sarhar udham needs international recognition as a film and history

I have always liked Vicky Kaushal as an actor, but I can’t say I expected to watch one of his performances and think, “This guy needs an Oscar” until I saw his performance in Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham. Dear members of the Academy, please at least nominate this man.

Unfortunately, it is too late for the movie as a whole to go to the Academy Awards next year. An Indian film jury passed on selecting the film as India’s submission this year. I am sure the film they did select, Koozanghal, is amazing. It has been added to my “to be watched list.” The reasoning, however, for not selecting Sardar Udham is interesting. According to one member of the jury their reasoning was, at least partially, that the film “projects hatred toward the British.”

Reader, I come to you as a self-confessed and recovering anglophile to say…so?

There may be many reasons related to the craft of filmmaking that led the jury to believe that Koozanghal is the stronger entry. Sardar Udham is very long and not all the performances stun like Kaushal’s. But to not submit the film because you don’t want to hurt a former global empire’s feelings? An empire that perpetrated, covered up, then excused away not just the massacre depicted in the film but the systematic economic, ecological and human destruction of societies across the Global South? Make them watch this film! Otherwise, it and the atrocity and its center are doomed to continue to be, as the film puts it, a footnote in our history.

What makes this all the worse, is that the film was quite nuanced in its depiction of British people. Much of the film takes place in London, where Udham Singh lived for years prior to (SPOILER ALERT) assassinating O’Dwyer. Even a British cop gets a bit of a full-circle moment. Where the film is unflinching is in its condemnation of British imperialism, a sentiment that is wholly uncontroversial anywhere outside Britain itself.

It is a real shame that Sardar Udham may be denied the full measure of international attention it deserves in order to spare the sentiments of a defunct empire who, yes, really did all those bad things, no matter how many miles of rail they left behind.

I am not entirely sure how “the Academy” works, but perhaps Kaushal at least can get some accolades for this role and, by extension, the real life revolutionary Udham Singh. Far too few people outside India know what happened at Jallianwalla Bagh and films like these should be considered must-see viewing, not uncomfortable, irrelevant, period pieces.

Sardar Udham is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Mimi review: Are Summer and John 2021’s biggest villains?

A funny, heartwarming, and modern story about what it means to be a parent.

When I watched the trailer for Mimi earlier this week, I thought the movie had already given away all of its twists, but boy was I wrong. I really, really enjoyed this movie. Kriti Sanon and Pankaj Tripathi are a comedy duo that I did not anticipate playing so well off each other and, once again, Hindi cinema shows it has the deepest bench in any film industry when it comes to actors playing parents. Supriya Pathak in particular amazes me every time, because I still see her cutting off Deepika Padukone’s finger in Ram-Leela (2013) and here she is again playing the long-suffering, kindly mother.

The movie had me hooked, though, with the casting of Summer and John, a white American couple searching India for a woman “healthy” enough to be a surrogate mother for them. They are played by Evelyn Edwards, an American, and Aidan Whytock, a South African who also attended boarding school in England. I was just fascinated to see an American character whose Hindi language capabilities were actually realistic (I’m looking at you, Lagaan). Summer has a thick American accent when she speaks and it is clearly a textbook- driven Hindi. I jumped up and said, “That’s how I speak Hindi!” The accuracy was welcome, because it seems that English speaking roles are either filled with white people who do not speak English themselves or the white actors are given lines in Hindi that are too advanced to be believable (Elizabeth started learning Hindi at the beginning of the movie!). This is not a plea for representation, far from it. I was just pleased to see that these performances were unlikely to take me out of the story.

That said, Summer and John are the worst people in the world and they should not be parents to any child. I won’t elaborate on this until the spoiler section below. But the roles of Summer and John bring up a lot of questions about the ethics of surrogacy, adoption, and even abortion.

As for the rest of the story, I usually get exasperated with cases of misunderstanding and forced conflict. But the humor in Mimi was never taxing. I especially liked the struggles Mimi and Bhanu (Tripathi) face when hiding in her friend Shama’s (Sai Thamankar) Muslim neighborhood.

There is really only one song in this movie, the pseudo item number in the beginning where we learn that Mimi is a very accomplished dancer in her Rajasthani town. It was forgivable but also forgettable. Even without many songs, the movie stretches beyond two hours, with a late third act conflict that resolves itself fairly quickly.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and will likely watch it again. I am also becoming something of a fan of Kriti Sanon and am excited to see what she does in the future.



Well into Mimi’s pregnancy, her doctor in Jaipur in forms Summer and John that their child has Down Syndrome. This is obviously extremely difficult news and parents of disabled children do have to go through a process of re-imagining their futures that can be painful. Summer, though, simply decides she does not want this child. She is desperate to be a mother, but apparently only to a “normal” child. Summer and John are well-off, established people who have asked a young woman to carry their child and, due to a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, they run off, telling Bhanu that Mimi can abort the child. Excuse me? Even in the most relaxed regulations concerning abortion, it is far too late for that and disability is not an acceptable reasoning in any case. They leave Mimi in the final trimester with their child and run back to the United States. I hate them.

Mimi is told by the same doctor that parents often abandon surrogate mothers and this drives home a question I had from the beginning of the movie…how ethical or moral is it to tour around poor areas of a country offering money to desperate women to bear your child? The film seems to come down on the side of adoption over surrogacy, or at least cautioning people to be careful about surrogacy, especially with foreign parents like Summer and John. The surrogacy industry in this movie has the air of a flesh market and it is troubling to say the least.

Mimi delivers the baby, a healthy baby boy named Raj (Jacob Smith) who, as it turns out, does not have Down Syndrome. In the 21st century I am not sure how common it is to misdiagnose something like this, but for now we just have to go with it. Mimi loves Raj and we see a very sweet montage of Mimi and her family and friends raising this obviously white child as their own. Then, four years later, here come Summer and John to say they want their son. When I tell you I was shouting at my television...where, exactly, do these people get off? Would they have come looking for Raj if he had been disabled? The movie kind of drops this question in favor of emphasizing the theme of what it means to a be a parent with the moral being that biology is far less important than care and love.

Summer and John appear to learn this lesson, to the extent that two narcissistic sociopaths who weaponize their mental health to manipulate people can. They adopt a little girl in Rajasthan named Tara. The movie wants us to see this as a happy ending. Little Tara better not have so much as ADHD, or she’ll find herself back in the orphanage.

Maybe I’m going a little too hard on Summer and John but they clearly do not want to care for a child as much as they want to “be parents.” They’re the worst. But I love the way this movie brought up questions around motherhood, parenthood, class, race, religion…all of it. It just kind of leaves some of those answers for a later day.

Haseen Dillruba: true love is a little murder-y

One thing I will say about this one…it keeps you guessing.

Haseen Dillruba is a movie about a terrible marriage, but it is also about love and lust and what happens when two people with very unstable mental health refuse to have simple conversations with one another.

The movie opens with the death of the male lead, Rishabh (Vikrant Massey), in a gas explosion. His wife Rani (Taapsee Pannu) immediately falls under suspicion. Her vicious interrogations with the police serve as the framing element for the story of this ill-fated marriage.

In the first third or so, Haseen Dillruba is a cute but cautionary tale about projecting your own desires and assumptions on to a partner. An alternative title for this portion could have been, “Disappointment.” Neither of these people are bad, nor are they perfect. She’s a little stuck up and he’s a little naive. They want intimacy but put forward no effort to cultivate it. They speak past each other and run from their problems.

It’s not that Rishabh and Rani were not in love enough to get married. It’s more that they were not mature enough. She’s a worldly Delhi girl and he’s got an engineering career with a lot of responsibility, but these two exhibit all the emotional intelligence of a pair of chickens. The movie knows this and that is why I thought this movie was a cautionary tale wrapped in a murder mystery. That is, until the murder became the act of love.

The performances in Haseen Dillruba were great. Rishabh’s parents stole their scenes, particularly his mother (Yamini Das). The whodunit mystery component held its secrets to the very end. I also liked that it takes place post-wedding. These people are falling in love, yes, but they are also already wed for life. This makes the love triangle of the second act that much more illicit.

People get married for the wrong reasons all the time, particularly when pressured to do so. In the most beautiful iterations of this story, they learn that love is about selflessness, kindness, and shared values. In this film, it is about obsession and shared toxicity. I am not sure how much more I can say without getting into spoilers, but I will say that my biggest qualm with this story was not its violence but the idea that people self-immolating themselves and others was somehow heroic.

If you, like Rani, enjoy pulpy murder mysteries (and don’t get too caught up in logic) you should definitely give this twisted romance a watch.

“Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” May Have Helped Me Finally Understand B-wood Nepotism

The more you learn about the Bollywood film industry the more you realize how deeply connected and related seemingly everyone in the business is. Some continue to offer denials (“At least my dad was never on Koffee with Karan”) but recently more have turned to spirited defense (“Well, why not? Many things in India work this way.”) While most agree that nepotism is endemic to the industry and say that it is at least somewhat problematic, it can be difficult to fathom exactly how this huge, famous group of friends families actually operate.

However, while binge watching Netflix’s “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” this winter, I felt like I was finally witnessing an aspect of Bollywood celebrity that had eluded me as someone who is not Indian and does not live in any kind of proximity to these stars. There are a couple of instances where I found myself literally saying, “OHHHHH.”

First, if you don’t know, “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” is a reality show in the style of “Real Housewives” that follows the wives and mothers of Bollywood actors, including one woman who was an actor herself. Maheep Kapoor is wife to 90s star Sanjay Kapoor and sister in law/aunt to the mega-star Kapoor clan that includes Anil, Sonam, Arjun, and Janhvi Kapoor. Maheep’s daughter, 21-year old Shanaya, is hoping to “debut” in films soon. Seema Khan is/was the wife of one-third of the super star Khan brothers, Sohail. She is a designer with her own fashion label. Bhavana Panday is wife of 90s star Chunkey Panday and mother to recently debuted Ananya Panday. Bhavana also has a fashion brand. Finally, Neelam Kothari was herself an actress in the eighties and nineties and is now an accomplished jewelry designer. She married TV star Samir Soni in 2011 and they have a small daughter. Unsurprisingly, the show is produced by self-styled King of Bollywood Nepotism Karan Johar. Like many Bollywood fans, I have a like-hate opinion ofKaran Johar, but we will put that to the side.

Over the course of the show I came to genuinely like these women and I could see the difficult balance they try to strike between being matriarchs of B-town and also having identities and achievements of their own. They are proud of their part in the film fraternity but they carry it somewhat uncomfortably. Therefore, they want to highlight their businesses and professions. But this risks making them seem like bad homemakers, so the ladies insist non-stop throughout the show that nothing in the whole galaxy could matter to them more than their children. In the first episode, these declarations escalate from “my children are my world” to “my children are like my internal organs.” (paraphrase)

The four women have the usual reality show manufactured spats, interspersed with glimpses of their homes and families and faaaaab vacations. Maheep and Bhavana try to support their daughters as they debut into society. Seema frets over her university-age son and keeps quite busy with her fashion company. And Neelam ponders re-entering the film industry. Which brings me to my first revelation.

  1. Why audition when you can be beautiful instead?- This one I actually knew already. But it frustrated me all over again. When discussing a possible return to films with director Ekta Kapoor, Neelam absolutely balks at the idea of having to do an audition. She may have been out of the industry for over twenty years, but directors and producers are supposed to trust her based on her former work. Ok…fine. Established actors do get to sidestep a traditional audition process, especially in B-wood. A couple of episodes later, though, Neelam recounts how she got her first role in the eighties. Director Ramesh Behl saw her at a fellow director’s birthday party and thought that she had the right “look” for his upcoming film. She was 16 years old. Again…fine, I guess. Plenty of famous women in any industry broke in by being “noticed.” But usually that’s the exception. For women, the path into Bollywood goes straight through beauty and connections with nary a stop at talent or language ability. The fact that India has turned out so many great actresses is a testament to their ability to learn on the job and rise to the occasion, not to the quality of the selection process. So, why should 51 year old Neelam audition when sixteen year old Neelam never did? What about the Neelams working at the tea stalls and not partying with directors? Alas, we will never know.
  2. Not everyone in Hindi films speaks Hindi- I have absolutely no authority or inclination to judge someone on whether or not they speak Hindi or any other Indian language. I will say that I did not realize before watching this show that when Indian friends said to me, “Those stars don’t even speak Hindi” they didn’t mean, “Those stars prefer to speak English.” They meant they don’t speak Hindi. Which you have to admit is a bit odd for people who want to be stars in Hindi films. I think it’s true that most of the Bollywood fraternity can and do speak Hindi, but it is still surprising to hear that some just flat don’t. Shortly into the series, Maheep invites her nephew and movie star Arjun Kapoor over to talk to her teenage son about his desire to be in movies. Arjun tells him he’ll have to learn Hindi, because he hardly speaks a word of it. The boy can hardly say two words in any language and appears uncomfortable on screen, but his opportunity in films is guaranteed, regardless of whether he improves or not. What else could he want to do? What else could he know? In the Kapoor family there is films and there is films. So into films he goes. This alone would not be the most bothersome thing in the world if not for the thousands of young men with acting, dancing, and language chops who will never even make it into the room with a director much less have them on dad’s speed dial. Could they do as good or better in movies? Alas, we will never know.

3. If SRK was not your babysitter, you are already behind. This was the true moment of revelation. In the last episode of the series, the uncontested queen of Bollywood Gauri Khan throws a bash for her friends in the industry. It’s equal parts swanky get-together and family reunion. Something about seeing everyone in the same room, the inner sanctum of the fraternity, finally got it through my head. They run this industry. It is theirs. You may was well try to become one of the Koch brothers. Everything made by those outside this circle is “independent.” This is Bollywood. At the end of the night there is a staged scene in which the King, Shah Rukh Khan, gathers the women of the show around them and holds court. They reminisce about their younger days. It was actually quite sweet. You can see the magnetism SRK has and the way he holds the room. The younger generation (Shanaya Kapoor and Ananya Panday) joins in and remember the trips they took as children with the Khans as far as London. Gauri remembers how they would leave the children with Shah Rukh and how good he was with them. And just like that, I fully understood that if you want to be anyone in Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan himself was not your babysitter, your best friend’s dad, you are already behind.

“Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” helped me empathize with B-town celebs, particularly those in the show. I genuinely felt for Maheep and Bhavana as they worried about the outright bullying directed at their daughters. We peek into their world and see their reality and understand that they can’t fully see the privilege and nepotism that runs their lives because it is the air they breathe, the water they swim in. Their lives and families are the Hindi film industry. There is no them without it and there is no it without them. All else is “outside.” All others are “outsiders.” It’s not “who do you know,” it’s “who are you.” Others have known this for a long time, but Fabulous Lives, finally gave me a window into the film fraternity and I can only say…it’s worse than I thought.

What happened when I finally watched Lagaan

I loved it. The end.

Ok, fine that’s not the end.

Lagaan was everything I expected it to be both from what I had heard from fans, and from what I knew about the scope of Ashutosh Gowariker films (my first Bollywood movie was Jodhaa Akbar). Lagaan manages to be grand and intimate, universal and local. It’s about the British Raj, but it’s also really about this village and this cricket match. They are the microcosm for the history of colonialism in India.

There’s not a whole lot I can say that hasn’t already been said repeatedly and eloquently. It’s a good film! It looks good, it sounds good, the actors are exceptional, the story is timeless (empire, poverty, and sports??), and nuance isn’t completely tossed out the window. I’ll take a few points that stuck out to me as a viewer.

White folks (who speak Hindi)

I always get a kick out of seeing foreigners in Bollywood films, if for no other reason than it provides a much needed opportunity to see yourself through the eyes of a different culture. Usually, these characters are hilariously overdrawn and the performances could only be called acting in the loosest definition of the term. People are picked off the street because they look right for the part and you get a woman who clearly does not know English playing the American one-night-stand girl or something like that.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not because a) I didn’t come here to see white folks and b) y’all don’t owe us a thing. Still, in a movie that wants to be taken seriously and has the Raj at its center, you’re going to need actually convincing performances from actually English actors. Lagaan very nearly pulls this off with the casting of Paul Blackthorne (bit cartoonish) and does pull it off with Rachel Shelley. It’s great that they showed Raj officials speaking at least some of the local language, because that is accurate to the history. I would like to know more about Blackthorne’s Hindi preparation, because he was clearly coached through. As for Rachel Shelley’s Elizabeth, I found it impossible to believe that she went from not knowing one word of Hindi and struggling hideously with the name Bhuvan to being able to differentiate between the past tense, the perfective tense, future tense, and even compulsion (not to mention her exceptional vocabulary). How long was she supposed to be in Champaner again??

Caste and religion

Does a movie like Lagaan get made in 2019? Although you could argue it’s a bit shoe-horned in, Lagaan makes an effort to present a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, casteless society. Everyone prays for rain, everyone has a hand in the team’s victory, everyone is part of the community, part of India, at least in the end. I just don’t know if that would be as appreciated now, or if it would called pandering to the PC army. Anyway, it’s a nice element to the film. If anything, there could have been more.


The soundtrack to the film is gorgeous. I especially loved “O Paalanhaare.” That song captures so much magic in its subject, its melody, and in its performance by the legendary Lata Mangeshkar. Beautiful. People like to mock Bollywood songs becoming devotional ones, but for me this makes the case that the best devotional music may be coming out of Bollywood anyway.

Other songs like “Chale Chalo” and “Ghanan” have become part of the national songbook of India. I heard (and may have tried to dance to) “Chale Chalo” at the Wagah Border Crossing. It’s exuberant and fun and just iconic.


I came for the historical setting and cultural importance, but I stayed for the sweetness, inspiration, and, of course, music. I’m about twenty years late, but there’s no wrong time to watch Lagaan.

Bollywood’s politics

Bollywood stars contradict the idea that celebrities lean left.

Bollywood stars contradict the idea that celebrities lean left.

In the U.S., it is just the assumption that celebrities lean left, some further than others. I subconsciously took this assumption with me as I became interested in Bollywood and Indian celebrity, just as the Modi years were kicking off. Bollywood already at most was apolitical but, since Modi took office, many of those in the film industry have become ever more closely aligned with the Indian state, particularly as it functions under a charismatic, nationalist, majoritarian leader.

I watched as actors breathlessly took photographs with the Prime Minister in his office. I watched as film after film released, espousing strongly nationalist, hyper masculine understandings of Indian history and events. I listened when stars parroted problematic rhetoric about the state of minorities. These new movies make Lagaan look like the fever dream of a multi-culturalist. Still, I had the naïveté to be floored when Vivek Oberoi announced that he would play P.M. Modi in a biopic set to release at none other time than during India’s months long elections cycle.

A group of people who just had a serious and bracing conversation about the role of the arts in Indian, particularly Hindi-speaking Indian, society.

Putting my issues with biopics about people who are a) very much alive and b) still working in the careers depicted, this movie was clear-cut propaganda. There would be no nuanced portrayal of Modi’s early life, his marriage, his governorship in Gujarat, or his devout faith. It is hardly a biopic and more a hagiography, as was quite clear from the beginning of its promotions. Just as liberal actors and producers in the U.S. are accused of doing with the radical left, the Indian film industry seems to be throwing its power and influence behind the explicitly pro-government, hyper-nationalist agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Patient zero: Akshay Kumar

It’s become a bit of a meme now that any and all accomplishments by India will shortly after be made into a film starring Akshay Kumar. In the past few years, the actor has almost exclusively made films about war heroes, local humanitarians, police officers, athletes, and historical figures. Even in other roles, he’s likely to take a break from lover/leading man to wax poetic on things like the invention of the numeral zero by an Indian. (see, Desi Boyz) Akshay Kumar movies assume that the West’s biggest problem is misconceptions about India, when the West’s biggest problem is not thinking about India at all. More on that some other time perhaps.

Look, I like Akshay Kumar. I like that he highlights Indian history and accomplishments (shout it from the rooftops!). But the messages often lacked nuance and now he’s not just a patriot, he’s morphing in to a mouthpiece of the state. In the weeks before this year’s elections, Akshay released a “politics free” interview he conducted with P.M. Modi, in which they discussed such pressing topics as favorite fruits, feelings of anger, and the common cold. The eye-rolls of Indians at this reverberated around the world, but Akshay protested that he was simply humanizing the country’s leader, giving the nation a break from politics and such exhausting exercises as asking hard questions of the most powerful man in a country of 1.2 billion. If his movies did not have such a clear bent toward BJP policies and hyper-masculinist nationalism one could almost think it a sweet gesture. But why not humanize Mamata Bannerjee or Rahul Gandhi (well let’s be honest, he probably shouldn’t talk more).

Who’s your favorite Care Bear?

To go back to a comparison with the United States, there are often accusations that Hollywood shuts out and persecutes conservative voices, that it alienates their ideas, and shunts them off to the Hallmark Channel and movies produced by Bible Belt megachurches. What happens, then, to Indian celebrities that criticize any part of the Indian state or society? Because it seems the situation now is that not only is Modi off limits, any pointing out of issues within the country is read as hostile and anti-national.

Celebrities, like any other citizen of a democratic nation, are allowed to and should have their own opinions and ideas and they should take those with them to the ballot box. They can even express those ideas in public and in their art. But citizens who have an enormous amount of influence over others (especially this many others) should be circumspect about allowing their own views to supplant the real backbone of democracy: open, informed, discourse.

More Women in Bollywood You Need to Know

A while back I started a post about the women in Bollywood everyone unfamiliar with the industry should know and, honestly, I left it woefully incomplete. Here in no particular order are more of the fascinating women working in Bollywood that any newbie should know and that fans of Bollywood might like to know more about.

Anushka Sharma- Since her debut alongside Shah Rukh Khan in 2008’s Rab ne Bana Di Jodi, Anushka Sharma has succeeded in resisting conventional roles in her films. Her assertive personality and intelligence shine through in characters who, though beautiful and certainly interested in falling in love, refuse to “sit still and look pretty.” More recently, Anushka reunited with Khan to play a paraplegic astrophycist with a bizarre relationship with Khan’s film obsessed little person in Zero. Look, I said it was unconventional, not good. Movies like Zero aside, Anushka is considered one of the most talented actresses in Bollywood, having won a Filmfare award for her work in 2010’s Baand Baaja Baaraat and multiple other nominations. My personal favorite is probably Sultan (2016), but her most intense work can be seen in NH10 (2015), a road trip horror story that I had the misfortune of watching shortly before taking a road trip through Uttar Pradesh. Consider yourself warned.

Madhuri Dixit Nene– Look, Madhuri Dixit is a legend and I am not equal to the task of summing her up in a way that would please her legions of fans. Suffice it to say, she was an enormous star in the eighties and nineties, having all of the traits needed to be not just a succesful actress, but an admired one: incredible beauty and a genuine talent for acting and dancing. She inspired and inspires many young women as performers. And she is still working! Madhuri has a movie come out every one or two years. Last year, she was in the Marathi movie Bucket List as the recipient of a heart transplant who undertakes her donor’s Bucket List. In 2019, she had a leading role in Kalank alongside Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, and sanjay Dutt. Her most well known role may be that of the courtesan Chandramukhi in Devdas (2002). She has gone from undeniable talent to absolute icon.

Tabu – Tabu was killing it in B-town before many of her co-stars were out of primary school. Of the more veteran women in Bollywood, she is one of the busiest and most relevant. Her movie Andhadhun, in which she starred alongside Ayushmann Khuranna, was one of the most critically and popularly acclaimed movies of 2018. Her turn in Drishyam as a police officer investigating the disappearance of her own son is one of my favorites. She has won the National Film Award, Filmfare Award, and Critics Award multiple times in addition to being honored with the Padma Shri by the Indian Government. And, yes, she’s stunning.

Radhika Apte- Radhika Apte has taken the spotlight lately for a few reasons. First, the number of films she has starred in appears to have exploded, particularly for Netflix. So much to that it kind of became a meme. She also spoke out about gender and wage disparity in the industry and was a victim of the leaking of personal videos. But more than anything she has been and should be recognized for the quantity and quality of her work. In 2018 alone, she could be seen in Pad Man, Sacred Games, Lust Stories, Ghoul, the Wedding Guest, Andhadhun, and Bazaar. However, it’s not just the quantity of Radhika’s work, it is also the quality. She has emerged as one of India’s most respected young actors. Memes aside, we will see much more of her in the future.

Sonam Kapoor is perhaps as well known as a fashion icon and socialite as she is an actor. She has a clothing line with her sister (who is also a producer) and routinely walks in fashion shows. Like many of the most famous B-town stars, she has a family history in the industry. Her father is nineties hero Anil Kapoor, her uncle is Boney Kapoor. Sridevi was her late step- aunt and her cousins include Arjun Kapoor and Janhvi Kapoor (herself recently debuted). Sonam is notable for taking firm public stances on causes that the values, championing them in her work and appearances. In 2018, she starred alongside Akshay Kumar in Padman, a movie about menstruation. Most notably, she and her sister Rhea produced the 2019 film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha toh Aisa Laga, perhaps the first mainstream representations of a lesbian romance in Bollywood history.

Alia Bhatt has emerged over the last few years as one of the most critically loved Bollywood heroines. Even in films that are panned, her work tends to be praised. Her father was a filmmaker and her mother an actress. Her debut came thanks to Karan Johar’s Student of the Year in 2012, when she was just 19. Johar has launched many so-called star kids, and Alia had to overcome doubt about her talent due to accusations of nepotism and memes calling her unintelligent after she flubbed a question about Indian government on Johar’s TV show, Koffee with Karan. While the nepotism charge is real and relevant in Bollywood, especially where Johar is involved, the jokes about her intelligence hit pretty hard. Thankfully, Alia carried on working and snagged some great parts, meaning jokes about her are now met with, “Yeah, but did you see her in Udta Punjab??” rather than jeers. Her official debut may have been Student of the Year, but it’s Highway from two years later in 2014 that began to prove her talent and taste for more serious roles. She cemented this with Udta Punjab in 2016, a heartbreaking movie about drug addiction in Punjab, in which Alia plays a village girl caught up in a terrible trade. Alia also has a great track record in masala romantic comedies, with the jodi of her and Varun Dhawan being especially popular. This year, she packed a double punch with roles in critically acclaimed Gully Boy and visually lush historical drama Kalank. Alia is one of the younger actresses working right now, so we have many years left to enjoy her work!

What is a “masala” movie?

The Hindi film industry produces films in every genre: comedy, drama, horror, romance, documentary. However, the type of movie the industry is most known for is probably the “masala” movie. The term “masala” literally means “spice.” What does this mean in cinema? Masala movies are a bold mixture of many different genres, usually romance, comedy, and action accompanied by songs. When most people picture “Bollywood” they are thinking of a masala movie.

One effect of putting so many genres into one film is that there can be several sudden, sharp turns from comedy to tragedy and back again. However, a formula quickly appears. The film will open with the hero going about his daily life, with hilarious antics. Likely his family life is exaggerated. Early on, he will catch sight of the heroine and decide immediately to pursue her. This is sometimes more tastefully done than other times (see, eve teasing). The first half may be dedicated to their love story and the second half to an insurmountable issue. This can be between the male and female lead, or it can be something else entirely. An example of this might be the very recent film Simmba (reviewed here). In Simmba, the first half is about a lovable crooked cop who falls in love with a caterer. The second half is about a hardened police department that goes after perpetrators of a vicious rape. Not all movies have this 180-degree turn. For instance, there is one of my favorite movies of 2018, Love per Square Foot (Netflix). Love per Square Foot is masala done gently.

Interspersed throughout the movie will be songs, and the songs also follow a pattern. There must be an opening dance number, a dance number with the male and female lead, and a credits song that is there really only for the radio. Among these will also be the love song, sappy and probably set in Switzerland. Some masala movies lean toward action, some toward romance, some toward comedy. But they will have these songs and they will all have some kind of coupling with a man and woman.

The Raichand family house in Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gham

A defining feature of a masala movie is its lack of realism. The action sequences especially throw the laws of physics completely out the window. People fall in love over a song. The wind is always blowing in the direction of the heroine’s luscious locks. In the nineties and noughts, masala movies were known for featuring families of incredible wealth. Recently, they have been moving back toward depictions of middle and even lower class people, to whom some extraordinary things happen. I, for one, like the fantasy. People often get interested in Hindi cinema because of these movies, because they are so different from what they are used to.

What do you mean you don’t dance in fields while on a trip to transport your maid’s ashes?

The first masala movie I watched and the second Bollywood movie I saw was Veer-Zaara, with Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta. I have since found other movies that I like much more, but I can’t deny how much I enjoyed this one when I first saw it. People will say it was Shah Rukh’s “chocolate boy” antics, or the cross-national love story, or the songs…I really can’t tell. I just know that watching it felt like seeing a different, weirder, but more pleasant world. And that’s even with the fact that Khan spends the whole second half in a Pakistani jail.

In 2002, a writer for The Hindu wondered where the non-masala, what he calls “genre” movies had gone. He may be pleased with the direction that Bollywood seemed headed in 2018. Many masala movies are of course still being made and bringing in loads of fans and money and topping the charts with their songs. However, “genre” movies have seen an uptick in popularity. In my opinion, this is because viewers crave a more serious and what some may consider more respectable kind of movie that sticks to a theme and does it very well. Actors are known for doing both. Ranveer Singh just starred in Simmba, but earlier this year he received accolades for his role as Alauddin Khilji in the historical epic, Padmaavat. It is not a coincidence that the breakout actors of the last couple of years have a wide-ranging repertoire from films that could be considered quite niche to total crowd-pleasers. Look at the career of Vicky Kaushal. He is absolutely terrifying in horror film Raghav 2.0 and then he is sweetly wooing Angira Dhar in Love per Square Foot on Netflix, then he is Sanjay Dutt’s best friend in the highly popular masala flick, Sanju.

The actor that could give a master class in this kind of flexibility, though, is Alia Bhatt. I saw her for the first time in Badrinath ki Dulhania, a modern masala movie that updates many of its attitudes about women while still maintaining the masala formula. But Bhatt’s breakout rule is usually agreed to be the moving “road” movie, Highway. And in 2018 she stunned in the spy drama Raazi (which Kaushal was in as well).

Some of the worst Bollywood movies I’ve seen were masala, but so were many of my favorites. Bollywood will continue to be an industry that produces films across a diverse array of genres, but will likely always be known for its own unique masala.

2018 Bollywood Movies You Can Watch on Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime seems to be leading the way on (legal) streaming of Indian movies. They have 173 pages of results for the search “Hindi movies” and many of them are from just this past year! Here is just a list of what I found:

Raazi– starring Alia Bhatt, Raazi tells the story of an Indian spy battling with her own moral dilemmas as conflict with Pakistan looms. Raazi was praised for Alia’s performance and its nuanced depiction of the relationship between India and Pakistan.

October A contemplative romance from Shoojiit Sircar starring Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu.

Loveyatri– a small town love story with all the usual conventions as well as a celebration and ode to the art of the Garba. A village boy travels to London to find the girl he fell in love with during the festival season. This movie features one of the most popular songs of the year, “Chogada.” (You’re singing it now, aren’t you?)

Gold -Stars Akshay Kumar in a fictionalized account of independent India’s hockey victory at the 1948 Olympic Games.

Karwaan– This one has a delightful cast of Irrfan Khan, Dulquer Salmaan, and Mithila Palkar. Three misfits meet on the road to exchange the swapped bodies of their deceased loved ones. It’s quirky sure, but works.

Sonu ke Titu ki Sweety   Luv Ranjan’s latest enjoyed a lot of popularity this year and several hit songs. You can see my review of this one here.

Mitron – Like SKTKS, Mitron is a about a man who won’t grow up. His parents arrange a marriage with an ambitious woman and they both try to decide what they want to do with their lives.

“Thugs of Hindostan”

Thugs of Hindostan– This one came out only last month in December and fell completely flat, suffering from a derided premise and the fact that the entire film was leaked online ahead of its theatrical release. The box office returns would not have been great anyway, a real waste of Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan’s first team up.

Dhadak – a Hindi remake of a beloved Marathi film (Sairat) this film served primarily to launch its star kid actor Janhvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khattar.

Satyameva Jayate Wikipedia describes this John Abraham starrer as a “vigilante action film”

Fanney Khan The distraught father (Anil Kapoor) of a talented daughter kidnaps a famous singer (Aiswarya Rai) with the help of his friend (Rajkummar Rao), with whom the singer falls in love.

Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain tells the story of three different couples and their perspectives on love. It’s one of those smaller films that didn’t get the hype, but deserves much more appreciation.

Blackmail – Irffan Khan plays a husband who finds out his wife is having an affair with a younger man and decides to blackmail the couple. Blackmail was promoted as a black comedy but, in my opinion, it’s too gross to land as funny.

A Suitable GirlThree Indian women struggle with their parents’, and culture’s, demands that they marry in this sharp documentary.”

Padmaavat – the most controversial movie of 2018 can now be safely watched from the comfort of your living room. Stars Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh in a historical epic with tragic consequences.

Race 3– this movie may be most famous for its meme-worthy dialogue. It’s another entry in Bollywood’s version of the Fast and the Furious series, with a cast led by Salman Khan.

Pari – This horror film earned Anushka Sharma praise for her role as a woman connected to a demonic cult. Truly scary stuff, but also uncommon quality in this genre.

Hate Story IV– Sex, lies, jealousy, sultry songs. You get it.

Missing – 2018 offered us several horror movies and thrillers, including this one. It stars Tabu, how much else do you need to know?

Hichki – Rani Mukherjee is a teacher determined to inspire and help her students, despite her own struggle with Tourette’s.

Nawabzaade– You know what the world needs? Another comedy where three adolescent guys chase a girl by, among other things, making her cry, breaking into her home, watching her sleep, and stalking her. If that sounds like something you would enjoy (again) you may find a lot to like in Nawabzaade.

2018 Bollywood Movies You Can Watch on Netflix

Many films from 2018 have already hit Netflix, so you can stop risking a virus to watch the most talked about Hindi cinema of the year.

Soorma – starring Diljit Dosannjh, this biopic tells the story of hockey player Sandip Singh, who overcomes incredible adversity to continue playing. It also stars Angad Bedi and Tapsee Pannu, two breakout stars from the last couple of years. It’s a heartwarming story, but Film Companion accurately called it “occasionally watchable.”

Andhadhun– Ayushmann Khuranna has enjoyed some successes this past year, including Andhadhun. This movie enjoyed critical and popular acclaim for its dark humor and suspense. Khuranna plays a man who has witnessed a crime, but there’s a complication. He’s blind. Two of the best actresses in B-town, Radhkika Apte and Tabu make this one a must watch.

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran- Parmanu purports to tell the story of India’s first successful nuclear test in the 1970s. It stars action hero John Abraham and features many rousing patriotic scenes. Ultimately though, this movie lacks critical nuance and would have been better served by depicting the people involved in this achievement accurately rather than giving it the glamorous star treatment.

Sanju – perhaps the biggest movie of 2018, Sanju has Ranbir Kapoor playing the controversial Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt. In the tradition of most Bollywood biopics, it veers too often into hagiography of the living, but on the whole provides an entertaining and well acted watch. You can read a full review here:

Insert eye roll here

Pad Man- This was truly the year of Radhika Apte. In addition to starring in almost everything Netflix made in Hindi, she also starred alongside Akshay Kumar in a movie about the collective menstrual cycles of a nation. Kumar portrays a small town man determined to make a better period product for the women in his community, who are forced to live in isolation and use unhygienic rags every month. Along the way he faces an incredible amount of opposition in even bringing up this issue, particularly from women disinclined to discuss it with a man. Pad Man should be compulsory viewing for men, for whom menstruation is still a horrifying mystery. That said, it’s not perfect. Sonam Kapoor’s pseudo-romance with the lead was unnecessary and unconvincing.

Lust Stories This one is actually four stories from four different directors about modern relationships (read, sex) in 21st century India. Like many 2018 films, it takes a taboo topic and humanizes it across different communities and ages. All of the actors here are among the best currently working, but Radhika Apte and Vicky Kaushal can add this to their list of achievements in 2018.

Love per Square Foot brings Vicky Kaushal in yet again to star alongside Angira Dhar in the story of a couple that makes a marriage of convenience to save money on housing. This movie is sweet and funny with joyful musical numbers. It’s the genre unique to Bollywood done right.

Aiyaary – Despite a decent cast led by Siddharth Malhotra and Rakul Preet Singh, this movie falls short of inspiring near the kind of tension and suspense promised. I did a review here.

Brothers at odds. Or something.

Manto – In Manto, Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the writer Saadat Hasan but it could be said the main character here is the tragic 1947 partition of India and its consequences for a man of letters. Siddiqui is, of course, amazing in the role. This movie shows how to to tackle both biography and history in a film for Hindi-speaking audiences.

Rajma Chawal– A modern Delhi boy and his father try to connect across an unprecedented generational divide in a strange way… the father catfishes his son. Well, it’s not as simple as that. Further proof that you can tell a crazy story while still having believable and honest characters.

Bucket List– It’s always wonderful to see Madhuri Dixit on screen. Here she plays the recipient of a heart transplant who decides to follow through on her donor’s “bucket list” of things to do before death. This one’s actually a Marathi movie but it’s a nice addition to the list!

2018 seemed to be a particularly good year for Hindi-language films, even if they did not escape controversy (remember Padmaavat? Now let’s see what 2019 has to offer!

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