By Chris Campbell
In addition to winning Best Picture (and seven other awards) at the Oscars last week, Slumdog Millionaire passed a major box office benchmark. It has now grossed more than $100 million in the U.S., which is pretty astonishing for a film with one-third of its dialogue in a foreign language. But is Slumdog’s popularity a one-shot in terms of its audience’s interest in India, or are moviegoers actually now more curious about the nation and its own films?
Some websites are simplifying the question of whether or not Slumdog will be a gateway film with polls asking if American moviegoers will now “go Bollywood” (40% of Cinematical readers flat out answered, “no.”), which is rather silly since Danny Boyle’s movie bears no resemblance to the majority of Bollywood pictures. In fact, Americans have in the past received far greater entry points into Indian cinema by way of films involving Anglo or NRI (non-resident Indian) protagonists directed by culturally bridging filmmakers (such as NRI helmers Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha), than the more-touristy type of filmmaking represented with Slumdog.
If someone truly wants to become familiar with Bollywood, he or she should probably just jump right in and then patiently get used to the style, which can be quite difficult for Westerners to immediately grasp. The extremely interested might benefit from reading the section on popular Indian cinema in Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Gary Needham’s Asian Cinemas: A Reader & Guide, a book that does a really great job acquainting the Western spectator with Eastern film form. Or, the more casually curious cinephile could simply follow our guide to accessible Indian (or India-based) films for the Slumdog lover to watch next:
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)
What it’s about: Paley’s semi-autobiographical animated feature self-deprecatingly depicts the events of the filmmaker’s divorce crosscut with a somewhat paralleling adaptation of part of the epic Indian poem Ramayana.
Why you should see it: Although not an Indian production nor made by an Indian filmmaker, Sita does offer an entry point for the mythological genre of Indian films and/or an introduction to Hindu myths, a number of which are the basis for a lot of Bollywood musical numbers. If that’s not enough reason, though, here’s what Karina wrote about the film in her review: “Sita Sings the Blues is a strange and beautiful little film, a potentially wispy slice of autobiography smartly elevated through irresistible, orgiastic style.”
Where to see it: Sita won the Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You and will infamously remain without a distributor forever. However, those of us in the NYC area can watch the film on PBS’ Reel 13 program on March 7. Those of you outside New York are in luck, too; the film is currently available for free on Reel 13’s website as a streaming video.
Salaam Bombay! (Mira Nair, 1988)
What it’s about: A 10-year-old boy tries to survive on the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai) after being told to go out and find work by his mother.
Why you should see it: With all the crossover movies from the past two decades dealing with interracial relationships, arranged marriage and the complications of NRI life, Nair’s films are typically the most entertaining. But while minor gateways could be found in her films The Namesake (starring Harold & Kumar’s Kal Penn), Mississippi Masala (starring Denzel Washington) or the very enjoyable Monsoon Wedding, this Oscar-nominated drama might be what Slumdog fans seek most if primarily interested in more “poverty porn.” Like Slumdog, Salaam Bombay! even starred actual non-professional street children.
Where to see it: Available on DVD.
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
What it’s about: The first installment of Ray’s Apu trilogy (which also includes Aparajito and The World of Apu), Pather Panchali is a tragedy-filled tale of a poor family living in rural Bengal in the 1920s and concentrates on the coming of age story of young Apu.
Why you should see it: Aside from being one of the greatest films ever made, let alone one of the greatest Indian films, Pather Panchali tells a universal story of family and is quite Western in form (for one thing, it lacks musical numbers), a fact that made it somewhat looked down upon in its own country. But in addition to its accessibility, it can also serve as a starting point to melodramatic conventions found in many classic Indian films. The abandoning patriarch, the significantly strong matriarch and other common national metaphors are present and will familiarize you for the next title on this list.
Where to see it: This is one of those films that’s constantly being screened at repertory houses, so see it on a big screen if you have the chance. Otherwise, the entire Apu trilogy is unfortunately out of print on DVD. But such masterpieces can’t possibly be unavailable for too long, so pick up a box set whenever one is released.
Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957)
What it’s about: An epic maternal melodrama and metaphor for post-colonial India, Khan’s Oscar-nominated film focuses on a poor Indian family throughout many years, as the patriarch leaves the home and the mother is left to deal with two very different sons.
Why you should see it: If you enjoy Pather Panchali, you may at least appreciate the story of Mother India, though the latter has a much more melodramatic and emotional tone. Unlike Pather Panchali, it does feature musical numbers as well as a bit of comic relief, courtesy of a very bratty little boy. Also, it’s basically the Gone With the Wind of India, at least in terms of its national significance — and one familiar-looking shot — if not in terms of its plot.
Where to see it: Available on DVD.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)
What it’s about: Oppressed Indian villagers battle against their British governors … in a cricket match seemingly depicted in real time. Also, one of the villagers becomes entangled in a love triangle between his true love and a British woman, who is also the sister of the film’s villain.
Why you should see it: First of all, it’s one of the most accessible foreign films of the last 10 years, period. For the guys: Lagaan is just like all your favorite underdog sports flicks except that it gives you even more of the game, as well as some singing and dancing here and there (with music by Slumdog Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman). So what if you don’t know anything about cricket; just pretend it’s baseball. For the gals: there’s just as much romance as cricket playing. Advice for both sexes: you might want to fast forward through the song that the British woman sings. It’s the single unbearable moment in the nearly 4-hour film.
Where to see it: Apparently unavailable through rental sites like Netflix, but you can pick up a DVD through Amazon affiliates.
Hum Tum (Kunal Kohli, 2004)
What it’s about: Basically, though not officially, it’s the Bollywood remake of When Harry Met Sally.
Why you should see it: If Lagaan is the perfect gateway for guys, Hum Tum is the perfect gateway for girls, although like Lagaan, this film has something for both sexes. All guys can appreciate When Harry Met Sally, after all, right?
Where to see it: Also unavailable through Netflix, but you can find a very cheap all-region DVD through Amazon affiliates.
Abhimaan (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1973)
What it’s about: Inspired by A Star is Born, a famous singer meets, falls for and fosters the career of a young woman, who ends up more popular than him.
Why you should see it: First of all, every Slumdog fan should become acquainted with Amitabh Bachchan (the celebrity whose autograph the young excrement-covered Jamal acquires), who costars here with his real-life wife Jaya Bhaduri (a bigger star at the time). Second of all, because the musical numbers all figure into the plot, either as recording studio sequences or concert performances, there’s not as much of that jarring, interruptive nature of most Bollywood musicals.
Where to see it: Available on DVD. It’s also one of the many Indian films available for streaming on Netflix’s Watch Instantly.
Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977)
What it’s about: Another great metaphor for post-colonial India, this other Bachchan-starring classic tells the story of three brothers separated as infants, who end up growing up under very different circumstances. One is adopted by a Hindu policeman and becomes the same; one is brought up by a Muslim taylor and becomes a popular singer; and the third (played by Bachchan) is raised Catholic and enters a life of crime.
Why you should see it: For more Amitabh Bachchan after he became India’s favorite actor. Though not technically a great film, it is filled with a lot of absurd moments and can serve as a gateway for those cinephiles who can only approach new things first through ironic appreciation. Such viewers should really love the Easter scene in which Bachchan jumps out of a giant egg wearing a top hat and monocle to sing a song about himself.
Where to see it: Currently available on DVD.
Krrish (Rakesh Roshan, 2006)
What it’s about: This sequel to the sci-fi movie Koi…Mil Gay is your typical superhero action flick, except done in the style of Bollywood.
Why you should see it: This one is primarily for getting your kids into Indian cinema, because kids will watch just about any superhero movie, regardless of the language or setting. Though the original more-E.T.-than-Superman film, Koi…Mil Gay, should probably be watched first, there’s nothing wrong with making this your primary gateway for the little ones.
Where to see it: Currently available on DVD
Vanaja (Rajnesh Domalpalli, 2006)
What it’s about: Set in South India and controversially made outside the local “Tollywood” film industry, Domalpalli’s comparatively non-musical film follows the story of a 14-year-old girl who is pretty much sold off by her father to a wealthy landowner who puts her to work while also teaching her traditional Kuchipudi dance.
Why you should see it: While not very relative to Slumdog or most of the other films on this list, Vanaja will open up viewers to other cinemas of India, even if this rather Western-form film was a Columbia University graduate thesis film and even if it is considered more “art house” than the popular cinema of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Like the slightly similar coming of age art house film Pather Panchali, Vanaja is a wonderful film and a terrific start for beginners. But because this film features Indian music and dance, it may also function as a gateway to the typical musical films of India, either produced in Andhra Pradesh or Mumbai (Bollywood)
Where to see it: Available on DVD.