Movies, movies, movies! Over the course of the last three months, I have watched a truckload of movies (coping mechanism…also a cure for boredom, since I STILL haven’t found a job!!). And about 90 percent of them haven’t been in the English language.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I seem to have resurrected my love for Bollywood. What can I say? There’s just something therapeutic about cheesy Hindi scripts, terrible special effects, and random song & dance numbers that pop up all over every film. (Ha! If you’re unfamiliar with Bollywood, then you’re probably reading this and thinking, “WTF?!” Hang with me, folks.)
Now obviously Bollywood isn’t for everyone, but I genuinely think that every person should have the opportunity to experience a Hindi film at least once in his or her lifetime. It’s an entirely different world of entertainment, and if you’ve grown up only watching movies created by the Western world, you’re missing out! And that, friends, is exactly why I’m writing this. So please allow me, for at least a moment, to indulge in my Indianness (something I rarely ever do!), as I give you a little taste of a completely different brand of entertainment. I even dare you to pick up a copy of at least one (or two…or three…) of the movies that I am about to discuss. (And yes, they do come with English subtitles!) Who knows? You might even discover a new hobby.
Now before we dive right into this, let me mention that I’ve chosen a very specific focus for my suggested movie list: Amitabh Bachchan, who, according to IMDb, is “[a]rguably India’s greatest ever superstar.” Now the haters will hate, but he is and will always be my personal favorite (along with Vinod Khanna and Govinda). I’ve organized this list with those of you in mind who perhaps have never seen anything Bollywood or anything with Amitabh Bachchan; by watching the films in this order, I feel you’ll get a pretty good overview of this branch of India’s film industry and of Mr. Bachchan’s overall talent and style.
So…are you ready? Well, even if you’re not, here we go!
1. Deewaar (1975): Look up just about any online biography of Amitabh Bachchan, and the term “Angry Young Man” will surely come up. He earned this nickname during his rise to stardom (which began around 1972), and if you watch Deewaar, you’ll quickly see why. The film tells the story of a poor woman (Nirupa Roy) and her two sons (Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor) who just can’t seem to catch a break. Life only seems to throw curve balls at them, and as a result, Vijay (Bachchan) builds an emotional wall (a “deewaar”) around himself. What results next is a life of smuggling and treachery, until a certain, highly motivated police officer decides to put an end to Vijay’s crimes. What’s the catch? The police officer is none other than Ravi, Vijay’s younger brother.
Lots of family drama, excellent chemistry between cast members, and perhaps one of the best—if not the best—emotional performances I’ve ever seen from Amitabh. If you’ve never experienced an Amitabh Bachchan film before, this is an excellent place to start.
2. Don (1978): A common motif that occurred in Bollywood films, especially throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, was this notion of having the lead actor/actress play a double (or even triple) role. This trend occurred quite frequently in Amitabh’s career, and Don showcases his ability to play two significantly different characters within the same film. The beginning of the movie gives off some very James Bond-esque vibes, in which Bachchan nails his performance as the suit wearing, smooth-talking, able-to-get-himself-out-of-any-sticky-situation Don. Then there’s Vijay (also played by Bachchan). Aside from his physical appearance, Vijay shares absolutely nothing in common with Don; he’s hilariously loud, has a paan addiction (beetle-leaf…similar to chewing tobacco), and is somewhat naïve, and all he really wants is to live a happy, quiet life with his adopted niece and nephew. The character of Vijay allows viewers to experience Amitabh’s comedic side, which, in my personal and humble opinion, is better than his angry side!
Also, what’s not to love about Zeenat Aman’s character in this film? If Bachchan is the “Angry Young Man,” then Zeenat, at least in this film, is the “Angry Young Woman.” Unlike most female leads during this time who typically adopted the whole “damsel in distress” persona, Zeenat portrays a feisty, revenge-hungry young woman who totally kicks ass. And I mean that literally – she actually fights in this movie!
The film does has a number of continuity issues and can be extremely cheesy at times (but a. that’s typical of Bollywood and b. we are talking about the 1970s here). But if you can get past that, you’ll most likely really enjoy Don.
3. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977): So you got a taste of Amitabh’s comedic side in Don; now prepare to see his sense of humor taken to an entirely new level as “Anthony! Anthony Gonsalves!” Amar Akbar Anthony tells the story of three brothers who get separated during their childhood and thus end up pursuing three distinctly different lifestyles. Amar (Vinod Khanna), raised by a Hindu police commissioner, follows in the footsteps of his adoptive father and becomes a police inspector; Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), who is brought up by a Muslim tailor master, pursues a career as a Qawwali performer; and Anthony (Bachchan) grows up to become…well, Anthony. Raised by a Christian priest, the arrogant, good-for-nothing town misfit spends his time selling alcohol, getting into brawls, and then repenting for his sins at church. Oh, and of course, chasing after Jenny (Parveen Babi), his love interest.
As Anthony, Bachchan completely disowns his “Angry Young Man” persona and fully steps into the shoes of a comedian. And he plays the part to absolute perfection! While other characters carry the main plot and evoke a variety of emotions from the viewer, Anthony will without a doubt have you falling out of your seat with laughter.
And the music! Oh, the music! How do I even begin to express my infinite love towards this masterful soundtrack? You’ll hear everything from classic Qawwali to the humorous jazz—or at least, a 1977 Indian interpretation of jazz—piece, “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves,” where Amitabh, dressed in the classiest tux you ever saw, pops out of a giant Easter egg (all with the intention of impressing his lady love). You think I’m kidding? I’m not. Here…proof:
The film does have a few rather prominent downsides, and I’m not simply addressing its overall cheesiness (which, again, is typical of Bollywood in the 1970s). For instance, the writers did a terrible job covering up their bias towards Hinduism. Hmm…or maybe that’s entirely the point. I understand that the film is Indian, but my issue is: if you’re going to include other religions (in this case, Islam and Christianity), please do your homework and portray those religions respectfully and with at least some level of accuracy. ‘Cause in this case, you clearly didn’t. Viewers and critics would most likely agree that Anthony is the most memorable character in the entire film, but I have to be honest: his overall portrayal of a Christian is a slap in the face to any real Christian. One can say the same about Akbar’s portrayal of a Muslim. So, writers, while I love your work on the whole, you get, at most, a D for your efforts—or lack thereof—on the whole religion issue!
Regardless, though, if I were to arrange this list by favorite films, Amar Akbar Anthony would undoubtedly be at the very top. Cheesiness and lack of research put aside, this is the biggest and the best of ‘70s Bollywood and an absolute must watch!
4. Parvarish (1977): They’re baaack! And by “they” I mean Amitabh and Vinod Khanna. If you loved them in Amar Akbar Anthony, you’ll love them again in Parvarish. In fact, I recommend that you watch this film right after you watch Amar Akbar Anthony, as it almost feels like a sequel. Since it was made in the same year (although, I’m not sure which one came first) and because it features so many of the same cast members (Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Shabana Azmi, Neetu Sing, etc.), it gives off some very similar vibes.
The story is about two boys, unrelated by blood but raised as brothers, who grow up and follow two different lifestyles: Kishan (Khanna) immerses himself in a life of crime while Amit (Bachchan) joins the police force. A comedic cat and mouse chase ensues as Amit tries to expose and take down his brother, and along the way, the boys discover some life-altering family secrets.
Now I have to be honest: as much as I adore Amitabh, I primarily watched Parvarish because of Vinod Khanna. While Amitabh’s performance is noteworthy, Vinod completely outshines him. Plus, Vinod Khanna is eye candy. Ahem. (What? I know you’re thinking it, too! K, fine, maybe you weren’t.) But seriously, who can resist that boyish charm? And when he puts on his fabulously famous aviators? YUM-to-the-MY! All that to say, watch this movie! Or at least watch this song, “Hum Premi Prem Karne Janen”:
5. Shaan (1980): Lies, deceit, trickery, and thievery – Shaan explores all of these themes and features a pairing we’ve seen before: Amitabh and Shashi Kapoor. We saw them as brothers in Deewaar, and we’ll see them again as brothers in this film. Except this time, they’re on the same team; and this time, they’ve got their romantic interests (Parveen Babi and Bindya Goswami) working with them!
In addition, you get the pleasure of experiencing the merciless wickedness of the film’s antagonist, Shakal (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda). I can’t decide if it’s the bald head or his downright meanness, but he kind of reminds me of an Indian version of Lex Luthor. Totally badass!
6. Kaalia (1981): Speaking of totally badass…Kaalia! Bachchan exudes fearlessness and charm in this action-packed tale about Kallu, a once innocent small-town civilian whose brother’s untimely death turns Kallu into Kaalia: a bitter, anger-driven—but-oh-so-smooth!— felon whose lust for revenge causes him to indulge in a variety of crimes that get bigger and more complicated by the hour. What makes this film particularly clever is the fact that the protagonist repeatedly displays some highly antagonistic characteristics (he’s always on a mission to kill, steal, and destroy), making him a complex and multifaceted character. And Amitabh delivers an absolutely flawless performance; he’s so smooth and alluring that you can’t help but root for him—even when he’s flat out wrong.
Also worth mentioning is the stunning performance of Parveen Babi. Much like Zeenat Aman in Don (in fact, Parveen is often referred to as “a poor man’s Zeenat Aman”) Parveen is strong, independent, and uncompromisingly determined. She depicts a sneaky, go-getting woman who, at one point, even outsmarts Kaalia (which, of course, makes her the perfect romantic match for our bad boy). Furthermore, she brings to the table a brand of humor that surpasses the comedic abilities of most other female leads from her time. In short, Parveen is the best of the best—the cream of the crop—and she demonstrates that perfectly with her performance in Kaalia. And lastly, as you might remember from Amar Akbar Anthony, the chemistry between Parveen and Amitabh is always electric, and this film unarguably confirms that.
7. Do Aur Do Paanch (1980): I’ve noticed something about Amitabh Bachchan: if you make it onto his “favorite people to work with” list, he’ll hold on to you the same way glue holds to paper. Parveen Babi, Shashi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Kader Khan, and others he’s previously worked with join him in this laugh-till-your-stomach-hurts comedy about two soft-hearted thieves (Bachchan and Kapoor) who continuously demolish one another’s schemes by showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time. The two face all kinds of complications this time around, as they attempt to execute an elaborate kidnapping at a local boarding school by posing as teachers (Bachchan as the P.E. teacher and Kapoor as the music teacher). But are they smart enough to pull off such an intricate crime? And can they do it without killing each other?
At times, the film strays from its comedic style, making it feel a bit long and melodramatic, but overall, it’s a delightful story with a good lesson at the end. Again, if you enjoy Bachchan’s brand of comedy, you’ll definitely get a kick out of Do Aur Do Paanch.
8. Satte Pe Satta (1982): If Amar Akbar Anthony is no. 1 on my favorites list, then Satte Pe Satta earns the no. 2 slot. Much like Amar Akbar Anthony, some of my earliest childhood memories involve watching (or quoting) this film, so it’s been an all-time favorite for as long as I can remember. But let’s put aside all the sentimentalism and discuss the specifics of this Bollywood masterpiece.
The story begins with Ravi (Bachchan) and his six orphaned brothers (played by a number of familiar faces, including Shakti Kapoor and Sudhir). Together, the seven of them maintain a simple but happy life on their family’s farm. Having grown up without parents, however, these young men—their oldest brother included—lack basic manners and have extremely poor hygiene and thus often find themselves in a variety of embarrassing situations. So once again, viewers have the opportunity to experience Amitabh’s shameless sense of humor. And let me be the first to tell you: he’s absolutely priceless!
As the plot thickens, though, viewers are introduced to Babu (also played by Bachchan), the criminal without a conscience who is sent by the film’s main antagonist (Amjad Khan’s character) to impersonate Ravi. [Where is Ravi while all of this happening? Why does he even need an impersonator? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out!] Babu is everything that Ravi isn’t: serious, sinister, and sometimes flat out robotic. And strictly speaking of the character itself, Babu is unlike any of the roles Bachchan has played before. But through his use of subtly and precision, Bachchan delivers an impeccable performance that will have you laughing one minute and holding your breath the next. He is, to sum it up, simply marvelous.
The film also features the breathtakingly beautiful Hema Malini, who plays Ravi’s wife. Her character’s strength, determination, and wisdom consistently keep the large family in line. She’s practical, too; she cooks, cleans, maintains the house, offers advice and encouragement to her husband, and constantly keeps her six hooligans—a.k.a. brothers-in-law—from getting into trouble. (Think of her as a prettier, stronger, and far less annoying version of Disney’s Snow White!) Oh, and did I mention that she sings? That’s right, she sings! But where’s the fun in merely mentioning it? Here’s a little sample:
With a first-class ensemble cast, an excellent soundtrack, and another double role by Mr. Bachchan, Satte Pe Satta has all the necessary ingredients for a top-notch Bollywood comedy, and that’s precisely what I’d call it.
9. Desh Premee (1982): Well, by now I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of Bollywood films revolve around the subject of family. Desh Premee is certainly no exception. However, politics and patriotism are also important themes that appear in this film. Bachchan—again taking on a double role—begins by playing a freedom fighter who helps lead India to its freedom against the British in 1947. As a result, he becomes somewhat of a local icon but ultimately chooses to lead a quiet and humble life as a school teacher. His son Raju, on the other hand (also played by Bachchan), is a money-hungry con-artist who couldn’t care less about his father’s idealistic dreams and commitment to morality and thus spends his time sneaking around, behind his father’s back, engaging himself in crimes that continuously grow bigger and bigger and land him in heaps of trouble.
I have to admit, it is a bit strange and a little—or maybe extremely—cheesy to see Amitabh as the father and the son, but the man is so talented it somehow just works. Or maybe I’m just biased. Who knows? Whatever the case, Desh Premee includes enjoyable performances from a variety of other talents—Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Parveen Babi, Prem Chopra, and Amjad Khan—and when all is said and done, the film provides an important moral lesson, making it well-worth the watch.
10. Khud-Daar (1982): So 1982 was apparently a good year for A.B., because as you can see, this is the third ‘82 film I’ve mentioned. Another family-themed flick, Khud-Daar recounts the story of three parentless brothers, Hari (Sanjeev Kumar), Govind (Amitabh Bachchan), and Rajesh (Vinod Mehra), who complete each others’ worlds. However, a series of misfortunate incidents cause Govind and Rajesh to become separated from Hari (this becomes the primary conflict of the movie). The boys eventually find shelter and solace from a Muslim family in a nearby town but remain separated from their brother. Govind grows up and becomes a taxi driver, and it’s through his hard work and financial support that Rajesh is able to attend college.
The film involves all kinds of drama, but I won’t waste your time with a detailed plot summary, because frankly, the overall story isn’t my favorite. It’s predictable and clichéd, but somehow, Bachchan still manages to deliver an absolutely captivating performance. Once again, he dons the “Angry Young Man” garb, but this time there’s a different level of maturity and sadness in him that we didn’t see in films like Don or Deewaar. There’s a particular scene between Govind and Rajesh where Govind, overwhelmed by his brother’s success in school and work, makes a passionate speech to Rajesh about working hard and pursuing one’s dreams. Tears fill those big brown eyes, and his voice trembles with so much conviction and passion that the viewer is left in complete awe. Or at least I was. At that point, you can’t help but ask yourself: is there anything this guy can’t do?
But, of course, an Amitabh Bachchan film wouldn’t really be an Amitabh Bachchan film if it didn’t feature at least one super-silly musical number. And that’s precisely where “Angre Mein Kehte Hain” comes in:
And the humor certainly doesn’t stop there. The beautiful Parveen Babi joins Amitabh once again, this time as con-artist and ‘smuggler’ or sorts, and she manages to outsmart Amitabh on at least a couple of different occasions. Their relationship is a little more “love-hate” in this movie, but the chemistry is just as phenomenal as ever! As a major fan of the Parveen/Amitabh pairing, I’ve watched this film over and over again – solely for their sakes. They make it totally worth it!
11. Hum (1991): Bollywood took a significant turn during the ‘90s. And the same is true about Amitabh Bachchan’s career. For a while (mid ‘80s) he flat out abandoned his acting career and entered the world of politics. I have to commend him for his boldness, but unfortunately, his success in Parliament was severely limited. After that he attempted to revive his film career, but surprisingly, that didn’t work out quite as well as he—or everyone else, for that matter—had hoped or expected. Of course, by this point, Bachchan had reached his fifties, so he couldn’t exactly play the lead male heart throb anymore. And on top of that, fresh faces like Govinda, Salman Khan, and Shahrukh Khan were literally creating a new prototype for the Bollywood “hero,” a prototype that differed quite significantly from the prototype created by, say, Amitabh, Vinod Khanna, or Rishi Kapoor.
Even so, Amitabh found some success during the‘90s, and Hum is an illustration of that success. The film addresses issues such as corruption within Indian’s law enforcement system, the mistreatment of union workers, and the influence of the Western world on the Eastern world. It also features significant performances by old favorites, such as Bachchan and Kader Khan, as well as up and coming acts like Govinda. I wouldn’t consider this one of Bachchan’s best films, but his performance is still memorable, and it’s fun to watch him adapt to “newer Bollywood.” And even at the age of 49, the man can dance! That’s got to count for something, right?
12. Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998): Okay, if you think his dancing was fan-freakin-tastic in Hum, just wait till you see him Bade Miyan Chote Miyan!
Paired up with Govinda in this action-packed comedy about mistaken identities, Bachchan gives you one of his absolute funniest performances yet. Twice! That’s right, he’s back in his element, doing comedy and doing a double role, and this time Govinda is right beside him. Both of them will give your abs a definite workout, as the laughter is without a doubt non-stop in this film. My only complaint about the Govinda-Amit pairing is that they didn’t do enough films together! This and Hum were their only times working together, and my question is: WHY!?! I’ve seriously never understood that one.
Anyway, Bade Miyan Chote Miyan has everything a successful Bollywood film should have: a deliciously cheesy plot, several ridiculous stunts and fight scenes, crazy and colorful costumes, witty and hilarious dialogues, and a high-energy, guaranteed-to-get-stuck-in-your-head (in a good way) soundtrack. Oh! And a very special appearance by the lovely Madhuri Dixit:
All in all, this one’s a must-see!
13. Veer-Zaara (2004): Now before I make any specific comments about Veer-Zaara, let me make the following confession: I am not a fan of Shahrukh Khan. It’s true. Of course, if you’re new to Bollywood, then this means absolutely nothing to you. And that’s perfectly fine. All you really need to know is that Shahrukh is the main protagonist of this movie…which then brings up the following question: why did I even bother to watch it? And furthermore, why is it on my list of fifteen favorite Amitabh Bachchan flicks? The answer’s quite simple, really. He and Hema Malini make a very special appearance, and that, in my opinion, makes the whole movie completely worth it. Amitabh is just as silly and entertaining as ever, and Hema hasn’t lost a single ounce of her beauty or charm. Take a look:
But you know, in all honestly, even if Hema and Amitabh weren’t in this, I’d still give the film a solid B. For starters, it has some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen—and I’m not merely talking about what I’ve seen from Bollywood. Next, the story is more unique than most of the films I’ve mentioned thus far, as it addresses issues like women’s rights and the on-going political struggle between Pakistan and India. And both Shahrukh and Preity Zinta (the film’s female lead) deliver wonderfully moving performances, making Veer-Zaara a highly enjoyable movie experience. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised!
14. Baghban (2003): So, if at this point you still find yourself doubting Amitabh Bachchan’s label as Bollywood’s all-time biggest megastar, let Baghban be the film that disperses all your doubts. In this family-related drama, Bachchan once again joins forces with the legendary Hema Malini, and together, they provide a gut-wrenchingly beautiful performance that will literally leave you in tears. I’m dead serious. It takes a lot to get me to cry during a film, but I’ll be the first to admit that my tears were unstoppable when I watched Baghban.
And can I just mention how refreshing it is to see Amitabh and Hema back in their rightful places, as the main characters of this film? With so many new and younger acts that have taken over the Indian film industry, there aren’t too many instances nowadays where the “old timers” get a chance to step onto the frontlines. But I suppose when you have two legends, as is the case here, the frontline is the only suitable place to put them. And take my word for it: they do not disappoint! In fact, I would even argue that their chemistry and overall performance together is more vibrant and moving in this film than it was during the ‘70s and ‘80s. To put it simply, Amitabh and Hema will blow you away.
15. Aladin (2009): Ahh…and finally, we have Aladin. Ok, if you’re a fan of Disney’s Aladdin, I know what you’re probably thinking: “Oh, no! Bollywood ruined the story of Aladdin!” Well, I have two things to say to you: first, it’s actually Disney that ruined the story of Aladdin, and if you’re not willing to take my word for it, then go ahead and get your hands on a copy of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. Second, let me be completely upfront with you and tell you right now that this movie isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re crazy enough to make it through my entire list of favorite Amitabh Bachchan films (or if you’re already an Amitabh Bachchan fan), then Aladin is the perfect conclusion movie to this suggested marathon.
As one might expect, the writers did take a serious amount of artistic license in terms of the overall execution of the plot. It differs from the original written tale and differs even more significantly from the Disney adaptation. In this version, you might even argue that the story revolves more heavily around Genius the genie (Bachchan) than it does around Aladin (Ritesh Deshmukh) and/or Jasmine (Jaqueline Fernandes). But, again, if you’re an Amitabh Bachchan fan, trust me, you won’t have any complaints.
Sprinkled throughout the movie are a number of allusions to Amitji’s previous works. You’ll hear or see things from Amar Akbar Anthony, Khud-Daar, Desh Premee, Don, Mahaan, and many other movies. So, in a sense, you have to be somewhat familiar with at least a few of his past films in order to really “get” this one. But I say that with some level of hesitation. Because even if you haven’t seen a single Amitabh Bachchan film in your life, this movie has much to offer and is targeted at a wide range of audiences. It has a little something for everyone: outstanding special effects (which is not something you see very often in Hindi cinema!), an excellent script, fun and lovable characters, brilliant performances by a couple of familiar faces (Bachchan as Genius and Sunjay Dutt as The Ringmaster), and an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. Despite the fact that it’s last on my list, if you’ve never seen a Bollywood film before, this might just be the perfect place to start.
Here’s a little snippet of Genius doing his thing:
So there you have it, folks – my personal evaluations of what I consider to be the fifteen best films of Bollywood’s biggest star. If you’re actually still reading, I tip my hat to you. Well done! Or as they would say in Hindi: “Shabash!” The fact that you’re still here is, in and of itself, quite an accomplishment, and you deserve a reward of some sort. My suggestion? Go watch one of these films. And then tell me what you think!