27 March 2008

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.


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