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A new project has crossed my desk, one which will require me to familiarize myself with the Bollywood musical, a genre which with I am utterly unfamiliar. And so I turn to you, my hip, multiculturally-saturated readers, to educate me. What are the landmarks of the genre, the key works, the inarguable masterpieces? Who are the undisputed masters, whose filmography is unmissable, which stars express the purest expression of the form? As James Cameron is to action movies, as John Ford is to westerns, as Vincent Minnelli is to musicals, who best represents Bollywood?

I thank you in advance.


31 Responses to “Query”
  1. moroccomole says:

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen it, but I’ve always heard the Bollywood movie to start with should be God is My Witness.


  2. yesdrizella says:

    I’m afraid I’ve never seen any Bollywood films, but this might be a good primer for notable actors and films:


    Also, I’ve heard great things about Kal Ho Naa Ho. And Lagaan was nominated for Best Foreign Film.

    And I just noticed Lagaan is already on the list in the first link. Here’s another one I’ve seen people raving about:


  3. Second the rec for Kal Ho Naa Ho. Also, Main Hoon Na is one of the funniest (if longest!) films I’ve ever seen.

  4. quitwriting says:

    All I can tell you is that they do horrible, horrible, god-awful things to my Super-heroes. Google Bollywood + any of your reasonably well-known super heroes (Batman comes to mind, as does Spiderman and Superman). *sigh*

  5. musicpsych says:

    Is this because of Slumdog? 🙂

    I’ve only seen a few myself… Khabi Kushi Khabie Ghan, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a few others whose titles I can’t remember… I just remember they had long running times, large and colorful musical numbers, and strong family themes.

    Some other titles one of my friends suggested to me at one time: Aankhen, Devdas, Diwale Dulhanie Le Jayenge, Mission Kashmir, Lagaan, Raju Chacha, and Rangeela. I don’t know how “culturally significant” these are, it was just that she was a fan of these.

    • Todd says:

      Is this because of Slumdog?

      Ironically, no. And when I brought it up in the meeting, they sounded kind of confused, as though they had never really made a connection between their project and Slumdog. Maybe because the company happens to be Indian, and Slumdog isn’t really an Indian movie.

  6. i personally enjoy Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai.

  7. urbaniak says:

    My wife watched a lot of them back in the day and was quite a fan of Amitabh Bachchan, who incidentally is portrayed (not by himself) in “Slumdog Millionaire.” I’ll have her get back to you.

  8. I dunno…

    But for the movie that helped a fictional character win 2 crore rupees, try Zanjeer…

  9. black13 says:

    From what I gather, the two actors to look for are Sharukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee.

    Beyond that, it seems that Bollywood is doing every genre under the sun, so take your pick.

    Personally, I liked Hum Tum (comedy romance) and Dhoom (actionthriller, which I can easily see remade with Jeff Goldblum and Antonio Banderas — watch it and you’ll know why). Dhund, a Bollywood attempt at a slasher/horror movie, was simply laughable.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hindi Films

    From an Indian Scriptwriter

    Hi Todd, hope these will help.

    All-time greats:

    1. Dilip Kumar
    (his best film ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is a classic of Hindi cinema; other films include ‘Naya Daur’, ‘Gunga Jamuna’, ‘Shakti’ and ‘Mashaal’; Shakti co-stars Amitabh Bachchan too, a landmark casting, and Mashaal co-stars Anil Kapoor of SM).
    He is the greatest Indian actor and Amitabh Bachchan’s inspiration.

    2. Amitabh Bachchan
    The planet’s most popular film star.
    His best films are ‘Sholay’ (based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai’, and the most popular Indian film ever), ‘Deewar’, ‘Kabhie Kabhie’, ‘Don’, ‘Anand’, ‘Dev’, ‘Nishabd’…

    3. Raj Kapoor
    A legend of the B&W era. Very popular in Russia.
    His best films are ‘Shri 420’, ‘Awaara’, ‘Anari’

    All-time great heroines:

    1. Madhubala (the most beautiful Indian film heroine)
    Her best films: ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, Mr&Mrs 55′, ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gadi’…

    2. Meena Kumari
    Her best films: ‘Pakeezah’, ‘Sahab, Bibi Aur Ghulam’…

    3. Waheeda Rehman
    (the muse of the classic filmmaker Guru Dutt who committed suicide)
    Her best films: Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaundhvi Ka Chand…

    4. Rekha
    (the diva of Hindi cinema)
    Her best films: Umrao Jaan, Ijaazat, Khoobsurat..

    5. Sridevi
    Chandni, Sadma, Mr India (directed by Shekhar Kapur of ‘Elizabeth’)…

    6. Madhuri Dixit
    Tezaab (with Anil Kapoor), Prahaar, Hum Aapke Hain Kaon..

    Now, the greats of Art Cinema:

    1. Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding)
    2. Om Puri
    3. Shabana Azmi
    4. Smita Patil

    Non-Hindi Megastars:

    1. Rajnikanth (the Japanese are crazy about him)
    2. Kamal Haasan
    3. Mohan Lal
    4. Mamootty

    The Current Lot:

    1. Shah Rukh Khan (‘King of Bollywood’)
    2. Aamir Khan
    3. Akshay Kumar
    4. Hrithik Roshan
    5. Salman Khan
    6. Saif Ali Khan (could be the next James Bond)
    7. Abhishek Bachchan

    The current top ladies:

    1. Kareena Kapoor
    2. Aishwarya Rai
    3. Katrina Kaif
    4. Bipasha Basu

    The next generation of stars:
    1. Ranbir Kapoor
    2. Imran Khan
    3. Deepika Padukone
    4. Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil Kapoor)

    The alternative cinema’s top:
    1. Abhay Deol
    2. Farhan Akhtar
    3. Rahul Bose

    Some contemporary films to see:

    Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Honeymoon Travels, Rock On, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Ek Chaalis Ki Last Local, Ghajini, Delhi-6, Luck By Chance, Rang De Basanti, Cheeni Kum, Monsoon Wedding, Hum Tum, Johnny Gaddar, Ek Hasina Thi, Jodha Akbar, Dil Se, Roja, Rangeela…

    Films a million times better than Slumdog Millionaire:

    Black Friday (a modern classic)

    This is not at all exhaustive. Lots and lots of missed things.

    -Indian Scriptwriter

  11. Anonymous says:

    MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks

    From Indian Scriptwriter

    This is to clarify the term ‘Bollywood Musical’.

    Almost 99% of Hindi films are musicals. But these musicals are different from what you in Hollywood think of as musicals. A song in a Hollywood musical (Chicago, Dreamgirls) is part of the narrative, it helps the story move forward. Whereas in Bollywood, most of the times a song is a self-contained entity. It does not have ANY link to the narrative. It just happens for its own sake. One moment the hero and heroine are flirting in Mumbai, the next moment they are singing in the Alps! The jump is jarring for non-Indians but for people from the subcontinent, it is almost a visceral truth. (Of course, there is some minimum finesse required on part of the filmmakers to pull this off successfully).
    So if you are writing a Bollywood ‘musical’, you should keep this distinction in mind. This is the most important thing.

    Hope this helps.

    -Indian Scriptwriter

    • voiceofisaac says:

      Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks

      I have a question about the use of the musical number, actually.

      Once upon a time, I was a theatre major in college, and it was explained to us by our professor that musical numbers were generally meant to be an exaggerated explanation of a heightened emotional state of the characters. Reality takes a back seat as the character’s inner self is revealed to the audience, and then the song ends and reality snaps back into focus.

      Admittedly, I’ve only seen one Bollywood film so far, Dhoom 2, but the above explanation was *exactly* how Dhoom 2 seemed to play it. This implied to me that western musicals and Bollywood musicals still pull from the same basic roots, even if the stylistics have evolved differently. Would you agree with this, or is Dhoom 2 an anomaly that’s giving me the wrong impression?

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks


        What you are saying may be true in cases. Let me explain my point in another way.
        When I see a Hollywood musical, I distinctly get the feeling of watching an opera. An interrupted opera of sorts, filled with non-singing parts.
        In Hindi films, songs are more like situational music videos. A diversion for the audience to take a cigarette or loo break. They don’t miss important stuff when they go out during a song. In Hollywood musicals, important narrative information is supplied during a song. Taking a loo break is not advisable then.
        But there are Hindi films where songs do advance the plot, but generally the filmmakers don’t take the pains to construct songs like that. An Indian audience watching a Hollywood musical may complain that they are watching filmised theatre/opera. That kind of ‘musicals’ don’t work for Indian audiences. The Indian audiences don’t want characters to SING OUT important narrative points. They want these in ‘real-time’, in non-singing portions. Songs are just meant to be diversions, digressions.
        This is how it works: audience is getting restless, let’s take the story to a disco now. So we have a song in the disco. The audience is getting bored again, let’s take the story to a boisterous wedding. Result: a song in the marriage hall. The audience is fidgeting again, let’s take a story break and transport the lead pair to a Hawaii beach. Result: a song with wildly gyrating bikini babes.
        It also works like this: the hero and heroine are in a college, let’s put a college song here with the classmates as background dancers; The hero is invited to the married heroine’s house for a party by the heroine’s husband, let’s put a song here with the hero playing a piano and singing a sad song of betrayal; The hero and heroine can’t possibly love each other openly, let’s put them in ‘dream sequence’ (a favorite) where they can dance and sing as much as they want, sky is the limit. Etc etc.

        -Indian Scriptwriter

        • voiceofisaac says:

          Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks

          Interesting! It sounds like DHOOM 2 was more influenced by current western musical thought than I expected. Which makes sense, since the action scenes also had the feeling of referencing Vin Diesel-style set pieces.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks


            Dhoom2 is garbage. And it has company, lots and lots of company. The Vin Diesel-vibes you are getting is not a delusion. Many Hindi movies are not real movies but ‘DVD movies’ written by a ‘DVD writers’. What’s a DVD movie? and what in god’s name is a DVD writer?!
            A DVD movie is straight rip-off of Hollywood movies/world cinema. A DVD ‘writer’ is the guy who ‘writes’ these movies. What happens is the director/producer will hand the guy a DVD of a Hollywood film, the ‘writer’ will watch the DVD and ‘Indianise’ it in a couple of days and we’ll have a ‘script’ ready to shoot (and later you will get the Vin Diesel vibes!). Watch Aamir Khan’s GHAJINI to sample this process, it’s the Bollywood version of MEMENTO with six songs! And much more entertaining and funny and gory than the original!
            Most of the Hindi movies are made in this manner, pretty much killing any honest work or writer in the process.
            But slowly things are changing (yes change is here too), some new filmmakers are coming up who work with new stories and fresh eyes. Among them are Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap (whose film ‘Black Friday’ pretty much inspired Slumdog Millionaire, the starting chase sequence is a straight lift from there). These new guys are trying to use music in a different way. In the sense that songs are happening in their films as background instead of straight song-and-dance numbers. We don’t have hero-heroine lip-synching to songs in their films, instead the songs in the background reflect story nuances or the characters’ state of mind. Check out Kashyap’s DEV D and Banerjee’s OYE LUCKY, LUCKY OYE to get a feel of this new kind of Bollywood ‘musical’.

            -Indian Scriptwriter

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks

      It almost sounds like the musical number in a typical Bollywood film is like a funny dance clip that might be included in the extras on a DVD, except that it takes place during the course of the actual film. I’ve seen DVD extras, particularly for CG animated films or film that use a lot of CG, where the characters dance and sing, even if it would be completely out of character for them within the movie. I guess Bollywood films figure the concept is good enough to be in the film itself.

      • Todd says:

        Re: MUSICAL: Different meanings for different folks

        There was one of those in Shaolin Soccer, where the action suddenly stopped and everyone broke into a dance number. They cut out the number for the American release but you can see it on the DVD.

  12. voiceofisaac says:

    The only Bollywood film I’ve seen is DHOOM2: Back In Action, which is an interesting mashup of genres.

    It’s a musical, of course, but it’s also a Cop Vs. Robber heist/caper movie, with a couple of romantic subplots and some “extreme” stuntwork thrown in for good measure.

    It stars Hrithik Roshan as the thief, and Abhishek Bachchan as the cop. Abhishek is the son of the aforementioned Amitabh, and is married to the movie’s female lead, Ashwariya Rai — and I understand that they’re very much the Star Couple in Bollywood, akin to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. However, Bachchan and Rai are not in a romance in this movie — Roshan and Rai are instead.

    The movie was suggested to me by a friend as a good gateway movie for Bollywood, and considering that I made a point of purchasing the DVD after seeing it the first time, I’d say they were right. It’s very accessible to a western audience, I’d say. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to get ahold of many other Bollywood movies since then, so I’ll be watching this thread for some good suggestions myself.

    Personally, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t tried to do more with Ashwariya Rai and doesn’t seem to know about Hrithik Roshan at all — the two of them are almost too beautiful to be true, especially when put together as they are here.

  13. stormwyvern says:

    This may help. Or it may leave you more confused than when you started. Either way.

    (I actually know little to nothing about Bollywood musicals, so you should probably just ignore me and listen to the better informed people like Indian Scriptwriter.)

  14. yetra says:

    I’ve only seen a few, and can’t actually remember the names. Here’s an article written for an SF film blog last year:


    She mentions these films:
    Jodhaa Akbar
    Om Shanti Om
    Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (her favorite)
    Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
    Veer-Zaara (I think I’ve seen this one)
    Rang De Basanti

    I would also like to plug a hollywood/bollywood fusion film: Bride and Prejudice. It’s cute.

  15. malsperanza says:

    I defer to the more knowledgeable commenters for Bollywood recs, but thought I’d add two thoughts:

    1) Bollywood movies are all about very specific formulas, rather like romance novels. A fascinating and creepy aspect of Bollywood romance/adventure films is the Featured Rape sequence, which seems to be a formal requirement of many of them. The more exotic the rape-scene setup, the better, so movies will advertise this: Underwater Rape! or Incest Rape! or Dancing Gang Rape! For representative samples, google “Bollywood Rape Scenes.”

    2) Slumdog Millionaire is a lovely movie, but except for the closing credits it doesn’t have much in common with Bollywood musicals, IMO. But for a rather nice synthesis of Bollywood and Hollywood style, you might look at “Bride and Prejudice,” which retells “Pride and Prejudice” in India, with musical numbers. A pretty successful experiment.

  16. Anonymous says:


    I don’t mean to appear too presumptuous but based on your posts and your cine-tastes (or what I can decipher) I would recommend Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara and/or Maqbol both are a re-imagining of Shakespeare Othello and Macbeth within the urban-Indian context.

    I think they might be a great intro, given that they both contain all (or most) of the main hallmarks of bollywood (musical numbers, landscape, Exposition fourth wall breaking greek chorus type dialogue) and it all paves the wave for what might be a new wave of Indian Cinema.

    And Indian Scriptwriter is right, these are not musicals, since they do contain music that provides exposition and often marks movement of time, they are true to the mechanics of Indian film tradition.


  17. eronanke says:

    I have seen hundreds – here are some you will enjoy:

    Dilwale Dulhuniya le Jayenge (Tradition vs. Modernity)
    Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? (Family drama)
    Lagaan (British vs. India, India learns to unite etc)
    Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tragic love story)
    Tehzeeb (which is based on a Bergman film, if you can believe that) (family drama)
    Amar Akbar Anthony (Comedy/Action film, metaphor for Indian identity)
    Devdas (any version – their Romeo and Juliet)
    Ashoka (a historical/period piece)

    AND – MOST IMPORTANTLY: Sholay. If you want to see how India changes genres (like westerns) to fit their cultural complexity, SHOLAY is the film to see.

    Both Sholay and Dilwale Dulhuniya le Jayenge have been playing in cinemas for over 10 years straight. They speak to the Indian mind in a way other films do not, and they tap into key issues of right vs. wrong in their cultural understanding.

    If you have any questions re: Bollywood, I can field them. I studied them briefly in college, and there are tips and tricks to understanding them as a non-Indian. It took me years to understand all the hidden cultural cues that I had missed on initial viewing.

    • laminator_x says:

      Hidden cultural cues are a sticky point. Even when watching British films, I recognize that there are lots of little signifiers in people’s accents and dress that would say something fairly specific to a British audience, while I’m only getting a vague contextual impression of their meaning.

      The effect is certainly magnified with a broader cultural gap.

  18. travisezell says:


    This is totally off-subject, and sorry for that, but I don’t know another way to show you this: a transcript of the Lucas/Spielberg/Kasdan story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Since it’s floating about you’ve probably already seen it but just in case, I wanted to share. As I began to read through it I thought immediately of you and your synopses (George says, “One of the main ideas was to have a cliffhanger every ten pages”).

  19. I love Disco Dancer– it makes my brain hurt…in a good way…

  20. swan_tower says:

    I’m bookmarking this mostly so I can answer the same question; I know a few of the names, but not many, and am glad you’ve provided an opportunity to expand my list.

    I’ve only seen two actual Bollywood films (i.e. not counting similarly-styled movies in English, like Bride and Prejudice), those two being Lagaan and Om Shanti Om. Based on those two data samples, I’ve wondered if the Mid-Movie Genre Swap is a standard of the form, or what. Lagaan spends two hours being a romantic drama about the British Raj oppressing peasants, then whipsaws around for an hour and a half of a baseball cricket movie. Om Shanti Om starts off as a kind of goofy romantic comedy before plummeting into a revenge drama instead. Two films do not a pattern make, but I kind of wonder.

  21. katsuben says:

    Lucky you, Todd!

    Indian Scriptwriter has already covered a lot of ground and it’d be a heroic and instructive effort if you see everything he or she suggests.

    I’d like to add something about the notion that story progression halts during dance/music sequences.

    I don’t see a lot of Hindi cinema’s drek, so I’m happy to concede that the vast majority of musical numbers produced are smoko time opportunities.

    But sophisticated and seemingly authorised choreographers like Farah Khan (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Om Shanti Om) are certainly able to inject story elements into the set pieces they design: gestures, glances, dance movements, lighting effects, cutaways and other pieces of business that reinforce and sometimes celebrate the major plot development or turning point that just occurred.

    And it can be very powerful when the story does actually move forward during the song. I think Raja Hindustani (1996, with Raju Khan choreography) provides a good example – an average movie but with a stunning song full of meaning and emotion that serves as a complete scene that crescendos into the movie’s midpoint climax (daddy doesn’t want couple to get together, song starts, much anguish, couple does get together, daddy not happy):


    I have no idea if Hindi film screenwriters are expected (or have much license) to inject this sort of thing into their material. Perhaps if the opportunity arises . . .

    These are films I recommend, some already mentioned:

    Lagaan, Swades, Jodhaa Akbar – writer/director Ashutosh Gowariker follows Hollywood narrative conventions more closely than many of his peers and the music is quite sparing

    Dil Chahta Hai – if your project has young, contemporary characters

    Rang De Basanti – if you have young, contemporary characters, one of whom is a westerner

    Salaam-e-Ishq – if you’ll use a multiplot or network narrative structure

    Dil Se – if your subject and theme is dark (here it’s terrorism where immovable political convictions colliding with unstoppable love)

    Satya, Company – if a gritty, realistic crime movie

    Don – if a showy, ridiculous, melodramatic crime movie

    Kal Ho Naa Ho – if set in a large, contemporary American city

    Om Shanti Om – if a shameless tribute to 70s Hindi cinema or Andrew Lloyd Webber

    Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – a must see, and a great tolerance test for Bollywood cheese/cringe (if you get pass Shah Rukh Khan skateboarding and playing basketball you still have to face a barrage of air guitars, Anupam Kher as a completely over-the-top lovestruck school principal, a slithering and typically ego-maniacal performance from Salman Khan, and a teeming mass of adorably cute laughing, happy, smiling kiddies at a camp seemingly dedicated to making decorations with crepe paper – throw in Kajol as a super-tomboy and what’s not to love?)

    PS – This is my first post here. Go easy.