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Celebrate Holi with a Splash of Colors and Indian Cinema

Celebrate Holi with a Splash of Colors and Indian Cinema

Spring is the season of Holi, the Indian festival of new beginnings. A feast for the senses, this ancient March holiday — also known as the festival of colors — is most widely known for its joyous throwing of red, blue, green and yellow powder on friends and strangers alike, something akin to a celebratory nationwide food fight. This year, the colorful festival falls on March 25, the day after the religious celebration, Choti Holi, or small Holi in which bonfires are lit to symbolize the victory of light over darkness on March 24. 

This time of renewal is perfect for many Americans to share in a new beginning as well and discover the South Asian film industry of Bollywood. Since the debut of Bollywood’s first “talkie,” a romance called Alam Ara, in 1931, Hindi films have been sensory rich in their own right. Known for family-friendly narratives set against picturesque settings, the films often include memorable songs and elaborate dance numbers. You may have caught a glimpse of Bollywood spectacle in American hits Moulin Rouge, which remixed the famous Indian film song Chamma Chamma and the end credits of Slumdog Millionaire

Bollywood — a fusion of Hollywood and Bombay (now Mumbai), the heart of Hindi filmmaking — need not be overwhelming for newcomers. And while Hindi films are often romances, with hundreds of movies released annually, there are diverse genres that align with all your Hollywood favorites. (For instance, anyone discarding Hindi movies as merely lighter fare should check out the trailer for the 2023 Indian box office smash Animal, an action film currently making waves on American Netflix.) We strongly echo what Bong Joon Ho, director of the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, said in his acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” As Holi approaches, we recommend the following movies to those new to Hindi cinema. Welcome to the vibrant world of Bollywood.

‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995)

The longest-running movie in Indian cinema history, the romantic comedy Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“DDLJ” as fans know it, or “The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride” in English) stars a young Shah Rukh Khan, today considered the king of Bollywood, alongside his love interest Simran, played by the mononymous Kajol. In the film, the duo fall in love on a European trip; Raj then travels to India to stop her from marrying another man and to win Simran’s family’s blessing to wed her himself. After the success of DDLJ, Khan and Kajol co-starred in several more films — but only this one has run continuously at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir cinema since its release in October 1995.

‘Lagaan’ (2001)

Starring Aamir Khan, another Bollywood megastar, this sports-underdog drama earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in 1893, during the era of direct British rule over the subcontinent, Lagaan (“Land Tax”) is the tale of a small village beset by drought and high taxes from the crown. When a British official proposes a wager of three months of taxes on a cricket match between English players and the villagers, Bhuvan, played by Khan, sees an opportunity for financial relief. Now all he has to do is teach his fellow villagers how to play the game.

‘Monsoon Wedding’ (2001)

This iconic wedding dramedy set in Delhi is one of the highest-grossing foreign films in U.S. box office history. Monsoon Wedding is in part about culture clashes amid preparations for an arranged marriage. There are overbearing parents, a wedding planner who seems to be doing anything but planning a wedding and — oh, right — a monsoon. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival, thanks to the madcap comedy you might expect from this sort of setup — but also for the drama that comes in tackling social issues and hidden family dynamics you might not. Intertwining multiple storylines, Monsoon Wedding feels as relevant and identifiable today as it did when it debuted nearly 25 years ago.

‘Jab We Met’ (2007)

A classic road-trip Bolly-rom-com, Jab We Met (“When We Met”) shifts traditional Hindi film tropes by casting the man as the damsel in distress. When a depressed businessman on a train (played by Shahid Kapoor) suddenly finds himself seated next to a gabby stranger, Geet Dhillon (played by Kareena Kapoor), fate pairs the two for the remainder of their travels — including a visit to meet Geet’s family and entanglements surrounding her elopement plans. While the storyline is simple, the film’s undeniable charm lies in the sincere performances of its stars. Additionally, the soundtrack, composed by the mononymous Pritam, continues to endure with hits like Mauja Hi Mauja.

‘Mauja Hi Mauja’ (2007)

3 Idiots’ (2009)

While it has since been surpassed, upon its release 3 Idiots set the record as the highest-grossing Bollywood film ever. It features Aamir Khan as a free spirit who forms an unlikely friendship with two uptight fellow students at a prestigious Indian engineering academy. This coming-of-age satire traces their lives over the span of a decade, as they navigate love, loss and the pursuit of “success.” The film gained widespread popularity, partly due to its takedown of higher education in modern India and by emphasizing the values of learning that transcend social status.

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