Books & Films


Bollywood Edition!

I am a huge fan of the Bombay film industry, commonly known as Bollywood. The Indian film industry is the biggest in the world and has the largest worldwide audience. The domestic Indian audience, where film-going is immensely popular, is one billion people. Indian films are also hugely popular in the rest of Asia, throughout the Islamic world, and in parts of Africa. Indian emigration to Europe, Australia, and the Americas has created a huge audience of Non-Resident Indians ("NRIs") for Indian films in the West. The movies are also becoming very popular with Westerners like me who have no personal connection to India.

Back when I first started watching Bollywood (and even now), I often found the movies puzzling, since the social values and storytelling conventions are different from Western cinema. So I waded through a few tedious books about Bollywood, in search of the interesting ones I finally found, as I tried to better understand what I was watching; and I've also waded through a lot of bad movies in search of good ones.

So here below is a list of good books, a few good "other media" resources, and—above all!— a long list of good movies. Hopefully this page will help you, too, become a Bollywood fan!




With the international popularity of Bollywood, including a growing awareness of the cinema among Western audiences, there is now a steadily expanding quantity of books written about Indian cinema. The books listed below aren't the only good ones available these days, but they're ones which I have enjoyed and can recommend.




Although you may not have heard of Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), he's the biggest film star in the world, with 3.5 billion fans and more than 40 films. He has remained at the very top of the box office in India for nearly 15 years, even into his forties—which is unusual in India's youth-oriented cinema. This well-written book, by a journalist whose own family is part of the Bombay film industry, explores and explains modern Bollywood, with a focus on SRK's prominent and unusual career.




Alter is an American journalist who was born and raised in India, and who writes often about India with an understanding of how bewildering Americans find it. In this well-written book, Alter explores Bollywood in general, and specifically the making of a major Bollywood film, Omkara, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. (I have not recommended Omkara in the film list below, though I've seen it, because I don't like Othello. However, if you do like the story, the movie is quality work and worth seeing.)



The Pocket Essential Bollywood
by Ashok Banker

This was the book that helped me get started as a Bollywood viewer, once I had accidentally stumbled across the genre and decided I wanted to watch more, but had no idea where to start. The author recommends what he considers the 50 "must see" Bollywood movies of all-time, if you want to understand or appreciate the genre. And he explains what was special or unusual about each of the recommended films when it was first released. However, the book is about 8 years old and out-of-date now, so you might want to look for something more recent. There are by now several books of this type on the market, whereas this was the only one I could find back when I started watching Bollywood.



Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story
by Nasreen Munni Kabir

Kabir is an Indian-born journalist and documentary-maker who has spent most of her life in Europe. This well-written book is an excellent overview of the films, traditions, history, and the industry of Bollywood cinema. It includes interviews with numerous prominent Bollywood actors, writers, and directors. It was released in 2001, so it doesn't cover the fast-paced changes in Bollywood since then, but just about everything discussed in the book is still relevant today. Unfortunately, it was not published in the US (only in the UK), it's out of print, and second-hand copies are quite expensive. But if you can get hold of this book, it's well worth reading.



Balham to Bollywood
by Chris England


Chris England is a British actor who, because he was also an accomplished amateur cricket player, was cast in Lagaan, an Indian film which included British cricket-players in its story. Although the British have made many films in India, very few British actors have participated in Indian films in India (one reason being that Bollywood filmmakers rarely portray non-Indian characters in their films), which is a somewhat different experience. Although the book may focus on the author's passion (cricket!) a little too much for readers who aren't cricket fans, it's nonetheless an amusing and engaging tale of this London actor's experience of working on an Indian film in one of the most remote corners of the subcontinent.



Bollywood Boy
by Justine Hardy


Justine Hardy is a freelance journalist whose light-hearted book is about her quest to get an interview with Bollywood mega-star Hrithek Roshan. Along the way, she attends some Bollywood movies, follows the gossip about various movie stars, interviews some people in the industry, and talks to many Bollywood fans.



The Spirit of Lagaan: The Extraordinary
Story of the Creators of a Classic

by Satyajit Bhatkal


is one of the most commercially successful and also one of the most artistically respected Bollywood films of all-time. Yet it was initially considered so uncommercial a project that no one wanted to make it, until mega-star Aamir Khan (who plays the lead role in the film) decided to produce it himself. Khan recruited people to work on the film whose commitment he could trust, including the longtime friend who became his associate producer and wrote this book. And, yes, this is the same film that Chris England wrote Balham To Bollywood about (see above).



Indian Cinema: The Bollywood Saga
by Dinesh Raheja & Jitendra Kothari

This is a big, gorgeous coffee-table book full of fabulous black-and-white and full-color photos of Bollywood movies and Indian film stars through the decades. (The woman on the cover is leading lady Aishwarya Rai in the film Devdas.) Similar to the Pocket Essential guide mentioned above, though in a much more glorious format, it discusses various landmark movies and explains what was noteworthy about them as the genre continued evolving over the years. Bollywood is a highly visual cinema, and this book makes that clear. Not surprisingly, it's an expensive volume—which would perhaps make it a lovely gift for someone interested in Bollywood, whether that's you or someone you know!




Other Media

There are a huge number of websites, blogs, and podcasts devoted to Bollywood. These are just a couple of suggestions to help you get started.

There's a weekly English-language radio program in the United Kingdom that reviews the latest Bollywood films and does interviews with Bollywood performers and filmmakers. It's called Love Bollywood and is on the BBC Asian Network. You can find it on the BBC's website or download it as a podcast via iTunes.

BollyWhat? is a website that's subtitled "The Guide for Clueless Fans of Hindi Films," and it's a good place to start if you're as perplexed as I was when I started watching Bollywood. Among other things, it's got a "Newcomer's Miniguide" which answers a lot of common questions, and it also has a page that provides translations of lyrics from the songs of many films—including two films recommend below (Khamoshi and Dil Se) which are subtitled movies, but which do not subtitle the songs. So, until finding this site, I always wondered what the characters were singing about!

The Bollywood Ticket is an excellent website founded by an American who got addicted to Bollywood while on a 14-hour flight to Delhi a few years ago. The site provides industry news, movie reviews, articles, and a chat forum.

Misc.: The Bollywhat? website was recommended to me by Arun Krishnan, who hosts a short weekly podcast called "Learn Hindi From Bollywood Movies." The podcast is a humorous monologue that incorporates and translates sound bytes from Bollywood movies. You can find it via iTunes, or go to the website, Cutting Chai.





Bollywood films still aren't shown at my local cinemas, but they're readily available on DVD these days. Many of these films are available to rent from Netflix, and most of them are available for purchase at my favorite online Indian DVD store, Nehaflix. You may also find many of these DVDs available for check-out in your local public library system.

The main things you need to know about Bollywood, as you get started: The films are almost always musicals. They almost all feature a love story, whether they're comedies, dramas, war films, etc. They're all performed in an Indian language (usually Hindi) with subtitles available in English (and various other languages). They're long by Western standards; two-and-half to three hours is typical. The films frequently promote traditional Indian values, and kissing-on-the-lips onscreen is still very rare (which is why you'll see lots of almost-kisses).






This is the first Bollywood film I ever saw, and it remains one of my favorites. Asoka is a real historical Indian figure, and the basic outline of the story here is true: Around 250 B.C., Asoka inherited an empire and made it even bigger through warfare—after which, he became a Buddhist, never went to war again, and spent the rest of his reign governing a prosperous empire and passing edicts that promoted social justice. (His empire only survived him by about fifty years.) This exotic, visually stunning musical film opens with Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan) as an ambitious young warrior-prince who unwittingly falls in love with a princess-in-disguise (Kareena Kapoor) from a rival kingdom, and the story follows him through love, war, loss, and empire, until his renunciation of violence.






This is perhaps the third Bollywood film I ever saw, and I found it utterly baffling at the time. I have watched it again since becoming more familiar with the genre, and it makes more sense to me now. Devdas is the fourth adaptation of an iconic Bengali novel of the same name which was published early in the 20th century. It's the tale of a self-destructive man who's loved by two women. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's lush visual sensibilities always stand out, even in Bollywood, and some people consider this film his masterpiece. Shah Rukh Khan gives a charismatic performance in a difficult role (Devdas, the title character, is hard to understand and even harder to like). Former-Miss World Aishwarya Rai is captivating as the love of his life. Jackie Shroff is marvelous in a supporting role as a cheerful drunk obsessed with alliteration. And popular leading lady Madhuri Dixit gives probably the best performance of her career as a courtesan (and also demonstrates why her dancing ability is justly admired).



Dil Se


Dil Se

Dil Se
("From the Heart") flopped in India but was hugely successful with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) overseas, and it was one of the first Bollywood films to break into the mainstream top-ten box office charts in the United Kingdom. I love this film, but another writer I recommended it to recently, also a Bollywood fan, hated it. So it seems to be one of those films that a person either loves or loathes.

This one stars Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) again. It's directed by Mani Ratnam, who tends to gravitate to serious subject matter. And the cinematographer is Santosh Sivan, who directed the visually stunning Asoka (see above), and whose lighting and images here are compelling. SRK plays a journalist working on a story about Kashmir, a famously beautiful and hotly disputed region between India and Pakistan which has been torn apart for years by warfare and terrorism. He meets and becomes instantly obsessed with a mysterious woman, played with haunted intensity by Manisha Koirala (who is from Nepal and is one of my favorite Bollywood actresses). SRK grows more and more frustrated as the woman flits in and out of his life without explanation, until he finally discovers the terrible truth about her and has to decide what to do about it.



Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge



This film isn't a favorite of mine, but it's one of the most popular Indian films ever made, so it should be included in any list of recommendations for a newcomer to the genre. Shah Rukh Khan (yes, him again) plays a wealthy young Non-Resident Indian (NRI) in London who falls for an NRI girl, played by Kajol (my favorite Indian actress). When her family takes her back to India for an arranged marriage, which custom is traditional and still very common in India, SRK follows, hoping to convince her family to break off the engagement and give the bride to him instead. It's a nice enough tale, and the cast is chock full of excellent actors; but I find too many of the scenes silly instead of entertaining, and I'm not particularly drawn to any of the characters. However, my tepid reaction to this immensely popular film is not the norm. It's still one of the biggest money-makers ever produced in Bollywood, and it propelled the two stars (SRK and Kajol), the young writer/director (Aditya Chopra), and the production house (Yash Raj, owned by Chopra's family) to the very top of the industry.






I like this film specifically for the engaging and intense performances of the two leads, Kajol and Aamir Khan. Kajol is my favorite Indian actress; and, indeed, she's a lot of people's favorite actress. I think this is one of the films that shows you why. Aamir Khan is one of the three "King Khans"—Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan—the Moslem actors who became the three biggest male film stars in mostly-Hindu India during their youth, and who've all remained at the very top of the box office well into their forties, despite Indian cinema's usual preference for young heroes. Aamir Khan is one of the most respected film actors in India, known for disappearing into his roles onscreen.

Fanaa ("Destroyed In Love") starts off as a light-hearted, romantic tale about a young woman (Kajol) from Kashmir who's on a trip to Delhi with her friends, and their heart-breaker tour guide (Aamir Khan) who falls in love with her. However, in one of the half-time shifts in tone that isn't unusual in Bollywood films (and which tends to baffle Western viewers), the story turns into a dark thriller wherein the love that made their lives briefly so happy may now lead to tragic consequences.



Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam



Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
("Straight From The Heart") is another Sanjay Leela Bhansali film (see Devdas, above), and it stars Salman Khan, one of the three "King Khans" who've dominated the box office for years in India. In this typically-lush Bhansali film, Salman plays a half-Indian singer from Italy who returns to India to study with a great voice teacher who lives in a large, traditional family household. While there for many months, living with the family, he falls in love with one of the daughters of the household, played by the luminous Aishwarya Rai. However, in much of India (and particularly in Bollywood films) people don't choose their spouses, their parents do it for them. So when the girl's parents discover the couple is in love, they kick out the young man and make plans to marry the daughter to a local lawyer, played by Ajay Devgan, an actor who is particularly good at quiet, intense underplaying. What happens next leads the audience on a journey of love, to arrive at a story conclusion that is both surprising and satisfying.



Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham



If you're only ever going to see one Bollywood film in your life, then it should probably be writer/director Karan Johar's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham ("Sometimes Laughter, Sometimes Tears"). It portrays all the most-standard contemporary tropes and conventions of Bollywood cinema, and it articulates these conventions in a way that makes them more accessible to Western audiences than is often the case. It's also one of the most visually lavish films in the genre, and it has an impressive cast.

Shah Rukh Khan plays the eldest son of a wealthy Indian family who falls in love with an eccentric working-class girl (Kajol, in a delightful performance). This appalls his father (played by Indian screen legend Amitabh Bachchan), who disowns him when he won't give up his true love in order to marry the girl chosen for him by the family. Years later, SRK's little brother is now all grown up (played by Hrithek Roshan, the subject of Justine Hardy's amusing book, Bollywood Boy—see above), and he goes in search of SRK, who disappeared after the estrangement. Upon finding him, Hrithek decides to find a way to get the whole family back together at long last, while meanwhile courting Kajol's also now-grown-up little sister, played with comedic flare by Kareena Kapoor.


Kal Ho Naa Ho



Set in an NRI community in New York City (but acted entirely in Hindi), this delightful romantic comedy is about a Christian Indian family (Christianity is the third-largest religion in multi-cultural India, after Hinduism and Islam) struggling both emotionally and financially after the death of their father, until a newcomer to the neighborhood starts changing all their lives. Shah Rukh Khan is at his very best as the newly-arrived madcap busybody interfering in everyone's lives and hiding a tragic secret of his own that keeps him from declaring his love for the sharp-tempered girl-next-door whose life he brightens. The music is wonderful, and New York looks gorgeous and romantic. There are a number of engaging comedy scenes between SRK and Saif Ali Khan, who's in love with the same girl, and the film portrays a sweet and unusual love triangle.






This is an early Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, and my favorite of his movies. It's set in contemporary Goa, which was under Portuguese domination for centuries and has an interestingly Mediterranean atmosphere in this movie. Goa is heavily Catholic, and Bhansali uses the images of Carnivale, cathedrals, and cemeteries to create a romantic, timeless, and slightly fairytale-like setting for Khamoshi ("Silence"). It's the tale of a musically-talented young woman in a small Goan fishing village whose parents are deaf. She meets a music composer (played with gentle charm by Salman Khan) who falls in love with her, as well as with her voice, and wants to build both a personal and a professional life with her. She faces a difficult choice, because this would take her away from her handicapped parents—who are very reluctant to part with her. The first few scenes of the film are a little difficult to get through, since it opens with a weak song and then an awkward flashback set-up, but if you stick with it, it soon develops into a lovely story.



Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India



is widely considered a landmark movie in Bollywood for a number of reasons, including the recognition it got in the West. It has a large number of talented Indian actors, but Aamir Khan (who also produced the film) is the only box office star in the cast, the English actors in the film are unknown and uninspiring, and the director's previous track record consisted only of flops. Lagaan is also nearly four hours long, filmed in dialect, and spends more than an hour of screen time on a cricket match. Despite all of this, it was a smash hit. You need to set aside a lot of time to watch it (like I said, nearly four hours), but it's worth seeing.

Set in Victorian-ruled India, it's the tale of an impoverished village that asks the local British authorities to eliminate the annual local tax (the "lagaan"), which the villagers can't pay because the ongoing drought has destroyed their farming livelihood. The British district official won't agree to this. So, in desperation, the villagers wind up (somewhat by accident) challenging the British officers to a cricket match; the result of the proposed game will determine whether the villagers (who've never even seen a cricket game, at this point) have to pay triple-lagaan this year, or can go three years without paying the lagaan at all.



Lage Raho Munna Bhai



Although this film gets off to a slow start, stick with it. It's a charming comedy about a modern-day gangster, known as Munna Bhai (played by Sanjay Dutt), who tries to woo a local radio hostess by pretending to be an ardent disciple of Gandhi's teachings. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you pretend to be! Before long, the gangster starts having frequent visions of Gandhi, who comes to him with teachings and advice. This helps Munna Bhai court his true love and become a popular radio personality... but it also starts making him the endangered enemy of his underworld associates. Can Munna Bhai stick to his newfound non-violent principles without soon joining Gandhi in the afterlife?



Mangal Pandey



Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), a real historical person, was the first Sepoy to be hanged for his role in the 1857 mutiny in India. Well, "mutiny" if you're British; "first war of Indian independence" if you're Indian. (So Pandey is either a condemned rebel or a martyred patriot, depending on your perspective.) The adverts for the film urged Indian audiences to "Celebrate the Birth of Your Freedom" (which finally occured ninety years later, in 1947, which the British Raj left India and independence was declared). Prior to this film, I only knew about the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which lasted about a year, from British novels and British history books. This film was my first exposure to the Indian side of the story, and it's well worth seeing for that perspective on these events—though the film itself is unevenly paced and the script could be better.






Paheli ("Riddle") is a charming and visually stunning historical film loosely based on a Rajasthani folk tale. The engaging Rani Mukherjee, one of India's most popular leading ladies, enters into an arranged marriage with a wealthy merchant, only to be abandoned by her tepid husband (Shah Rukh Khan) the day after their wedding, when he goes off to some distant town to conduct business. Meanwhile, a ghost (also Shah Rukh Khan) that haunts a local water well sees the young woman and falls in love her, and so the spirit assumes human form—in the guise of the woman's spouse—to be with her. This spirit, by contrast with the real man, is an attentive and loving husband, and the woman, after learning his true identity, decides to accept him and live with him as her spouse. They cannot, however, live like this forever without someone figuring out that two identical men now both claim to be the same man...



Rang De Basanti



A contemporary young Englishwoman whose grandfather was a British officer involved in suppressing the Indian independence movement of the 1920s finds the journal he kept during his guilt-ridden, tormented years of imprisoning and executing Indian freedom fighters. She decides to make a documentary film about that period and goes to India, in search of a cast. Before long, she teams up with a close-knit group of likeable, cynical, apolitical university students in Delhi who aren't interested in dead idealists, but who think it would be fun to be in a film. But as they delve deeper and deeper into their research, coming to better understand and identify with the historical characters they're playing, their political awareness is gradually raised—with shocking and dangerous results. Aamir Khan leads a talented cast in this moving film, which I think deserves the widespread attention and praise that it got.



(a.k.a. Bollywood Dreams)



This delightful romantic comedy stars the talented Urmila Matondkar as an ambitious Bollywood dancer who dedicates herself to success when she gets her big break and is cast as the leading lady in a major film. She's so focused on working hard that she doesn't realize that her lonely leading man (Jackie Shroff) is falling for her, nor that a local street thug (Aamir Khan) whom she's known all her life is desperately in love with her and trying to tell her so. There are a few too many musical numbers, but it's otherwise a charming, likeable love-triangle about a well-meaning woman so focused on work that she doesn't see love when it's right under her nose, and two men who are too tongue-tied to make their feelings clear.






("Salute To Love") is a romantic comedy that's probably more accessible to Westerners than many Bollywood films. It's got a star-studded cast, and it takes place in London and in various locations in India. It features about half a dozen separate storylines through which the characters weave in-and-out of each others' lives. Most of the subplots finally converge at a climactic wedding scene, where one groom is swapped out for another, and several other couples unite or reunite. Govinda, a popular comedian, is delightful as a bewildered cab driver chasing a runaway groom all over India on behalf of an American passenger with whom he's falling in love. Akshaye Khanna is also very amusing as a (different) bridegroom who keeps vacillating about whether he's ready for marriage. And Salman Khan is entertaining as a mystery man who tries to help "item girl" Priyanka Chopra clean up her public image.






In truth, I don't care for this movie, but since it's probably the most popular Indian film ever made, I should at least mention it here. It played to packed houses throughout India for five years, and it still has many fans today. With adjustments for inflation after 30+ years, Sholay is usually still listed as the biggest money-maker ever in Indian cinema.

This film is more or less a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of The Seven Samurai—and both of those are much better films. Sholay is about a couple of likeable small-time crooks who, after various adventures, wind up agreeing to defend a rural village from raiders, with the sort of mixed results you're expecting if you've seen The Seven Samurai and/or The Magnificent Seven. There's some good humor in the film (as well as some very clunky humor), and the best scenes are those that are wholly original to this Indian version, rather than imitations of other films.

Trivia: A 2007 remake of Sholay, titled Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, was a critical and commercial flop.






This film is typical Yash Raj fare, the production house that also made Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Fanaa (see above): romantic, traditional, very sentimental, and visually beautiful. Preity Zinta (from Kal Ho Naa Ho) plays a Pakistani woman who honors her nanny's dying wish by bringing her ashes to India for burial. Tensions between Pakistan and India are such that this is no easy task, and she soon finds she needs help—which she gets from an off-duty Indian Air Force officer (Shah Rukh Khan). By the time their quest is finished, they've fallen in love. After she returns to Pakistan to enter into an arranged marriage, SRK decides to go after her. But tensions between their two countries, as well as jealousies within her traditional family and her groom's family, ensure that trouble ensues, with unexpected consequences. Finally, it's up to a human rights lawyer (Rani Mukherjee, from Paheli) to change their fate. Preity Zinta is miscast (in my opinion), but Rani Mukherkjee is very good, and Shah Rukh Khan gives a standout performance.