Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) Even though it is a four-hour movie about a three-day cricket match, I recommend Lagaan before many other commercial Hindi pictures because it is so accessible to Western audiences, and such a quality production on every level. It's basically a sports-flick — a genre we in the West know intimately — and all the conventions are observed, right down to the climactic match (although in Lagaan the stakes are unusually high, literally life-and-death, for a mismatched team of naive villagers battling caddish British red-coats).
Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it is technically on a par with anything from Western studios. In addition to its incredibly charismatic star — Aamir Khan, a man with the screen presence, intelligence, and grace of Cary Grant — the story is really effective, the dances superb, and the songs gorgeous (courtesy of A. R. Rahman, one of the biggest names in the business). It integrates a saga of period village life with modern Indian sensibilities, especially a nostalgia for a long-lost rural innocence similar to the small-town, simpler-time strain ruthlessly exploited by advertisers and politicians here in the USA. Lagann has its flaws (an Andrew Lloyd Weber-style number, sung in English, for instance) but I can't think of a more entertaining way to spend an evening or two.
Aamir was the hard-working producer of Lagaan, and without his involvement it probably would not have been made (financiers were resistant to a dhoti picture, convinced that the rural setting meant commercial death). Though director Ashutosh Gowariker is a fine filmmaker on his own (Swades, for instance), Aamir's touch means a greater attention to detail and a commitment to perfection unusual in Bollywood. In 2007 Aamir finally made the plunge and became a director with Taare Zameen Par, a big hit that made the critics even more ecstatic than the public.
(A side note: I apologize to my Indian friends but despite all your efforts to explain, I find cricket an especially confusing sport. It's even worse because I grew up with baseball, a superficially similar though utterly different game. To learn cricket you must unlearn baseball.)
Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994)
One my favorite guilty pleasures, an over-the-top camp classic that confirms every cliche American audiences have about Bollywood. It was the biggest picture of the 90s, and marked a return to more conservative themes in mass-market Hindi films. Half the picture takes place during a wedding, and many of the fifteen songs (most movies have only five or six) have become, in turn, staples at modern Indian weddings. See it just for Madhuri Dixit in the green top playing hide the shoes ("Joote Dedo") with buff-boy Salman Khan.
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)
Incredible production values, great songs, and a surprising plot that veers from love story cliches when you least expect it. Hum Dil features some wonderful dance sequences, especially the ones featuring former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, the biggest female star in contemporary Bollywood and one of the few Hindi stars to have attempted a crossover to English-speaking US audiences (Bride and Predjudice, and TV appearances on Oprah and David Letterman). HDDCS also stars Salman Khan (see Hum Aapke, above) and contemporary heartthrob Ajay Devgan. This is the very first Bollywood film I ever saw. Though the production values are very high and equal to any contemporary Western film, there is an oddly casual approach to versimillitude in location shooting: Budapest for Rome?
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
In her invaluable quick reference 100 Bollywood Films, Rachel Dwyer called this picture (along with Lagaan) "a radical reshaping of the Hindi film." DCH (forgive the acronym: writers on Hindi film often use them, as the titles can be quite long) has many of the conventions of older Bollywood product — the dance sequences, the closely-observed male friendships — but feels like something entirely new. Ultimately, it is an immensely enjoyable coming-of-age tale set among India's new middle class. The first song in the movie is set in a disco where Aamir Khan jumps on stage and, joined by his friends Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna, leads the crowd in a celebration of youth ("Koi kahe kehta rahe") with the refrain, "We are new, why should our style be old?" I love this song; it has all the fire of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" set to a Technotronic rhythm track. Female members of the gorgeous cast include Preity Zinta as Aamir's great love, and, in a character turn as an older alcholholic who has lost her daughter in a rigged divorce settlement, the eternally sexy Dimple Kapadia. (Dimple was instantly famous for her appearance in a smoking two-piece bathing suit in Raj Kapoor's 1972 smash Bobby.)
Ten years in the making, this is the epic story of the great Mughal — the Muslim emporer who was the first leader to unite a significant portion of the sub-continent — and the forbidden love of his son Salim for the dancing girl Anarkali. Try to find the colorized version; the whole film was supposed to be in color, but they could only afford the film stock in the last reel or two. This is one case where I am sure the director — the obsessed K. Asif, who only completed one other film — would have approved. Though somewhat static in style, the picture is opulent and full of minute detail. We really feel as though we were observing the hidden life of the court in the days of the Peacock Throne. As the slave girl Anarkali Madhubala is so beautiful in this picture that she is almost difficult to watch. Also interesting is the contrast in acting styles between old-school stalwart Prithviraj Kapoor as the Mughal and naturalistic Dilip Kumar as the Prince.
Dil Se (1998)
Mani Ratnam is one of the very best current directors, one of the few that would draw me to the box office no matter what the film. Dil Se, chapter 3 of his "terror trilogy" that included Bombay and Roja, featured his usual gritty, realistic mis-en-scene, with love songs set amidst mortar attacks as radio reporter Shahruhk Khan — the most popular male star for the last ten years or so — woos Manisha Koirala, suicide-bomber candidate for a group of seperatist terrorists.
Though not a commercial success upon release, in retrospect the unusual emphasis on politics, the ethics of direct action, and the collateral damage of terrorism makes the love story even more effective. The very first number is unforgettable, with Shahrukh and company dancing on top of a moving train (sans safety gear) to A.R. Rahman's blockbuster hit "Chaiya Chaiya." (For some reason Spike Lee used this song behind the credits of his heist thriller, Inside Man. It's a cool song but I couldn't figure out any connection to the rest of the movie.)
Raja Hindustani (1996)
This is one of the first films where Aamir Khan was beginning to break out of his "chocolate face" phase (a synomyn for "pretty boy") and become a mature actor. I just watched it again and was impressed all over again with the first half of this movie, which is as relentless and fast-paced as anything by W.S. Van Dyke, Cooper and Schoedsack, or a late-thirties Warner Brothers product. The picture steamrolls through a plot setup that is thoroughly familiar and completely satisfying: a young rich girl (Karisma Kapoor, granddaughter of Raj Kapoor and part of one of the most consistently talented dynasties in Bollywood) takes a trip to the sticks to connect with memories of her deceased birth-mother. She meets a young taxi driver with an amusing moniker: Raja Hindustani, or King of India. In the course of their journey he falls for her hard; she is bit late on the uptake and when she gets it decides that he's the one for her as well. It's impossible, of course — they come from two different worlds.
Finally, in a powerful musical sequence set in roadside gypsy encampment he declares his love and she answers, coincidentally telling her outraged father at the same time. Emotions flow back and forth across the campfire like sparks from a downed power line. The filmmaker cuts Sergio Leone-style from one screen-filling closeup to another, back and forth, back and forth: Aamir, tears running down his cheeks; Karisma, leaving her father's side and walking towards him; the music ("Pardesi Pardesi") building and building; the gypsy dancer, drinking Scotch right out of the bottle, the liquor flowing down her face, then smashing the bottle and dancing on the glass... Now that's a movie!
Some Additional Info
Other flicks you should see: Guide, Hare Krishna Hare Rama, Umrao Jaan, Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Karan Arjun, Hey Ram, Bombay, and — hopefully — many more!
Other Primo Directors:
Vijay Anand, Manmohan Desai, Yash Chopra, Mani Ratnam, Raj Kapoor
R. D. Burman, S. D. Burman, A. R. Rahman
Amazing Playback Singers:
Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammad Rafi, Udit Narayan, Kishore Kumar, Alka Yagnik
Madhuri Dixit, Zeenat Aman, Nutan, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Aishwarya Rai, Karisma Kapoor, Madhubala, Rekah, Manisha Koirala, Rani Mukherjee
Johnny Walker, Johnny Lever