Top Ten Classic Movies About India - Reel India
chillibreeze writer — Reem Khokhar
I do not remember too many English movies about India while I was growing up. India always seemed to be portrayed as the stereotypical land of mystery and snake charmers. There was “The Jungle Book”, which I loved, but I never really regarded it as a movie about India. To me it was more about the story of Mowgli and his friends. Another movie I remember and which I thoroughly enjoy watching even today is “Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom”. However, it once again fed on the staples of a barbaric and uncivilized people who ate “delicacies” like monkey brains! I agree that the movie has high entertainment value, but it simply perpetuated this ridiculous notion about India. And don’t get me started on “The Party”. Even though the protagonist eventually came across as a harmless, warm, and endearing character, I think the taste of India that was left in people’s mouths was of a ridiculously simple minded lot with no more sense than a chunk of wood and a complete lack of social grace!
However, much time has passed since the release of these movies, and the perception that foreigners have of India has changed considerably. There are a number of very good movies about India made by both foreign directors as well as a slew of talented Indian filmmakers. There are so many English movies dealing with several issues about India and since they are in English with a smattering of Hindi thrown in here and there, an international audience can watch them. Of course there are more than enough Indian movies with subtitles in different languages, but the English ones, I think, would have more appeal.
I put together a list of English movies, which deal with themes and characters that will give the audience a definite taste of India. Some extremely talented Indian directors have made most of these. Some of them are controversial movies and many would debate about how good or bad the film was and how the characters may have been incorrectly portrayed, but I think they do manage to convey more about India than most people are aware of. This is by no means a complete list or a list of the best movies about India. It is simply a list of movies, which in my opinion portray the lives of the Indian people and some of the many issues integral to India.
Directed by Mira Nair, of “Kamasutra” and “Salaam Bombay” fame, this movie is a colorful and energetic portrayal of a North Indian family and a wedding. A wonderful mix of the modern and traditional, it takes us into the lives of the Verma family and the wedding celebrations of the daughter of the house, Aditi. Relatives from all over come to join in the celebrations and we get to see the chaotic and frenzied wedding preparations, the several parties surrounding the wedding, drama as the bride-to-be reveals her former affair with a married TV producer to her fiancee, the family relative who gets exposed as a pedophile, and the bickering between the family members. A talented mix of actors with exceptional performances by Naseeruddin Shah, as the hassled father, and Vijay Raaz, as the wedding planner who falls in love with the maid, some great shots of the streets of Delhi, and an interesting and fast paced plot makes this a must see!
I don’t know too many people who have not heard of Gandhi and a list of movies about India would not be complete without a movie about Gandhi. Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of one of India’s most recognized figures, Gandhi, traces the life of this leader of the Indian revolution against the British. From the lawyer who struggles against the racism in South Africa to his leading the Indian people in a non-violent struggle against the British colonizers, this film is a biography of a person who will always remain inextricably linked with India. Many debate the authenticity of the portrayal of Gandhi in the film accusing it of glorifying him and never showing added dimensions to his character, especially his flaws. However, this movie serves adequately for those who simply want to learn more about this legendary figure and his integral role in Indian independence.
This movie, by Deepa Mehta, is about one of the greatest tragedies that the South Asian sub continent has ever experienced: Partition. Indian independence was a time of celebration marked by violence and a nation split down the middle, separating families and dividing communities. The after effects of Partition can still be felt in India today with communal clashes breaking out every now and then and the bitter relationship between India and Pakistan. The Partition in “Earth” is seen through the eyes of a young Parsee girl, Lenny, in Lahore, the city that witnessed some of the bloodiest violence of the Partition. Lenny leads a comfortable and care free life with her beautiful nanny, a young Hindu woman, who has several men, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh, vying for her attention. Lenny’s life begins to lose its rosy hue as Independence Day and Partition draw closer. Relations between friends begin to sour, remarks turn spiteful and bitter, and things get increasingly heated between people of different religious communities. This is one of the most powerful movies on the Partition and a must see for those who want to learn more about this historic event.
English, August is about the India of today. An India, which I think everyone today especially urban Indians, experience. It explores contemporary India, which is bursting with contradictions and diversity. Many have applauded it as a break away from the conventional movies about India with dusky natives inhabiting a mystical land. Agastya Sen, the protagonist, is part of the urban elite of India, well educated, affluent, and western in his lifestyle and ideas. This segment of the population is more comfortable with this lifestyle and isolated from issues and traditions that are integral to a majority of Indians. The movie explores how the people of postcolonial India deal with this duality of taking part in a universal culture and coming to terms with the Indian way of life.
Bollywood, the Indian Hindi movie industry, churns out some of the most vibrant, colorful, chaotic, melodramatic, and completely unrealistic films ever made. We may poke a lot of fun at the melodrama in Bollywood movies, but they are an integral part of India and young men and women from all strata of society yearn to be a part of it. Nagesh Kukanoor, a director who is known for his small budget yet highly popular movies, directed “Bollywood Calling”. The movie does come across as a spoof on the chaotic Indian film industry, but Kukanoor says his movie does not poke fun at Bollywood as it is also very typically Bollywood, which means it has all the elements of a successful Bollywood movie. Pat Stomare, is an American actor who stars in small time Hollywood movies and is thrust into the colorful world of Bollywood. It’s a funny lighthearted movie, which takes us into this mad world where Pat stars in an “action-drama-romantic extravaganza” with a young Indian heroine.
Also directed by Nagesh Kukanoor, and starring him in the lead role, “Hyderabad Blues” is a movie about the dilemma many Indian Americans find themselves in. Kukanoor plays an Indian engineer who comes back to India after spending several years in the US. It deals with his trying to understand a place where he was born and raised, but does not understand any more since he has been gone so long. Many traditions and customs that he never thought about are now questioned. It’s not a profound movie or very glamorous, but is still light and fun while exploring the “culture shock”.
Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
Directed by one of India’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Aparna Sen, “Mr and Mrs Iyer” portrays communal riots, which are quite common in India, through the story of a married South Indian woman and a young wildlife photographer who meet on a bus journey. Meenakshi, played by the directors daughter, Konkana, is a Hindu Tamilian (from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu) whose worldview and perceptions change as she witnesses communal strife during her journey. When Hindu fundamentalists storm onto the bus to attack the Muslim passengers, she protects her Muslim companion’s identity by introducing him as her husband, Mr Iyer. “Mr Iyer” played by another talented Indian actor, Rahul Bose, and Mrs Iyer grow closer as they protect each other from the turmoil around them. The movie brings out their relationship against the savagery of the riots, beautifully.
Bombay is the commercial capital of India as well as home to the Indian Hindi film industry. The city is fast paced, vibrant, bursting at the seams, and holds dreams of opportunity for millions of people all over the country. Mira Nair takes us into the streets of Bombay, but not to show the glitz and glamour of the business tycoons or film stars, for juxtaposed against all this is another reality: The reality of street life. The gritty life of the Bombay streets are depicted through Krishna, a young boy who comes to the city to earn some money and is thrust into the chaotic and merciless world of abandoned children, prostitutes and drug addicts. It is survival of the fittest out on the streets or in this case, survival of the “street smartest”. Mira Nair’s background in sociology comes through with the documentary quality of this film, which aims to give us a view into the reality of urban street dwellers. Shot entirely in the slums of Bombay with a largely nonprofessional cast from the same streets, this movie earned Nair the Caméra D'Or at Cannes in 1988 and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.
A Train to Pakistan
Based on the novel “A Train to Pakistan”, by one of India’s most well known authors, Khushwant Singh, this movie directed by Pamela Rooks captures the mounting tension, animosity, and violence that was characteristic of Partition in India. Even though people of different religious communities have lived together peacefully for years, the poison of communalism seeps in and tears their lives apart. In the small village of Mano Majra, Sikhs and Muslims have always coexisted happily, but a murder changes all of this. Tension mounts between the two communities and there is nothing to stop the spread of hatred when two separate trains arrive full of dead Hindus and Sikhs.
A Passage to India
Based on E.M Forster’s novel, which has the same name, this movie takes us back in time to the British living in India and relations between the colonizers and the colonized. Slow paced and a bit tedious, but nevertheless important to understanding the history of India. Judy Davis stars as a young Englishwoman who travels to India in the 1920s with her fiance’s mother. As she is to marry a man who is a magistrate for the British government in India, she is witness to the derogatory way in which the British treat the Indians. Since, she completely disapproves of this she decides to discover the country and its people by befriending them. Unfortunately, things change as a planned excursion to the Malabar caves takes a turn when Adela (Davis) hears some sort of echoes in the caves and rushes back to the group. She accuses Dr. Aziz, an affable Indian who Adela has recently befriended and has organized the trip to the caves, of rape. Though the movie is a bit slow and not entirely faithful to the novel it is based on, it still gives us an insight into the strained relations between the Indians and the British during this time.
There are several other movies that would probably capture different aspects of India really well, but as I mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list. Movies like “City of Joy”, “Bombay Boys”, the Broadway musical “Bombay Dreams”, “Bend it Like Beckham” and “ Bride and Prejudice” all have their tales to tell. These are all movies, which attempt to show the bursting vibrance and multiple realities of India, which can no longer be contained in the flatter depictions of a mystical land of maharajahs and elephants.
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