As a white Midwestern American, diving into Bollywood was a totally crazy experience for me. I didn’t really know what Bollywood was, and I was sometimes left dazed and confused as the credits rolled – like I accidentally got on a hairpin rollercoaster when I thought I was getting on a kiddie ride. Don’t get me wrong – I loved it – I just wasn’t prepared for all that Bollywood had to offer.
Since marrying my husband and getting much more familiar with Indian life and culture (strike that; reverse it), I’ve come to have an even deeper, almost personal connection with it. Bollywood is a huge part of my life, and I wish I had had someone to prepare me for it so I could’ve gotten to where I am sooner. But since I didn’t, I’d at least like to provide that service for others.
Most people I speak to fall somewhere between not really knowing what Bollywood is, and never having heard the term before in their life. I created this guide as a one-stop shop for all your introductory Bollywood needs. My goal is for more people to have the deep and unique appreciation for it that I do. Enjoy!
What is Bollywood?
At a very high level, Bollywood is synonymous with Indian films. Many people describe Bollywood as the Indian film industry, yet in reality it is only a facet. The Indian film industry is comprised of many language-differentiated sectors – Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, Gujurati, Bengali, and dozens more. Each sector produces films in its own language, but they are also unique in the themes, storytelling techniques, and stars that they feature. Bollywood is the Hindi subset of Indian films – one of the largest subsets – and is therefore often the most globally-recognized film type out of India. Bollywood is known for its distinct style, which includes a larger-than-life mix of romance, action, and comedy, with spectacular song-and-dance numbers peppered throughout.
Bollywood – Sounds Like “Hollywood”
While it’s true that the term “Bollywood” is derived from “Hollywood”, it should not be taken to mean that Bollywood was created or established after Hollywood. In fact, both countries (the U.S. and India) started making movies almost as soon as the medium was invented. But as time went on and the American film industry (and the term “Hollywood”) gained international recognition, the “-ollywood” naming trend began to take off, with Tollywood (the Bengali film industry; also used for Tamil cinema) being first, followed by Bollywood – the “B” comes from “Bombay” (now known as Mumbai), which continues to be the center of that film industry.
“I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire and that’s Bollywood, right?”
Many people think that Slumdog Millionaire is a Bollywood movie, when in reality, it’s simply a Western movie that’s set in India. The reason it’s Western is because the director (Danny Boyle) and the lead actor (Dev Patel) are both British, and the storytelling conventions are quintessentially Western. The reason the film was so popular with Western audiences is because it’s shot just like a Hollywood movie.
However, the movie does pay homage to Bollywood in a few ways: the well-known “Jai Ho” song-and-dance during the end credits, and the casting of several notable Bollywood actors – Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, and Freida Pinto (who actually wasn’t well-known at the time). So unfortunately, watching Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t mean you’ve seen a Bollywood movie – only a nod to one. But it’s a great way to get your toes wet before diving into full-on Bollywood!
What to Expect
If you’re used to Hollywood films and are interested in trying out Bollywood, here are some things you should be prepared for:
- Indian Censor Board. Censorship is prominent in Indian media, and Bollywood is no exception. You will see the Censor Board’s “seal of approval” at the beginning of every Bollywood movie, meaning that the film has removed all of the words and images that the Board found objectionable, and is up to all regulatory requirements. This can sometimes be seen with dubbed-over curse words and the unintentionally-humorous verbiage during a smoking scene, which proclaims, “CIGARETTE SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH”.
- Intermission. Most Bollywood movies contain an intermission about halfway through. You’ll know it’s coming because there will be a big event – a fight, a shocking reveal, or some type of twist – right before it. Most Bollywood movies follow a similar story progression, one which is different from Hollywood movies. This article describes how the intermission is an importantly part of Bollywood storytelling.
- A time commitment. Most Bollywood movies are about three hours long, with some going even longer. (Thank goodness for that intermission, right?)
- Song-and-dance sequences. Though it’s becoming less prominent, musical numbers are a staple in Bollywood movies, and you’re likely to encounter numerous within a single film. Remember that they are an integral part of the storytelling process, so don’t fast forward through them! While you don’t need to read the translated lyrics (in fact, I recommend against it), the scenes themselves will help the story progress by revealing characters’ thoughts, feelings, and dreams or by acting out a cultural tradition or ceremony. Often times, they are the most popular part of the movie.
- Lip syncing. Bollywood stars are typically famous for their acting and dancing (and of course their good looks). Since they’re only human, it makes sense that they probably won’t also be amazing singers. Playback singing – a professional vocalist singing the songs, and the actors lip syncing on camera – is a common and widely accepted practice in Bollywood. In fact, many playback singers become famous in their own right based on their work in Bollywood films. The actors’ lip syncing isn’t always perfect, and you just have to look past it, which isn’t hard considering all the dance moves and flashy costumes!
- Indian ideals and customs. Bollywood is an Indian industry aimed at an Indian audience, and therefore showcases the values that are important to Indians. Very generally speaking, this includes family, traditions/customs, modesty, and heroism. These things are assumed to be understood from an Indian mindset and will not be explained. Since you are not the target audience and (probably) not Indian, it helps to know this in advance.
- Melodrama. Subtlety is not a word often associated with Bollywood, which you probably picked up on with the song-and-dance sequences. But this is also true of the acting, which is far from understated. Be prepared for emotional soliloquies and impassioned dialogues, incredible coincidences and fantastical plot lines.
Dispelling the “There’s No Kissing in Bollywood” Myth
There is a very common misconception about Bollywood films – the belief that kissing (or anything romantic/sexual for that matter) doesn’t happen, or isn’t allowed to happen – which is simply not true. Bollywood kissing scenes go as far back as 1933 (possibly even earlier), with an impressive 4-minute kissing scene in the movie Karma. While Bollywood is unequivocally more modest than Hollywood, kissing and sex scenes can and do happen…to an extent. The Indian Censor Board can insist a scene be cut if things go too far, but that doesn’t mean that movies can’t show some romantic smooching or (very obviously) suggest that the deed is about to be done.
Some actors still refuse to kiss on screen. Others are known as “serial kissers”. But most are somewhere in the middle. Likewise, many movies tease the audience with lips that almost brush but never do, while other films jump right in. It’s still a mixed bag, though as Bollywood becomes more Westernized I can only imagine we will end up seeing more kissing as time goes on.
This is important to note for two reasons. One, because it’s a reflection of India’s social and moral climate and is therefore an influential factor in the storytelling process. Two, because I don’t want you to get the impression that all Bollywood movies are automatically “safe” or “pure” for all viewers – you may still need to shield very innocent eyes 🙂
What to Watch – My Top 5
Here are my top five movie recommendations for new Bollywood viewers. They span various genres and time frames to provide a wide sampling of what Bollywood has to offer, and are what I consider to be fairly digestible for Western viewers. At the same time, many of these are Bollywood classics that are widely revered by Indians and non-Indians alike.
Period Piece, Sports Drama
Nominated for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film and starring one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Aamir Khan, Lagaan is the story of a fictional cricket game between the Indians and the British Colonials. You don’t need to understand cricket one bit to get sucked into this movie, since the cricket game is also a metaphor for the British Colonialism that was present in India until 1947. You’ll be so busy cheering for the Indians that you won’t even notice it’s almost 4 hours long. Also: great soundtrack.
3 Idiots (2009)
Another hit featuring Aamir Khan, along with other notable actors, 3 Idiots is the story of three college friends dealing with school and life struggles in their own ways. The film flashes between past and present, featuring genuinely funny moments and an honest take on the Indian education system. This is probably the most relatable movie on the list for Western viewers.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Romance, Comedy, Drama
This movie is the embodiment of Bollywood – romance, action, humor, family, tradition, exotic locations, and amazing music. Also known as DDLJ, the film has been a smash hit since its release over 20 years ago. It stars the biggest on-screen couple of the 90’s – megastars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol – and tells the story of true love in a culture of arranged marriage. It has one of the best soundtracks of all time, and is set in India as well as Europe. It’s chock full of Punjabi ceremonies, and will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. One disclaimer: the lead female character’s playback singer is Lata Mangeshkar, whose voice can sometimes seem shrill to the unfamiliar ear.
“Curry Western”, Action, Romance
It’s India’s take on the Old West. Sholay is consistently listed among the top Bollywood movies of all time, and for good reason. Drawing from the genre of American Westerns and starring the iconic Amitabh Bachchan, the film features a retired policeman who hires two criminals to hunt down a wanted bandit. The result is a story filled with classic action scenes, sweet romance, drama, tragedy, and music and dialogue that are referenced throughout India to this day.
Dhoom (2004), Dhoom 2 (2006), Dhoom 3 (2013)
This technically isn’t cheating because I’m not recommending all three of these movies within one slot – only whichever one appeals to you most. The Dhoom series is comprised of three movies, all of which have basically the same storyline. It tells the story of a policeman and his goofy sidekick as they try and catch a criminal who’s always one step ahead. What’s different about the movies is the actors portraying the criminals, the setting, and the music – most notably the theme song. I recommend watching just one – you can think of it as a kind of “choose your own adventure”:
Dhoom (2004): stars John Abraham; set in India; jazzy, mid-2000s theme song.
Dhoom 2 (2006): stars Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan; set in Africa and Brazil; grungy, STOMP-esque theme song.
Dhoom 3 (2013): stars Aamir Khan (you know that name by now) and Katrina Kaif; set in Chicago; EDM-inspired(?) theme song.
All three movies have very high production values for their time, and amazing action to boot. In my opinion, you could loosely consider this series the Indian version of The Fast and The Furious.
Bollywood Music – A Life of Its Own
While songs play a big role in Bollywood movies, they are often also famous in their own right. Many times a movie’s soundtrack will be released prior to the movie itself – the music can sometimes determine the success of the movie, and can even outshine the success of its film counterpart from time to time. Songs are often released as music videos, which gives viewers a small glimpse into the movie’s storyline, setting, production value, etc.
If you watch these recommended Bollywood movies and like what you see, I recommend browsing through Bollywood music videos on YouTube to find other movies you may like!
What (and Who) to Listen to
Check out these artists, singers, and soundtracks on YouTube, Pandora, or wherever you like to hear your tunes:
A.R. Rahman (you may know him from Slumdog Millionaire‘s “Jai Ho”)
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) soundtrack
Gunday (2014) soundtrack
“Hindi Bollywood Hits” on Pandora
“Contemporary Bollywood Hits” on Pandora
“Classical Bollywood Hits” on Pandora
One Final Tip
Enjoy Bollywood – trust me, that’s what it’s made for! Bollywood is best enjoyed with others, so buddy up with some friends and some snacks, and settle in for a good (long) time. If you approach it with an open mind and a light heart, I guarantee you’ll love it!
How did I do? Did I miss any movies? Did I inspire you to give Bollywood a shot? Tell me all about it in the comments!