Your Bollywood romance starts here
If you want to get into Indian films and TV but don’t know how, here are some of the best online offerings.
For many of us, Bollywood cinema tends to be the invisible elephant of the UK film market. Vast in output and popularity alike, it’s nonetheless a difficult scene for dilettantes to keep pace with. Media coverage and criticism is scarce, not least because mainstream Indian releases are rarely screened for the press – or perhaps this cause and effect should be reversed – and breakout crossover hits are rare. That makes simply knowing what to see tricky before matters of access come to the fore. With marketing materials as one’s principal guide, one crystal-encrusted musical or strutting street-war thriller looks much like another.
The world of streaming, then, is an ideal way in for the Bollycurious. It may not make the mass of material much more critically navigable, but the convenience of it all enables a lot more enjoyable trial and error. The most obvious port of call is Netflix, which has been beefing up its Bollywood selection for a while before jumping in – as is the network’s wont in all areas these days – with some originals of its own. Later this year comes underworld miniseries Sacred Games, adapted from Vikram Chandra’s sprawling novel and directed by swaggering genre stylist Anurag Kashyap – already represented on Netflix with the tough-skinned Ugly and the deranged serial-killer film Raman Raghav 2.0. His TV saga will aim to lure both Indian audiences and subtitle-happy viewers of crime fare in the Gomorrahmould.
On the film front, Netflix recently premiered the polished romcom Love Per Square Foot. It’s daintily appealing and approachable, though if you’re looking for a sweet, breezy Bollywood gateway, it’s a mere paper doll beside the more fully-fleshed delights of Queen. A sparky feminist finding-yourself story of a jilted bride who opts to go on her European honeymoon solo, Vikas Bahl’s film lightly hits its western-style story beats while presenting a distinctively indigenous point of view – it should be better known across cultures. On a heftier note, the riveting, Oscar-nominated colonial cricketing epic Lagaan enjoys a higher profile, but is still underseen; Netflix has you covered there too.
More schooled fans of Indian cinema might prefer to browse Spuul, a dedicated Bollywood streaming service with separate sections for Tamil and Punjabi titles – note that English subtitles are not a constant here – and varied subscription options, as well as a small section of free-to-stream titles. Not knowing quite where to dive in, I chanced upon a special playlist compiled in honour of screen icon Sridevi, who tragically died, aged 54, last month. I was unfamiliar with her work but understand the outpourings of grief: she’s a veritable human lighthouse in the winningly sudsy 1989 melodrama Chandni. The film’s ostensibly a love triangle, but I could only concentrate on her corner.
If your tastes run more vintage than that, however, make a beeline for the BFI Player, where their crystalline restoration of the ravishing 1928 silent epic Shiraz: A Romance of India is now available to stream. First unveiled at last year’s London film festival, it’s a genuine jaw-dropper, dramatising 17th-century Mughal ruler Shah Jahan’s building of the Taj Mahal with formal sweep and swooning heart and a glorious new score by sitar queen Anoushka Shankar. You can practically see the deep jewel tones through the pristine black and white. It’s as good a place to start your Bollywood exploration as any.
New to streaming & DVD this week
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
What seems like a grande dame showcase for Annette Bening, above, as faded Hollywood siren Gloria Grahame, is sneakily, sexily stolen by a never-better Jamie Bell as her unlikely scouse lover.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
At last, a superhero origin story to get on board with. This sly dig into the polyamorous private life of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston is witty, grown-up and beautifully acted.
(Modern Films, 15)
If you’re tickled by the prospect of Cate Blanchett in a ludicrous baker’s dozen of disguises reciting the manifestos of Marx, Breton and Werner Herzog, this oddball art project is practically a religious experience.
Shirley: Visions of Reality
Another gallery piece, Gustav Deutsch’s exquisitely staged experiment constructs a series of painstakingly Edward Hopper-inspired live-action tableaux. The narrative throughline is contrived, but it’s a rich, disorienting visual experience.