Writer Priya A. Desai’s family has lived in Los Angeles for generations and was one of the first Indian families to settle there. Her newsletter, “Curated” (found at PriyaADesai.substack.com), rounds up the must-read, -see, or -do on everything that touches her bi-cultural lifestyle, from books to movies to “vibes.” Given the subject of Desai’s newsletter, we thought it’d be smart to ask her about another critical aspect of Desi culture, Bollywood films. Desai tells us that Bollywood is the national pastime. “It’s not like it’s an also-ran next to five other pastimes, right? It is the national obsession,” she says, owing in part to the worldwide economic success of the art form. For those of us who are new to Bollywood films, Desai says she might define them as “the most camp Broadway show you can imagine, combined with the most epic Hollywood film.” Desai walked us through five “buckets” of Bollywood films.
From the 1970s to early ’80s, Desai says, the most successful movies either dealt with impoverished brothers who were separated in childhood and then later reunited or a single actor who played two or three roles in the film. In each of these tropes, look for the actor Amitabh Bachchan. Two films that stand out to Desai are Amar Akbar Anthony – three brothers get separated at birth and end up practicing Christian, Hindi, and Muslim religions, respectively – and Don, in which Bachchan plays three roles.
Love stories set in Switzerland
In this famously neutral country, there are streets and villages named after the famed Indian director Yash Chopra, who set many of his films there. “I think it gives you a sense of, like, kind of aspirational India, what it hoped it could be,” says Desai. Her two Chopra picks are Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila.
Love stories, 2.0
According to Desai, these are the movies in which Bollywood begins to recognize the contribution of the Indian diaspora. “[This is] a Bollywood director’s vision of what it’s like to go to high school or prom. For most of us Indian Americans, it was like the worst night of our lives because we were not in the mix, necessarily, right? We were watching.” Director Karan Johar “picks up where Chopra left off” in these two films: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
“Sweeping song sequences, incredible sets, and histrionics set historically,” says Desai, help Indians to experience “a resurgence of pride and kind of historical context” in this category of Bollywood filmmaking. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a master of these works, with the films Devdas and Bajirao Mastani.
Contemporary Indian Bollywood
Director Zoya Akhtar is Desai’s favorite director. “If you want to understand the progression of Indian cinema,” Akhtar is the one to watch, says Desai. In particular, look for Gully Boy and streaming series Made in Heaven.