“Creative people have no barriers. Ultimately, it's connecting with human beings. There's just one planet. I don't see it as different countries.” – Aamir Khan
The quote above comes from arguably the most acclaimed and successful actor in the history of Indian cinema, Aamir Khan, and while there are many examples of creative's connecting with people from all walks of life – it's not been such an easy task for the creative's of Indian cinema. Perhaps it's due to the unapologetic style of popular Indian (or Bollywood) films, which along with featuring melodramatic performances, often combine many genres and somehow, someway find a way to insert a collection of songs. Film critic Anupama Chopra stated in her book Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: “Whether the film is an action-thriller, a war epic, a teen romance or a horror shocker, characters will eventually fall in love and break into a song.” This unique package that is mainstream Indian films combined with the meme culture we currently live in, that has perhaps highlighted the most obscure scenes from the industry (and there have been aplenty) is likely why many fail to enter this unique world of cinema. But if you are able to look beyond the spectacle, and at times the absurdity, there's plenty one can connect with.
Bollywood, which reportedly produces 800 films and sells four billion tickets (pre-COVID) per year, arguably populated its trademark mainstream style, the “masala film,” in the 1970s. Then, the industry was dominated by superstar Amitabh Bachchan (remember Meyer Wolfsheim from The Great Gatsby?), who ruled with his role as the ‘industrial hero'. As art often does, Bachchan's big hitters during that era captured the rebellious attitude of the lower class people of India, and as the rebellious hero for the everyman, Bachchan fought, sang, danced, and roared his way through various films. 1979's Kaala Patthar (Black Stone) being a prime example. It's a style and format that's very much a fabric of Indian cinema today, case in point, Salman Khan's Radhe. Although many of Bachchan's films edged their name in history and still stand as all-time classics, their repetitive presentation of the hero as well as their all-Indian flavour made it difficult for them to translate to a wider audience and thus, still make them potentially tricky viewings for a Bollywood newbie.
Like all things in life, India and Indian cinema experienced an evolution in the ‘90s. The globalisation of India that was ushered in during 1991 government reforms and the ever-increasing presence of Indian Diasporas around the world meant the films in India expanded beyond their longstanding conventions. Films began tweaking the perception of things such as an Indian who embraces western traits like drinking is bad, countries like the U.S became a part of their storytelling while they simultaneously tackled universal issues like 9/11, and they even broke away (to an extent) from the dreaded cycle of how you present a ‘star'. The shifts in their storytelling have allowed their cinema to be more dynamic and inclusive, all the while maintaining their signature traits like glamorous musical numbers in their attempts to cater to every possible audience.
Even more so than Hollywood arguably, Bollywood is driven by its superstars and the fans love of them. Over the past thirty years, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan – the holy trinity of Indian cinema – have sat atop the industry as it continued to evolve and grow around the world. Interestingly, they all occupy a unique aspect of Indian cinema's constant juggling of modern ideas and old-school approaches and ideals. Aamir Khan is a star due to the quality and diversity of his work. Shah Rukh Khan ushered in the westernised Indian hero as a leading man in romantic tales, and Salman Khan is the star for India, as he opts for the traditional, somewhat nonsensical masala entertainers. So in this introduction to Indian cinema, it only feels apropos to look at two films featuring two of the Khan's that are in many ways responsible for the cinema we see today.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave-hearted Will Take the Bride) – 1995
Directed by Aditya Chopra and starring the beloved romantic jodi (duo) of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) tells the story of two young Indian's living in London, Raj (Khan) and Simran (Kajol). On a trip to Europe, the two meet, and after initially being irritated by Raj's mischievous ways, Simran falls in love with Raj. Unfortunately, she is already arranged to be married in India to a man she has never met due to the insistence and traditional ways of her father (Amrish Puri). However, as the title suggests, Raj then travels to India and takes the bride, the only catch being, he does so with her father's approval.
A love story in Bollywood, particularly one with this type of plotline, does not scream unique. In fact, it's very much a conventional Bollywood film at heart with songs that suddenly ping our characters to fields in Switzerland, as well as a scene that involves a photo of Raj and Simran magically blowing all the way to Simran's father. However, what makes this the perfect entry point for new fans is the fact it tweaks the same old story with that much-needed injection of western traits, with a leading man that adopted western sensibilities growing up. It's a prime example of what's old is new again.
The introduction of Khan's Raj perfectly illustrates DDLJ's stylistic shift. In a song where Simran is fantasising about her dream man, Raj appears, and in one particular moment, he's sporting a leather jacket, sunglasses, and riding a Harley-Davidson. It's a swagger that screams Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and to top it off, Raj stops to then pick up an attractive young lady who then rides on the back of his Harley. The moment lasts less than a minute of the over three-hour film, but it's a brilliant blend of location and Khan's newfound star persona providing an entry point for fans (especially non-Indians/Asians). It's a source of familiarity to then engage with the exaggerated love story. By doing this, it allows the overarching theme of love to be the universal language that it is.
DDLJ also challenges the gender battle of women not having the freedom and opportunities men have, particularly in Indian culture. It also normalizes being an Indian at heart while embracing the culture that exists in the UK, U.S., etc. Even the songs, primarily the classic “Tujhe Dekha” (Seeing You), make sense of the beautiful European backdrops due to characters either travelling there or there being a story connection of some kind. So instead of being put off by their change of scenery, you're able to enjoy the beautiful song and dance.
All these changes introduced by Chopra led to a truly game-changing film that set the new benchmark for how to cater to the existing audience while inviting in a global one too. DDLJ has become a symbol of Indian cinema – it's an experience – and it's still shown at a Mumbai cinema all these years later. Making it, unquestionably, the longest-running Indian film of all time.
Lagaan (Taxation) – 2001
DDLJ was indeed a revolutionary film, and many have tried and failed to find the delicate balance of tradition, progressive thinking, and an unmatched album and charm. However, while game-changing, DDLJ was still very safe. Lagaan, on the other hand, broke every (unwritten) rule in the book, and in doing so, became “A pillar of Hindi cinema,” according to legendary filmmaker Karan Johar.
Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker with an ensemble cast led by Aamir Khan, Lagaan is a period-sports film that tells the story of a group of farmers in 1893 that challenge the harsh land tax handed down to them by their British rulers, most notably Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). However, instead of engaging in a war of weapons, the Indians battle the British in a game of cricket, which, if they win, will allow them to be tax-free for three years. It is on the surface, as Khan famously said after hearing the idea, “a preposterous story.” One could justifiably argue it sounds more far-fetched than DDLJ's love story, but in reality, what came to existence was a film that took pride in its realism and then unconventional ways.
According to Gowariker, for a mainstream Indian film in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, one did not make a period film. In addition to this, sports films were a no-go, and putting your superstar in a less than glamorous dhoti (type of sarong) was a shock to the system. However, everything that was supposedly wrong with the film made it something extraordinary.
Lagaan's setting of an 1893 India makes it a very rural Indian setting. But what opens this film up is the amount of English that is spoken, and the slight disconnect between the Indians and British because of this. When Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), an Indian alley from the British side, tells Khan's Bhuvan: “I'm falling in love with you,” he does not understand because she reverts back to speaking English for this brief moment. Not only does is it add authenticity to Lagaan, but it actually plays to both Hindi and non-Hindi speaking crowds. In its own and less glamorous way, the film caters to western audiences.
Through the use of sports and the underdog theme that ties into the well-known history of Britain ruling India, Lagaan's story also translates, and in many ways became Indian cinema's Rocky equivalent. It provides you that very same feeling of enthrallment and uncontrollable emotional high. Whether it is when Bhuvan accepts the cricket match or when after a no-ball, Bhuvan has one more opportunity to hit the boundary on a nerve-wracking final ball that makes you forget what you're watching is a fictional sporting contest. The attention to detail on every plot twist, like the incorporation of the spin-bowling technique, adds another layer of realism, and through all of this, Lagaan does what Khan states creative people do, connect with human beings, regardless of countries.
Although it didn't play by the rules and it included clever nuances, at its core, it is still a Bollywood film with a romantic couple and musical numbers. However, despite the characters breaking into a song and dance, the film never loses that feeling of realism. Each song has a pivotal role in advancing the story, for that, look no further than the song “Chale Chalo” (Keep on Moving), which was, at that time, the equivalent of a Rocky training montage. It shows the Indians training as they edge ever closer to their high-stakes cricket match with the British. Once again, highlighting why this is a must-watch when introducing yourself to Indian cinema.
Lagaan not only set the precedent for filmmakers to explore stories far beyond the norm, with drastically different and risqué ventures like Delhi Belly and Fan coming years later, but it put respect on Bollywood's name. It turned so many heads, turned so many cinemas around the world into cricket stadiums that it became the third and arguably the first mainstream style Indian film to earn an Oscar nomination. There are more successful and arguably bigger films than Lagaan, but few possess the true universal acclaim and acceptance that Lagaan has.
An honorary mention would certainly go to 2010s My Name is Khan, which once again pairs Shah Rukh Khan with Kajol, but flips their traditional romance for a film that focuses on exploring the unfortunate effects of post-9/11, especially for Muslims. However, the history and impact of Lagaan and DDLJ, and the fact that they still possess such a strong Indian core, makes them the perfect representation of Indian cinema's ability to connect and tell great stories like any other nation. Once you're finished with these viewings, there are a host of films to continue exploring, and perhaps once you've become acquainted with Indian cinema's fondness for over-exaggeration, a step into Bachchan's classics from the ‘70s may be in your future. This is, of course, just an introduction into the glamorous world of Indian cinema, so as Shah Rukh Khan famously says in 2007's Om Shanti Om: “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost” (My friend, the film isn't over yet).