An unexpected development in my life last year was the discovery of Bollywood films. It’s not that I don’t still love Hollywood and American independent films, but Hindi cinema has really been a thrilling change of pace. I couldn’t have imagined how thoroughly fresh and new these films would be to experience. Here’s just a few reasons why you might want to consider enjoying them if you aren’t already. There are great selections in Netflix, and if you’re lucky, your local cinema might carry a Hindi film once in a while (like my AMC theater does!)
Bollywood films are visually stunning—and I’m not just talking about the crazy action scenes (where a car hit by a cricket bat will flip end over end)—but visually stunning because of the radiance of the Indian color palette. Just in case the aqua, pink, orange, and red houses aren’t enough, you have women in colorful silk saris and scarves and men in bright lungis and sherwanis. And if that still isn’t enough, maybe they’ll smear bright red, blue, green, and yellow powder on each other’s faces during the Holi festival.
Bollywood films have great musical energy. Often to mark new interpersonal conflicts (or their resolution and metamorphosis), the characters will suddenly break out into the carefully choreographed dances that are a hallmark of Hindi cinema. Sometimes these songs will seem almost random. Sometimes the lyrics aren’t translated, which leaves you guessing. But the energy and expression of these dances is a great mood elevator and change of pace.
Bollywood films have engaging personal and political drama. Regional politics and religion have played an important part in every film I’ve seen, whether through clandestine relationships between a Muslim and a Hindu, or clashes between local political sects, or discrimination between regional peoples and languages. The pain of the Partition of India still echoes in many films. Bhaag Milka Bhaag (trailer below) is the true story of how the Flying Sikh overcame discrimination to join the Indian national track team.
Bollywood films have epic stories. If you’ve grown tired of the often formulaic story arcs in American films, you might be blown away by the Hindi storylines. After watching a couple dozen, you’ll realize they have a formula all their own, but they have such epic scales. A Hollywood movie might show the struggle of some young men to start a business, and show their rise and fall… But in Kai Po Che, for instance, you see that business struggle, a clandestine love affair, a natural disaster, the friendship and camaraderie with young boys that they introduce to cricket, political strife that tears families apart, street battles between political rivals, a cricket match the reunites the nation, death and tragedy and rebirth… all in one film! Many Bollywood films will seem to drag on (they usually are 3 hours in length!), and sometimes you’ll feel they’ve tried to do too much; but they have such novel ways of telling stories and creating plot turns that I felt I was learning something as a writer… sometimes you forget that relationships can be moved by so many different things, and you realize you’ve fallen back on a limited store of emotions and events.
I was lucky that Kai Po Che (trailer below) was the first Bollywood film I saw, because it is one of the best of recent years and will probably remain my favorite for quite a while. Kai Po Che was available on Netflix last I looked.