Indian film recommendations
A friend who is interested in watching her first Indian film asked me for recommendations. She prefers emotional dramas, rather than comedy. Her favorite movies include Cinema Paradiso, The Notebook, Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, Grapes of Wrath, Brooklyn, and Call Me By Your Name. After I answered her query, I thought it would be useful to preserve my recommendations in a blog post in case I need them again.
There are very few Indian films that I would class as pure comedy; they really enjoy mixing a bit of comedy into their dramas and their comedies nearly always involve more than a little drama. The full expression of this mix of emotions is the masala (mix!) genre, which combines, comedy, romance, violence, revenge, etc. See wikipedia for more on masala films. They are an acquired taste, but I have certainly acquired it!
Here are movies I have enjoyed in various genres:
crime drama: Andhadhun very modern Indian style dark comedy/crime drama. Minimal music, but it's gorgeous.
horror: Stree Indian horror is not as gruesome as Hollywood horror, which I tend to avoid. Another Rajkummar Rao starring role. He's always good.
drama with music: Gully Boy hip hop in India? Yes, indeed. This was their Oscar entry the year it came out. The leads are top stars, and their movies are almost always worth seeking out. Ditto anything by the director, Zoya Akhtar, who is fabulous. Her Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is a favorite of mine.
drama with minimal music: There are two sports films that are standouts.Chak De India - Think League of Their Own, with a women's field hockey team. The male lead is the biggest movie star in the world, Shah Rukh Khan. Sudani from Nigeria lovely South Indian sports drama film about an African soccer player stranded in a small village in Karala.
Masala favorites: Om Shanti Om (comedy, mayhem, romance, revenge), Chennai Express (comedy, fight scenes, romance, music), Eega (romance interrupted by murder, incarnation, revenge) Fantastic director, S.S. Rajamouli. His two part fantasy epic, Bahubaali, is totally entertaining. Long, but worth it.
Romantic comedies for people who don't like romantic comedies: Aiyyaa (female centered, very sexy), Mirzya (historical fantasy romance), Qarib Qarib Singlle (the late Irfaan Khan. Such a wonderful actor!!), Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (a twist on the usual Indian romantic plot, with great cast.)
Indescribable: Ludo (anthology dark comedy crime film), Super Deluxe (black comedy-drama film with elements of science fiction and fantasy)
Note that while most these are "Bollywood" -- Hindi language, produced in Mumbai -- a few are from other parts of India. This what makes Indian film so fascinating to me. There is huge variety even within the Hindi films, and when you step outside that universe, there is even more.
Why do I watch Indian films?
It is through the similarities and contrasts between the US and India that I am learning the most. We are both democracies, both former colonies, both religiously and culturally diverse. We have been a nation longer, but India is the cradle of much of what we think of as "western" civilization. Pajamas? Dungarees? Shampoo? Bungalow? Just a few of the common words of Indian origin that made their way into everyday English. in fact, we share much more a few recently adopted terms; Engllsh is part of the Indo-European linguistic family, and owes as much to Sanskrit as to Greek and Latin.
The most interesting films for me are the ones that open my eyes to my own culture and my own assumptions and beliefs -- most recently the romantic film Jab Harry Met Sejal, which is appealing to this American not only because the music is glorious and the acting superb, but also because while love may be universal, the lovers' expectations and boundaries are bound up in their identities as Indians. The more I understand Harry and Sejal, the deeper my understanding of their world and my own.
Thanks, India, for over 100 years of films to explore!
"Fan" is still on my mind
Last April, Indian superstar actor Shah Rukh Khan released a film called "Fan". It cost a pile of money to make, and didn't do too well at the box office. Reviews were mixed. People who expected another masala entertainer, or a passionate love story, or a fast-paced action movie (all of which Khan has done, and done spectacularly) were not sure what to make of this dark, even creepy story about a fan so obsessed with his superstar lookalike that he tries to destroy him. Haters in the comment sections called it a flop and declared that the fifty-year old actor was now a has been.
I saw "Fan" five times in two weeks. Twice by myself, then one time each with three different friends, all new to Hindi cinema. They were blown away by the story and by Khan's performance. Shah Rukh Khan plays both parts, aided by top-notch special effects and his own physical ability to embody a twenty-five-year-old's energy in his own battered but still very fit frame. There were even people who walked out of theaters singing the praises of "that guy who plays Gaurav", not realizing it was Khan.
A year later, "Fan" still fascinates me. I own it now, in fact. Shah Rukh Khan occasionally refers to it in interviews in a sad, self-deprecating way, as if it were his own personal Edsel. I hope he is kidding. I hope he knows that, box office be damned, it was a risk worth taking. “Fan” is that odd kid from high school that you can’t get out of your mind. And then you meet him thirty years later and he’s so interesting and so attractive that you kick yourself for not hanging out more with him when he was fifteen.
"Fan" may be underappreciated now, but it will be remembered among Shah Rukh Khan's very best works, and certainly as one of his most interesting.
Dear Zindagi review from a newbie fan
I am back from my Nebraskan odyssey. There's still lots to think about and write about. In fact, while I was there I managed to complete the NaNoWriMo challenge for the first time ever and now had the beginnings of a novel. (Bucket list item for retirement!)
One reason I was eager to get home was the opening day of Dear Zindagi, the long-awaited Gauri Shinde film starring Alia Bhatt with Shah Rukh Khan in an extended cameo. For the life of me, I don't know why it's called a cameo; he and Alia dominate the movie. But he never interacts with any of the other characters; maybe that's it. This shows what a newbie I still am. But I do have opinions! For a more informed opinion, check out the "no spoiler" review by my very favorite blogger, Margaret Redlich.
This is director Gauri Shinde's second film, after the critically-acclaimed English/Vinglish. I only got around to watching English/Vinglish a couple of weeks ago, and it really whetted my appetite for seeing Dear Zindagi. I saw the first day, first showing at my closest multiplex, along with two other middle-aged white ladies. I was expecting a nice light entertainment with enough Shah Rukh to warm me up on a chilly November day and also pick up my spirits (badly needed after the bruising, negative election season, which still doesn't seem over.). Dear Zindagi (Dear Life) is so much more! Alia Bhatt is superb as the hard-working, talented cinematographer whose personal life is a disaster. Instead of the old message -- all you need is the right guy -- Gauri Shinde has delivered a fresh story for the 21st century. Shah Rukh Khan hits all the right notes as her therapist, without overshadowing Bhatt with his star power. The rest of the cast is a wonderful, complex ensemble of friends, family, and failed relationships.
The messages about gender are so positive, powerful, so progressive, and so amiably portrayed that they are (we can only hope) irresistible. The first one that stands out for me is the gay friend, who is just a nebbishy guy, not a stereotype. That short conversation about his therapist is pure gold. The men aren’t caddish, chauvinist dudes; they are three-dimensional representatives of their respective generations, from the old school uncle to the little brother — who is an absolute charmer. The only exception is her therapist, Jug (SRK), who breaks the mold for male behavior for men of his age — the uncle and the father — in the same way that he blazed a trail for younger men (actually those men, when they were young) in DDLJ.
So much to love. I love the ensemble feel of the actors playing her family and friends. I love the message about mental health. I love Alia’s performance!!! I love how I felt at the end. I tried to remember the last time a movie was so entertaining, so emotionally complex, and still so happy at the end, and the one that popped into my head was An Unmarried Woman (1978), my favorite women’s liberation era film.
I am definitely seeing this one again. This is an Indian film that will win hearts globally, because the challenges in Kaira’s life are so universal.
SRK Quest: King Uncle
This is probably one of the most obscure and hard-to-find of all of King Khan's movies, and with good reason. He is barely Shah Rukh Khan in King Uncle, much less King Khan. Yes, he is attractive, energetic and appealing in his supporting role as Jackie Shroff's younger brother, but I got the feeling that the role could have been played by any of a dozen young unknown actors. He seems happy just to be in a film, and enjoying all the dance and action, but the role itself doesn't give him much to work with. Still, it is entertaining and definitely worth seeing, if only to track SRK's development as an artist.
Synopsis. Grumpy, materialistic elder brother (Shroff) neglects his family until his life is transformed by a spunky orphan. Happys ending, as Omi would say!
Worth watching for. Jackie Shroff. I am becoming a big fan of his work, and his comedic turn in the title role is truly engaging. The fight scenes are ridiculous, over the top, and highly entertaining.
Want to see it? Pirated versions come and go online, usually without subtitles. I got my copy through interlibrary loan.
Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! gets my enthusiastic vote for the most underrated Shah Rukh Khan film. It was released in SRK's most prolific year, on the same day as Guddu, and about two months before Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange, his career-changing hit. It was a commercial failure, but a critical success. I rented it online, watched it twice and then bought it.
Synopsis. This was an unusual film for its time. It uses familiar -- even clichéd -- Hindi movie conventions to spin a satirical fable about contemporary Indian political and social corruption. Most of the main characters have titles, not names: Miss India, the President, Prince, Hero (Shah Rukh Khan). It helps to be somewhat familiar with Hindi films, as there are constant references to songs, characters, and dialogs from other movies. It reminded me of Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Cold War satire, with the very Indian addition of romance.
With watching for: An amazing performance by Amrish Puri as the villainous Don Quixote, who is plotting to kidnap the President, install a look-alike in his place, and auction off India to the highest bidder. My favorite Amrish Puri role ever, and it looks like he had a ball doing it. They even manage to poke fun at his acting, when he is asked at one point "Don't you ever blink?" No, he doesn't, and that's why his eyes are so scary! Anupam Kher is wonderful as the President and his many lookalikes, and Javed Jaffrey is both frightening and sympathetic as Prince, Don Quixote's heir. And "the fountain scene" in this musical number is as sexy as anything Shah Rukh Khan as done.
SRK Quest: Josh (2000)
First, a little news. I am ecstatic to have received King Uncle via interlibrary loan, which completes my "early, obscure, and hard-to-find" list. What a relief!
Now, about Josh. not knowing more than a dozen words of Hindi, I thought this was the name of one of the characters. Silly me; it means "frenzy", and it means that this loose remake of West Side Story will have action as well as romance. As Shah Rukh Khan films go, it's in the middle of the pack: worth watching more than once, but not one I need to own. At thirty-five, SRK was poised to break away from the immature roles that first made him famous and take on more grown-up, challenging work. His biggest hit from 2000, Mohabbetein, was just such a role, winning him the Filmfare Critics' Award for Best Actor. Interestingly, the same actress appears with him in both films, to very different effect, in Mohabbatein, Aishwarya Rai plays his tragic love interest; in Josh, she is his twin sister. You can probably guess which casting is more credible.
Synopsis. Max (SRK) and Prakash (Sharad Kapoor) are leaders of two rival gangs in Goa, one Christian and one Hindu. Prakash's brother Rahul, a chef from Mumbai, comes to visit and falls in love with Goa and then with Max's sister, Shirley (Rai). Their secret relationship is the romantic centerpiece of the film, with the gang conflict providing the action and drama. Max also has a love interest, Roseanne, but it seems almost an afterthought. The climax comes -- as in Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story, from the violent outcome of the gang conflict. Because it is not completely based on either play, there are enough plot twists to keep the story fresh.
Worth watching for. The musical numbers are very entertaining, and the score was a bigger hit than the movie. Aishwarya Rai is an excellent dancer, and I always enjoy her performances.
Shah Rukh Khan does his own singing on Apun Bola, and it is very funny. The backstory is even funnier; according to him, he had so much trouble carrying a tune was recorded one or two words at the time and then spliced together.
Want to watch? There is a version on YouTube with no subtitles. I got my copy through interlibrary loan.
SRK Quest: Chaahat (1996)
Chaahat (Desire) was Shah Rukh Khan's second major release in 1996, and his first film with director Manesh Bhatt,who also directed him in Duplicate. There are some similarities between the two films, notably the contrast between SRK's goofy, simple character (Roop in Chaahat, Bablu in Duplicate) and his angry, violent avatar (Roop again in Chaahat, Manu in Duplicate). For reasons I can't quite fathom myself, I liked him better in Chaahat than in Duplicate. Maybe it's Manu's tongue thing. Ew.
Synopsis. Musicians Roop (SRK) and his widowed father (Anupam Kher) share a close, loving relationship. They travel to Bombay so that the father can be treated for a throat ailment, and Roop tries to earn money for the hospital bills by playing for a rich woman's birthday party. The birthday girl, Reshma (the stunning and sexy Ramya Krishnan) falls hard for Roop, but he is oblivious to her attentions and instead loses his heart to Pooja (Pooja Bhatt). In an interesting reversal of the plot of Darr, Roop is pursued by an increasingly unhinged Reshman, and the film climaxes in a series of increasingly violent and gory fight scenes. I am not going to spoil it further. Yes, love wins and evil is defeated. (But you knew that!)
Don't Shah Rukh and Anupam look like they are having a blast doing this song? It's the father-son bond from DDLJ, only better!
Worth watching for: The performances of Naseeruddin Shah as Reshma's villainous brother Ajay and Anupam Kher, who are at the top of their form. The scenes with them and Shah Rukh Khan are top notch, but the opening father-son dance scene and the Khan-Kher fight scene are my favorites. In fact, the fight scenes in Chaahat have finally won me over to Hindi film fighting. Yes, I know I outed myself as a "delicate flower" in my post about Dil Se. But I watched Chaahat twice in two days for the fight scenes. Also: Ramya Krishnan as the obsessed lover!!! It is fabulous to watch her try -- repeatedly to seduce Roop -- and to see him move from oblivious to wary to complete rejection of her advances. This fan video mix of most of the pertinent scenes captures it pretty well (the ones in blue light with the piano are her fantasies, not his).
One last reason to watch Chaahat: it's gorgeous. Consider this beautifully filmed number, which sets up the dramatic climax:
Want to watch? This is one of several of his early films that Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chilies Entertainment now owns. The good news is that they have made it available on Youtube, iTunes, and Google Play for rental or purchase at very reasonable prices. Enjoy!
Shah Rukh Khan has appeared in 81 films, playing a major or starring in 60 of them. But the rest are a mix of cameos (much smaller roles) and special appearances in songs. Because he is such a big star, these are often done as favors to friends. Since time is of the essence to see all the SRK appearances, I decided to do a single post on all of his musical appearances.
Kaal (2005) - Kaal Dhamaal
Shah Rukh Khan produced this horror film with his friend Karan Johar. Farah Khan was the choreographer and it is clear that she revisited the number when she created "Dard e Disco" for Om Shanti Om. It is not a complex number; very sexy, with SRK making a gradual appearance, body part by body part. First you just see his lower jaw and lips, then shoulders and back, then eyes and arms. It is so much like Dard e Disco that someone has done a mash up with the Dard e Disco music and the Kaal video.
Alag (2006) - Sabse Alag
This is hauntingly beautiful song, with ten stars , including Shah Rukh Khan, each singing a portion. It is very simply staged. No fancy costumes, no dancing, just one person singing directly into the camera. It's amazing to see how few of them can actually both lip-sync and connect with the camera, and not one can do both as well as Shah Rukh Khan does. Seeing this actually made me want to see the movie, until I read the reviews. It is a remake of the 1995 Hollywood film Powder, and apparently not a good one. So enjoy the video!
I see you (2006) - Subah Subah
SRK does not sing or dance in this, which is the title number. Instead, he is the guitar-playing street musician, which is pretty funny. It is also very, very short. Don't blink or you will miss it. There is also a teensy Hrithik Roshan cameo towards the end. It looks like an intriguing film, and it is nice to see a smiling Rampal in a romantic role!
Zrazzy 4 (2008) Break Free
The scene is an awards show taking place in what looks like a nightclub, and SRK is doing a special appearance as a featured performer. He is very much in his Don character, complete with that little ponytail and menacing sneer. There's a Hrithik Roshen version, too, that was used in the promotional video. It's fun to compare their interpretations!
Always Kabhi Kabhi (2011) - Antenna
Shah Rukh Khan produced this film about high school seniors on the verge of adulthood. He appears during the closing credits in a sexy, remixed version of this song performed earlier by the youthful ensemble. Very catchy tune, but the movie flopped.
Bombay Talkies (2013) Apna Bombay Talkies
Not a single film, but a set of four shorts produced in celebration of Bollywood's first century. It opens with this really fun title sequence with lots and lots of familiar faces (20!) doing a capsule history of Bollywood movies. SRK gets the biggest part, but they all look like they are having a ball. Fun!
SRK Quest: Trimurti (1995)
This was Shah Rukh Khan's last release in his biggest year. While it got off to a good opening day, thanks to three big stars (not only Khan, fresh off of DDLJ, but also popular veterans Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor) and a well-respected director, it fizzled fast thanks to negative word of mouth and reviews. It was listed as a flop by Indian sources, despite record-setting first day collections. In my opinion, it is underrated. Flawed, but still watchable and entertaining. Trimurti had been plagued with troubles from the beginning. It was supposed to release on Christmas 1994 but due to Sanjay Dutt's imprisonment most of the film had to be reshot with Anil Kapoor in the role, which resulted in the film being released an entire year later.
Synopsis The "Trimurti" (Trinity) in the title has a double meaning. In Hindu mythology, it refers to the combination of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) brother and Shiva (destroyer). They are represented by Romi (Khan), Shroff (Shakti), and Kapoor (Anand/Sikander), respectively, as the three sons of a virtuous police inspector, Satyadevi Singh (Priya Tendulkar). Satyadevi defies a corrupt priest and in return, he murders her husband and frames her for a murder, resulting in her sent to prison. She hopes her sons -- her Trimurti -- will someday avenge her fate and bring the priest to justice. But the two older sons argue over how to raise the youngest and Anand leaves home and becomes a criminal (taking the name Sikander). There's a couple of romantic interests, but the main plot line is the destruction and repair of the brothers' relationship. (And of course, a prolonged and dramatic scheme at the end where evil is defeated and good triumphs!)
Worth watching for: Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff are always worth my time. This is, in some ways, a rewrite of their film Ram Lakhan, with the added presence of a baby-faced and very lively Shah Rukh Khan. This is the only movie in which Anil Kapoor and SRK appear together, and Anil's manic scenes with SRK are some of the best in the film, at least for me. They are both high energy performers, and exhausting to watch (in a good way). "Very Good Very Bad" is my favorite musical number in the film, partly because of their chemistry. It may be the only credible brother casting I have seen for either of them. Trimurti also offers a rare opportunity to see SRK in drag, when he dresses like a maid to visit the object of his affection.
Want to watch? YouTube has it with no subtitles. I got my copy through Interlibrary Loan.