27 March 2008

25 Great Bollywood Films As Chosen By Me (1-10)

1. KAGAAZ KE PHOOL / Paper Flowers

(Dir. Guru Dutt, 1959, India)

Most critics would tend to go for Pyassa as the defining achievement of Guru Dutt's short lived film career but I have not come across a film which provides such a devestating critique on the studio system and the emotional/moral compromises a film maker is forced to make as is illustrated through the heart breaking story of Suresh Sinha played by Guru Dutt in the masterful Kagaaz Ke Phool. Though Guru Dutt's cinematic legacy was very much in doubt in the 70s, his films were rediscovered in the 1980s and he is now recognised as one of the genuine film auteurs to emerge out of the Bollywood studio system in the late 40s. The emotional power of this film really comes from the opening sequence which is an extended flashback being told by the main protagonist, and as the silohuetted figure of Guru Dutt enters the studio backlot, everything suddenly converges to become something much more than an ordinary Bollywood production. Much of Guru Dutt's films were ahead of their time and he was experimenting with deep focus, long takes and the potential of the widescreen frame way before his contemporaries discovered them. Guru Dutt committed suicide in 1964 and an industry mourned at the horror of having lost one of the great film makers of the golden age of Bollywood. His troubled personal life in in doubt effected the melancholy that permeates his work and almost seems as though Kaagaz Ke Phool is an autobiography of his experiences as a film maker. Yash Raj should be praised for their hard work to restore the films of Guru Dutt and now much of his work is avaliable on DVD for all to appreciate.

2. DEEWAR / The Wall

(Dir. Yash Chopra, 1975, India)

If Guru Dutt has been a constant inspiration for Bollywood film makers then Amitabh Bhachan would surely be singled out as the actor/star that everybody wants to aspire to even today. Mr Bhachan's name has become synonymous with the term Bollywood (he does not approve of the term Bollywood as he feels it makes the industry seem secondary to Hollywood) and he continues making films today and though his commercial appeal has waned somewhat his iconic status is unrivalled and he remains a dominant cinematic figure. Deewar was the pinacle of a long term collaboration (still on going even today) with the hugely influential film maker, Yash Chopra, producing a string of volatile and provocative films scripted by the magic teaming of Salim-Javed, two of the most important scriptwriters to emerge out of the 1970s. Deewar is a landmark film for many reasons. Firstly, Deewar features Bhachan's most famous performance and the one that would bring him international acclaim aswell as the adulation of millions of fans in India - the film also allowed Salim-Javed to perfect the figure of the angry young man. Secondly, Deewar is Yash Chopra's finest film and unusually for it's time it only featured one song and dance number which would be something that no producer would agree to in Bollywood today. Yash Chopra's body of work is a mixed bag and his films are strong examples of escapist entertainment that have a populist appeal, and though he is not really credited as being a key film maker in terms of influence and technique, his contribution to the industry is absolutely pivotal and it comes of little surprise that today he oversees one of the most successful studios in India; Yash Raj. Thirdly, Deewar also features one of the best on screen pairings with Shashi Kapoor taking up the role of the honest police officer who is eventually forced to use violence against his brother. Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bhachan worked together on numerous films but this is their finest on screen performance as the dialogue which was written for them was refreshing and brilliant. Finally, Deewar is probably the best screenplay that Salim-Javed wrote together, and contains some highly memorable scenes and lines of dialogue which have entered Bollywood movie folklore. Also the script proved that entertainment could be used a vehicle to address actual social/political problems that were at the forefront of Indian society in the 1970s. Deewar is perfect film making as it went on to clean up at the box office and confirm most importantly Bhachan's enduring star appeal; he would remain champion of the box office for nearly two decades.

3. MOTHER INDIA

(Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1957, India)

Mother India was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1957. Unlike western cinema which is traditionally patriarchal (male dominated), Bollywood films have reflected the matriarchal concerns of India and this is why many films continue to position the figure of 'The Mother' at the centre of the narrative. Mother India would be considered an epic in terms of genre but strangely it broke with the conventions by using a strong feminist narrative that is driven by the multi faceted performance of the legendary Bollywood actress and star, Nargis. Many critics have made comparisons with the work of Mehboob Khan to that of Hollywood's greatest exponent of the epic, Cecille B De Mille, and I would be probably agree with such a sentiment as they were both interested in representing historical events on the big screen but filtered through a populist agenda. Nargis plays Radha, a microcosm of the hardended and resourcesful Indian woman who goes to great lengths to ensure the survival of her family, especially her children. Mother India is a film about the emergence of an industrialised society and how it would challenge the traditions and customs of rural village life. Radha represents the progressive nature of Indian society at the time but the staunchly independent route that she takes to preserve her dignity as a woman and individual is very much a liberal statement on feminist ideology absent from much of cinema at that time. Nargis was already a huge star before the release of Mother India but this film cemented her iconic feminine status and ensured she would never be forgotten as one of Bollywood's most powerful female film stars.

4. PYAASA / Thirst


(Dir. Guru Dutt, 1957, India)


This was apparently the first film Guru Dutt decided to make after the commercial success he had enjoyed with his studio, establishing himself as a formidable force within the industry and also empowering himself to be able to acquire a degree of creative autonomy. Pyaasa is the most internationally recognised of Guru Dutt's many films and continues to be cited as an influence on the work of contemporary film makers like Aamir Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Pyaasa was fiercely controversial for the way it explores the ambiguous relationship between a downbeat poet and a prostitute with a heart of gold. Guru Dutt cast Waheeda Rehman in the role of the prostitute after discovering her in a song in a Bollywood film, and would collaborate with her on many other films. Though Pyaasa was not a resounding box office success, the film was responsible for launching the career of Waheeda Rehman whom even to this day respectfully acknowledges the role Guru Dutt played in bringing her to prominence. An artists struggle to be recognised in a society on the verge of moral and social decay is a key theme which Guru Dutt would return to in Kaagaz Ke Phool. The most famous sequence in Pyaasa is when Vijay, a disillusioned poet played by Guru Dutt returns from the dead to appear magic like at a poetry recital of his work. Vijay has no knowledge of the fact that Mala (Waheeda Rehman) has been able to get his work published and that his poetry has created a sensation in the country. The sequence is anchored by a remarkable song which is vividly sung by Vijay in which he condemns society for it's bitter hypocrisy - and this finally forces Vijay to abandon his dreams of artistic recognition by starting a new life with Mala. Pyaasa ends on an optimistic note but as Vijay and Mala turn and walk away into the distance, they become ghosts, people who exist on the margins of a deeply injust and unequal society.

5. MUGHAL E AZAM

(Dir. K Asif, 1960, India)

Sometimes the production history of a film can overshadow the film itself which is surely the case with K Asif's magnus opus, Mughal E Azam, a film with one of the most protracted production history's in Indian cinema, taking a staggering nine years to complete. That means filming started at the start of the 1950s and by the time the film had it's opening premiere in 1960, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were well on their way to becoming major film stars. Mughal E Azam is a true historical epic that explores the tragic love story between a Mughal ruler and a seductive courtesan. Revisting the film recently in a restored 'colour' version made me realise how the film is a film that revels in the breathtaking and groundbreaking production design and related technical aspects like the magnificient cinematography. It is difficult to overlook a film like Mughal E Azam because it is a uniquely singular film with a scope and vision that very few directors have been able to emulate today, though current films like Jodha Akbar and Laagan seem to suggest the contrary. When the film was released in the 60s it went on to become the highest grossing film of all time until Sholay came along, and it confirmed the stature of Dilip Kumar, Bollywood's first post war male icon. The film is not the masterpiece that many claim it to be and their are some faults with the film particularly to do with the horrendous running time, the lagging pace of the film and moments of bombastic melodrama which seem out of place in light of today's realist cinema. However, it is the enduring aspects like the music by Nashuad and the on screen pairing of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala which hold the classic status of this film intact.

6. DIL SE / From the Heart

(Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1998, India)


Mani Ratnam is arguably the most accomplished and well respected film maker working within the mainstream today. The technical superiority of Tamil cinema has always played an influence on Bollywood and though Mani Ratnam has become strongly associated with socially conscious film making, his directorial style is rooted very much in Tamil culture and traditions. Dil Se was Mani Ratnam's first foreay into Bollywood film making and was a continuation of a central political theme, that of terrorism, which seems to define much of his work. Dil Se is an uneven film but like Deewar it has become recognised as an extremely important turning point in Bollywood cinema, mainly because it was the first Bollywood film to enter the Top 10 in the UK box office. The rise of Mani Ratnam as one Bollywood's most commercially successful and artistically challenging film makers runs parallel with the film career of the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. Dil Se confirmed to worldwide distributors the commercial potential of an emerging Bollywood film industry that would predominately feature the international star appeal of Shah Rukh Khan as a key marketing tool. The film itself explores the politically controversial and topical issue of Kashmir which uses beautifully choreographed song and dance sequences with fatalistic lyrics by the poetic pen of the legendary Bollywood lyricist and film maker, Gulzar, to suggest that terrorism is a complex issue, motivated in part by political and social injustice committed against innocent people. One of the drawbacks with the film is the over the top performance delivered by Shah Rukh Khan who stutters and mumbles his way through his scenes, underlining how his credibility as a serious film actor would need a few more years and suitable projects to allow him to evolve into much more of a rounded, competent actor. For a film which did very good business at the international box office, Dil Se features a deeply pessimistic ending in which the lovers played by Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala (divided by political attitudes) detonate a suicide bomb intended to cause civilian harm, killing both of them but ensuring they remain together in a supposed after life. You can never quite get over the unforgettable image of Shah Rukh Khan dancing on top of a train as it makes it's way through the Indian landscape to the music of 'Chaiya, Chaiya' - this moment in itself qualifies Dil Se for instant classic status.

7. SHAKTI

(Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1982, India)

It is a shame that whenever Ramesh Sippy is mentioned in the pages of film criticism it is most probably linked to the film for which he has become synonymous with in Bollywood, the overrated western pastiche that is Sholay. Shakti was one of the final screenplays by Salim-Javed and it represents the summation of the angry young man motif with Amitabh Bachchan reprising once again the role of Vijay who this time is up against his morally outrageous father, a police inspector, Ashwini Kumar, played by Dilip Kumar in one of the all time Bollywood film performances. This is the only time that the two greatest actors and superstars of Bollywood cinema were seen in a film together. For this reason alone, Shakti was a much anticipated film and generated considerable expectations amongst critics and fans. Unfortunately, like the best films and the ones that are remembered most fondly after a period of time, Shakti underperformed at the box office, precisely because this was a film about how two men, father and son, go about destroying one woman; Ashwini's wife and Vijay's mother. The fierce emotional reaction this film ellicts from the audience is unlike any other Bollywood film and the scenes with Amitabh Bhachan and Dilip Kumar are cinematically powerful exercises in screen acting. The anger for Vijay comes from discovering his father was prepared to let his one and only child to be sacrificed just so he could uphold the law and maintain his personal integrity as an honest public servant and police inspector. This one childhood incident affects Vijay for the rest of his life, shaping and determining his destiny so that to challenge his father's misunderstood intentions he becomes a criminal, putting him on a direct collision with law and order as personified by his brutally honest father. This is not a beautifully directed film nor is it shot very well, actually the technical aspects of the film could have been much better but everything about this film is down to the screenplay which is surely one of the best scripts Bollywood has produced, providing forceful evidence of how within the space of ten years Salim-Javed had evolved into auteurs in their own right.

8. VIRASAT

(Dir. Priyadarshan, 1997, India)

Virasat seemed to come out of nowhere in 1997 as the film had not been publicised, the critics were negative in their reaction towards the film and many even declared the film a flop on it's initial opening week. It seemed as though Virasat was going to fade away very quickly but when Anil Kapoor started appearing on TV shows, trying bravely to counter all the rumours about the film being a flop, audiences started to take heed and positive word of mouth spread quickly and fiercely amongst cinemagoers, eventually turning Virasat into one of the hits of the year. Now had this film not starred somebody as iconic and powerful as Anil Kapoor, one of the few actors who has had longevity in terms of both critical and commercial appeal in Bollywood cinema, then I am sure the film would have been forgotten very quickly. Virasat is a remake of a famous Tamil film which had enjoyed great commercial success in 1995 and starred the legendary Tamil actor turned film maker, Kamal Hassan. The film is a powerful exploration of how feudalism incites discrimination, violence and division amongst people in rural India. Anil Kapoor plays Shakti Thakur who returns to his conservative and orthodox village from studying abroad in Europe. Shakti belongs to a very powerful family which owns a great deal of land and who's father, Raja Thakur (Amrish Puri), is village chief and tries his best to enforce some kind of law and order. The Thakur's power is challenged by his estranged brother which sets in motion a violent chain of events that leads to the death of Raja Thakur, forcing Shakti to abandon his dreams of escaping village life and taking up his father's impossible responsibilities. Virasat is a throwback to the liberal humanist films of Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan that defined much of the Bollywood golden era in the 1940s-50s. The film is striking for featuring what is probably the late Amrish Puri's best screen performance - this is largely to do with the fact that the role challenges all the typical villanious characteristics which had come to define Amrish Puri's legendary on screen persona. Anil Kapoor was one of the biggest box office draws for nearly a decade until the Khan syndrome set in and Virasat features one of his best performances - his star appeal has always rested on his ability to play the everyman with an honesty and truthfulness very few actors can exude easily on screen. This was also one of the first films which featured the actress, Tabu, in a largely mainstream role and her contribution to the role of the naive village girl is exemplary, convincingly portraying a vulnerability which is crucial to the relationship that develops between her and Shakti. There are two really exceptional and stand out moments in the film; the first occurs when Shakti undergoes a physical transformation after the death of his family and we find ourselves in the traditional intermission narrative juncture in the film. The second moment is the downbeat ending which is unlike any traditional Bollywood ending - Shakti is led away by the police on a train to await a jail sentence as he wants to demonstrate to the people who look to him for leadership that if law and order is to be upheld then somebody must sacrifice themselves in order for a new system to prevail. Supported by beautiful cinematography, a vivid collaboration between lyricist Javed Akhter and composer Anu Malik, and dynamic camerawork especially some stunningly choreographed tracking shots, Virasat is not only a remarkable technical achievement, it is one of the best Bollywood films to come out of the 1990s.

9. COMPANY

(Dir. Ram Gopal Varma, 2002, India)

Ram Gopal Varma's assured expertise as a film maker has been restricted somewhat to the crime film that has shown a consistent fascination with the politics of the Mumbai underworld of gangsters and corrupt police officers. Alongside the masterful Company also stands Satya, his first exploration of the seedy Mumbai underworld and regarded by some as his best film to date, whilst most recently he directed the Bhachan's (father and son) in the wonderful Godfather style re-telling, Sarkar. These three films together constitute an unofficial Mumbai underworld trilogy that uncharacteristically sympathise with unscrupulous and heinous criminals that are clearly not only romanticised but also presented as flawed anti heroes who seem almost righteous in their criminal intentions. The film is supposed to be based on the real life exploits of the Indian mafia organisation, D-Company, which was run by the notorious Indian gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, who also had links to the Bollywood film industry. Not so much a traditional rise and fall gangster narrative, Company focuses on the self destructive male relationship between a ruthless, charismatic gangster Malik (played by Ajay Devgan in his best performance to date) and a young outsider and novice to the underworld, Chandu (played with real energy by Vivek Oberoi in his debut role). Company is Ram Gopal Varma's best film because it is the perfect summation of key authorial themes like the underworld, power and violence which can be found in most of his films. Currently, Ram Gopal Varma is experiencing somewhat of a backlash from the industry and media after his failed attempt to re-present the classic Sholay failed categorically at the box office and with critics. The production company he established after the success of Satya has allowed him to venture into different genres and he has become a formidable producer, having produced a number of well received films like My Wife's Murder, D and Ab Tak Chapaan. What has become apparent over the last few years is that Ram Gopal Varma's future seems to clearly lie within supporting and producing edgy, dark and risky mainstream Bollywood film projects which do not see commercialism as a priority nor as a measure of success. Company is also a reminder of the potential Vivek Oberoi once had as an actor - 2002 was a breakthrough year for him as it also saw the release of Saathiya. Today, we find Mr Oberoi sadly performing item songs for films which see him credited as part of the supporting cast. Longevity is something that all stars crave for and the media spotlight is one that can both destroy and promote the Bollywood actor.

10. LAGAAN / Land Tax


(Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001, India)

Nobody in their right mind would have thought that an obscure historical period film made up of an unknown cast and unestablished film maker would work so brilliantly as a piece of cinema fashioned in old school sensibilities and indigienous values, not even the producer and actor, Aamir Khan who was the first to tell Ashutosh Gowariker that his idea was virtually impossible to put on film. The only thing Lagaan had going for it when it was deep in production was the Bollywood star power of Aamir Khan who was on the verge of radically transforming his own star image and launching himself as a formidable producer of risky and daring subject matters that have held a wide contemporary relevance for the emerging educated, professional middle class cinema audience. Lagaan's reputation as a film has quickly risen to a classic status and it was one of the few original and socially significant Bollywood films in the last ten years to have reached a wide international audience and be favourably received by the western media especially Europe where it has already found cult status. Lagaan is a deceptively simple story of a group of villagers who band together collectively and make a death defying stance against the might of the British empire who impose an unfair land tax on farmers who have had a poor harvest. Bhuvan, a defiant but resourceful figure of the community, played magnificently by Aamir Khan, is challenged to a game of cricket by the British troops who put forward an interesting proposition; if the villagers accept the challenge and win the game of cricket then they will be exempt from paying taxes for a long time to come but if they lose then they will have suffer to economic burdens and much hardship. Bhuvan's decision to take up the challenge compromises the position of the village who at first are reluctant to join Bhuvan's crusade but once they become united in their defiance, the villagers quickly through the support of a British sympathiser master the art of cricket. This is one of the oldest narratives; the David and Goliath story, triumph over adversity, yet the difference is that matters are resolved through a game of cricket, a sport which was an extension of colonial superiority and British imperialism. Stretching to nearly four hours long, Lagaan is truly an epic in the classical sense, and has gone on to become the biggest selling DVD in India. It is also the third Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar and though it lost out on the night, Lagaan stands as a testimony of the conviction of it's main lead and producer, Aamir Khan who continues to explore the theme of British imperialism - The Rising: The Ballad of Mangal Pandey and most recently in Rang De Basanti. Politicised film making of this kind is rare within the mainstream of Bollywood cinema and as long as Aamir Khan continues with this didactic approach which he has embraced then Bollywood has inherited a legacy which holds a considerable degree of wider social and political significance.

THE BOLLYWOOD INVASION - The 25 Greatest Bollywood Films

Something remarkable has taken place in Britain over the last ten years; Bollywood has entered our lives and become part of acceptable mainstream popular culture. The Bollywood conquest of multiplexes and cinema halls has steadily grown into somewhat of a cultural epidemic. With the explosion of narrowcasting media forms in the shape of channels like Zee TV and B4U dedicated to British Asian audiences seeking to reconnect with their Desi roots, Bollywood as an industry has never before had such an unprecedented level of media access. The unstoppable demand for Bollywood films has driven worldwide multiplex cinema chains like Cineworld and Odeon to accommodate the commercial euphoria of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Bollywood has become big business abroad, bigger than the box office receipts generated by the home grown audiences. The NRI (Non Resident Indian) has been central in revolutionising the marketing approach, production investment and overseas identity that Bollywood has sought to reconstruct. It is difficult not to overstate the current impact of Bollywood cinema. Bollywood films now regularly compete alongside Western mainstream blockbusters for an audience share that continues to expand each year. The weekly UK box office charts consistently reflects this level of influence. When Bollywood films first started to chart in the top ten, many critics at first appeared to explain the exceptional moment in terms of a postmodern trend. No doubt helped by the superstar appeal and success of stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Ashwarya Rai and Amitabh Bhachan, Bollywood has worked tremendously hard to carve out itself an international platform from which to distribute and promote it’s many films and stars.

In the last five years, Bollywood entered a technological phase, significantly raising the production quality and technical possibilities of its mainstream feature films to such high levels of artistic excellence that it now has the ability to compete with most national cinemas on a commercial level. Yash Raj and UTV are two current examples of indigineous based Bollywood studios which have been on the cutting edge of 'branding' the Bollywood film product so that it is now easily marketable through multiple media platforms. A Yash Raj film is instantly recognisable from the hundreds of films being released each year and this underlines how they have been able to create an identifiable brand which is immensely popular and commercially successful in both India and abroad.

But what is it about the eighties that invoke horrid memories for the fan of Bollywood cinema? The proliferation of the video recorder in the homes of most Asian families resulted in the rise of dubious and dodgy video stores appearing in virtually all communities, in walking distance from most people’s houses. It is strange to come to terms with the reality that the contemporary generation filling the seats in multiplexes watching films in the comfort of Dolby digital and widescreen more than likely had their first experience and taste of Bollywood in the comfort of the living room. Stranger still is that though the rise of video piracy in the eighties possibly had an effect upon the commercial potential of some Bollywood films, it in no doubt created a new generation of film fanatics who form a large part of today's Bollywood audience. Bollywood achieve the highest per screen average for their films in the UK and this suggests that the average Bollywood fan would rather experience the big screen spectacle than resort to dowloading the latest Bollywood flick; Bollywood still has faith in the spectacle and unlike Hollywood, the industry has yet to fully embrace the digital technology and special effects revolution which drives the high concept summer we predictably come across each year.

My first Bollywood event experience was Amitabh Bachachan in Shahenshah. I can so vividly recall the strong visual imagery of the poster hanging in the window of the video store, Amitabh posing with his thick black leather jacket , a clear rip off the bad marvel comic book artwork for The Punisher starring Dolph Lungdren. Hang on, why of course, the film was quite similar aswell, Amitabh played a cop by day and a vigilante crusader by night, another critique of the failure of traditional institutions like the courts and police. The beard was clearly not working, but the rousing soundtrack that had everybody humming was typical of the emotional impact of Bollywood productions because if the film didn’t get you going then the music surely would as proved by the epic themes of Shahenshah. I have always took great pleasure in watching the iconic Amitabh morph into his angry young man persona and hand out his resolutery grandstanding speeches on the injustices the working class had to suffer. I still don’t think nobody even comes close to the precision with which he speaks, and if the speeches failed then the trademark lanky legs would without a doubt leave a permanent scar upon the faces of those gutless one dimensional villains. The promos were badder than the film; terrible shots of Amitabh stalking through the urban streets, grimacing as though he was chewing broken glass, and if I recall correctly engulfed by the dramatic imagery of fire. He was the epitomy of what we considered the true Bollywood anti-hero, a star who was consistent in his anger and violence, directed of course towards social and political corruption. Yet Shahenshah was an attempt to revive the supposed flagging career of Mister Bachchan but how is it physically and emotionally possible to remain the biggest and the best forever. Elevated to the status of a God with a strong loyal cult following that numbered in the millions, a myth of invincibility and indestrucability had been formed around Amitabh Bachchan, so strong and absolute that the industry had too become part of sustaining and projecting this myth.

For a moment, the industry seemed boring and mundane again. The Big B had become overshadowed by the Khan syndrome. It is has become very much a clique to refer to Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan as the ‘King Khans’ but it is an appropriate equivication of their longevity and superstar status. Now I hope I get this right but many say that Aamir came first then Salman and finally Shah Rukh Khan. They have undoubtedly remained popular with audiences and though each of them are now engaged in quite different career path’s, their origin’s and break within the industry are similarly poised in the boy-girl tragic love story genre that emerged at the tail end of the 1980’s in the form of ‘Maine Pyar Kia’, ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ and ‘Baazigar’, though many would argue that a film like ‘Baazigar’ was an attempt to refashion and ultimately subvert the established conventions of the traditional romantic love story with the introduction of the bitter sweet violence espoused by the anti-hero who got his kicks from murder and psychological torment.

If the 1980s was an era dominated by the iconic teaming of Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit then the industry was still searching for a way to appeal to the emerging middle class audience but also reach the vast youth market. Currently we can not get enough of the endless number of fresh young faces that have taken over the industry. Bollywood looks very young at the moment, a strange phenomenon perhaps as it has regarded as a very grown up industry that was previously dominated by stars who were not particulary concerned with their age. Though Dilip Kumar may have been the actor of his generation, the original angry young man, it is however the all singing and all dancing legacy of the likes of Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna that have been most influential in shaping the identity of contemporary Bollywood male stars. So where do we start when it comes to the contemporary and classics that make up Bollywood cinema? Western film literature is littered with evidence of an agenda determined by film cannons and lists of influential films, genres and film makers.

This list of 25 Bollywood films is based on my own personal experiences of watching and tries to identify and appreciate films that I feel have been important in terms of genre, narrative, technology, star power and most signficantly how influential these films have been determining the trajectory of contemporary Bollywood films and directors. I have not included any of the films by Satijyat Ray because he is a film maker who I feel should not be placed within the context of Bollywood mainstream cinema as his position is that of an independent film maker, and possibly, the greatest film maker of the 20th century.



26 March 2008

DANS PARIS / INSIDE PARIS (Dir. Christophe Honore, 2006, France) - A bittersweet homage to the Nouvelle Vague

Much has been said and continues to be written about how both Godard and Truffaut were firm believers in using cinema as a means of authorial expression but watching Dans Paris, another film which immortalises the mystique and charm of Paris, I was reminded of how the romanticism that was so clearly evident in the films of the French New Wave is still with us today. Godard's reputation in particular seems to currently rest largely with his radical departure from the traditions of classical Hollywood cinema but most of his films exuded a hipness and beatnik cool that is very difficult to imitate today. Christophe Honore's swansong to Paris is a film which seems closer to the spirit of Truffaut's whimsical and care free characters who always seemed to searching for an answer to question which we knew would in no way be answered by the close of the film. Honore's disregard for plot and narrative seems to be harking back to the anti-narrative counter cinema embodied by the French new wave as the film is held together by a series of episodes which shift from comedy to pathos with incredible confidence and ease. Romain Duris plays Paul, a photographer who is going through the emotional effects of a break up with his wife/girlfriend? (many elements are left unexplained and the large degree of ambiguity surrounding a few of the character's past and motivations is once again another indirect homage to the new wave) is suffering from a suicidal bout of depression which has led him to come back and live with father and brother, Jonathan (played by Louis Garrel), a Godardian inspired character who wanders the streets of Paris like a bohemian 68' radical. Romain Duris is currently the poster boy of French cinema and though he has yet to embark upon extending his star status to an international profile like Vincent Cassel, he has produced a series of brilliant performances in films like Russian Dolls and The Beat My Heart Skipped; Duris is possibly the most challenging and interesting actor working within European cinema today. The Godardian self reflexive touches are present throughout and perhaps most visibly in the form of ellipsis with Honore jumping back and forth in a narrative which deliberately refuses to conform to any sort of audience expectation. Some critics have labelled the film as pretentious and sentimental to the point of inducing reactions of nauseau which is really unfair. The sequence which some critics made them hate the film is when Paul and his girlfriend break up by singing a song together over the telephone - surely if this had appeared an American romantic comedy it would have been very difficult to accept but Honore makes us understand that romanticism is merely a disease and that relationships are not made to last. On a final point when Louis Garrel addresses the audience as the narrator in the opening few minutes I was reminded how Woody Allen was so gifted at producing such charismatic and effortless self reflexive cinema which he just cannot do anymore.

21 March 2008

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Dir. Ken Loach, 2006, UK) - Ken Loach continues to be the best political film maker working in the UK today

When The Wind That Shakes The Barely premiered at Cannes at 2006, eventually carrying away the Palme D'Or, the mainstream right wing press in the UK sought another opportunity to attack the political intentions of Ken Loach who continues to be a self confessed liberal socialist. Though the UK press went after him, the negative criticism could not prevent the film from becoming Loach's most commercially successful UK film to date. The film itself is a magnificent political thriller that explores the origins and evolution of the Irish Republican Army in 1920s Ireland with great intelligence and a truth that does not sit well with a contemporary political context which has blurred the line between terrorism and independent resistance. The main narrative focuses on the story of two brothers; Teddy and Damien O Donovan who become increasingly divided on how they view the political conflict between Ireland and Britain. We open with a sequence that immediately suggests that Ken Loach wants us to side with the oppressed and the Republican cause which is depicted as being noble, politically motivated and above all, struggling to gain real independence for the people of Ireland. What we see are images that have become quite familiar to us and ones which are strongly associated with the news coverage of the illegal occupation of Palestine and the current brutalisation of Iraq; one of the Irish youth refuses to say his name in English in an act of defiance but the price he pays is death - such an anger is easily recognisable in the faces of youthful unemployed Iraqi individuals who can no longer stomach the humiliation of being told what to do, how to behave and all from the voices of a foreign occupying army. The film's left wing political position is present throughout a film which puts the British establishment under intense scrutiny for an imperial policy that advocated humiliation, torture and even death as illustrated in the menacing 'Black and Tans' army which was shipped to Ireland by the British government in order to help suppress the rebels and facilitate the end of any notions of dissent and revolution. This is a remarkable film because it is the only film I have come across which shows the complexities of the Republican Army and how our contemporary perspective of the term 'terrorism' has become muted by a post 9-11 context which has normalised and naturalised the use of torture by governments today. Unlike any other film makers Ken Loach continues to stand alone as a committed political film maker who is not afraid of raising important discussion about issues like the illegal occupation of Iraq, but as long as he continues to do so then the mainstream UK press will regularly have something to complain about. Alongside Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows, Ken Loach is one of the few British film makers when call we actually label as auteurs which is in itself an achievement when compared to the numerous auteurs that are working today in the wider European community.

18 March 2008

SOUTHLAND TALES (Dir. Richard Kelly, 2006, US) - Kelly misfires with his follow up to Donnie Darko

When Richard Kelly, the writer and director of Donnie Darko, screened his latest film at Cannes in 2006, most of the audience and critics did not know how to respond other than with a consensual look of bewilderment, confusion and even, dare I say it, inspiration. Nearly 2 years later, Southland Tales was finally released in UK cinemas without any real marketing push or buzz that came with Kelly's debut feature, Donnie Darko. The fallout from the Cannes screening has become somewhat notorious, with the studio intervening and advising Kelly in how to best salvage a film which he had written way back in 2001. Apparently Kelly was forced to shorten the version that premiered at Cannes to an acceptable audience length, which essentially means, he was told to dumb down his original artistic vision. So what we have actually been given is the studio's version of Kelly's original cut which will be probably show up some day changing our opinion on the film. Like Donnie Darko which is considered to be a cult film, Southland Tales is one of those films which you know will eventually someday, maybe in five or ten years time, find an audience that appreciates what Kelly was trying to do and say about contemporary American society. Personally, I feel much is wrong with this film, particularly a weak cast which is comprised of extremely superficial non-actors like Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott and a creepy Jon Lovitz who I had assumed was given his marching orders by the Hollywood brass way back in the 90s when Billy Crystal threatened to make another City Slickers movie just so he could get make sure his friends got paid. Anyway, the film does start quite convincingly, engrossingly should I say, anchored with a droll voice over by Justin Timberlake, we are presented with a futuristic vision of American society that is still trying to come to terms with the political and economic ramifications brought on by World War III - another favourite Hollywood device, the apocalypse. For around thirty minutes in which Richard Kelly is busy setting up the science fiction context and we are becoming familiar with characters that have jumped out of a noirish pulp novel, Southland Tales begins to get under your skin, especially with it's inventive use of montage and new media split screen commentary. However, the rest of the film is very disappointing and I felt that Kelly almost could have made a better mini series for television because he has too many characters, storylines and situations occurring all at the same time. The narrative exposition was overwhelming enough but once the film gets started it becomes totally pointless and frankly stupid. Many critics have said that Southland Tales will divide audience opinion, and it is a film that will provoke an either I love it or hate it critical response. I didn't hate this film nor did I love it, I just felt that Kelly is wasting his time, returning to material which he has already explored so well in his debut feature. The failure of Southland Tales also underlines the pressure many promising film makers are under once they have made a film of some cinematic importance, as is the case with Richard Kelly and Donnie Darko. It will be interesting to see how Richard Kelly bounces back from the critical and commercial disappointment of Southland Tales, or perhaps by the time his next feature is out in cinemas his second film will have achieved the cult status of his first.

16 March 2008

THE FOUNTAIN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2006, US) - Pretentious Cinema of the Worst Kind

The Fountain is without a doubt one of the most pretentious and over done Hollywood wannabe art films I have come across. The world cinema influence on Aronofksy is clearly the Russian master, Tarkovsky, but to make such a statement would be to undermine the brillance of films like Stalker and Solaris. Hollywood has always plagrisied popular mythology and ancient texts without any real sense of guilt or shame, and the Fountain takes a similar approach, bringing together a maze of cultural references to create a film of real pretentious proportions. I have yet to figure out what the film was about, and though it would be easy for critics to misinterpret this film as existing outside the sphere of mainstream Hollywood films, such a conclusion would overlook the fact that this film is no way engineered to be ambigious, ellipitical and artistically profound. The truth is quite stark; the Fountain is a terrible mess of a film, and seems to suggest that Hugh Jackman should never be allowed to act ever again in a Hollywood film. Reflecting upon the failure of Aronofsky's eagerly awaited follow up to the brilliantly inventive, Requiem for a Dream, made me realise the genius of Steven Soderbergh's recent Solaris remake. To begin with, one of the first criticisms is to do with ridiculous and insulting tag lines generated by the Hollywood marketing departments, which all sound the same. In the Fountain's case, the question the film poses is 'What if you could live forever?'. The quest for immortality is one of the oldest of myths which excites society but however when you have Hugh Jackman pretending to be a brainy know it all ape scientist, the suspension of disbelief rule we attach to escapist cinema falls apart very quickly. Mr Jackman is joined by the annoying screen presence of Rachel Weisz who has managed to become a crushingly irritating eye sore in the film, failing to elicite our sympathies with her role as the sentimental patient who now sees the clarity of our existence. Such pretentiousness does not appeal to me in anyway, and this false note is reinforced by many others including uninspiring imagery of Mr Jackman floating through cosmos with a Yul Brynner styled bald head. Originally, the Fountain was supposed to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet who dropped out unexpectedly, leaving behind a film project who's budget was reduced quite significantly. It's not surprising that Brad Pitt left the project as he probably foresaw the potential difficulties Aronofsky would experience in bringing his vision to the screen. The only positive aspect of this film is the breathtaking original score by Clint Mansell; I would recommend buying the soundtrack because it is the only element of the film which indicates what could have been...

15 March 2008

DEAD PRESIDENTS (Dir. The Hughes Brothers, 1995, US) - Overlooked and underrated; is this a key film of the 90s?

The Hughes Brothers shot to fame with their blistering and hugely controversial African American gangland debut feature, Menace II society in the early nineties, making many to prematurely label the pair as potentially brilliant film makers. Unfortunately, their career did not unfold in logical and predictable Hollywood fashion instead charting a very strange journey that perhaps suggests more about how problematic it is for African American film makers to find financing for projects. I had watched Dead Presidents when it was first released on VHS in 1996 but was left with mixed feelings about the shape of the film but having returned to the film on DVD last week, I was amazed by how wrong I had been about a film which should rank as one of the key films of the nineties. The Hughes Brothers filmography is quite poor in terms of output, having only made 3 films to date plus one documentary. Their most recent directorial venture was From Hell, a big screen adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel but that was 2001! Will somebody please give these guys some money to make another movie before they get totally disillusioned with film making! The Dead Presidents features one of the best soundtracks you are likely to come across for a Hollywood film and also contains a notable Danny Elfman original score. The story itself focuses on the difficulties faced by African American soldiers returning from the Vietnam war after having been duped into fighting a grossly unjust and deeply unpopular war; a white man's war. Beginning in 1969, the film moves through different phases in the life of an ordinary but intelligent young black man called Anthony, played brilliantly by Larenz Tate who's career like the Hughes brothers has not lived up to the hype of his early promise. The narrative moves from Anthony's adolescence in the Bronx, to the horrors of Vietnam and comes full circle back to the Bronx where he plans the heist of an armoured truck that goes terribly wrong, resulting in the death of his wife's sister who is a black militant. It comes of no suprise whatsoever that Dead Presidents did reasonably well at the box office, especially when you consider the film only cost an estimated $15 million. However whenever critics compile a list of the key films of the nineties, Dead Presidents is overlooked and continues to be dismissed as an important film of that decade. Dead Presidents deals with the issue of how the African American community was brainwashed and used as a political tool by the American military in order to justify a war which no sensible white middle class American teenager wanted no part of. When Anthony arrives back in the Bronx after serving his country he is criminally neglected by society and the establishment, and after his low paid working class job which involves slicing up meat for the local butcher falls through, he is forced to turn to crime. Anthony's reward for his service to his country is a life sentence and imprisonment - he is a victim of deep political and social inequality but not even his family seem to understand the price which he is made to pay for youthful idealism. Dead Presidents is one of the few films made in Hollywood which looks at the Vietnam war through the perspective of the African American veteran and this in itself is a triumph and represents for the time being the best of the Hughes brothers and what potential they once had as film makers. Will they rise again and articulate the frustrations of the black community like they did in the nineties? Or have they compromised any artistic integrity they did have when they made From Hell? For now the black voices which made Hollywood cinema so vibrant and relevant in the 90s continue to remain silent.

IT'S WINTER (Directed by Rafi Pitts, 2006, Iran) - Another Masterpiece from Cinema Iran

Many new waves have emerged from the different corners of the globe over the last 20 years including Latin America, Mexico, Iran, Korea and Romania which is currently leaving a lasting impression on film festivals and art house audiences with a string of post communist social critiques. Of course, all new wave cinema owes a significant debt to the post war Italian neo realists like Rossellini and De Sica who continue to act as revolutionary figures of socialist cinema. Romanian cinema today shares a number of parallels with the work of the Iranian new wave that dominated world cinema for nearly a decade including the adherence to a strict neo realist agenda that covers both stylistic and ideological principles. Though Iranian cinema is not the force it use to be, it is still busy producing it's fair share of neo realist films each year. It's Winter, directed by an emerging talent who trained in London - Rafi Pitts, was released in 2007 and once again reconfirms the potency and understated poetry of Iranian film making. The narrative centers around the the story of a mysterious stranger called Mahrab who appears out of nowhere, much like the Clint Eastwood apparition in High Plains Drifter, only the context is radically different, that of contemporary Tehran where unemployment is causing frustrated workers like Mahrab to make the choice of having to leave to go abroad to find work. Iranian cinema is a pure cinema because everything about it is narrowed down to a simplicity that is strikingly evident in the episodic plots, working class characterisation and unobtrusive mise en scene. It's Winter unfolds as though the events and people occupying the frame are actually real and organic, observing details with a clarity that are representative of a documentary approach. What makes this film so powerful is the ending which is exactly what the narrative builds up to for nearly eighty minutes, culminating in a moment of such beauty and authenticity that it stays with you for a long time. Most of the best examples of world cinema typically employ the technique of non closure or aperture as some narrative theorists like to say, as a way of refusing to offer easy explanations and answers to the desperate situations faced by people. The final imagery of the snow covered railways tracks, the dead body, the wooden crutch and the train pulling away from Mahrab all adds up to become something much more than just film making. Though realisation arrives quite late for Mahrab, it does so with a measure of grace.

14 March 2008

THE MIST (Dir. Frank Darabont, 2007, US) - An Intelligent Horror Film

When Shawshank Redemption was released in 1995 it was dismissed by audiences but received quite warmly by critics who delcared it to be one of the best films of the year and an exceptional prison movie. The culture of DVD and the internet were the real saving grace of a film that has gone on to become a cult classic and one of the most popular films ever made. Since Shawshank, Darabont has only made 3 films; The Majestic, The Green Mile and most recently, The Mist. Apart from The Green Mile which had the advantage of Tom Hanks in the main lead, none of Darabont's films can be considered commercial successes, which is very strange considering he is one of the more interesting film makers working within the mainstream today. Darabont did the predictable thing after Shawshank which was to return to the prison genre and adapt another Stephen King novel for the big screen. The Green Mile, a gentle and moving story about Death row, confirmed Darabont's expertise with exploring the conventions of the prison genre. The film was a great success and stands alongside Shawshank as one of the great prison movies. Two prison films meant that Darabont was quickly faced with accusations of directorial limitations and his next project, the ill fated Jim Carrey collaboration, The Majestic, sunk without a trace at the box office and was equally mauled by the critics. The Majestic takes place in small town America in the 1940s and plays out against the backdrop of the McCarthy witch hunts. Jim Carrey plays a communist scriptwriter who is struck down with amensia and ends up being mistaken for a war hero. The Majestic is Darabont's homage to the whimsical Frank Capra films of the studio era and exmaines how cinema can play a central part in bringing people and together in times of crisis. Last year saw the release of Darabont's latest feature, The Mist, which is another Stephen King adaptation. The film has not done well commercially and neither was it received embracingly by the critics, many accusing Darabont of not being able to sustain the narrative and striking a false note with an ending which has provoked an ambivalent audience reaction. Though The Mist is not a prison movie, it does repeat a key Darabont thematic motif, that of imprisonment - people are forced to take shelter in a supermarket as they battle a mist which has been a consequence of a military experiment. Making a horror film in the age of parody and pastiche is a difficult task but Darabont succeeds brilliantly in adapting Stephen King's novel to the screen with an exceptional degree of intelligence and informed understanding of the genre. The Mist opens with a poster of the classic John Carpenter horror movie, The Thing, underlining Darabont's intentions to revitalise a genre which has slipped quite destructively into torture porn mode. Apart from the brilliantly executed set pieces with some of the most inventive use of CGI I have seen in a long time, Darabont taps into our current anxieties to do with the rise of right wing religious fundementalism within American society. This element is evocatively and disturbingly underlined in the religious demagogue played superbly by the embittered actress, Marcia Gay Harden, who sees the mist as a form of punishment from God. It is the conflict between the forces of athesim and fundementalism that pushes forward the narrative towards a shattering finale which seems to suggest that without hope neither the believer or non believer can live to see another day. And it is hope which seems to bring together the films of Darabont. Once again, it seems quite odd why the studio has not pushed this film as aggressively as they should have and you can sense a similar fate awaits the movie in the UK when it arrives on these shores later this year. The Mist is a rare genre film - an intelligent and moving horror film which does not treat the audience with contempt but asks them to question what role religion has to play in times of uncertainity and an age of secularism. It also contains one the creepiest spider sequences I have seen in a Hollywood horror film in a long time.

12 March 2008

1999 - The Year That Changed Everything?


Whenever Hollywood has a good year of quality movies being released, critics always refer back to the New Wave films of the 1970s that came from directors like Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick and Robert Altman. Though the 70s may be a defintive decade in terms of artistic output and is also the closest Hollywood has come to imitating European cinema, 1999 has become a much celebrated year for the new generation of film makers which dominate the Hollywood landscape today. Directors like Wes Andersen, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, and Alexander Payne all cite the formidable influence of Francis Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' on their work and it is interesting to reflect upon how the critical reputation of this epic war film continues to grow with each year. For me 'Apocalypse Now' is the still best Hollywood film made outside the studio system, I say this purely because no other film maker has been brave enough to risk their wealth, reputation and health just so they could get a personal project made. Many continue to criticise Coppola for his later years in the 1980s but that one film is one of the greatest American films ever made, and like Citizen Kane, it continues to influence more film makers than any other film that came out of the 1970s. 1999 was a crucial year for Hollywood film making as it did signal a significant turning point, launching the careers of many of the most important film makers working in the mainstream of Hollywood today.

Here is my list of the ten most definitive films of 1999: (in no particular order)

1. FIGHT CLUB (Director - David Fincher)

2. THREE KINGS (Director - David O Russell)

3. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (Director - Sofia Coppola)

4. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Director - Spike Jonze)

5. ELECTION (Director - Alexander Payne)

6. BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Director - Sanchez & Myrick)

7. MAGNOLIA (Director - Paul Thomas Anderson)

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (Director - M Night Shymalan)

9. THE INSIDER (Director - Michael Mann)

10. AMERICAN BEAUTY (Director - Sam Mendes)

7 March 2008

MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS - Wong Kar Wai's first American feature

When word got out that the closest director we have had to Jean Luc Godard was preparing to make his American feature film with the folk singer, Norah Jones, everybody including myself seemed slighly preturbed and mystified by such a bizarre casting decision. Premiering in Cannes 2007, it has taken a while for Wong Kar Wai's latest film to secure distribution in the UK but ever since it's savage reception with the French critics, My Bluberry Nights has struggled to find distribution in the UK especially when the schedules have been crammed with yet more high concept drivel. Then it is of little surprise that the film only ran for one week before it was shoved into a late night slot, unintentionally relegating it to immediate cult status amongst the Hong Kong master's enthusiastic fanbase. Nevertheless, now that the controversy surrounding the film's delayed release has somewhat taken a back seat, I am happy to report that the film should be viewed as an expertly directed compendium of Wong Kar Wai's greatest stylistic trademarks, signatures and motifs. This is the director's homage to the American road movie and though many have been critical of the intentions behind the project, it is another effective mood piece which demonstrates how Wong Kar Wai's spellbinding choice of music has not diminshed in anyway. It is also a beautifully shot tribute to film noir, a genre which has always lingered in the visual landscape of the director's best films. The theme of chance, bittersweet relationships, slow motion, melancholic lovers, death, and everything else that makes Wong Kar Wai's film's so special and unique are clearly evident in a narrative that follows the character of Norah Jones who travels across America in an attempt to try and forget a relationship. Though this is not in anyway the best work Wong Kar Wai has produced, it still manages to beat out most of the American films released in 2007.

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE - Is torture an acceptable part of society?

'Taxi to the Dark Side' is yet another documentary which forms part of a series of post 9-11 critiques on the implications of the supposed war on terror and the illegal occupation of Iraq. Unlike Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield who tend to bring a degree of controversy and media attention to their work, Gibney's understated approach is altogether more impartial and neutral. It is rare to come across a documentary today which doesn't extenuate the performative mode and allow the opinions and political ideologies of the director to come to the foreground. Using the tragic case of the murder of an innocent Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, Gibney explores how torture has become embedded within the US military and more importantly condemns the role played by politicians and leaders in advocating a problematic legal position. Ultimately, Gibney puts together a fascinating and ugly catalogue of war crimes which were sanctioned by a chain of command that was corrupt and meaningless. The real coup of the documentary was being able to get access to the torturers and perpetrators involved in the murder of Dilawar. Recalling the noble intentions of Kopple's 'Winter Solider' document of the 1971 Vietnam Veteran hearings on atrocities being committed in Vietnam by American soldiers, Gibney gets on camera the personal testimonies of soldiers like Damien Crosetti, one of the principal interrogators at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan, with a truthfulness that very few political documentaries have been able to capture appropriately and authentically. Co financed and commissoned by the BBC4 Storyville Season, Taxi to the Dark Side recently walked away with the Oscar for the best documentary feature. This is perhaps a significant documentary and though it has been overshadowed by the likes of Sicko, it will probably find somewhat of a limited audience when it finds it way on DVD later this year.