Welcome to Bollywood: It’s not in Calcutta
“Bollywood” is one of those buzzwords that the West has come to use as shorthand for all things Indian. A Bollywood-themed wedding! A Bollywood party! A Bollywood-inspired look! The thing is, Bollywood is as far from “real” India as you can get. Imagine if all of the United States was judged by Hollywood? Do you fancy yourself a Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan? Yeah…I didn’t think so. “Bollywood” is a specific place, a specific mindset, a specific genre, all based out of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the mass-market film capital of India. There are movies made in plenty of other cities, in plenty of other languages than Hindi. There is a thriving art-house film community in India as well. “Bollywood” is not the be-all, end-all…but it is a lot to take in.
So, if you’re a newbie to vibrant, often over-the-top, musicals where do you begin?
Well, I have a two-tier acclimation process! First, I suggest watching films made in the West by desi directors. They’re in English, so you don’t have to squint at subtitles while also absorbing Bollywood’s tropes and treats.
Bride and Prejudice – Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 remake of Pride and Prejudice is pretty much the crossover/conversion film I recommend these days. It’s got everything from catchy songs to a Gratuitous Gospel Choir to Naveen Andrews getting his bhangra on. And it stars one of the most beautiful and famous of Indian actresses: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) – Deepa Mehta’s tongue-in-cheek send-up of the genre stars Rahul Khanna and Lisa Ray. What do you do when you need a fiancée? You hire one, of course! And everything that can go wrong does. It’s funny, self-aware and also a very sweet love story.
And far be it for me to be self-serving, but you could also pick up one of my Bollywood Confidential e-novellas. Out this week from Samhain, Bollywood and the Beast features an Indian-American heroine and a brooding beast of a desi hero. It’s very much a crossover story in the vein of Chadha and Mehta’s work — albeit nowhere near on the same level. (I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!)
After you’ve gotten the feel and flavor of a Bollywood film, you’re ready to try out timely, modern, movies coming out of India itself. There’s a lot of English dialogue in these films, but be sure to turn the subtitles on.
Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) — I can’t say enough good things about this romance. Two urban 20somethings in Delhi, played by Ranveer Singh and Anushkha Sharma, team up to run a wedding planning business and, in the process, learn that the most challenging match is the one between the two of them. It’s sexy, it’s fun, and it’s very honest.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) — Everyone flocks to India to find themselves, but actual Indians don’t do it much. So ZNMD, about three close friends on a pre-wedding dream vacation, is a wonderful story of a bunch of guys enjoying a last hurrah — and a first look at who they really are. It stars Hrithik Roshan, whom many a romance author has already discovered as a muse.
Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) — Another coming-of-age film about 20something friends on vacation, YJHD explores passion vs. duty and doing what’s expected vs. following your heart. Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone are delightful onscreen lovebirds, but for me it’s the supportive pals, played by Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapur, who steal the show.
Where do you go from here? Anywhere you want. Because Bollywood’s history is vast and stretches back decades, into vaults filled with black and white classics. But just remember that it’s not really India. It’s a fantasy. A gorgeous, immersive fantasy — one that, thanks to thousands of films to choose from, won’t fade away like a henna tattoo.
About the Author
Editor, writer, American desi and lifelong geek Suleikha Snyder published her first romantic short in 2011. The years since have hosted a slew of releases, including Suleikha’s India-set novellas, Spice and Smoke, Spice and Secrets and Bollywood and the Beast.
Suleikha lives in New York City, finding inspiration in Bollywood films, daytime and prime time soaps and anything that involves chocolate or bacon. Visit her at www.suleikhasnyder.com and follow her at twitter.com/suleikhasnyder.