In the opening sequence of the film Ghost World, Enid — the young Bohemian lead — has the television on. As the camera travels past other alienated, depressed people smoking cigarettes and staring out into the night, Enid is dancing. She's watching a musical sequence from a 1965 Bollywood thriller called Gumnaam. We see less than a minute; fortunately, the whole five minutes and thirty-three seconds of the original sequence is included in the DVD's extras. In 2002, we sat there with our mouths open.
There's not anything like this dance scene in any movie I can remember, and I've seen a lot of movies. The music itself is a Tijuana Brass-Dick Dale hybrid, Miserlou colliding with Casino Royale. On top of this rich mix is the breathless vocal of Mohammed Rafi, one of the great male "playback" singers (as in Marni Nixon). In India, since pop tunes have always been drawn primarily from soundtracks, playback singers are pop stars of the highest order, respected by the masses and critics alike. Rafi is — as they say in Bollywood — "picturized on" a wiry little guy who works an old RCA mic like Elvis in his prime. He sports a John Waters must'veche and, inexplicably, a racoon mask, as do the dancers and the band.
Meanwhile Laxmi Chhaya — billed as the "Masked Dancer" on the IMDb, a very cute brunette with a Gene Tierney overbite — is going nuts with a series of twitchy, hand-wringing, head-shaking moves amidst the chorus boys.
With its Touch of Evil oblique angles, rapid cutting, epileptic choreography and mariachi surf stomping, there is nothing else like Jaan Pehchan Ho. We were hooked. A few weeks later we realized we could rent these movies from the same Mom-and-Pop spice store where we were already getting our curry powder and chilis. Mom-and-Pop were happy to recommend the first features we watched, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (see the next page). Just a month or two later, right in the middle of this first flush of Bollywood fever, Film Comment's invaluable May/June issue of 2002 hit the stands. It remains a fabulous primer.
I have to qualify any best-of list by saying that I am no expert. Indian studios make about 800 titles a year, though only about a third of those qualify as the Hindi-pop confections we call Bollywood. The first full-length Hindi feature Raja Harishchandra, written and directed by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke — Dadasaheb, seen to the left on the office wall of the National Film Archive of India — was released in 1913, two years before Birth of a Nation. My point is that no one in the West can claim to be an expert; there are simply too many films. Canon-creation is problematic, perhaps impossible. If you specialized solely in the films of a single actor — Amitabh Bachchan, for instance — and watched one of his three-hour films every week, a year later you still would not have caught up to his most current release.
A note to US residents: even if you are fortunate enough to live in Jackson Heights, Queens, or Union, NJ, or some other community where the NRI (Non-Resident-Indian) population supports a theatre or two, you will probably not be lucky enough to see these films on the big screen. And of course it's even worse for any film that is not in current release: just like in the US, it is almost impossible to find a revival house. Older films are seen exclusively on satellite television, DVD, VCD, or tape. Here in the US the products of various Indian film industries are carried as separate packages on cable and satellite systems, and many Indian films are streamed through Netflix (where Hindi-language releases dominate).
The last few years have seen a remarkable turnaround in the quality of Indian DVDs. Anything post-Lagaan is likely to look and sound great, and most new releases rival Hollwood in terms of the quality of image and audio, along with vastly improved subtitles. Prices have also gone up. As of this writing, Blu-ray versions of anything are hard to find.
Many older films are remarkably inexpensive on DVD; we're talking five or six bucks. At the same time, you're going to see some terrible menu authoring. Some companies lock you out for as long as five or six minutes at the start of the DVD while they run the same ad loop you've already seen a million times. There are very few examples of restored prints or remastered tracks. With older films it is typical to see transfers from prints that have been on the road for years. High rates of disc failure are also endemic. This is due at least partially to the pervasiveness of bootlegs, which are sometimes difficult to spot and vary wildly in quality.
To see an annotated list of some of our favorites, click here.
For more information, here are some resources:
Check out Memsaab's Story, where blogger Memsaab writes beautifully, displays an energy level that is amazing, and whose tastes are catholic, obscure, and fascinating (look for the entries on Fearless Nadia and Ted Lyons and His Cubs). Memsaab rules!
Three cheers to the magnificent Carla: Filmi Geek is not only of the best Bollywood sites ever, it is one of the best personal web sites I have ever seen. The writing in dozens and dozens of reviews is consistently erudite and personal at the same time. And there are tons of pictures, too! (Plus I totally agree with her on Shabana Azmi and Shahrukh...)
Carolyn, who watches many old and new Indian releases for Netflix, has also begun to review selected films on her excellent Teak Hoagie blog. Take a look!
For amusing and comprehensive intros to a wide variety of topics, check out Bollywhat?: The Guide for Clueless Fans of Hindi Film.
Another great site on the movies: Philip's Fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema by Philip Lutgendorf
For a great article from Suketu Mehta (author of the superb Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found) on why he loves Bollywood movies, click here.