The engine came to life with a questionable growl as my family and I piled into my mom’s 2003 Toyota RAV4. I was ecstatic; we were going to go see a movie that night.
I absolutely love movies. Everything from horrors to comedies to international films and black-and-white dramas. The feeling I get from sitting in a theater on opening night, barely holding on to my excitement or my popcorn, is unbeatable.
So when my parents told me that we were going to see a movie, I was elated. My mind was racing, thinking about which film we would be watching. But when I looked out the window, I saw we had already passed the Regal Colonnade, our local movie theater, and were getting on the freeway.
Then it hit me. There was only one theater we would drive across town for, and we made the trip for one thing and one thing only. We were going to see a Bollywood movie.
At that time, I loathed Bollywood movies. Why would I watch a three-hour snoozefest with the occasional musical break when I could be watching “Dark Knight” or the new “Harry Potter” movie? I disliked them so much that I would plead with my parents to let me watch whatever else was playing in the theater instead.
For the longest time, I had it in my mind that Bollywood films would all have the same repetitive story. Boy meets girl; boy charms girl with sweet dance moves; girl is not interested; girl suddenly becomes interested; girl’s family does not approve; but eventually boy marries girl.
Unlike me, my sister adored Bollywood movies. As a kid, and even now, she could go on and on about “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…” or “Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai.”
It was pretty annoying. She’d talk about the actors, actresses, and her favorite songs and dances endlessly. None of that ever really appealed to me, which is why she was amused and a little surprised when I told her that I had watched “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…” I told her that I had a moment of weakness and decided, “Screw it, let’s watch it.” And to my surprise, I actually ended up liking it.
To be fair, you’d have to be a stone-cold monster to not show some emotion when Rahul reunited with his adoptive father after 20 years of social distancing. Was it goofy and over the top? Yes. 100%. Without a doubt. It had slightly too much slow-motion running for my taste. But the film delivered a story about the struggle of balancing individual desires with the wishes of your family in a way that was both emotional and relatable. All my sister said was, “I told you so.” Like I said, she’s annoying.
That was the day I fell down the rabbit hole of Indian cinema, and it’s been a wild ride. I’ve watched amazing films — like “Queen,” “3 Idiots” and “Dangal” — that I would have completely missed out on had I stuck with my old attitude. Some of my other favorites include “Barfi!” and “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.” These are all newer films compared to the classics my sister loved when we were kids, but I found these to be even more compelling because they took risks that the older movies glossed over.
“Queen,” “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” and another movie called “Befikre” had characters travel through Europe and showcased songs that beautifully blended Indian and European culture, like “Señorita” and “Je T’aime.”
“Queen” and “Dangal” highlighted feminism and female independence in a country with a heavily patriarchal culture, India.
“3 Idiots” dealt with mental health issues and suicide due to academic pressure among students — something so common, yet rarely discussed.
Ranbir Kapoor steps out of the normal bounds for an actor in “Barfi!” and plays a deaf and mute man finding love. Sure, these movies took out some of the flashy extravagance of the movies from the late ‘90s and 2000s. But instead, they took a look at deeper issues that real people face and were that much better because of it.
To be clear, I never hated all Bollywood movies. I just hated the movies that told the same cliche story over and over again. They’re the ones that go all-in on the melodrama or the action without remembering to put a decent story in between — I’m looking at you “Tiger Zinda Hai” (a movie solely made to put Salman Khan on a tank while wearing a tank).
My favorite movie of all time is actually a Bollywood movie called “My Name is Khan.” It took serious risks by having the main actor, Shah Rukh Khan, play a Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome trying to navigate the complexities of the United States in a post-Sept. 11 world. It’s a beautiful story that, I’ll admit, makes me cry every time I watch it.
I was talking to my sister again a few days ago, and she told me something about Bollywood that I had never thought about before. The clout that Bollywood stars wield is on a different level — the most famous ones are treated like gods in India. That’s why when stars, like Aamir Khan, make films about stigmas and mental health, it really matters, especially to the ordinary people who struggle with those issues in silence. I thought I enjoyed these movies because they weren’t the usual cliche romance films. Now, I’ve realized that I enjoy them because they actually stand for something.
This new wave of socially conscientious films is not a trend but a sign of what’s to come. As Shah Rukh Khan would say, “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!”
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a first-generation American. Contact him at [email protected]