If you’re like most Americans, your first exposure to Bollywood cinema was almost assuredly via the opening scene of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Though your recall of this early 21st century indie flick now consists of little more than a murky haze of kvetching Buscemi and eyeball-rolling Johansson, I’ll bet you five bucks ($5 U.S.) that there is one thing on which your memory is crystal clear: the scene of Enid (Thora Birch) smoking and cavorting around in an oversized reddish-orange graduation robe while watching some of the most crazy-ass, head-shaky dancing every captured on celluloid, courtesy of her bedroom TV. Male or female, straight, L, G, B, or T, you’ve harbored a massive, gut-sinking crush on Enid ever since. Yes?
I have no doubt that you thought you had the hots for Enid. But if we can be honest with each other for a second here? It was never really the raven-haired chunky glasses–wearing social outcast you were lusting after; it was the extremely groovy blindfolded slick-haired and bee-hived line dancers, the John Waters moustache–wielding singer hiccupping “Jaan Pehechan Ho” into the old-timey chrome microphone, the rollickin’ baritone gee-tahr licks, the black-and-white checkerboard dance floor—the whole gestalt. You, my sick friend, have been harboring a massive, decade-long woody for Hindi popular cinema.
Not that I can blame you. I’ve had a boner for Bollywood since the early 90s, when friends dragged me along to see Khuda Gawah, a nearly three-and-a-half hour epic starring Amitabh Bachchan and Sri Devi as star-crossed lovers from warring Afghan tribes, the first five minutes of which slapped my face so hard my jaw has remained partially agape ever since. In the years that followed, I somehow managed to see somewhere between 500 to 1,000 of these all-singing, all-dancing hyper-melodramas from the Subcontinent. Not that every one of them was a, uh, jewel in the crown, or whatever. But let’s just say that, when I finally retire, supine, exhausted, into the pillowy luxury of my final death bed, I’ll be comforted with an array of lurid, supersaturated cinematic memories to help ease the fear and pain.
Here are 10 scenes that will definitely be among them.
1. Filmi: Jal Bin Macchli, Nritya Bin Bijili (1971)
Sangeet: “Jal Bin Macchli”
Legendary director V. Shantaram got his start in the late 1920s as a serious innovator, pioneering the use of the trolly shot and telephoto lens in what was otherwise a relatively static, live theater–informed field. Praised early in his career for a series of well-shot socially conscious melodramas, Shantaram’s world—and that of Bollywood itself—dramatically somersaulted with the introduction of affordable color film in the 1950s. From that point on, like an eight-year-old exhorting his parents to watch him tumble across the grass, Shantaram pandered shamelessly to his audience. This scene, from one of the last films in the great director’s oeuvre, features Sandhya, Shantaram’s real-life wife, performing an avant-garde interpretation of a fish out of water (or “jal bin macchli” in Hindi) that, while not as overblown and spectacular as dance scenes later in the film (Sandhya does a whole number on crutches after her evil rival breaks her leg), is utterly mind-blowing, despite its relative restraint.
2. Filmi: Disco Dancer (1982)
Sangeet: “I Am a Disco Dancer”
Babbar Subhash’s melodrama of hyper-ambitious rival dancers may have been half a decade late to the international disco party, but Disco Dancer has gone on to become a bona fide Bollywood b-movie classic. This scene is so jam-packed with eye-popping bits—a line of guys wielding guitars like machine-guns, a purple-clad girl knock-knock-knockin’ on a bald guy’s head, superstar Mithun Chakraborty’s space-age silver suit and WTF wing-tipped headband—it’s impossible for the human brain to process them all in one viewing.
3. Filmi: Awaara (1951)
Sangeet: “Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni” and “Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi”
Raj “The Showman” Kapoor is one of Hindi cinema’s best-loved directors, and this scene—a dream sequence that took several months to shoot—is probably his most famous. Featuring superlush music from superduo Shankar-Jaikishan (surely their finest hour) and an ethereal Nargis (with whom Kapoor was understandably smitten), it offers sublime beauty and surreal kitsch in equal measure. The tumbling statues toward the end of the scene are nothing short of breathtaking.
4. Filmi: Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
Sangeet: “My Name Is Anthony Gonsalves”
“You see, the whole country of the system is juxtaposition by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity!” Where do you go after a line like that? Well, if you are Bollywood’s biggest (and literally tallest) star, Amitabh Bachchan, it will most likely involve wearing a top hat and coat while doing a back-flip out of a giant Easter egg. Known for his hilarious, twisty plots, Monmohan Desai outdid himself in this fast-paced comedy of errors about three brothers who, separated at birth, go on to follow the three major religions of India (Hinduism, Amar; Islam, Akbar; Catholicism, Anthony).
5. Filmi: Mr. India (1987)
Sangeet: “Hawa Hawaii”
Speaking of inspired nonsense, you’ll note the lack of English subtitles during the first minute-and-a-half of this deliriously un-PC scene featuring Sridevi and her blackface-sporting entourage. That’s because the former Tamil child star turned 1980s Bollywood sweetheart is belting out streams of pure, delicious Zaum. Nothing in the annals of WTF Japan has anything on this number. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the film—Shekhar Kapur’s breakout hit, and the most successful Indian film of the 80s—is about an evil plot by the island-dwelling villain Mogambo to destroy India that is thwarted by a bracelet that renders its wearer invisible.
6. Filmi: Inteqaam (1969)
Sangeet: “Aa Jane Jaan”
And speaking of blackface and WTF moments—and Bollywood has, alas, hands down the most of any regional cinema—here’s the ubiquitous uber-vamp Helen at her absolutely most salacious as she pulls out all the stops to tease and inflame her caged, “kazoomiya!”-belting victim—“savage desires” metaphor, anyone? Yes, I feel guilty and unclean every time I watch it. Which, perhaps not uncoincidentally, is about as often as I do my laundry.
7. Filmi: Caravan (1971)
Sangeet: “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja”
More on Helen: Born in Burma just before the Japanese invasion, the half-Burmese, half-Anglo-Indian child escaped the country now known as Myanmar on her mother’s back in the 1940s, growing up in Bombay, where she would go on to become Hindi cinema’s single most ubiquitous character actor slash dancer. Being an immigrant of mixed ethnicity, Helen got the vampy bit-part roles few if any native actresses of her stature would touch, playing everything from Chinese and Japanese to American and British characters. In Caravan, she played a Spanish woman named Monica, who, drunk and panting, exhorts her equally panting, bullfighter boyfriend. In a moment of raw, hot-blooded, unslaked desire, she also dry-humps the underside of a children’s playground slide.
8. Filmi: Kath Putli (1957)
Sangeet: “Hai Tu Hi Gaya Mohe Bhool”
Kamala Laxman, a.k.a. Kumari Kamala, is one of the most celebrated Indian dancers of all time. While her best filmed performances were in Tamil and Telugu films (search her name on YouTube), she did make a few stunning appearances in Hindi film, most notably this insanely exuberant six minutes’ worth of south Indian dance–inspired leaps, pirouettes, hand-gestures and facial expressions rarely seen in Bollywood. And, OMG! Those eyebrows!
9. Filmi: Janwar (1965)
Sangeet: “Dekho Ab To”
How did I get this far without reppin’ my main man, Shammi Kapoor? Here we have the single most insane dance scene of his entire career. While a quartet of mop-top guitarists in full early Beatles regalia belt out a Hindi bastardization of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the Shamster spazzes out like Elvis Presley simultaneously channeling Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Words cannot describe how ferociously good watching this makes me feel.
10. Filmi: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Sangeet: “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya”
Color came late to Bollywood; this epic, which was filmed over the course of a decade, was shot mostly in black and white, though two reels, including this scene, were shot in color. And what color! If the hyper-saturated glowing jewels everywhere don’t dazzle you, check your pulse. Or focus in on Madhubala, who gave the performance of her brief but brilliant career in this film, where she played Anarkali, the court dancer who scandalously steals the Emperor Akbar’s son Salim’s heart. I love especially how, some five-and-a-half minutes into this scene, Akbar’s eyes grow redder and redder in anger as he watches images of Anarkali multiply to near-infinity in the palace mirrors until, unable to take it anymore, he throws out his arms, putting a halt to the shameless nautch girl’s performance.
Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains bodegapop.com, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.