By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Sept. 2, 2007 - In its heyday from the 1950s through the 1980s, Bollywood produced dozens of beloved films. These classics made superstars out of actors like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan—a hero so well-loved the nation came to a standstill when an on-set injury in 1982 left him at death’s door for two months. Colorful song-and-dance spectacles that encompass melodrama, slapstick, high romance and cheap thrills—all in the same three hours—these movies rank second only to yoga among India’s most successful cultural exports. Here’s a primer on some of Bollywood’s best films—including a few from the “New Bollywood.”
Directed by Raj Kapoor
Bollywood bwana Raj Kapoor directed, produced and starred in this melodramatic tale of a boy cast out of his law-abiding home and raised by bandits. When his father, an unforgiving judge, throws out his mother because he suspects her of infidelity, Raj (Raj Kapoor) finds succor with Jagga (K. N. Singh), only to discover years later that Jagga was the one who spread the lies that caused his mother’s disgrace. Enraged, Raj kills Jagga but fails to kill the judge, and is sentenced to years of rigorous imprisonment—by his own dear old Dad (Prithviraj Kapoor). The movie was a sleeper hit abroad in China, Romania, Turkey and Russia, where some still cherish fond memories of its signature song, “Awara Hoon” ("I Am a Tramp").
Mother India (1957)
Directed by Mehboob Khan
Nominated for an Oscar in 1957 in the best foreign film category, this sentimental, patriotic tribute to Indian womanhood stars Nargis as a poverty-stricken village mother whose marriage has left her in the clutches of an unscrupulous local moneylender. Even though her husband abandons her, she spurns the moneylender’s offer to marry her and cancel her debts. In what would become a classic Bollywood trope, one troublemaker son is driven from the village to become a bandit, while the other toils away as a farmer. In the end, the bandit (played by Sunil Dutt) returns to kill the moneylender and steal his daughter. But “Mother India,” who has vowed her son will do no wrong, shoots him and he dies in her arms. In real life, Sunil Dutt and Nargis married a year after the film was released.
Directed by K. Asif
This epic period flick about a Mughal emperor and his son took nine years to complete, set the bar for lavish productions and held the all-time box-office record until 15 years after its release. In the film, the Mughal prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) falls in love with a beautiful slave girl named Anarkali (Madhubala) when she dances for him in a palace of mirrors to the song “Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya” ("I Have Loved, So What Is There to Fear?"). But when the prince tries to marry the slave, his father, Emperor Akbar, throws the girl in jail. A battle ensues. The prince is defeated and sentenced to death, but the slave girl bargains for his life by offering her own in return.
Directed by Jyoti Swarup
"Cyrano De Bergerac" meets "Romeo and Juliet" meets Milli Vanilli in this tearjerker. Village simpleton Bhola (Sunil Dutt) wins the love of his neighbor Bindu (Saira Banu) with his beautiful songs. The only trouble is, Bhola can’t sing—he’s lip-synching tunes crooned by his buddy Guru (Kishore Kumar). When Bhola finds out he’s lied, she dumps him and decides to marry her music teacher. But Bhola wins her back by faking his suicide. Tears pour, and a wedding ensues.
Directed by Ramesh Sippy
A crackling Bollywood-style Western—chapati Western, some call it—Sholay brings together two lovable crooks, a principled policeman and a ruthless gangster in a tragicomic, action-filled caper. The story of two convicts (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) who help a retired policeman capture the ruthless bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) who massacred the policeman’s family, Sholay was loved by audiences so much that one Mumbai theater ran the film for 286 consecutive weeks—more than five years. Even today, millions of Indians can quote rafts of the superstylized dialogue from memory.
Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977)
Directed by Manmohan Desai
Undoubtedly one of the zaniest Bollywood movies, this film may be the greatest of all the stories to follow the once-beloved “lost and found” formula. With three major stars (Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor) and three equally big heroines (Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi and Neetu Singh), "Amar, Akbar, Anthony" was an old-school blockbuster about the three sons of an ex-convict who are abandoned when their father is forced to flee his old mob boss and their mother goes blind. One son (Amar) is adopted by a Hindu policeman and becomes a policeman himself. Another (Akbar) is raised by a Muslim tailor and becomes a singer. The third (Anthony) is raised by a Catholic priest and becomes a rebellious scofflaw. In the end, the boys are reunited and join forces in fighting, singing and dancing; they find their mother, and take revenge on the evil mob boss—and Mom miraculously regains her sight. Throughout it all, Amitabh Bachchan delivers the goods—tears, guffaws, funny accents, goofy costumes—as Anthony. And the smash song “My Name Is Anthony Gonzalves” remains on most Indians’ list of desert island discs.
Umrao Jaan (1981)
Directed by Muzaffar Ali
Set at the time of the Indian Uprising (or Mutiny, as the British called it) of 1857, this poetic and atmospheric film tells the story of a young girl—Umrao Jaan, portrayed by the incomparably gorgeous Rekha—who is kidnapped by a neighbor and sold to a brothel to be trained as a courtesan. Skilled in poetry, song and dance, she charms the local prince (Farooque Shaikh) but winds up running away with a handsome bandit (Raj Babbar). But when the police kill him and the British attack Lucknow to put down the mutiny, she is forced to flee the city and winds up—can you guess?—back in her old village, where she meets her old mother and younger brother and sings a heartbreaking song.
Mr. India (1987)
Directed by Shekhar Kapoor
Not many non-Indians know that Shekhar Kapoor—a former model in ads for “suitings and shirtings”—directed this crowd-pleasing fantasy before moving to Hollywood to make "Elizabeth." But its goofy comedy and good-natured spoofing of James Bond hijinks made "Mr. India" a smash. The story pits Arun Verma (Anil Kapoor), an orphan who makes his money busking with a violin, against Mogambo (Amrish Puri), a dastardly villain as absurd as Dr. Evil with his own high-tech island. It’s a mismatch until Verma receives a mysterious letter revealing that his late father invented an invisibility cloak. After that, the common man becomes a crimefighting superhero—Mr. India—and takes down Mogambo and his mad scientists.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun ...! (1994)
Directed by Sooraj R. Barjatya
Perhaps the first of the lavish “family dramas” that became the staple, and then the bane, of Bollywood, "Hum Aapke Hain Koun ...!" ("Who Am I to You") is the story of two Indian families brought together by the (of course) lavish wedding where musclebound pretty boy Salman Khan and curvaceous screen siren Madhuri Dixit meet and fall in love. The three-and-a-half-hour spectacle with 14 songs and big dance numbers is hard to beat.
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995)
Directed by Aditya Chopra
The first and most successful of the “NRI movies” (films featuring, and in part targeting, nonresident Indians), "DDLJ" as it came to be known was a megablockbuster, attracting enough fanatics to keep it running for 600-plus consecutive weeks at one Mumbai theater. Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol play Raj and Siman, Indians living in the U.K. who meet and fall in love on a tour of Europe. But Siman’s father insists that his daughter will have an arranged marriage with the man of his choosing—a pompous, arrogant ass (of course). In a socially regressive turn typical of later NRI movies, Raj refuses to elope with Siman, but insists on convincing her father that he’s the right choice with lots of (smarmy, but in a good way) singing and dancing.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
Directed by Farhan Akhtar
Many consider "Dil Chahta Hai" ("What the Heart Desires") to be the spark that began the current stylistic revolution in Bollywood filmmaking. The story of the lives and loves of three friends (Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna) leaving college for the adult world, the movie was the first film to depict India’s modern, urban youth. Though it didn’t do well in the hinterland, it won critical and popular acclaim for its easygoing, realistic humor and its postmodern tributes to classic Bollywood songs. And for the upwardly mobile kids of India’s cities, it provided as seminal a cultural touchstone as the TV series "Friends" did in the U.S.
Directed by Ashutosh Golwarikar
One of the earliest films to break away from the romance formula, Lagaan tells the story of a 19th-century Indian village under the thumb of a ruthless (and racist) British officer. When the British officer doubles the tax on the village crops despite a ravaging drought, a rebellious villager (Aamir Khan) wagers him that the villagers—who’ve never played before—can beat the legation team at a game of cricket. If the village wins, the tax will be canceled instead of doubled. If the British win, the tax will be tripled. The story unfolds with all the gimmicks of Hollywood’s classic sports flicks, as well as a few Bollywood twists—like the village untouchable whose mangled hand turns out to make him a wicked spin bowler! As usual for Bollywood, the English-language songs were dismal. But the high drama, British villains and terrific Hindi soundtrack made "Lagaan" a moderate success around the Commonwealth.