If you’re looking for something REALLY different, look no further…

The world is wacky for Hollywood films and has been for a long time.  However, although Hollywood seems to get most of the attention around the world (especially now since it’s Oscar season), there is another film industry that is bigger—making twice as many full-length films each year as Hollywood and with a daily attendance of nearly 14 million!  This is the so-called ‘Bollywood’ film industry—and slowly their films are spreading outside India.  While here in the States they are still rarely seen by the average person, in other places Indian films are becoming much more common—and they really should be.  However, before you blindly watch a Bollywood film, I have a few suggestions and comments that might make your first time a lot less scary.

Bollywood is a term used to describe the overall Indian film industry.  However, Bombay (now more frequently called Mumbai) is only one region making Indian films.  After all, there are 16 official languages in India and not every Indian viewer understands Hindi.  So, there are also films being made in Chennai (formerly Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta) as well.  These films are also excellent and often follow the same formula as the Bollywood films.  One of my favorite of these films is I Have Found It—a Tamil version of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility!  It’s a wonderful film…and still very, very Indian.
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While most of these Indian films are romances (the most popular genre, by far, in India today), you hear a lot of singing in most genres within the Indian industry.  Most Indian films do have an amazingly odd musical style—or at least they seem that way to outsiders.  After all, it’s hard to imagine an American gangster film having periodic breaks for huge song and dance numbers—but you’ll see them in films such as Omkara and Agneepath!  Some of the dance numbers in Indian films are enormous and magically transport the cast to exotic lands—only to deliver them back home to India once the number has finished!  It’s really weird…but also quite infectious and fun in many cases.  However, not all Indian films have singing—there are plenty of exceptions.  The films of the late Indian director Satyajit Ray have no singing and every so often I’ve seen a recent Indian film without singing or with very, very little (such as Black).

For a newcomer to Indian cinema, you might just want to watch a film by some Indian expatriates or of Indian ancestry.  These films are sort of like hybrids—very Indian but they are sometimes filmed outside the country and the typical Indian formulas may be a bit different.  Mira Nair has made some nice films (such as Monsoon Wedding), Gurinder Chadha (of Kenyan, Indian and British extraction) brought us the international hit Bend it Like Beckham and my personal favorites are the films of Deepa Mehta (who lives in Canada and brought us the three films Fire, Earth and Water).  All three directors are women and have made films that are wonderful and easy to like.  Bollywood/Hollywood would be a great gateway film experience!  And, as your first purely Indian film, I strongly suggest Three Idiots or perhaps Kahaani.

Please do not get the idea that I am an expert on Indian films.  I am just an American guy who has seen enough of the films to know I really like them and I’m trying to help you take the leap as well.   Good luck and let me know what you think.  And, feel free to suggest other Indian films, as I’m always on the lookout for a great film and am not exactly plugged into the Bollywood scene here in Florida!

By the way, most of the films I suggested are available through Netflix and their selection of Indian films is surprisingly strong.

Article by Martin Hafer, Film Critic