Returning to the films of childhood.
Our nostalgia-obsessed culture has left few childhood stones unturned. Thanks to the great streaming wars - where old television and film properties of yesteryear are brought back from the dead - you can typically revisit many of your childhood favorites. I love watching random episodes of Sister Sister on Netflix. Almost like I did growing up: flipping through the channels as a child twenty years ago. Or maybe I hit Disney+ to watch The Sword in the Stone and have a love-drunk squirrel teach me a thing or two about heartbreak. But there is a part of my childhood experience that I almost forgot about. One that was hiding underneath my nose this whole time. That is the abundance of Bollywood films that are available on Netflix.
My father, an immigrant from India, made it his mission to expose my brothers and I to Bollywood films. We grew up in a modest middle class home, where my parents did what they could to get by. But at a young age I understood my father was springing an extra buck to get satellite TV. Why was a man standing on our roof trying to find a place to install what looked like a satellite used to contract extraterrestrials? This was so that my father could access the few Indian channels available in the United States in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. One of those channels was called B4U. B4U, or what I assume stands for “Bollywood for You,” was an all-Bollywood-films-all-the-time type channel. They played everything from classic black and white Bollywood films, to Bollywood films that were recently released in theaters in India. It was basically a Bollywood version of HBO, without the original content. B4U was the easiest way for my father to help us understand his culture. Back in the early days of B4U, the films did not have English subtitles. So, my father would have to translate each film as they went along for us to understand them. This made the experience somewhat difficult, and as a child with the attention span of a goldfish, I sometimes found watching a Bollywood film with my father to be more of a chore than anything else. But I quickly learned that there were great films in the Bollywood genre, and that there would be times where I was hanging off of my father’s every word as I watched the screen.
As a 31-year-old film lover, I am sorry to say that I had almost forgotten all about Bollywood. I am Indian in name and blood, but I never fully identified with that part of my life as strongly as I identify as American. Finding that Netflix had such a deep collection of Bollywood films that I had grown up with, really made me realize how much I love them, and how much of my Indian heritage is a part of who I am. Watching some of these films now, I was surprised at just how great they can be. A Bollywood film is an all-inclusive entertainment experience. The formula typically calls for songs, dances, fights, romance, stunts, and comedy. All of this is packaged in a melodramatic narrative with subplots and coincidences at every turn! The films I am going to talk about all came out between 2000 and 2001, and strictly follow this formula. I was 11 years old when these films were released, and rewatching them almost twenty years later has been an interesting experience. We will look at a patriotic dramedy, a period sport piece, and a modern coming of age tale. Let’s be honest, international traveling is limited, if not all but impossible. Catch a flight on your couch, no passport needed!
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (Yet, My Heart Is Indian) 2001
Dil Hai Hindustani is the most over the top Bollywood film on this list. I wouldn’t even say it’s that great of a film, but it is a study on just how crazy these films can get. Starring superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, this film opens with a media war between two Television networks whose lead anchors are Shah Rukh Khan (Ajay) and Juhi Chawla (Ria). Ajay is at the top of the ratings and is loved by the public. He is willing to go the extra mile when covering stories like interviewing a bomb squad at the same time that they are trying to dismantle a bomb. Ria is the new girl in town trying to get her big break, and she is not afraid to step on Ajay’s toes to do it. All Ajay wants to do is impress his attractive new enemy, but he ends up looking like a real Chad in the process. There is a song in the film called “I am the best,'' sung by Ajay, that really gets this point across. They both are covering the latest political scandal of the moment. A rich financier is assassinated at a political rally for a candidate he supports. The murderer, named Mohan, is labeled a foreign terrorist, and is sentenced to be hanged to death. Case closed, right?
Absolutely not, this is a Bollywood film! We find out that Mohan is not the terrorist we are led to believe, and his reasoning behind committing murder is much more complicated and heartbreaking. We learn that there are powerful forces that want to keep Mohan’s truth hidden from the public, and Ajay and Ria team up to find out the truth. This leads them on a wacky adventure that is typical of Bollywood films, that includes hijinks like going undercover as Chinese nationals (in a scene that today would be called racist) and a number of song and dance sequences where Ajay and Ria flirt. There is a local gangster played by the comedy legend Johnny Lever, who is trying to get his own publicity, and goes from hindering Ajay and Ria’s plans, to helping them out in the end.
This film moved me as a child because the level of corruption that was on display was maddening. That level of corruption did not seem real back then, but my father assured me that India did have a serious problem with political corruption. Watching Ajay and Ria fight that corruption head on was amazing. Watching this film as an adult was hard because India is still dealing with serious corruption. But the media in India has been regularly active in revealing all kinds of political dirty work and it has had a positive impact. There are come cringy overtly racist scenes in this film that I totally forgot about, but it’s important to remember that this film was made for an early 2000’s Indian audience, not the politically correct American audience of today. Watching this film as an adult did make me appreciate the power of the media and the good it can do when there are blurred lines between truth and fiction.
Lagaan (Tax) 2001
Lagaan was a domestic and international hit when it came out. It was even nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2001 Academy Awards. The story is set in Champaner, a city in the state of Gujarat in Western India. The time is 1892, when India was well under British colonial rule. The farmers of Champaner are unable to grow their crops due to a delayed monsoon season. The villagers pay a visit to their local Indian king, a nominal figure who answers to the British, to ask for an exemption of taxes (Lagaan). They meet the King at a British Cantonment where British officers are playing a game of cricket. During the game at a local village, our hero, named Bhuvan, played by superstar Aamir Khan, gets into a scuffle with one of the officers. Bhuvan thinks the game of cricket is stupid, and he mocks the British soldiers playing it. The commanding officer Captain Andre Russell hears Bhuvan’s taunts and decides to challenge him and the other villagers to a cricket match. If the villagers win, they will not pay taxes for three years, if they lose, they will have to pay triple the amount of tax. Without any deliberation, and to the horror of the other villagers, Bhuvan accepts Captain Russell’s challenge.This sets the stage for one of the greatest sport films you have never seen!
The villagers must learn the game of their oppressors and they only have a few months to do so. At first, the villagers believe what Bhuvan has agreed to is impossible, and they dismiss him all together. But Bhuvan slowly turns a few of them to his side, and things take a drastic turn when Captain Russell’s sister, played wonderfully by Rachel Shelley (The L Word, Toast of London) decides to help Bhuvan and the villagers, even the playing field so to speak. With her help and Bhuvan’s optimism, the village team begins their training. The climactic cricket match is one of my fondest memories watching any Bollywood film. As a child this movie made a strong impression on me. This is mostly due to its music.
The film’s music is composed by legendary composer and songwriter A.R. Rahman, and his mixture of classical Indian and orchestral music gives this film a tone that can only be described as epic. I used to own the soundtrack on CD, and I would listen to it every day. The music of this film would even make me very emotional, and it still does. My favorite song must be “Radha Kaise Na Jale,” a beautiful song about the god Krishna teasing his lover Rada. This song really shows off the traditional music and dance of Indian culture. There is a love triangle subplot between our hero Bhuvan, a village girl, and Captain Russell’s sister, that I swear could have been its own movie. Many of the villagers that end up on Bhuvan’s team are memorable for their unique personalities, and you can’t help but root for this ragtag team of misfits. As an adult watching this film, I realized that it has the comedic timing of Cool Runnings and the kind of high stake’s drama of Miracle, the 2004 film about the U.S. Hockey Gold win against Russia at the 1980 Olympics. My most recent viewing of this film was full of joyful tears and loud cheering. You cannot help but get swept up in this film.
Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Wants) 2001
Dil Chahta Hai was one of my favorite Bollywood films as a kid. I think what made me love this film was that it created a modern story for modern times, but still adhered to its Bollywood formula. The movie is about three friends: Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), and Sid (Akshaye Khanna) who have all just graduated college, and must now navigate the world as adults. Akash is the privileged rich kid who can be irresponsible but charming. Sameer is a hopeless romantic who falls in love with any girl who looks his way. Sid is the quiet artistic type who is often the group's voice of wisdom. They are living modern lives in India. They watch American films, date women, and go to clubs. I was used to watching Bollywood films where young characters lived in the modern world but still adhered to strict conservative values. Akash, Sameer, and Sid were living a Western lifestyle that seemed to reflect what I saw on T.V. and in films in the U.S., which made it that much more appealing to me. Our three friends take a road trip to Goa, a coastal state where tourists and young people come to party. As they make their way to Goa, the title track to the film: “Dil Chahta Hai ” plays. They are young, the world is in front of them, why not follow their hearts, the song asks.
I remember being in India when this film came out, and the title track was a massive hit. It could be heard on every radio station. It really resonated with the young people of India who were demanding more and more of a Western lifestyle. While in Goa, a reflective Sid wonders where he and his friends will end up. Akash reassures him that whatever happens, they will always stay friends. This foreshadows the film’s later conflicts.
The music of this film was also special to me. It is a soundtrack that relies on a more modern sound than Indian music, which works well with its modern story. There are songs that feature electronic music, bluegrass fiddling, and there is even a song with a didgeridoo! The first song of the film, “Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe,” is a rebellious anthem about ignoring tradition and indulging in one’s pleasures. Remember how when these movies came out there were no subtitles and my father had to translate them for me? Well, I will never forget asking my father what the lyrics of this song meant. He was extremely uncomfortable with his answer, basically saying, “they don’t want to listen to their parents, it’s a very dirty song.” This made sense later when I did watch the film with subtitles and saw the song had lyrics like: “We are the men of today, why should we be old-fashioned?” I grew up with a father who himself was a very old-fashioned man. At a young age he instilled in my brothers and I the values of a college education and marriage. He talked about how important it would be to get a good education that got you a good job, so that you can provide for a big family. He spoke to us about arranged marriages and the benefits of going that route. It was all very intimidating at a young age but that’s why Dil Chahta Hai was so important to me growing up.
In Dil Chahta Hai, I watched as three young Indian men navigated these same issues only a few years older than me at the time. I saw a little of myself in Aakash, Sameer, and Sid, and it made me feel less alone. I will say that watching this film as an adult I was initially impressed by the modern themes it tries to tackle. But without spoiling the film too much, it really ends up dealing with these issues in very conservative ways. The movie really wants to be progressive in its style and story, but ends things in predictable Bollywood ways. One must remember that this film was to be watched by an Indian audience that, while more modern in its ways of thinking, still clung to conservative values. All that being said, it still makes a memorable film and if you want an example of a modern Bollywood film, then Dil Chahta Hai is a good place to start.
Sahil is a full-time student at Dutchess Community College and a part-time cinephile. He has been known to quote the film Step Brothers word for word, and he likes water to be at room temperature.