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A beginner’s guide to Bollywood: cult classics to add to your must-have list

Dramatic close-ups, fierce hair flicks, perfectly choreographed dance routines and explosive colorful scenes – all in a day’s work for Bollywood.

As South Korean director Bong Joon-ho said, “Once you break through the subtitle barrier an inch, you’ll discover so many more amazing films.”

A portmanteau of “Hollywood” and “Bombay”, the Bollywood genre refers specifically to the Hindi-speaking sector of India’s massive film industry. However, there is more than one language in India – Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and many more – all of which have their own film industries.

If you’re a Bollywood newbie, this list of the industry’s greatest classics is your ultimate primer.

So make yourself comfortable and pour yourself a cup of chai – not “chai tea” – which literally translates to “tea tea”.

A few points to note:

First, Meet Bollywood’s Golden Triangle

Get ready to lose all control of your emotions as you laugh, sing, cry and dance to these three industry gems.

1. Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham (2001)

What is the translation? “Sometimes happiness, sometimes sorrow.”

For many newcomers to Indian cinema, Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, or K3G, is known as the “gateway film”.

You won’t find a single Bollywood fan who doesn’t know this.

The 2001 cult classic has a running time of three and a half hours. (Provided: Dharma Productions)

The leader of this 3.5 hour cult classic is Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan.

With its timeless songs and moving story about family, pride, love and social prejudice, K3G is one of Bollywood’s greatest films – an absolute must to start with.

Synopsis in one sentence: Years after his father disowns his adopted brother for marrying a woman of lower social status, a young man goes on a mission to reunite his family.

Song to remember: Bole Chudiyan — when you hear the first note of this song on the dance floor, you know it’s about to go down.

2. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

What is the translation? “Something is happening.”

Sounding like an 80s pop culture musical with a twist of grease, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a movie for a lifetime and for all ages.

From the same man who helmed K3G, Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is renowned for the stunning performances of, again, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol Devgn. Their on-screen chemistry will easily give Rose and Jack a hard time.

A promotional photo for the Bollywood film, Kuch Kuch Hota
Two love triangles years apart: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai achieves chemistry like no other film(Provided: Dharma Productions)

Synopsis in one sentence: Anjali is heartbroken when her best friend and secret crush, Rahul, falls in love with Tina. Years later, Tina’s young daughter attempts to fulfill her mother’s dying wish to unite Rahul and Anjali.

Song to remember: Ladki Badi Anjani – we haven’t even pressed play and we already have tears in our eyes.

3. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)

What is the translation? “Tomorrow may not be here.”

A movie you can watch once and still stick in your head days (or years) later.

Kal Ho Naa Ho is a teardrop and will have a lasting impact on you.

A hand-to-mouth girl finds new meaning in her life when she meets her new neighbor.(Provided: Netflix )

Once again, Shah Rukh Khan steals the show and delivers a magnificent performance in this film that has it all: comedy, romance and tragedy.

The moment you try to stop crying, another scene begins and you start over. Seriously.

Synopsis in one sentence: An introverted MBA student falls in love with her charismatic new neighbor who charms her troubled family. But he has a secret that forces him to push her away.

Song to remember: Kal Ho Naa Ho — a song about mortality and cherishing the present moment? Get out your vision boards, everyone.

4. Doom (2004)

What is the translation? The Hindi word for noise, meaning to create a commotion.

Let’s shake things up with an adrenaline rush. Experience India’s own Fast & Furious: Dhoom.

Filled with high-speed chases, extraordinary camerawork, and technical effects magic, Dhoom is a highly entertaining watch with insane visuals and high-energy songs.

A promotional movie poster for the Bollywood film, Dhoom
An action-thriller at the edge of your seat, Dhoom is filled with non-stop, suave fun – just look at the outfits. (Provided: Abhishek Bachchan)

Synopsis in one sentence: A mysterious biker gang is robbing Mumbai. A policeman calls on a motorcycle mechanic to help him with the case. Time is running out, it’s up to them to catch the criminals in the act.

Song to remember: Doom Machale — movements, beats, energy. It’s all here, folks.

5. Dil Chatta Hai (2001)

What is the translation? “The heart yearns.”

A romantic comedy that does not lack drama. Dil Chatta Hai is a heartfelt coming-of-age film that follows the lives of three college friends as they try to navigate life and love after graduation.

Picking up the National Film Award for Best Hindi Feature Film, Dil Chatta Hai has been described as a breath of fresh air.

A promotional poster for the Bollywood film, Dil Chatta Hai
Akash goes to Australia, Sameer deals with courting a girl and Siddharth devotes himself to art.

Synopsis in one sentence: Three inseparable childhood friends have just graduated from college. Nothing separates them until they fall in love, when their very different approaches to relationships create tension.

Song to remember: Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe — Justin Timberlake called, he wants his Rock Your Body music video back.

6. Koï… Mil Gaya (2003)

What is the translation? “I found someone.”

One of the most unlikely couples: Bollywood and science fiction.

Hrithik Roshan plays a young man trying to continue the work his father did communicating with space aliens, which leads to something miraculous and wondrous.

With a blue, childlike alien who also doesn’t speak at the center of the plot, Koi Mil Gaya closely resembles Steven Spielberg’s classic ET.

An image of a scene from the Bollywood film, Koi Mil Gaya
The star of Koi Mil Gaya: an alien named Jaadu.(Provided: Netflix)

Synopsis in one sentence: A young man with an intellectual disability tries to continue the work his father did communicating with space aliens, which leads to something miraculous and wonderful.

Song to remember: Koi Mil Gaya — we can’t help but feel some slight Twilight vibes in this one.

7. Monsoon Wedding (2001)

You’re invited to a big, big Indian wedding.

Bursting with vivid shades of red, orange and yellow, Monsoon Wedding’s opening credits are every bit as breathtaking as its story.

An image of a scene from the Bollywood film, Monsoon Wedding
The BAFTA-winning film tells the story of a father trying to marry off his daughter in the traditional way. (Provided: Netflix)

A blend of Hindi and English, Monsoon Wedding is a portrait of a dysfunctional modern upper middle class family in Delhi.

Director Mira Nair doesn’t beat around the bush in presenting viewers with the reality of the situation, while treating it with dignity and realism.

Oh, it also won the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film. Not serious.

Synopsis in one sentence: A story set in India’s modern upper middle class, where telecommunications and a Western way of life intertwine with ancient traditions, such as the arranged marriage of a young girl, who accepts when she ends a affair with a married television producer.

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