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The following films are must-sees for anyone considering travelling to Indian cities, or thinking about learning something of the dazzling Indian culture. Some depict responses to Indian life, dramatize Indian history, portray its various communities and show off its urban and rural landscapes. While countries cannot be entirely captured in this way, these 10 glorious films nevertheless present an introduction to the sights and sounds of India.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a heart-warming film, honest about life’s disappointments and unexpected turns, but mellow and accepting – able to find the good in all circumstances. The film centers on a group of British pensioners who move to a retirement hotel in India, advertised as ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. When they arrive, they find the hotel to be a rundown structure not entirely ready for habitation, but are wooed and eventually won over by its charming young manager, Sonny. The film is full of the bright and colourful landscape of Rajasthan. The camera deftly suggests the busy, confusing and stimulating, but always rich experience of city streets.
Ship of Theseus is a drama about three individuals from different backgrounds and different life circumstances. The title refers to the philosophical paradox propounded by Plutarch that questions whether a ship with parts replaced remains the same ship. It follows a young photographer who is visually impaired and who undergoes a transplant, a monk suffering from liver cirrhosis and a stockbroker who tries to help a man who had a kidney stolen. Each character faces difficult choices and the film raises questions about personhood, justice and moral complexities. The film veers between the style of a documentary genre and a feature film. Scenes in the film are located in Mumbai, Jaipur and Chhitkul, and its moving and expressive cinematography was crafted with a Canon DSLR.
The Darjeeling Limited is a drama about the reunion of three brothers on the Darjeeling Limited. The plot works loosely through adventures and conversations during the train ride, as the brothers connect with each other, encounter other people, and some of the country. The film is full of quirky off-beat characters and situations with dramatic irony and humour. The sets are exquisitely wrought. Painted by the local artisans, the train has nearly 500 elephants decorated with different intricate detailing. The dining car is decorated with individual painted fabric, glass from local glass blowers, chairs and carved screens by local craftsmen. The film is meant to show aspects of India for the director states that he started with the framework of the reunion and let their experience within the country fill in many of the details.
Bride and Prejudice is a musical adaption of Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set in India. Darcy is a wealthy American working in the family business in hotels, and Lalita, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, works with her father’s farming business. The film is directed by Gurinder Chaddha, who previously directed Bend It Like Beckham. The film does not quite have the depth and nuance of the original characterisations and satire in the book, or some of the subsequent film adaptations, but then the film does not intend to attempt such a task. It is rather in the nature of a frolic that loosely alludes to the original story. It elicits light satire from cultural stereotypes and domestic scenes, and weaves in dance and brightly coloured clothes.
Asoka tells the story of Asoka, an emperor of the Maurya Dynasty in India in the third century. After success as conquering leader of armies, Asoka put away his sword and turned to Buddhism and to non-violence. This occured after he witnessed the deaths that resulted from his war with Kalinga. The film traces this arc. It does not purport to portray historical intricacies – rather, it takes the broad story, and turns it into an epic entertainer. The film stars Shah Rukh Khan as the king who wields his sword in nimble slow-motion flourishes. It also stars Kareena Kapoor as Kaurwadi, a love interest. This relationship is entirely fictional, but that aside, the film stays true to the historical facts. Battle sequences often use kalari, a form of South Indian martial arts.
An Indian American woman, Amu, returns to India in her early twenties after her graduation at UCLA. She eagerly explores Delhi and as she does, traces of memory return, and she begins to have nightmares. Amu begins to ask questions about her past. The film explores a dark aspect of India’s history with courageous honesty and unabashedly wears its politics like a badge. It also wanders through many locations in Delhi, its slums and bustling street vendors, homes and social circles, and documents other quintessential Indian traits like people crossing the railway tracks. The film stars Konkana Sen Sharma, daughter of film maker and actress Aparna Sen.
A British drama by Danny Boyle, this film follows unusual events in the life of a young boy. Jamal Malik is a young boy who hails from the slums in Mumbai, and has the opportunity to appear on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. He answers questions by recalling incidents in his past life, and as he does so, flashbacks fill in the details for us. The film is quite unflinching in portraying the underbelly of the city. It is eloquent with the accumulated rubbish, dim rooms and narrow alleys of a slum area. Despite all this, it is equally eloquent in its depiction of people managing to nevertheless find ways and means to live an optimistic and thriving life. In many ways, it also pays tribute to the music and fairytale endings of Indian films, and a culture that loves living communally.
Amal is the story of an Indian billionaire who searches the streets of Delhi for an honest man. He eventually finds such a man in a rickshaw driver, called Amal. The film follows Amal as he conducts his fares to their destinations, takes responsibility for a young girl’s hospital care, and generally, behaves to all around with kindness and integrity. The film’s anti-heroes are the billionaire’s family who scheme to obtain their father’s inheritance. The film stars veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah as the billionaire. The streets of Delhi take centre stage in the film, and through unhurried and perceptive cinematography, we are able to view scenes in the everyday life of a rickshaw driver.
City of Joy is about a young man who leaves a medical career in America to find peace elsewhere after losing a patient. He arrives in Calcutta and is taken in by a family there, after being roughed up on the streets. Eventually the Pals, learning about his profession, take him to a slum where he works for the local clinic and finds happiness and gains friends. The film stars American Patrick Swayze, and two veteran Indian actors Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. It is celebrated for its compassionate depiction of areas of extreme poverty. Many scenes were filmed on an elaborate set, which recreated Calcutta’s makeshift housing areas, down to the last realistic detail of tin doors and television aerials. Scenes of lively street life are also in the film.
Gandhi is a canonizing biopic which tells the story of the Mahatma, iconically played by British actor Ben Kingsley. It begins with the early incident in which Gandhi is thrown from a train in South Africa to his encounters with other religions, his involvement in the Indian freedom movement, and his assassination in India. The film provides some sense of the complex events of those years, and the issues involved in India’s negotiation for freedom. Ben Kingsley is impeccable as a historical leader. He acts with dignity and understatement, sometimes by only the twitch of his face or a fluttering eyelid, and manages to emanate the presence and integrity expected of such a monumental yet humane figure.