Intrigued by Bollywood but don’t know where to start? For our ‘Bollywood for Beginners’ series, Bollywood Gold DJ Nisha Odedra has chosen 3 classic films to get you started. These 3 films stretch across 20 years and demonstrate the diversity and brilliance of Bollywood. It may well start a lifelong addiction to the glitz and the great hits of Hindi cinema.
Mother India (1957)
No list of greatest Bollywood films would be complete without the 1957 epic, Mother India. It is difficult to underestimate the influence the film had, not only on Indian cinema, but on post-independence culture and a sense of national identity.
Radha, played by Nargis (widely considered to be the greatest of Bollywood actresses), is a eminent figure in her village. The film follows her memories of the past and the struggles that she experienced as a young mother. It was one of the first epic films to focus on the hardships of the rural population and deals with the themes of poverty, debt and natural disaster. It explores the changing structures within Indian society and the struggle against the powerful zamindars (aristocrats or land-owning classes) who where notorious for their exploitation and oppression of the rural poor.
The soundtrack was written by Naushad (1919-2006), who is notable for introducing both Indian and Western classical music to Bollywood soundtracks. His composition for Mother India contained one of the first examples of ‘Hollywood’ style orchestration. It features 12 songs, performed by the great playback singers of the day, including Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. The music received mixed reviews in 1957 but as time has passed many songs have reached iconic status.
Multi-award winning Waqt (Time) doesn’t always appear on the ‘greatest’ lists but we think it should. It may be a little more impenetrable for the Bollywood newbie but for us it sums up the best of Hindi cinema. The soundtrack is one of the finest, the all-star cast is unbeatable and it’s based around the classic themes of family separation, troubled romance and fate.
Waqt was one of the first films to pioneer the ensemble cast, employing multiple strands of narrative to weave a complex tale and showcase the talents of some of the finest stars of the day, including Sadhana, Sunil Dutt, Sharmila Tagore and Shashi Kapoor. This much-copied device has seldom been equalled with the elegance deployed in Waqt.
Waqt’s soundtrack features classic playback singers including Manna Dey and Asha Bhosle. The music was written by Ravi (1926-2012) with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi. Ravi was a prolific composer who had no formal training and taught himself music from listening to his father singing. After working as an electrician, he decided to pursue a musical career in Mumbai. At times Ravi lived on the streets until becoming a backing vocalist in the film industry. He quickly moved to composing and is particularly remembered for his central role in the career rise of singer, Asha Bhosle.
Bollywood is not all about romance or epic struggle! Sholay (Embers) is a classic action movie and came number 1 in the BFI’s ‘Top Indian Films‘ in 2002. In 1975 it opened with fairly poor reviews and received only a scattering of minor awards. Over time its popularity grew and it repeatedly tops polls of the most popular Hindi films.
Sholay is often referred to as a masala (mix) film. The term is used to describe films that cross genres. In this case the it combines the traditional dacoit (bandit) narrative with the clear external influence of the spaghetti Western. Central to Sholay is the friendship between Veeru (Dhamendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), two petty criminals enlisted by a retired policeman to capture Gabbar (Amjad Khan) and his gang of bandits who are terrorising local villages.
The film owes a lot to a variety of films including Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. However, it is a truly Indian film and far more than pastiche.
Sholay’s soundtrack was written by R.D. Burman (1939-1994), possibly the most respected composer to have worked in the industry. He revolutionised film music by introducing a much wider range of influences from Bengali folk to American disco. Burman’s soundtrack was not only praised for the main theme and songs but for the incidental music throughout the film. As film critic Shoma A. Chatterji said “Sholay offers a model lesson on how sound can be used to signify the terror a character evokes. Sholay is also exemplary in its use of soundmatching to jump cut to a different scene and time, without breaking the continuity of the narrative, yet, intensifying the drama.”