Hindi cinema, colloquially known as Bollywood, is a film industry that encompasses a wide-ranging list of genres and aesthetics. It can be intimidating for any newcomer to know where to start.
The Hindi film industry is one of the largest in the world, and the Indian film industry as a whole is the largest including films in the Malayalam, Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Gujarati, and Punjabi languages among others. Some filmgoers in the West might have a perception of Bollywood movies—long running times, too many songs, convoluted plots. Granted, some are like that, like any industry, Bollywood has its share of tropes and stereotypes that are actually based on truth.
However, delving into Hindi cinema is a rewarding experience, especially when exploring the works of some of India’s greatest filmmakers. Here is a small sample of what Hindi cinema has to offer.
While she has only made four films, Zoya Akhtar has made a name for herself as a filmmaker who explores the hypocrisies and intricate social structures of the elite. Her films hone in on specific atmospheres—the movie industry in Luck by Chance, a bachelor party vacation for Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a luxurious cruise in Dil Dhadakne Do, and the Mumbai rap scene in Gully Boy—and encourages her characters to deal with their emotions. Her eye for character, sharp dialogue, and mise-en-scène make her an exciting new voice in Hindi filmmaking.
Start with: Dil Dhadakne Do (Let the Heart Beat, 2015)
Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Fans of epic melodramas might take a liking to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Famous for his lavish production design, gorgeous costumes, and elaborate musical numbers, Bhansali is one of India’s most visually striking auteurs. He has scaled back his scope in a few films, some more successful than others. Look to Devdas, Bajirao Mastani, and Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela for his larger than life films or Guzaarish and Black for more down to earth fare. The emotional backbone of his characters does not get lost among the grandeur of his films, however, and he creates memorable experiences that appeal to the senses.
Start with: Devdas (2002)
Yash Chopra made a number of glamorous romances with stunning locations, fabulous stars, and melodious soundtracks. His films like Chandni, Lamhe, Kabhi Kabhie, and Veer Zaara are not just simple love stories, as there is usually an element of subversion or progressiveness within his stories. Chopra has made some hard-hitting social thrillers like Deewar, Trishul, and Kaala Patthar, which take a deep look at injustice and the grey areas of crime and the law. All of his movies are sophisticated, with fleshed-out characters, meticulous visuals, and intelligent screenplays. And from his most romantic escapades to his most serious dramas, Chopra’s movies are entertaining to their very last scene.
Start with: Chandni (1989)
Known for his trailblazing efforts in the Indian indie scene, Kashyap is an exciting filmmaker who experiments with genre, form, and technique. Kashyap’s films are usually shot on location rather than sets, and he often uses guerilla techniques to capture his kinetic style. Some of his best films are gritty crime films with angry characters finding themselves in surreal situations or stories inspired by real life. Even when using low budgets, his films are full of artistic flourishes; exploring the dark side of humanity. His dialogue is sharp and penetrating, the music is often inventive and eclectic, and the performances are unforgettable.
Start with: Bombay Velvet (2015)
Choreographer-turned-filmmaker Farah Khan is famous for her Bollywood pastiche with vibrant colors, pop culture references, entertaining plots, and of course energetic musical numbers. Khan plays with the genre tropes of “masala movies,” i.e. old school Bollywood movies that blend different genres into one movie. Khan often works with Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, and he has a hell of a time with her silly but adorable protagonists. Her movies all promise a good time, being tongue-in-cheek but affectionate parodies of yesteryear Bollywood.
Start with: Om Shanti Om (Peace to All Mankind, 2007)
If you are looking for movies about ordinary people living ordinary lives, Hrishikesh Mukherjee is your guy. His slice of life dramedies are a perfect balm for an angry, real world. Mukherjee is known for “middle cinema,” which explores the trials and tribulations of the middle class. This bridges the gap between glamorous mainstream movies and the “parallel cinema” (art movies) movement. The characters in Mukherjee’s films are extremely relatable, as they get into wacky but mundane situations. He often makes comedies of errors and gentle romantic-comedies, delivering a world of characters who are witty, bright, and loving.
Start with: Khubsoorat (Beautiful, 1980)
Speaking of parallel cinema, one of the leading voices of this cinema movement is the late Bimal Roy. He was known for his stark, realistic social dramas exploring issues affecting Indian citizens, and was particularly inspired by the Italian neo-realist movement. Roy made his film Do Bigha Zameen after watching Bicycle Thieves. Roy did dabble in more mainstream films like the reincarnation-themed romantic mystery Madhumati and the elegant romantic drama Parineeta, but Bimal Roy was an incredibly influential filmmaker whose subtle but impactful aesthetic created a new kind of Bollywood film.
Start with: Do Bigha Zameen (Two Measurements of Land, 1953)
Having made one of the most popular films of all time with Sholay, Ramesh Sippy is an icon of Hindi cinema. His ‘masala” movies are pure entertainment with memorable catchphrases, exciting action scenes, hilarious comic scenes, and foot-tapping music. Sholay is a stunning Western; this is probably the quintessential Bollywood movie with all the best elements. His other films, like the 007 inspired Shaan and the twin-swap comedy Seeta aur Geeta, have endured over the decades. Sippy understood what audiences wanted, and could put in some effective themes and sociopolitical undertones within his mass entertainment cinema.
Start with: Sholay (Embers, 1975)
The Hindi film industry has something for everyone, and this is just a glance of what it has to offer. Hopefully, this guide can help any reader who might be curious about the Hindi film industry.