolis of Mumbai; Queen, where a bride jilted at the altar decides to go off on her honeymoon by herself and has the time of her life; Lagaan, an Oscar nominated period drama about a tiny village fighting the colonial empire on the cricket field; D-Company, a brilliant spy thriller where Indian agents try to assassinate a terrorist hiding in Pakistan; Kapoor & Sons, the story of a two estranged brothers who go home when their crazy grandfather fakes a heart attack. But I must stop at some point and I’ll stop now.

Since all the films I’ve recommended here are in Hindi, if you’re not a fan of subtitles, try these English Language India-set films:

Monsoon Wedding
Think Father of the Bride meets My Big Fat Indian Wedding but with an arranged marriage and dark family secrets.

Queen movie poster. A young woman dancing in front of a bright background.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
A dark and unexpected love story that blossoms on a bus journey when a young mother pretends to be married to a muslim wildlife photographer to protect him from a rioting mob when communal violence breaks out.

NB: BUT WAIT – there’s more! After our RT recap, which mentioned the Bollywood session and, Asha Ganesan, who wrote a guest post on diverse populations in historical England, contacted me to ask if I’d like more recommendations.

Like I’d say no. Asha sent over her own organized list, should you be looking for more movies!

Asha:

As a looooong time watcher of Bollywood movies, I’d be happy to give suggestions. A lot of times, some of the good ones are overlooked for the more glitzy ones, which gives the misconception that all Bollywood movies are about running around trees! So, I’m super curious now to hear what others are suggesting.

Also, I hope you understand now why you should never ask a Hindi movie fan to list their favorites without proper restrictions :P)

Romance Movies with other major themes (e.g., political, social commentary)
Rang De Basanti (great example of how interracial romance doesn’t have to take the story away from POCs, with wonderful avoidance of the white savior trope)
Monsoon Wedding
3 Idiots
Dil Se
Bombay
Omkara (Othello adaptation)
Fire (Female-centric, F/F themes, the movie that made me rethink my views of Indian women’s sexuality and romance as a 13 year old).
The Dirty Picture (A very feminist-oriented one, exploring the fine line that Indian female actors tread in sexualization, usually done in songs called “item numbers” – based on “item girl” Silk Smitha…so, not romance per se, but explores sex & romance)

The Dirty Picture movie poster. An Indian woman in pink, surrounded by three men.

Historical
Jodha Akhbar
Devdas
Mughal-E-Azam (must must watch OTT classic)

Modern Romance
Jab We Met (very female lead centric)
Hum Tum
Dil Chahta Hai (the movie that popularized less glamorous, more realistic urban Indian life/romance)
Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (unexpectedly lovely/feministy ending!)
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

Classic Bollywood style romance (i.e., many cliches, but lots of fun)
Veer-Zaara
Kal Ho Na Ho
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Any self-respecting Indian film fan has to watch this multiple times :P)
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
Ishaqzaade (Romeo & Juliet adaptation)
Khoobsurat (2014)

Romance with infidelity themes
Silsila (controversial because the infidelity mirrors the lead three’s real life infidelity rumors)
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (controversial because the most-liked hero & heroines in Hindi films are the cheaters)

NB: Many of these movies are available to rent or buy via streaming with English subtitles on Amazon Prime. Prime members can also add-on Heera through Amazon Channels to watch more Bollywood movies for $4.99 a month. 

What do you think of the list? Are there any films you’d recommend?

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