In a new series, FC Critics Survey, every few weeks we ask a handful of film critics one question. In a special edition, this week we asked a series of critics, bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers covering and championing Indian cinema from outside India, which films make for the perfect Indian movies starter pack. We asked them – which films would you recommend to someone who is new to Indian cinema?
Mike McCahill, The Guardian
A tricky one. My first brush with the Indian mainstream came with Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… in 2001, which – as movie educations go – was like being put through high school, university and a Masters degree in the space of three-and-a-half hours. I often refer people towards Om Shanti Om, which strikes me as not just a tremendously entertaining expression of movie love – if you don’t respond to it in some way, you don’t understand cinema – but also a fun history lesson, some form of schooling in why Bollywood stars are as revered as they are, and a textbook example of what the more realist Indian cinema has been defining itself against. I’d also plant DVDs of Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool, Ray’s Apu films and Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in my pupil’s pockets on the way out of the auditorium. The learning never stops.
Kathy Gibson, AccessBollywood.net
I’d start with thrillers and mysteries. The genre conventions are familiar, but the stories are firmly rooted in place and culture. The main characters in Kahaani and Article 15 are themselves outsiders, and they learn about their new surroundings in step with the audience. You could even make an Ayushmann Khurrana double feature of Article 15 and Andhadhun. There’s contemporary true crime like Talvar, a stylized period piece in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, supernatural thrillers — lots of great places to start.
Erin Fraser, Bollywood Is For Lovers Podcast
I know this will seem like an odd choice, but I have to go with Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om. Yes, the film is overflowing with references, allusions, and cameos that will go over the head of those unfamiliar with Hindi cinema, but it is such a passionate and infectious love letter to the movies, and Bollywood in particular. It is the best kind of over the top melodrama and the eye-popping dance numbers leave you wanting more. Shah Rukh Khan is equal parts charming, empathetic, and hilarious (not to mention the physique he displays in “Dard E Disco”) as the junior artist Om who is reincarnated as a self-obsessed Bollywood star; while Deepika Padukone shines in her debut. In addition to its infectious quality, the film is great for newcomers because it lays bare the conventions and motifs of Bollywood by going behind the scenes of the Hindi film industry in the 1970s and present day, or what was present day in 2007. Om Shanti Om is the perfect gateway drug to understanding and appreciating masala entertainers.
Beth Watkins, BethLovesBollywood.com
When introducing someone to Indian films, I try to consider their interests and also avoid things that are very self-referential with in-jokes or masala stereotypes, etc. Amol Palekar’s Paheli is one of the films I often recommend: it has wonderful acting and songs and a compelling story, plus it looks so beautiful. People are ready to accept big emotions and fantastic ideas in a ghost story—it eases new viewers into certain Hindi film conventions. If they insist on not watching something with songs, I hand them Satyajit Ray‘s Charulata. It feels utterly modern while also clearly conveying the specific context of the story, and it’s so straightforward while touching on so many big life questions of ambition, commitment, freedom, and love.
Josh Hurtado, Screen Anarchy
Introducing newbies to Hindi popular cinema is a tricky proposition. Bollywood has developed a reputation over the years – more than a little deserved – of being impenetrable to outsiders due to endless inside jokes, characters spontaneously bursting into song, and indulgent run times. However, I say, if you’re going to take the plunge, why not head straight for the deep end? Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om is steeped in all of those masala traditions, putting entertainment front and centre and never pulling any punches when it comes to subtlety. The bright colours, exuberant music, exquisitely realized musical numbers, and ridiculously pitched performances are an ideal litmus test for film fans curious about this particular strain of Hindi cinema.
Yes, the film is packed to the gills with references to films and stars of days gone by that newcomers will completely miss, but that also makes Om Shanti Om an ideal re-watch for those who are bitten by the bug like I was. Every time I go back, there is some new reference that now makes sense. I can always tell how much progress I’ve made by counting the numbers of cameos I actually recognize during Deewanagi Deewanagi. Sure, knowing a particular fans’ taste in films could help narrow the field a bit when it comes to recommendations, but I have yet to miss with Om Shanti Om, the ne plus ultra of modern masala filmmaking.
Margaret Redlich – Don’tCallItBollywood.com
For years my standard film suggestion was Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. It’s kind of the tasting platter of Indian films. You have 6 top stars (7 if you count Rani), every genre of song, and all the emotions from patriotism to mother love represented. Most people watch it and come out really loving one thing, the dances, or the family drama, or Hrithik Roshan’s eyes. However, K3G is almost 20 years old now and a lot has changed in Indian cinema, the stars and the songs and the stories are all different. So now I like to give people an option, a big old-fashioned film that represents what you think of when you think “Bollywood” (K3G), or a new film that represents the kind of movies being made now such as Andhadhun. The direction and story are so brilliant they can translate into any culture, the performances are wonderful, the songs are good without being the big dance numbers people expect, and it lets people see that what they think of as “Bollywood” was really just one small genre in one short era of Indian film. Hindi cinema, and Indian film in general, has a lot more to offer than that.
Melanie Greenberg – Pardesi YouTube Channel
My love of Indian cinema began 5 years ago when Netflix recommended DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) to me because I like romantic films and musicals. I fell in love with Shah Rukh Khan, and my next movie was Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi which is a heartwarming film I often recommend as a first Indian film. Queen is simply an excellent film and a story of women empowerment that I recently showed my cousin and her teen daughter. The thriller mystery Kahaani is my go-to film for someone who says they hate musicals. For the cinephile or film festival type of viewer, I would suggest the recent Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights. Malayalam films with their unique storytelling have the same kind of Indie film vibe as those shown at Sundance, and Angamaly Diaries is one of my favourites with that incredible 11-minute tracking shot at the end. Dil Se is a film I’ve shown to a film group who usually watch arthouse films, but wanted a “Bollywood film”. I think it’s both – it has the big musical numbers, some of the most iconic, and also has a very intriguing storyline.
I’m a big fan of Mani Ratnam films, and I just showed my sister OK Kanmani, which is such a wonderful love story – also to show her why I love charming Dulquer Salmaan so much! For a Lord of the Rings fan, Baahubali 1 and 2 are the obvious choices, and the only Indian films I’ve made my husband and sons watch. One movie I hesitate to recommend as a first film, and that’s DDLJ, because if they came back and told me they didn’t like it, it would be like a stab to my heart!