Mainstream Masala: 5 Off-Beat Bollywood Movies to Get You Started

bollywood cinema delhi bellyMovies are an integral part of India. There are a range of filmmaking centres across the country, the most famous being Bollywood, which is focused primarily on the production of Hindi movies. But there are other regional “woods”, like Tollywood (Bengali), Kollywood (Tamil) and Mollywood (Malayalam) amongst others, all of which produce movies in their respective regional languages. In India, cinema touches many people, and the movies they watch are often split broadly into two categories: mainstream and “off-beat” cinema.

Mainstream movies are your run of the mill Bollywood productions. They either use well-established or upcoming stars, are light on story (often containing a bunch of plot holes), and have song-and-dance routines. Typically these are “happily ever after” films, and are meant for enjoyment with friends and family as a welcome break from the drudgery of life. Their main motive is to reach out to the average moviegoer and make as much money as possible.

Off-beat films can also be referred to as Parallel Cinema or art movies. These are not your average light-hearted productions, and they often shun the typical song and dance routines, which makes them less accessible to the average Indian audience member. These movies generally aim to be thought provoking, and dark. Some may make you laugh, but will utilise black comedy or satire to do so. Typically they deal with realism, or the morals and motivations of characters. Of course, these films generally don’t perform particularly well financially, but frequently receive significant critical acclaim.

Since people need to develop a taste for such movies, sometimes off-beat productions are made with a touch of “mainstream masala”. This may be in the form of famous and popular actors, the addition of songs that go with the plot (but do not have uncalled for group dance sequences), or some sweetening of the story line. I would like to share five such movies with you that I believe are a must watch in order to develop a taste for the more serious “off-beat” subgenre.

Dev D (2009)

This is a modern adaptation of the old Bengali novel Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, which has been famously adapted for the big screen on several occasions. In the novel, Devdas and Paro are childhood friends, and develop romantic feelings for each other after Devdas leaves his village for schooling. When he comes back, he is not allowed to marry Paro as she is from a family of lower status. While Paro moves on, Devdas drowns himself in alcohol at the home of a young woman named Chandramukhi, with the help of his friend Chunni. Soon Chandramukhi develops feelings for him, but Devdas does not return them. The alcoholism eventually takes its toll, and he visits Paro one last time before he dies.

This modern adaptation is quite different. Paro (Mahie Gill) is much more confident and bold, unlike the soft-spoken character in previous versions. She can match Dev (Abhay Deol) in his passion and desires him physically just as much as he does her. While the parents approve of his match with Paro, a misunderstanding causes the jealous Dev to avoid marrying her. Paro harbours no more feelings for him and moves on.

The character of Chandramukhi (Kalki Koechlin) on the other hand, is a teen who has to move when her boyfriend spreads compromising images of her taken on his phone. When this becomes public, her father commits suicide out of shame. She ends up living with her father’s family in a village, but is unable to come to terms with the culture shock and misogyny, and runs back to the city where she becomes a prostitute under Chunni, before eventually encountering Dev.

What is wonderful to see is how both female leads are presented as strong-willed and ready to take control of their lives. The movie has a wonderful soundtrack by Amit Trivedi, which complements the psychedelic take on the novel.

Aks (2001)

Aks is the story of Manu Verma (Amitabh Bachchan) and Raghavan (Manoj Bajpayee). Manu is a cop assigned to protect the Indian Defence Minister on a foreign trip. Raghavan is a skilled (albeit psychopathic) assassin who subsequently manages to kill the minister. Manu and his partner team up to catch Raghavan, however this costs the partner his life. Soon after Raghavan is sentenced to death, and a fight breaks out between Manu and Raghvan in which they end up shooting each other. While Raghavan is presumed to be dead, his soul latches on to Manu and attempts to overtake his body. The movie is about the internal conflict that ensues, and Manu’s attempts to save his family and his world from the evil spirit within. The movie features wonderful performances by both the lead actors.

No Smoking (2007)

Directed by Anurag Kashyap, this is one of the lesser-known Indian movies to utilise a fantasy dream world. Kay (John Abraham) is a chain smoker, and a narcissist. His wife (Ayesha Takia) cannot deal with his habit anymore and threatens to leave him unless he quits smoking. Left with no option he is lead to a rehab centre called the Prayogshala (Laboratory in Hindi) by his old friend Abbas (Ranveer Shorey). Here he signs a contract with the titularly abundant Shri Shri Shri Prakash Guru Ghantal Baba Bangali Sealdah Wale (Paresh Rawal), acknowledging that he will do anything to quit smoking. Things escalate, and the guru is soon blackmailing Kay into completing his task with threats of violence against both Kay and his family. These threats include exposing Kay’s ill brother to toxic amounts of cigarette smoke, cutting off the fingers of his wife, and eventually threatening to take her life. One he realises that the Guru’s disciples have infiltrated his life, Kay must come up with a plan to escape. The movie uses lucid dreams, the concept of karma and notions of the human soul as well.

 Delhi Belly (2011)

An air-hostess (Shenaz Treasurywala) agrees to deliver a package for her colleague’s friend when her colleague is unable to do so. She asks her boyfriend (Imraan Khan) and his debt-ridden roommates (Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapur) to complete the delivery. What the airhostess doesn’t know is that the package contains smuggled diamonds which are to be delivered to a local gangster. In a series of unfortunate events, the bumbling roommates manage to mix up the package with a stool sample. Hence the name Delhi Belly. Taking this as an insult, the gangster kidnaps the airhostess, and the film is primarily about the hilarity that ensues as the roommates sell off the diamonds and try to rescue the girl. This is one of the few Bollywood movies to have most of its dialogue in English, with a generous serving of Hindi curse words thrown in.

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Set in the Wasseypur and Dhanbad cities in the Bihar state, Gangs of Wasseypur was shot as a 319 minute long feature, before ultimately being split into two more digestible films. When Sardar Khan’s (Manoj Bajpayee) father is killed by Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), a coal magnate and politician, Khan swears that he will have his revenge by ruining Singh’s life rather than killing him. Khan soon becomes a gangster in his own right, but is killed before he can take his revenge. Ultimately, it is Khan’s son (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), spurred on by his mother (Richa Chaddha) who must take on the family business and try to exact the vengeance his father couldn’t.

More than simply being about revenge, this film deals with the politics of the region and how people come together or fall apart. This one is a must–watch sprawling epic, with a narrative that spreads over a gargantuan thirty years.

About the Author

Hrishikesh is an Automobile Engineer based in Gujarat, India. He enjoys cooking and loves eating chocolates. He believes that he doesn’t have enough time to read all the books that, and watch all the films and series that he wants to. He blogs at http://andiwrite.com where he posts his short stories, and shares his recipes. 

12 thoughts on “Mainstream Masala: 5 Off-Beat Bollywood Movies to Get You Started

  1. Pingback: Numbers in Movie Titles: From One to Twelve - CURNBLOG

  2. I echo the other comments, Hrishikesh. We are very narrow-sighted in the States about most things beyond our shores. We only recently became aware that Japanese film had more to offer than Kurusawa-style Samurais, and I think we are still a long way off from seeing beyond Bollywood musicals. So this is especially helpful for someone like me, who is very ignorant about the breadth of Indian cinema.

  3. Thanks for this introduction to some of the more unusual films from your country. I confess that I usually cannot stand ‘Bollywood’ productions, for the very reasons that they are popular; the songs and dancing. To my European eyes, it just never works, and seems out of place, and very dated. Of course, these criticisms do not include the work of classic directors like Satyajit Ray, and Shekhar Kapur, as they are on a different level altogether.

    However, two of your suggestions, ‘Delhi Belly’ and ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, seem a lot more approachable, and I will try to see them.
    Thanks for an interesting post Hrishikesh. It is good to see you on Curnblog, and to get a take on the industry from the point of view of someone from the Indian sub-continent for a change.

    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • I think this has a lot to do with the fact that most of our films use song and dance as an essential part (whether they contribute towards the story or not, is a different thing). Which is why many people here are not comfortable watching films without them.. Kangana Ranaut, a Bollywood actress who is well known for taking up characters who others wouldn’t once said that she does Masala Movies to earn her bread and butter, because people like her family want movies that have some laughs, two good songs and an exit from their everyday life

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