Most Indians (and most people of Indian origin the world over) either love or hate the typical Bollywood movie. Let’s define that first: it’s either a Romeo-and-Juliet story or a man-against-the-system story, both filled with age-old tropes that range from hackneyed to ridiculous to impossible. These days, the popular song-and-dance sequences and fight scenes are, I’ll admit, more jazzed-up with Western dance influences, improved cinematography, and special effects. Still, the demand for these “masala” movies continues strong across both urban and rural India and, to a certain extent, across the global Indian diaspora too.
Non-Indians mostly identify with two main themes when it comes to Indian cinema: slum life (e.g. ‘Salaam Bombay‘, which was Oscar-nominated; ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘, which won several Oscars) or British colonialism (e.g. ‘Lagaan‘, which was Oscar-nominated). That these are the only two themes that even manage to get Oscar attention says more about how the West perceives Indian cinema and, indeed, India, than anything it might say about the state of Indian cinema.
Hollywood, of course, is not ready to discard the long tradition of ‘British Raj’ movies, from ‘Gandhi‘ to ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel‘ and many such in between. The latter, with its sequel, seemed to hit the mark rather well, given the “posh-Brits-in-India” modern-day colonialism trope (and, if I might add, the “white savior” trope for good measure). That said, both the Marigold movies could just as easily have ben set in Jacksonville, Florida as Jaipur, Rajasthan for all that the setting contributed to the story other than colorful scenery. And, with television, shows like ‘Indian Summers‘ also continue the colonialism saga trend that began with ‘The Far Pavilions‘. For the best response to Western revisionism of British Raj in film/TV, read this brilliant essay by Salman Rushdie — all of it.
That said, similar to India’s “parallel cinema” (as opposed to mainstream/commercial) movement in the 1950s-1960s, another new wave started slowly in the late-1990s. What is markedly different about this current wave is that it doesn’t eschew mainstream Bollywood tropes in the interests of realism and naturalism. What we’re seeing now is a fascinating blend of the typical Bollywood love story or thriller with more plausible narrative, plot, and character development — resulting in both an upending of tired tropes and a renewed focus on unique, thought-provoking storytelling, while still providing both engagement and entertainment. It is even more encouraging and commendable that these movies are being made despite India’s terribly rigid film censorship regulations, and despite the traditionally insular and dynastic moviemaking industry that Bollywood has been for decades.
Here’s a list, in no particular order, of some recent such Bollywood movies that, though very different from the typical “masala” movies, have gained a certain level of mainstream acceptance. Step aside, Queens and Fans, this “new, new wave” is here to stay.
[Disclaimer 1: I’m no expert on Bollywood or even film-making. But, I continue to be a big admirer of this medium, so please see the suggestions below in that spirit. Disclaimer 2: The movies below do not include movies in regional languages mainly because I am not familiar with them, though I understand that there are some very interesting ones out there. We’ll get into that another time, perhaps.]
Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur (who should have had a bigger role in that 4th season of Homeland) play people who send each other notes in the daily lunchbox being misdelivered to Khan’s character instead of to Kaur’s character’s husband. This is not much of a story, more like beautifully-etched character studies. The performances (especially Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a supporting role) are strong. The plot never gets maudlin or sentimental. I did have to suspend disbelief a couple times because such epistolary romance does not happen in today’s smartphone world. Still, it won a few international awards and is worth watching for the cast.
This is a quirky little story about a joint family patriarch who decides that he is only going to believe things if he gets to see them with his own eyes. A lovely, understated comedy with a bit of a surreal ending. The ensemble performance here reminds me of really good live theater. Sanjay Mishra as the lead and Rajat Kapoor (who wrote and directed) as his brother are so right for their roles. However, Seema Pahwa, as the mother, is the real scene-stealer.
There are two parallel, slowly-converging stories here of ordinary, lower middle-class people trying to find love and get to better lives, beyond caste conflicts. Some of the plot twists are a bit O Henry-ish, but there’s good storytelling here with pitch-perfect performances from mostly newcomers. Sanjay Mishra shows up here again as a father and, again, outshines almost everyone. The cinematography is rather breathtaking in places so that you want to pause for particular shots. The soundtrack by Indian Ocean is cool (and they’ve used a Dushyant Kumar poem to good effect). This one deserved its international awards and the reported standing ovation at Cannes.
Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha
An arranged marriage gone awry is a typical plot point of so many Indian movies. But, this one is handled differently. Ayushman Khurrana and the lovely Bhumi Pednekar make the whole thing work very well. It’s probably the first Indian movie I’ve seen with an overweight female lead who comes out on top (literally). Sanjay Mishra and Seema Pahwa (see Ankhon Dekhi above) show up here again and, as always, are flawless.
A woman decides to find a husband her own way after facing ridiculous dowry demands. This is a different take on the usual dowry story. Parineeti Chopra and Aditya Roy Kapur do good work as the leads. I could not stand Anupam Kher’s hamminess as the father. Less dancin’ and romancin’, and more cookin’ and bitchin’ (Hyderabadi-style, if you know what I mean) would have gone a long way to making it stand out. They should have done more with the food/restaurant angle — the guy’s a renowned chef; I would have liked to see him in the kitchen, getting his hands dirty. When Bollywood takes a good story and tries hard to make us fall in love with the characters, this is what happens.
Ship of Theseus
The lives of an experimental photographer, an ailing monk, and an enterprising stockbroker come together. The title relates to Theseus’ paradox in ‘Life of Theseus’, where the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch asks whether a ship that has been restored by replacing all its parts remains the same ship. It’s an ambitious movie with large themes that it doesn’t quite seem to convey properly. But, beautiful and thought-provoking, nonetheless, and earnestly-told.
On My To-watch List
The Good Road
This was India’s official submission for Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. It is a set of interlinked stories with the main thread being that of how a boy is lost and then found while his family is on a holiday trip.
This is based on a true story about a teenage girl who was murdered in her bed. The police notoriously botched the entire, long-running investigation and the parents were declared guilty. The movie is based on a book that was written of the entire crime.
This is the true story of a Panam flight hijacking and how a brave air hostess, Neerja Bhanot, saved a lot of lives while losing her own.
This Bengali movie is another true story about Nobelist polymath, Rabindranath Tagore — his early years and his first muse: his sister-in-law. She killed herself shortly after he got married.
A dystopian car-jacking family in Delhi has a brother go rogue when he decides he cannot stay in the family business anymore. Nothing goes according to plan, of course.
I have only seen the first two from the list below, so my major caveat is to be aware that Indian comedies involving dysfunctional families tend to be rather loud and boisterous as well. If that’s not your cuppa, you may want to steer clear of them.
Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon — This looks a bit dated now, given the story of a fan who aspires to follow in the footsteps of her favorite movie actress. Charming, nonetheless.
Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana — The aforementioned dysfunctional family comedy with a rather intricate plot, which Bollywood loves. Basically, everyone wants Khurana’s secret chicken curry recipe, so shenanigans abound.
Anurag Kashyap Movies — These are a sub-genre by themselves. He’s a pretty important writer-director-producer of Bollywood. Some of his must-see movies are:
The Vidya Balan Trilogy — She’s one of the best actors in Bollywood and known for her unconventional movie choices.
Waiting — Two people meet in a hospital and are drawn to each other. I’m hoping this is not going to be as cliched as it sounds.