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Crash course in Indian Cinema: Classics to Contemporary

Gayertree Subramaniam

Mon Jul 02 2012

Crash course in Indian Cinema

AS the Indian Film Festival draws to a close, Gayertree Subramaniam brings you her list of must-watch films from the classics to the contemporary, and unpacks the magical world of Indian Cinema. 

A country of 1.2 billion people, the ancient civilisation of India is a smorgasbord of cultures and juxtapositions. It is a land that will assault your senses all around. The vibrant colours, exotic aromas, cacaphony of sounds, and the amalgamation of flavours will both enchant and offend. Within it more than 20 native dialects are spoken. But in this diversity there is unity found in the common language of their movies.

As the largest producer of films, the Indian film industry beats both Hollywood and China in terms of the number of films churned out each year. Having accrued such a status through the production of more than 2000 films  in India’s various languages, it is no wonder that the magical spell cast upon Indian cinema goers is a hard one to break.

In the space of a darkened cinema, everyone is equal momentarily.

The social and economic divides that separate rickshaw driver from the IT engineer are broken and ignored. They unite in their camaraderie upon seeing the hero of the film thrash a truckload of villains to pulp, or when the hero and heroine romance each other against a backdrop of lavish song and dance. The poor man’s struggle and pain, the lover’s anguish, the joy of a child’s birth, and the burning anger at the injustice portrayed onscreen is felt by everyone in that theatre.

Such is the power and hold over audiences of Indian films.

It provides an escape from reality, the ultimate dream factory where for those three hours, you can be whoever you want to be. The restraints of status, social standing, wealth, religion, education are for a moment forgotten as the audience are compelled to lose themselves in the world playing out before them on the large screen.

For the vast Indian diaspora, migrants and students alike, that are dispersed all over the world, Indian films provide a vital connection back to their roots and homelands. With Victoria being the preferred destination for 40 per cent of all Indian students in Australia, this definitely rings true. The recent Indian Film Festival in Melbourne attracted large numbers of local and Indian audiences, flocking to see some of the best films coming out of the Indian film industry of late. The opportunity provided by such festivals, allows for a greater nuanced cultural understanding of the Indian population and encourages further engagement both economic and social, with one of the world’s emerging superpowers.

Access to Indian films has never been easier, with Indian grocery stores now open in most suburbs,  where you can now buy the latest DVD releases of Bollywood films, alongside stocks of basmati rice, fragrant spices, freshly made snacks.

If you’re wondering where to start, here are a few suggestions:


Devdas (2002)

Easily the magnum opus of the Indian film industry, this multi-million dollar production is a must-watch. Till this day, few Indian films have been able to rival the visual ravishment, exquisite sets, dizzying decadence and grandeur. An adaptation of the 1917 novel, Devdas tells of a tragic love story in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, in a way only Bollywood knows. Surrender yourself to this exploration of passion, lost love, and social restrictions as you admire the beautifully choreographed song and dance pieces that a decade on, still mesmerises audiences. The on-screen chemistry between Shahrukh Khan (Devdas) and Aishwarya Rai (Paro) is out of this world.


Swades (2004)
Swades is a confronting presentation of the impacts of globalisation upon India. Khan plays a NASA scientist who returns home to track down his childhood nanny in a tiny village riddled with poverty. Upon battling the ideological conflicts he has to face on either returning to America or staying on in India, Khan becomes a catalyst for change driven by notions of breaking the cycle of dependency and poverty. Overall, Swades compels its viewers to rethink their own social responsibility. A thorough thought provoker.


Quick Gun Murugan: Misadventures of an Indian Cowboy (2009)
You can’t go wrong with a movie that features a vegetarian-cowboy-superhero protagonist named Quick Gun Murugan. The plot is centred around Quick Gun’s fight with arch villain Rice Plate Reddy who wants to convert the whole world  to non-vegetarians, alongside his desperate struggle to resist the charms of temptress Mango Dolly.  This brilliant western spoof is blended with a spicy South Indian flavour which makes it impossible not to have a laugh. It received so much acclaim at international film festivals that it became a testament to the ability of Indian cinema to stray beyond the usual melodrama, glitz and glamour to produce high quality comic material that’s an all-round crowd pleaser.


Om Shanti Om (2007)
Encompassing the razzle and dazzle of Bollywood, this film is both a homage to and parody of 70s Bollywood. Yet again, the quintessential theme of the quest for love and passion reigns supreme in the plot. The concept of reincarnation twists the storyilne a little adding to the magic of the film. Shahrukh Khan, and Deepika Padukone (who makes for a ravishing damsel-in-distress) play the leading roles, and deliver performances that will have you glued to your seats till the end. Watch out for the dance/song sequence ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ that features 30 of Bollywood’s biggest stars!


Kannathil Muthamittal (2002)
In a bold move by renowned Tamil director Mani Ratnam, the controversial topics of adoption and terrorism (Sri Lankan civil war) in the subcontinent, lie at the heart of this film. The title, which means “Kiss on the cheek”, is anything but that. Raw, heart wrenching, and emotionally chaotic, it tells the tale of a Sri Lankan child who is adopted by a couple in a refugee camp in South India and the subsequent journey she goes on in finding out about her roots. Legendary music director, AR Rahman lends ample support in creating the deeply stirring soundtrack that accompanies the story.


Mughal E-Azaam (1960)
Your appreciation for Bollywood will not be complete without viewing this timeless classic. Whether or not the captivating story of Salim-Anarkali is a myth or reality is debateable, but it most definitely has captured the interests of people over generations.  The production itself took a staggering 17 years!  The tale of a Moghul prince and his love affair with the slave girl Anarkali is expressed beautifully through poetic Urdu dialogue. The words opulence, grandeur and magnificence come to mind when asked to describe the film. The lavish song sequences and poignant performances make this film a real gem.


Lagaan (2001)
A novel take on the British rule of India, this film holds none of the usual nostalgia or sentiment for the ‘lost empire’. Instead, it feels more like a Broadway production, a utopian fantasy of a perfect community, brought together in harmony against the common enemy. All action revolves around the game of cricket and is led by Aamir Khan, who plays a proud and very handsome villager in this Academy Award-nominated film. The nomination heralded the beginning of the globalisation of the Bollywood genre, breaking boundaries by dispelling the restrictions of a culturally specific entertainment product by appealing to both the Western and Indian audience.


Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
This is pure escapist cinema at its best, designed to have you lose yourself in the intricacies and webs of subplots momentarily, before you return to reality at the end of the three hour long film. Shahrukh Khan, Kajol and Rani Mukherjee are the subjects of a complex love triangle, and whether the girl gets the boy or not forms the underlying foundation for the film. Garnering an almost cult-like fan base upon release, the film’s themes of humour, romance and friendship is something that crosses cultures and ages, making it easily appreciated by all. The perfect saccharine-sweet, highly optimistic romantic comedy for a lazy night in.