Unfortunately, it is a difficult genre for the Western film enthusiast to engage with. Tartan Asia, Premier and East Asian cinema labels are very much aimed at a discerning Western audience and select films that will be of interest to the international/arthouse or martial arts markets. The two genres are pretty easy to distinguish by the cover art and title. By contrast, the market Eros and other importers of Bollywood films to the West are trying to capture is the large British Indian population. They are both closer to the average moviegoer, less interested in artistic quality, and often fans of Bollywood's silly side.
I am fortunate enough to have some good friends from the sub-continent who are introducing me to the best of Bollywood. I thought that others might benefit from a guide to what's out there. This post contains my impressions of what I've seen so far. All of these are on commercial release in the UK, I got them through LoveFilm.
Dil Chahta Hai
I'm told that this is within the top-end of Bollywood films but we watched it because it starts with the song a friend of mine graduated to. The songs are rare but done well. This is probably the weakest of the Bollywood films I've seen so far.
The plot appears to be lifted from an episode of Hollyoaks. Relationships with older women and faux emotional drama. There's not a lot to it.
Lagaan is actually hysterically funny and I think the comedy is largely intentional. It has more songs than the other films in this list, although pretty much every Bollywood film has musical moments, and they're good ones.
It is a tale of a village unable to pay their tax (lagaan) but being bet by an arrogant British officer that they cannot beat the British at cricket, a game the Indians have never played. If they win they will pay no tax, if they lose it is doubled. All of them, from crippled untouchables to Muslims, Sikhs and an enthusiastic man with a drum are found to have skills to contribute to the new team.
This is a fun film to watch with friends. Laugh and shout "Yeardley!" at each other.
Dor has an Iranian quality. It's a lot more modest in its visual style than most Bollywood films and I can't remember a single song. A story of two women whose husbands go to Saudi Arabia. One of the husbands dies and the other is falsely accused of his murder. The accused will only be spared if the widow agrees to grant clemency under the Sharia provision for victims justice.
The woman whose husband has died faces the grim and joyless fate of a young widow in India. A life expected to be spent in mourning serving the husband's parents. The other wife befriends her and the emotional climax of the film comes when she begs for mercy. It's an emotionally delicate film which connected me to a situation I really didn't know a lot about before. Well worth watching but not really Bollywood enough to work as an introduction to Indian cinema.
Rang de Basanti
The set-up is pretty innocuous. Young English woman heads out to India to make a film about fearless Indian revolutionaries she read about in her grandfather's journal. This sounds like a conventional anti-Imperialist story along the lines of Lagaan. She has little luck finding suitable actors but makes some good friends and decides that they're eminently suitable to represent the revolutionaries.
Her new friends cannot relate to their characters. They are cynical about India's future and cannot understand the ideological drive and nationalistic self-sacrifice of the revolutionary heroes. However, playing the parts affects them all and they gradually become more and more impassioned to make a difference. This comes to a head when the fiancé of the female member of the group is killed when his plane crashes. The crash is thought to be down to corruption, officials cutting corners and pocketing the cash.
Here the affairs of the young people in modern India begin to mimic the stories of the pre-independence revolutionaries. This is when the story becomes truly astonishing. I'll try not to spoil it for you but suffice to say that after a while I was wondering how it managed to get into cinemas at all. It becomes a direct call for the assassination of government ministers. It does this in the innocuous style of Bollywood which creates an amazingly dissonant experience.
This is one of the best films ever made anywhere. It charts the experiences of a, rare enough to be remarkable, interfaith couple who have moved from a small town to Bombay to escape the judgements of small-town gossip and parental feuding. They are an endearing couple and the early years of their life in Bombay are enchanting. Only a Michael Jackson inspired song and dance sequence ruins the atmosphere a little.
However, after a while things start to go wrong. They're caught in the path of the Bombay riots of the early nineties which echoed partition in the Muslim-Hindu division of the city that emerged afterwards and the ferocity of the violence, 900 people died. The depth of the emotion on display is staggering and genuinely affecting. It's a long time since I've felt so desperate for characters in a film to emerge safe and sound from the carnage.
The film ends on a call for a reconciliation and inter-faith national unity. An imagined coming together of the community and rejection of violence. Sadly this appears to be a creation of the film as the riots were followed just a year later by the Bombay Bombings, in which another 250 people were killed. In a way that makes the film even more touching; it keeps on hoping in spite of the horrors it reveals to us.
If you want to see what Bollywood can do at its best, just how affecting the impressionistic form can be, watch Bombay. Utterly brilliant.