Movies are a great way to get a visual peek into any country or culture. Ofcourse, movies are not always realistic—there is often dramatization and exaggeration—but they do reveal a lot. Whether you are planning to travel to India for the first time or are an old India, watching movies lets you virtually ‘experience’ the sights, sounds, people and places in the country. While most Indian movies are fun (but forgettable) entertainment with lots of singing and dancing, hamming and fantasy, there are increasingly more and more movies being made which are meaningful and worth watching. Here is a list of movies I loved watching and felt that they make for good viewing for anyone interested in India, especially the first-time traveller. I would love to know if there are any movies you liked and think should be listed here.
Monsoon Wedding, 2001, Mira Nair:
The story takes the viewer into the household of a typical upper middle-class Punjabi Hindu family as it gets ready for the wedding day of their daughter. The big fat Indian wedding is well-known around the world and this gives a good glimpse into it. The marriage is a traditionally arranged one, as are most Indian marriages even now, which is a stark irony to the modern lifestyle of the family. Complex relationships, secrets, a nervous father, a blossoming romance make a great masala mix, not to mention Bollywood song and dance.
I liked this movie because it was an excellent combination of Hollywood and Bollywood style. The story was related in a light, humorous but realistic manner.
'Good girl' Rani is set to get married but her fiance dumps her at the altar. Not only is she heart-broken, but typical middle class morality and conditioning lead her to believe that her life is over.
However, she decides to go for her honeymoon, all alone, to Paris for which tickets were already booked. Travelling entirely alone, she is forced to find herself and be independent. Her adventures, as she transforms from being a pushover to a self-assured individual, breaking out of stifling Indian traditions, is a delight to watch.
Indian movies with women as the main characters are still rare in India. This one was fantastic because it was entirely unapologetic for Rani's character, which doesn't fall into the designated slot for women in cinema or society.
Saroo is a five year old boy who comes from a poor family. He tags along with his brother, who wants to try and make some money at the railway station. He falls asleep in an empty train coach and when he wakes up, finds himself thousands of kilometres away in Calcutta. Frightened and disoriented, he roams the streets trying to find his way home. The true story narrates little Saroo's difficult struggle in a pariah-like city till he finds himself adopted by a couple in Australia. Years later he tracks down his biological mother in India.
This is gut-wrenching story that shows abject poverty, human trafficking and hardships that are a reality that many people endure in the country. Yet it is a story of hope that reinstates the belief in miracles.
Lunchbox, 2013, Ritesh Batra
A mix up in the delivery of a lunch box by the Dabba Wallas of Mumbai, leads to friendship between the widower Saajan and Ila, an unhappy housewife. When Ila discovers that the food she is sending to her husband at work, is infact being delivered to someone else, she sends a note in the lunch box to try to clear up the confusion. This is the beginning of many notes going back and forth and the cementing of a close friendship between them.
This movie is unlike over-the-top Bollywood movies. It's refreshing that directors are changing their story telling to reflect changing Indian society.
Gandhi, 1982, Richard Attenborough:
A must-watch. The story of Mahatma Gandhi and India's freedom struggle has been portrayed with unusual sensitivity and historical accuracy. This is an excellent movie to understand India's painful and long struggle to achieve independence from the British and the subsequent partitioning of the country into West Pakistan, East Pakistan and India. The mild mannered Gandhi advocates non violence and diplomacy as the weapons to fight against the oppressors. Repeated atrocities by the British administration and many jail terms fail to deter him from his path and he carries the whole nation with him. His role a social reformer is also shown as he fights against untouchabilty and discrimination based on the oppressive caste system. The horrifying, traumatic and bloody division of the country that led to the death of a million people and the displacement of many many millions more and the subsequent assassination of Gandhi gives an excellent insight into India's recent past.