To complicate matters, Bollywood movies - especially the big ones - have become self-referential. They are filled with homages to their predecessors and cleverly placed cameos. These are particularly hard for newbies to appreciate.
I'll make some gross generalizations here. Bollywood movies tend to be overwhelmingly propelled by emotional attachments - much of it is around near and dear ones - family, friends, lovers, probably in that order. It reflects a collectivist culture. Emotions that center on the self tend to be about honor, respect and revenge. There aren't many genuinely self-introspective mainstream Bollywood flicks.
These movies are also full of songs. The songs are used to heighten the emotion running through the movie like in most musicals, but in Indian films they are also used to introduce characters or provide momentary diversions from the story line. As such, they can feel disconnected from the narrative and are best enjoyed as separate spectacles. Directors also tend to favor montages in songs to compress the passage of time. Music is really important in Bollywood and heavily used to promote a film. Hence film producers tend to go all out and do something special when filming songs. Filming in exotic locations is very common. It's not unusual for lovebirds in a film to have a conversation over coffee in Mumbai, sing a song in the Alps and return to Mumbai for lunch.
Music composers in Bollywood tend to blend classical Indian styles with Western and World music - the most popular of these being Rock, EDM, African percussion, Arabic Music and Jazz. Composers typically blend Indian music's highly evolved vocal styles with the more sophisticated instrumentation and music programming of the West. Song lyrics are intricate and tend to use lots of Figures of Speech like personification, metaphor, hyperbole, superlative and periphrase. The words of the songs will be difficult to appreciate unless your Hindi is functional to decent.
There IS such a thing as Bollywood dance. It has its basis in the many, rich varieties of Indian dance forms, but has steadily evolved into a distinctive style that facilitates drama-rich emoting. It's full of hand, hip and feet movements and every Bollywood actor has to learn how to dance - yes, even the arty types. Sometimes you can entertain yourself just by watching an actor struggle through his dance routines. Lately, the better dancers in Bollywood can pull off House and Hip Hop so expect to see some distinctly un-Bollywood moves like locking, popping or jacking.
Last but not least, Bollywood movies tend to break in the middle - in what is called an Intermission, a ten minute snack and bio break. Bollywood movies tend to be long (often well over 150 minutes) and this practice was designed to ensure that audiences had a chance to stretch their legs. Innocuous as it sounds, it affects the flow of the movie noticeably, sometimes profoundly. Directors will leave you with a mini cliffhanger at the intermission to create a natural break (and likely ensure that you won't walk out of the theater) thus often giving you the impression that you are watching two halves of a mini-series. I won't debate whether this is good or bad (I tend to enjoy intermissions), but you might notice a shift in flow about midway through.
For recommendations, I'll stick to movies that hang well together, contain song and/or dance sequences and also give you glimpses into the kind of characters and themes that inhabit Bollywood. I'll also restrict my recommendations to the newer films - focusing on movies that are available on Netflix either streaming or on DVD. I also recommend that you read the excellent blogs of two friends who have been exploring Bollywood cinema with an open heart and discerning mind: BethLovesBollywood and MemsaabStory.
All movies are linked to Netflix, (s) denotes that the movie is available for streaming.
If you like Song, Dance and Romance
Band Bajaa Baraat (s) A driven woman (Anushka) and a wayward man (Ranvir) start a wedding planning business under a no-romance policy. One drunken night, the policy is broken. Their venture goes for a toss - but a strange set of circumstances demand that one last wedding must be planned by both together. Full of delirious, dhinchak (the Hindi word for kitsch) dances that capture the spirit of Bollywood.
Hum Tum (s) Honestly, I haven't seen it but here is what Netflix says. "On a flight from Delhi to New York, flirtatious cartoonist Karan (Saif) tries to woo Rhea (Rani), but the strong-willed woman gives him the cold shoulder. Never one to give up easily, Karan vows he'll see her again -- but their next meeting ends in disaster."
Love Aaj Kal (s) Two parallel love stories, set one generation apart, run through this movie. One of India's brightest directors (Imtiaz Ali) concludes that the more love and romance change, the more they stay the same.
Lagaan Set during the British occupation of India, a villager (Aamir Khan - one of Bollywood's biggest stars) - signs up for a high stakes cricket match with a British commander to avoid taxes that will impoverish his community. All Aamir has are a bunch of scruffy villagers and an Englishwoman's unrequited love to help him. Will they be enough?
If you like Melodrama, Song, Dance and Romance
Munnabhai MBBS A large-hearted hooligan (Sanjay Dutt) can't marry the girl he's sweet on because her Dad thinks being a hooligan doesn't hold for a great future. Hooligan decides to become a Doctor to stick it to girl's Dad and discovers that he's a better Doctor than most because he is all about treating the heart and not the body. Memsaab calls it "a laugh-out-loud cross cultural fiesta with a squishy dil" (dil = heart)
Jab Tak Hai Jaan A chance to watch Bollywood's king of romance (Shahrukh) act in the last movie directed by the person (Yash Raj) who made him the king of romance.
Paheli Honestly, I haven't seen it but Beth calls it "...a beautiful, touching movie - full of color and light, choices and love, footsteps and anklets, murals and puppets" That has to be good, right?
If you like Mellow Drama, Song, Dance and Romance
Luck by Chance (s) An actor (Farhan) arrives in Bollywood and begins a familiar struggle to establish himself. Carefully crafted satirical references and homages to Bollywood ensue along with a few really good songs.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara Three old friends (Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol) go on a road trip through Spain in this amiable, entertaining souffle of a movie. They begin acrimoniously but as the road trip forces them to slow down and smell the proverbial flowers, they unearth deeper interpretations of their life, friendship and love.
If you like Mysteries
Talaash A cop (Aamir), struggling to hold his marriage together following the accidental drowning of his only son, stumbles on a confounding accident-related death. Strange things happen: the cop's wife (Rani) starts having conversations with their dead son and a hooker comes out of nowhere to offer him assistance in a case that grows more sinister by the minute.
Karthik calling Karthik A corporate drone (Farhan) called Karthik struggles to get noticed and constantly gets bullied by people around him. Battling severe depression, he suddenly gets a phone call that urges him to alter his life. The calls become strikingly regular and help Karthik get back on his feet. The only problem: the caller insists he's Karthik himself!
Kahaani A pregnant woman (Vidya Balan) arrives in Kolkata in search of her missing husband. Turns out here husband doesn't exist. But Vidya is convinced he's somewhere in Kilkata and everyone is trying to throw her off his trail. Beautifully intertwined with the roiling locales of the city, Kahaani winds itself up tightly and unspools in a surprise ending.
If you like Fictionalized History
Jodhaa Akbar (s) History, romance, sweeping vistas and two of Bollywood's most photogenic stars (Hrithik and Aishwarya) play a legendary 14th century Muslim monarch and his favorite, Hindu, queen respectively. The music is by India's premier music composer, A R Rahman.
If you like Campus Romps
3 Idiots Two friends and a frenemy from college stage a reunion. However, one key buddy is nowhere to be found. On the way to finding him, the remaining college mates reminisce about good times and challenging the brutally competitive Indian system of education. This is a feel-good comedy with some melancholia. It is one of Bollywood's most beloved flicks.
Student of the Year I haven't seen this yet but it is full of terrific songs. Netflix says "After an altercation, an unlikely friendship develops between new-kid-in-school Abhimanyu Singh and trust-funder Rohan Nanda. But the battle lines are redrawn when the Student of the Year award -- and an Ivy League scholarship -- is at stake."
If you like Biopics
The Dirty Picture (s) Filmed itself as a tribute to B grade South Indian films, this movie is the unofficial biopic for an actress who peddled soft porn in mainstream films and became a headlining rage.
Paan Singh Tomar (s) Sadly, I haven't seen it yet, but here is what Netflix says "Paan Singh Tomar goes from celebrated runner -- as the Indian National Games steeplechase champion -- to star brigand and rebel when life after sports fails to unfold as planned. After a stint in the military, Tomar joins a group of bandits."
If you like Crime Movies
Johnny Gaddaar (s) A crime flick with love, danger and betrayal that makes you laugh, wince and against all odds, start caring for the characters. Its like watching a James Hadley Chase novel unfold on screen (in fact the lead - Neil Nitin Mukesh - is seen clutching one such novel in a scene) with some of the edgiest songs composed in a Bollywood movie.
Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (s) Made by one of Bollywood's directors most committed to breaking from the mainstream (Dibakar Banerjee) this movie is about a low tech charmer (Abhay Deol) who keeps his engine running with compulsive petty thefts. It's filled with ingenious heartland music from Northern India.
- Anonymous thinks um....Jism should be on the list. Watch at your own peril. Also, why isn't Salman Khan on this list?
- Kanan recommends Tashan (s) and Dil Chahta Hai
- Susan Kaye Quinn also enjoyed Bride and Prejudice as an introduction
- Ritu believes its a good thing Salman and Akshay are nowhere on this list