Bollywood is the most prolific film industry on the planet, releasing around 1000 films a year compared to Hollywood’s 500. In 2017, it’s flourishing domestically, thanks to growing audiences and the explosion in multiplexes, and as awareness grows, internationally too.
‘Bollywood’ is shorthand for Hindi-language cinema. Around for over a century, it’s one of India’s thriving film industries in myriad tongues including Tamil (Kollywood), Bengali (Tollywood), Malayalam (Mollywood), Kannada (Sandalwood), Telugu (Tollywood) and Punjabi.
Today, alongside all-singing, all-dancing family-friendly blockbusters, Bollywood also encompasses films tackling hard-hitting issues, as well as edgy independent movies.
Songs remain key to ‘super hit’ films. Beyond the box office, the barometer of a film’s success is whether songs are whistled by rickshaw wallahs, sung by taxi drivers, looped in malls and used as ringtones.
‘Filmi songs’ have been a feature of Hindi cinema since it moved from the silent era to the talkies in the 1930s. The role of contemporary composers such as duo Vishal-Shekhar (who perform at Alchemy on Saturday 27 May) and Oscar-winner AR Rahman (who played Alchemy in 2010) is as vital as ever.
Mother India (1957); director Mehboob Khan
Released a decade after India achieved independence, Mother India has elements of a Soviet nation-building film, lionising the gruelling work of peasant farmers and the sacrifice of a mother in the face of wretched luck and injustice.
Radha (Nargis), who symbolizes India, single-handedly and stoically raises two sons when her husband leaves after losing his arms in a farming accident. She also has to fight off a cruel, lecherous money lender, and keep a rein on tearaway son Birju (Sunil Dutt).
Mother India features motifs which recur in Bollywood today, including tear-jerking melodrama and humour, song and dance, and in 1958 was the first Hindi film to be nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar.
Guide (1965); director Vijay Anan
Guide is the story of unhappily married ex-dancer Rosie (Waheeda Rehman). She joins her archaeologist husband on a tour where she falls in love with the guide, Raju (Dev Anand). They move in together, and Raju encourages Rosie to pursue dancing. She becomes a renowned dancer, but his drinking and gambling takes its toll.
Guide’s portrayal of an affair and an unhappy wife leaving her husband is a classic from Hindi cinema’s 1950s and 1960s golden age. Its exquisite songs, drawing on poetry, are sung by revered playback singers Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Kumar and Mangeshkar would become the go-to duo for filmi love songs in decades to come.
Sholay (1975); director Ramesh Sippy
This masala western consistently tops Bollywood film polls and is akin to Star Wars in the way it captivates generation after generation.
Convicts with hearts of gold Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) are enlisted by retired police officer Thakur to capture malevolent bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Singh) alive.
It’s a revenge action film, incorporating romance – eclipsed by Veeru and Jai’s bromance – laugh-out-loud comedy, sensational shoot-outs, memorable songs, a tension-ratcheting score and a weepy ending.
Sholay confirmed the arrival of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, yet despite his magnetic screen presence, Amjad Khan’s sinister super-baddie Gabbar Singh steals the show. Who would win in a fight between Gabbar Singh and Darth Vader is a debate for the ages.
Mr India (1987); director Shekhar Kapur
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, who would scoop a Best Film BAFTA for Elizabeth (1998), Mr India is a rare Bollywood superhero meets sci-fi film.
Big-hearted Arun (Anil Kapoor of Slumdog Millionaire and 24 fame) uses his dead scientist father’s invisibility potion to defeat evil wannabe Emperor of India Mogambo (Amrish Puri, the villain in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom). Meanwhile, journalist Seema (the magnetic Sri Devi) smells a story and falls for the invisible Mr India, which makes for unusual song and dance sequences.
In an era of macho, violent action films, Mr India channels Christopher Reeve-era Superman’s patriotism and elements of Bond (Mogambo’s lair). It strikes a feel-good, outlandish note, with Mogambo becoming an iconic Bollywood baddie.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1994); director Aditya Chopra
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge tells the story of brat Raj (Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood) who’s studying in Britain, and goody two-shoes Simran (Kajol).
Raj bumps into Simran when she’s holidaying in Europe before her arranged marriage, and they tumble head over heels in love in the Swiss mountains. During Simran’s wedding preparations in Punjab, Raj tries to win over Simran’s family and prove that bravery and being true to your heart can conquer all.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is arguably the most OTT romance of the lovestruck 1990s and has an earnest innocence long gone in contemporary Bollywood. Its songs have endured, ensuring its hold on India’s affections is as strong as ever – no Hindi-speaking wedding is complete without ‘Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna’.
Lagaan (2001); director Ashutosh Gowariker
A historical sports drama set in colonial India, Lagaan struggled to get made before successful actor Aamir Khan took a leap towards superstardom by taking it on. In doing so, he carved a niche for alternative family-friendly blockbusters with a message.
In 1890s India, a village is struggling to pay taxes (lagaan) levied by British administrators when a colonial officer challenges Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, the tax is cancelled, and so a rag-tag bunch, symbolising India’s diversity, come together, learn the rules, train and take on Goliath.
Lagaan broke the mould, garnering international acclaim – it’s the third Hindi film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Films Oscar – and its box office success demonstrated that audiences were hungry for quirkier films.
Om Shanti Om (2007); director Farah Khan
A rarity in that’s it’s directed by a woman, Om Shanti Om is a gloriously trippy homage to Bollywood – think Baz Luhrmann on acid. It brims with in-jokes, knowing references to classic films, and cameos galore.
It begins in the 1970s, with wannabe actor Om (Shah Rukh) determined to make it and win the heart of superstar actor Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone). The two die in a fire, but 30 years later it seems they have been reincarnated as actors Om Kapoor and Sandy.
The plot’s largely incidental to this dazzling celebration of Bollywood, which features a pitch-perfect soundtrack from Vishal-Shekhar.
Indeed, the most anticipated song of their Alchemy show is likely to be Om Shanti Om’s addictive ‘Deewangi Deewangi’, which features over 30 Bollywood stars, from the 1970s to the present, having a boogie.
3 Idiots (2009); director Rajkumar Hirani
This crowd-pleasing Aamir Khan comedy follows two friends as they look back on their college days at India’s top engineering university. They remember third amigo, Rancho (Aamir Khan), the free-thinking rebel who challenged authority, questioned lecturers and showed there’s more to life than acing your exams and joining the rat race.
It might be slapstick, but it deftly addresses middle-class India’s obsession with excelling in education and the intense pressure-cooker environment it places on young Indians.
These themes struck a chord in East Asia, particularly China, making 3 Idiots a rare example of a Bollywood film which has crossed over the border. It performed spectacularly domestically and among the diaspora, making it one of the top ten highest grossing Bollywood movies of all time.
Gangs of Wasseypur Part One (2012); director: Anurag Kashyap
The opening film in Anurag Kashyap’s two-part epic gangster saga illustrates how much Bollywood’s evolved in recent years. Set in a small town in Jharkhand, it’s a gripping, twisting tale of racketeering, family feuds, revenge and political corruption, based around the coal industry.
Enfant terrible Kashyap, in a nod to The Godfather and Tarantino, liberally spatters his breathtaking canvas of the north-east outback with blood. This gruesome, guttural and bawdy film delights in being everything mainstream Bollywood is not.
Gangs of Wasseypur’s effervescent score and use of lusty folk songs add to its febrile energy. The performance of Manoj Bajpai as gangster don Sardar Khan is especially striking, as is the film’s use of strong female characters.
Sultan (2016), director Ali Abbas Zafar
It’s impossible to have a Top 10 without a Salman Khan film – alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, ‘Salman bhai’ is the most bankable actor in present-day Bollywood.
Salman’s niche is uncomplicated ‘common man’ films and Sultan is the Rocky-esque story of a middle-aged wrestler who’s lost his way, and the love of his life Aarfa (Anushka Sharma). He hits the comeback trail to win her back.
A classic underdog story, Sultan is one of the highest grossing Bollywood films of all time. It features a zingy soundtrack by Vishal-Shekhar, with hit songs including ‘Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai’ (Baby loves bass) and the rousing rock of title song ‘Sultan’, which features an inspirational training montage of Sultan outrunning trains and pulling tractors.