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From early twentieth century silent films to the recent spate of elaborate costume drama, Hindi cinema has continuously adapted and reinvented itself to both represent and challenge the many sides of Indian life and culture. Here are ten films, from Bollywood to art house cinema, that beautifully portray the contemporary sensibility in Hindi films.
Filmistan portrays Pakistan and India’s common love of cinema. The movie’s central character is a film buff that seamlessly spouts dialogue as he responds to events in daily life. Wanting to be an actor, but unable to find a suitable role, the protagonist becomes an assistant director and is kidnapped by the Pakistani army when shooting a film. Encountering a Pakistani peddler of pirated films, the two characters bond over cinema, sharing each other’s happiness and tribulations and entertaining the village under the wary, watchful eyes of their guards. The film brings out the similarities between the people and cultures of these countries.
Ankhon Dekhi is a slow and contemplative independent film that follows the ensuing events after a man decides to credit only that which his eyes perceive. Living by this principle, to the consternation of his friends and family, he experiences interesting aspects of daily life in Delhi. Gradually the protagonist acquires a few disciples with whom he shares his thoughts and questions. The character has been described as a combination of Shakespeare’s King Lear and his wise fool, and also has shades of Plato or an Indian guru. The film wanders through quizzical and unusual experiences before finally drawing the threads together at the end. Largely taking place in the home and circles of a middle-class family, it is mellow and character-driven, and lovingly depicts the quirks and intricacies of family relationships.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham explores the events that pull apart and unite a family over two successive generations.A drama that took India by storm, the film drew together the biggest Bollywood stars of its day. It includes Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan. The universally popular film is melodramatic and takes its emotions quite seriously. It also focuses on family matters, and has the requisite happy ending that is well loved by Indian cinema.
A Wednesday has the style of a thriller but is also a character-driven film. It stars two veteran actors known for their stage and film roles. Naseeruddin Shah is an unnamed man who threatens the police with arson, and Anupam Kher is an honorable police commissioner. Depicting the commissioner’s recollection of the memorable and strange events of a Wednesday afternoon, the film is ultimately a comment on the relatively recent spates of terrorism in the country, a pressing issues for the police and public. The narrative builds steadily towards a surprise twist in the tale. Produced on a fairly low budget, the film has a gritty, urban feel to it that permits the narrative to take center stage, along with its characters.
In the tradition of films such as Forest Gump, Barfi tells the story of the deaf-mute son of a chauffeur. The film follows the ways in which he deals with the circumstances of daily life, his love for a woman he meets, and for his autistic childhood friend. The freewheeling, happy-go-lucky lead character played by Ranbir Kapoor wins hearts for his purity of soul and determination to be accepting and happy – whatever life brings. The film had the tagline, ‘Don’t Worry Be Barfi’. Playing the role of a caring, conscientious woman and a loyal childhood friend respectively, Ileana D’Cruz and Priyanka Chopra excel as the film’s female leads.
A brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, Omkara is about the leader of a gang who works for a local politician. After the politician wins a seat, Omkara enters politics and must appoint a successor to his previous position. The film is beautifully faithful to the dialogue and nuance of the original play, yet sensitively transposes it into an Indian context and language. This is the second in a trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations, all made by director Vishal Bhardwaj, whose cinematography is lyrical and moving. Scenes are beautifully composed in a sunlit village or at night, effectively combined with the director’s use of traditional musical styles.
Devdas is an adaptation of a literary novella. The protagonist is a young man who returns to India and his family, and there he connects with his childhood sweetheart. Their marriage is, however, opposed by his family and she marries another suitor. While charting the protagonist’s descent into alcoholism, despair and death, the film has beautifully artful sets and costumes that are laden with jewelry. These set the stage for the in-depth performances of its actors. Devdas is played by Shah Rukh Khan, with accustomed flair. Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit, both well-loved actresses of incandescent screen presence, play juxtaposed roles. Made on an epic scale, the film brings together the best of Bollywood extravagance and complex literary storytelling.
Lage Raho Munna Bhai is a humorous film based on the adventures of an endearing underworld gangster and his sidekick. In the film, Munna Bhai woos a radio talk show host by masquerading as an expert on Gandhi’s philosophy of living non-violently with others. Beginning to co-host the talk show and deal with callers’ situations, he draws on Gandhi’s peaceful strategies. He eventually finds himself guided by Gandhi himself, who appears to him, and the people of the nation listen and call – celebrating kindness, patience and peace. The film is light-hearted, and full of good-humored escapades and wit.
Parineeta is an adaptation of a classic literary novel and film. It follows the life of Lolita, a young orphan adopted into her neighbor Shekhar’s family. The two grow up with a close friendship and understanding for each other. As young adults, they are set up with and wooed by other suiters, and difficulties ensue. The film is especially delightful because of Vidya Balan’s performance as Lolita, which conveys a woman of depth and innocence. Also wonderful is the performance of lead actors, Sanjay Dutt as Girish, and Saif Ali Khan as Shekhar, as well as the easy and witty interactions between the various members of the family.
A contemporary Indian film of the superhero genre, Krrish is in fact the sequel to Koi Mil Gaya, in which a child meets an alien, befriends it, and eventually acquires superhuman powers. His son becomes Krrish, born with his father’s mental and physical abilities. He disguises himself to conceal his identity and lives in a far mountain hideout. Charting the protagonist’s transformation from a simple and loving village boy to a superhero that uses his abilities to help people, the film is full of balletic martial arts that accentuate the drama – similar to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Krrish himself is a bit like Superman or Captain America, a superhero with an earnest heart. The film is particularly endearing for its blend of humor and action, especially in its early scenes.