I'm always a bit confused how to answer when people ask; what Bollywood films should we watch?
First of all, let me just clearly state; I hate the word "Bollywood". It irks me that the Hindi...no my Hindi film industry is identified by a word that is not only a copy of another place altogether but also a sort of stamp of colonial times.
We're so sadly used to being known as mere copycats and it all starts with this pathetic name. There's no Bollywood, there is only the Hindi Film Industry.
Getting back to the point; what Hindi film should one watch?
Should I recommend them my favorites? The all time classics? Or do I reaffirm the stereotype and give them what they want; movies with song and dance?
Mostly I decide knowing the person at hand. Yet most people who ask are either into the typical form that Hindi cinema is known for or are people who just think Hindi cinema has one facet; the song and dance routine.
Most would not be interested in seeing older film, as they hold a certain look and quality that isn't easy to dive into. They don't mind watching a period film, as long as it's been made in modern times; giving it that nice sheen.
People who do ask for recommendation do seem to get snarky about the Hindi cinema flavour, painting it as films about idiots dancing and singing on the road and nothing else.
For them I've compiled a list of near Modern classics from Hindi Cinema that embody its great qualities oft ridiculed with some wonderful narratives and a bunch of independent cinema pieces that highlight the different India's within one India.
It's an eclectic list of close favorites and terrific films (in no particular order).
10. 'Kahaani' (Dir. Sujoy Ghosh)
I'll start with the kind of film that is gaining great traction in Hindi cinema today; the female oriented film.
Naturally as is around the world, in Hindi cinema; female actors get the short end of the stick.
It's a sad, funny and bittersweet irony that while we have progressed as a nation and people; we are insensitive to gender equality and provide female actors with small terrible roles and character while also objectifying them. The irony coming into play when you realize that in its golden days; Hindi cinema has produced probably some of the finest female characters.
Whether it be Radha (Mother India), Anarkali (Mughal-E-Azam), Chhoti Bahu (Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam) and Rosie (Guide).
Now it's sad that actresses of a wide range are constantly fighting to get leading roles that exemplify their acting chops and the message of empowerment. None so do this better than Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani.
A fast paced and riveting thriller that sees Vidya (Vidya Balan), a pregnant woman come to Kolkata in search of her husband and run afoul of various nefarious elements including the Intelligence as well as a terrorist plot.
Kahaani is a Vidya Balan show through and through, and the film works because we are endeared to the mission of this character. Her strength, her intelligence, her kindness and above all her perseverance in the face of adversary making for one hell of an engaging feature.
Even when the wool is pulled from the eyes; one can't help cheering for this brilliant performance and well layered character in a fantastic ride of a film.
9. 'Luck by Chance' (Dir. Zoya Akhtar)
As cynical as they get.
'Luck by Chance' is about 'Bollywood' and the archetype of characters and people you will find their. Not only that but the kind of sacrifices and mistakes, not to mention the number of people one has to push; to get to the top.
It's a brutal examination of the harsh truths of the industry and the competitiveness of life in general. Today's friends are tomorrow's enemies.
The film examines the star studded life through the eyes of aspiring actor Vikram (Farhan Akhtar). A surprise shot sees him move to the top in an illustrious debut, bringing a strain on his relationships with his friend and girlfriend Sona (Konkona Sen); an equally ambitious actress.
Made by Zoya Akhtar, the film has a sense of insider experience and understanding of the ticks of the people within the business and how the industry operates.
It's a cold harsh criticism without being derogatory and painting the industry in a negative light. A realistic eye opener on what the Hindi film industry is all about and great at doing that.
8. 'Peepli Live' (Dir. Anusha Rizvi/Mahmood Farooqui)
Social satire's aren't really easy to make, let alone get made in India. Well in comes in none other than superstar Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao, putting their stamp on Anusha Rizvi's brilliant and bold media/political satire.
Most satires would pick up a small topic and let the world of its characters blow it up to epic proportions just as any media would actually want to do, for the sake of ratings. Rizvi's film does just that, but while taking on a concept of a farmer's want to suicide so as to leave his family with government remuneration.
It was and still is a hotly debated topic, but one that necessarily hasn't gotten the kind of traction it should in media; farmer suicides.
Taking the serious issue in hand, Rizvi paints a wondrous picture of the village Peepli and at the centre of it a desperate but idiotic farmer Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri). Informed that his death can get his family a government sponsored, he desperately tries to kill himself inadvertently creating a media frenzy.
It's the kind of overreaction Rizvi demands from the real world subdued and uncaring media and government and she runs with it while comically dissecting the media's operations in India, in their competitive hunt for ratings rather than actual concern towards reporting.
Add in a plethora of talented actors including Manikpuri, Raghubeer Yadav and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, makes for a recipe for success that focuses itself on the Indian hinterlands as well as the Indian media and government.
Not necessarily painting the country in a good light, but showing how individual struggle is for the lower class of rural India without being laborious and dull. Also presents that India still has film makers with true social consciousness.
7. 'Dor' (Dir. Nagesh Kukunoor)
An underrated classic.
A powerful film that in 2006, being about women's issues and female oriented was a rarity.
'Dor' is a wondrous film by the talented Kukunoor, who affects each frame with great emotion without ever letting loose of the subtlety that makes his feminist world view and message work.
At its core the film is about two tell tale things that define the quintessential Indian woman (whether from the urban or rural upbringing) but also giving them a sense of their kind of harsh treatment and in conflict their struggle for an equality and a sense of freedom.
The story is about modern independent Muslim woman Zeenat (Gul Panag) who heads on a journey to find the docile and subjugated widow Meera (Ayesha Takia), in order to have her sign the 'statement of forgiveness' that will free her husband, who caused an accident killing Meera's husband.
It revolves around their individual journeys, tied to the fates of their husbands but becomes something much more regarding their own individual lives and how each of their lives is not detected by their selves and their quest to find that sense of solace.
There's a power to the kind of stuff Kukunoor brings to his work, a sense of hope and inspiration. His innate understanding of the plight of Indian women and the cultural barriers but also essence that makes them who they are and who they need/want to be. It's marvelous to know that the man comes with a fresh foreigner's perspective to the film.
He brings out stunning performances from possibly three of the most sadly underutilized actors of the 2000's. Gul Panag is sensational as the strong willed and hurting Zeenat, Talpade as the thief aiding her is a riot and is never better under Kukunoor's stern direction but Ayesha Takia is a glory to behold, the nuance and detail she brings to Meera is magical.
Emotionally stirring and humbling on the idea of opportunity, freedom and equality thanks to its perspective of issues stemming on Indian women, their married life and widowed life; 'Dor' is one worth the watch.
6. 'Lagaan' (Dir. Ashutosh Gowarikar)
From another village story to another one; but this time one that comes fully packaged in the styling of what people know is Hindi Cinema.
An underdog's tale with full on song, dance and merriment.
'Lagaan' is one of the few rare films from India to make it all the way to the Academy Award and the last one, released in 2001 that kind of tells you why this movie is on the list.
Lagaan tells the tale of a drought ridden village of Champaner during the British rule. No rains, means no prospering farms; hence hunger and lots of trouble with the tax collecting Empire. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) bravely challenges the army overseer Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) to a cricket match for the sake of forgiving their taxes infinitely, whereas if Russell's trained army men win then Champaner would pay 3 times the amount of tax for three years.
A daunting task that forces Bhuvan to fight and fight against not only the British rule but also his own people into convincing and molding them into the ultimate underdog team.
The film is an essential guide on forming a screenplay around a sport. As every masterfully shot sporting sequence highlights the complex rules of the game with ease and wonder.
It adds the element of Indian cricketing passion with the brilliance of a fun but also message driven and inspiration entertaining film that Hindi cinema is known for.
At the end, 'Lagaan' is an exuberant triumph of will and encapsulates the best of what Hindi Cinema is all about.
5. 'Paan Singh Tomar' (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia)
Cricket might be a fan favorite, but the issue stemming in other sports in India is one that needed to be told and told with dexterity such as this.
'PST' is the biopic on sporting legend, athlete Paan Singh Tomar who went from winning India gold after gold to becoming a dacoit, after the world around him refused to acknowledge him for his accomplishments and kept on pushing him down.
It's a tragic tale highlighted by the eye opening final credits when it is revealed of the number of elite sportspersons in India who die penniless due to the government and the countries negligence of them once they have won and are done and dusted.
A sad tale that Dhulia worked on for decades on end and made into a stirringly powerful film with defining themes of revenge and tragedy.
At the center is probably the one of the finest Indian actors one will see and now a world known talent; Irrfan Khan, giving a performance that is sure to send chills down your spine.
The story tells of another India, the truths of the Indian ravines that once housed famed but one note villain of Hindi cinema. It's an emotionally vaulting picture that will move you to tears and induce a sense of compassion and empathy.
One for the history books.
4. 'Black Friday' (Dir. Anurag Kashyap)
I would be hard pressed not to talk about Anurag Kashyap amongst modern directors and films that one need to watch, to appreciate and understand the changing face of Hindi cinema.
'Kashyap' has been at the forefront of the new movement of Independent cinema in India. He has opened avenues for filmmakers to be showcased across the globe and have a respectable stance in the Hindi film fraternity, he has changed perceptions and become a household name.
It would be hard to select a film of his that wouldn't make one realize the brilliance and masters within Hindi cinema.
Should I tell you of his populist fare and Cannes opener 'Gangs of Wasseypur'? Or his very rooted work on student politics in 'Rajasthan: Gulaal'? Or his much more relatable urban flavored works such as 'Dev D and Ugly'?
I decided on his debatable best piece; the once canned and unreleased; Black Friday.
Hindi cinema as it is prone to do has had a fascination with the underworld, that once had a stake on its industry. It's been a dangerous romance that has seen a genre born of its own; Mumbai Noir.
'Black Friday' in essence is one such film, except it is much more. By accounts Anurag Kashyap is the only filmmaker of his generation who has dared to use the actual name of (most wanted) criminal and don; Dawood Ibrahim.
The film adapted from Hussain Zaidi's controversial book of the same name, details the actual story and events revolving around the 1993 Bombay bombings.
It's a harrowing and gritty picture that goes into the seedy underbelly of Mumbai and focuses on its darkest day with great precision and without any hesitation.
Kashyap is at his finest here, with a tale that he is emotionally connected to. The film has a somber atmosphere that builds great tension and a sense of great historical and realistic significance. The best is when Kashyap utilises his greatest weapon of punctuating the darkness with dozens of impromptu great humor.
It's revealing and worth revelling in and a fine example of where some of modern Hindi Cinema's greatest works come from.
3. 'Haider' (Dir. Vishal Bharadwaj)
'Haider' is complete proof that no one can adapt and transform the Bard's works thematically as well as Vishal Bhardwaj can, not even in my humble (and maybe ignorant) opinion; Laurence Olivier.
Taking the rich characters out of 'rotten' Denmark and plopping them into a Militant infested Kashmir. Vishald Bhardwaj makes a poignant commentary on Kashmir's bloody history and the suffering of its Muslim people.
It's a fantastic feature with some stark political commentary aided by Shakespeare's most finely etched characters.
The cinematography is breathtaking, taking in the beauty of Kashmir and the violence it has been riddled with. The music soul stirring.
But nothing beats the fine performances. Shahid Kapoor as Haider is at his A-Game, playing probably the greatest written male part in history. The underrated Tabu a notch higher as his mother Ghazalla, constantly playing with her eyes and our emotions and suspicions towards her.
A masterpiece is just the write word to define this film.
2. 'Udaan' (Dir. Vikramaditya Motwane)
On the face of it, 'Udaan' could work as a film in any country. It could be the tale of a Mill worker and his son in America for all we know.
That's why 'Udaan' works, it's a story that can be relatable to anyone and has a vested interest in real human emotion and spirit. Yet the film stems from and retains a great Indian rootedness to itself.
'Udaan' is the story of rebellious and poetic Rohan (Rajat Barmecha), who returns from boarding school after eight years to his disciplinarian father Bhairav Singh (Ronit Roy) and discovers his smart but fearful half-brother Arjun. Bhairav curbs Rohan's dreams to become a poet in favor of becoming an engineer and working at his father's factory.
Rohan learns however to be himself and to know that fighting and flying towards his dreams is much more important than being tied down like his father, who has turned into a vicious, old and cold man. The humanity that stems from the film is brilliant.
There's an infectious verve to Rohan and by default Barmecha. The naturalism the film presents around him makes the actual story and feelings authentic enough to engage with.
Roy who maybe playing a one note character is the shining beacon, adding enough of hints and touches to his expressions and body language that one feels he is the example of what Rohan can become, if he doesn't run towards his true from the heart dreams.
'Udaan' is about an India packed between the rural and urban. The small town India that sees dreamers but not achievers because they haven't been allowed to fly free due to generations of patriarchal rules and domination/
Before we get to No. 1, here's a few honorable mentions that just missed the cut; 'Khosla Ka Ghosla', '3 Idiots', 'Gangs of Wasseypur', 'Dhobi Ghat', 'Swades', 'LSD', 'A Wednesday', 'Jab We Met', 'Rang De Basanti', 'Highway', 'Iqbal', 'Ankhon Dekhi', 'Band Baaja Baaraat' and many more...
Once again let me reiterate, the ten films listed aren't the best but a collection of film with different ideas and different pieces that represent the growing facets of Modern Hindi Cinema and a great depiction of the different tastes and people in India.
So here's No. 1...
1. 'The Lunchbox' (Dir. Riteish Batra)
Could there have been any other?
No offense to this sweet and simple tale, but Lunchbox simply gets the top spot by default because most people around the world have probably seen it already. It is in essence a benchmark on the kind of top quality work that Hindi Cinema can produce that works globally.
Sure the world at large loves our song and dance, even the characters in Batra's films do as they swoon to the music of Saajan. Yet this film holds high regard due to its simplicity and very humane nature that makes you connect with any of the characters on screen.
The simple detail and heart put into the film will just win you over, making for one of the most breeziest and soulful romances without being circumspect to a wider outpour of grandeur and mush that many romantic films including even Hollywood ones can be accused of.
At the fore is Batra and his amazing team including his talented actors, especially leading lady Nimrat Kaur giving the finest female performance in recent times.
What more is there to say, except just go watch 'The Lunchbox'. Go watch all ten of these films and more, and be enthralled by the multiple dimensions of Hindi Cinema.
It's not only celebratory song and dance, it's much more.
It's not Bollywood. It's Hindi Cinema.