Does it matter that you don’t really understand Hindi or Urdu? Not one bit. For the uninitiated, the term Bollywood connotes India’s mind-bogglingly prolific genre of film typified by increasingly big-budget, synchronized, colorful dance numbers, and, of course, style tableaus. Note the jewelry, check the fabrics, and watch those hips for a dizzying variety of visual storytelling.
Whether high energy or ballad, the talented stars of Bollywood shimmy hybrid moves that go from Michael Jackson to classic kathak in the same sashay. A typical 3-hour Bollywood film features a minimum of 4-5 musical sequences, ranging from lovelorn soliloquies, to boy meets and courts girl, to full on synchronized, blockbuster numbers with fleets of dancers. About 99% of Bollywood musicals are lip-synced to the voices of a key handful of singers whose voices have been featured in Bollywood films for literally decades.
Enjoy this sampling (teeny, tiny sampling) of some of Bollywood’s greatest hits.
1. Movie: Gumnaam/Anonymous (1966)
We start the list with a “lounge club number” which was part of the formula for almost every 60s Bollywood release at the time. It’s not going to make much sense, even with subtitles, but all really you need to know is that the retro crooner with a bizarre resemblance to John Malkovich just wants to get to know a girl.
Song: Jaan Pehchan Ho/Let’s Get Together – clip has English subtitles
2. Movie: Amar Akbar Anthony/*names of leads characters (1975)
In pretty much all of the subcontinent, there is one thing that no one really argues about: Amitabh Bachchan is the King of Bollywood. Colossal superstar of the 70s, he is still acting, with a recent cameo in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and still leads any and every A-list about Indian movies. Also fun to note, the 70s were the kitchiest of all decades in Bollywood, with surreal costuming and borderline avant-garde interpretations of Western styles. The results are out of this world.
Song: Hum Ko Ho Gaya Hai Tumse Pyar/I’ve Fallen in Love with You
3. Movie: Dil Se…/From the Heart (1998)
This track enjoyed some fame with English-speaking audiences because Spike Lee used it in the opening credits of his film, Inside Man. But that doesn’t mean people have seen this stupendous, amazing entry to annals of Bollywood, the “moving train number.” Yes. Watch not only some of the greatest belly dancing you’ve ever seen, but behold teams of dancers volley moves all aboard a meandering train.
Song: Chaiyya Chaiyya/Keep Walking in the Shade of Love
4. Movie: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanaam/My Heart Belongs to Another (1999)
Arguably the most beautiful woman in the world (she won Miss World in 1994), Aishwarya Rai is on the list for this beautifully choreographed “courting number.” Keep your eyes peeled for facial expressions and gestures straight out of Indian classical dance. The title of the song translates approximately into “Impertinent Gazes” and you’ll see why.
Song: Ankhon Ki Gustakhiayyan/Impertinent Gazes
5. Movie: Devdas/*name of lead character (2002)
There was a time when Indian actress Madhuri was the one-name wonder (like Cher, like Madonna) to dominate Bollywood. And here, she teamed up with a yet lesser-known Aishwarya Rai for a stunning example of the “synchronized number,” including classic Indian dance tropes, rich costumes, Mughal-era interiors, and jewels, so many jewels.
Song: Dola Re Dola/Sway, Sway