We’re not gonna lie, Bollywood is pretty amazing. But if you take all your cues on Indian culture from a Yash Chopra movie, you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointment. You probably saw that one coming though, and turned to the more gritty movies by acclaimed directors and producers in recent years, maybe Slumdog Millionaire? Please don’t.
Between the big money Bollywood blockbusters and the well-intended but out-of-touch foreign entries are a handful of moving and eloquent homegrown pieces that tell the stories of people you are most likely to encounter on your trips, the middle-class pencil pusher, the confusedly passionate student, the curious village boy and dysfunctional families that brush dirty secrets under the rug. While the locations may be neither quaint backward villages nor mansions big enough to house a city, if you focus on the people and their relationships, you’ll come to the country more prepared to understand it, both in its multi-faceted history and its convoluted present. I regret that this list has no regional options, as those are not always as easy to find with subtitles.
Released only in 2013, it essays gently the complacency and complexity of the urban Indian middle class. An aging accountant and a young housewife craving her husband’s wandering attention are accidently linked through an error in Bombay’s otherwise infallible dabba system. Their relationship grows in the backdrop of sharing a radio and recipes with the upstairs neighbour, the comforting monotony of a daily commute and fantasies of potential love lost. The story is lovely in itself, but this movie’s particular beauty lies in its details—the unthreaded eyebrows of a woman whose husband does not love her, the creaky ceiling fans of an ancient South Bombay office. Watch it for the subtleties.
Rang De Basanti
Passion, history, pride. A gripping and heart-wrenching film about the journey of a group of college kids making a movie about the Freedom Movement over half a century after its dreams supposedly came to fruition. Tackling the seedy underbelly of political corruption and tracing its tangible and achingly physical casualties on the ground. This movie takes you across North India, infusing you with the history of a proud race, delving into the horrors of Partition and religious conflict and will finally ask, if after all that sacrifice and bloodshed, are we finally a free country? And if not, how many more lives must we give? Watch it for the power-packed emotion.
Famously the one to kick off the trend of ‘authenticity’ in Indian film, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece lays out the rural life in a simple and straightforward story. A tale of siblings hungry for entertainment in a sleepy village, the politics of cramped living quarters, the social unbalance that results from income hierarchies and the parental burden of providing and caring respectively. Nearly half a decade has passed since its released, and a lot has changed, but is, as always, the same. Watch it before you decide to trek out into the rural countryside and ‘get to know the real India’. Watch it to know who you’re dealing with and not confuse interest with pity.
Granted, a major part of this movie was shot in Paris and Amsterdam but it’s not just Europe, it’s Europe through Rani, the mould that all urban Indian girls are cast from. Left at her own wedding when her boyfriend suddenly decides she isn’t ‘modern enough’, Rani, her name meaning Queen, decides to go off on her honeymoon anyway and meets all sorts while there. To understand her grapple with the woman she thought she would be, and the woman she discovers herself to be capable of being is to understand the expectations and limits set to so many like her, and maybe see your own place as a woman travelling to India. Watch it for the context it’ll provide.
If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the big cities, this is a great way to dive into what you might consider the dichotomy of the upper-middle classes. Rich, educated, urbane, but still outrageously sexist and oppressive towards their own. This movie is simultaneously hilarious, colourful and shocking as one man’s attempts to throw his daughter a big Punjabi wedding he cannot afford churns up memories of sexual abuse, a budding romance and a young boy’s punishment for leaning too far into the demarcated realm of women. As a traveller you might meet young people at bars and cafes of this category, and this movie will help you understand the grey shades of their backgrounds and maybe keep you from passing judgement too soon. Watch it for the honesty.
Gangs of Wasseypur
Action packed and haunting, this makes an appearance on any list with the word authentic in it. Set in the mafia-ruled Badlands of Jharkhand it watches three families battle it out for control over the local coal supply through gun warfare, seduction and dirty, dirty politics. Anurag Kashyap’s 5 hour long multi-starrer had to be chopped into two halves for the general public after being screened as a whole at numerous film festivals. The brilliant cinematography and chase scenes mean that it’s easy on the eyes and the cuss-laden dialogues and sure to keep your adrenaline pumping. Watch it if you’re looking out for some of that classic third-world grit.