Feminist, nonfiction, &c. Hindi films/TV recommendations
January 13, 2022 5:12 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to watch some films or TV shows that include a lot of characters speaking Hindi. I enjoy the big-budget song-and-dance you get in fictional Bollywood blowouts, but I often dislike the romance plots because the men treat women so condescendingly. Like, right now, I'm in the middle of watching Kal Ho Naa Ho and started yelling at the screen when Khan's character got all "you need to learn to smile" at the female lead. So can you recommend some alternatives?

I'll share my criteria and examples of Hindi films/TV I've liked or disliked.

I'm interested in:
  • engaging non-fiction, such as Supermen Of Malegaon, about people making stuff
  • no-romance fiction about people working hard to achieve important things and help others, such as Newton and Dangal and Sui Dhaaga: Made in India (the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory is another good example here); the non-romance parts of Lagaan and to a lesser extent Swades would come in here
  • feminist fiction in which there is a respectful romance where everyone treats each other well, such as the BBC TV adaptation of A Suitable Boy
  • historical docudramas
  • heists and counter-heists, especially stories of discovering and catching insurance fraud
  • science fiction
  • scenes/stories/location shots outside of India so I can enjoy an Indian perspective on those places
What I'm particularly trying to avoid: romance where either of the romantic leads acts like a jerk for a big chunk of the film (e.g., Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Dil Chahta Hai) or where these two people should not be in a relationship at all (such as Main Hoon Na).

I also found Bombay Velvet and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! pretty forgettable and violent, and was disappointed in how Door Ke Darshan didn't nearly live up to its inspiration (Goodbye, Lenin!, which I really liked).

I will pay attention to these 2019 recommendations and it's likely I'll try Chak De! and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga. I also have heard recommendations for Secret Superstar and Queen so will likely queue those up as well.
posted by brainwane to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I don't understand Hindi.

Bollywood Movies That Broke Stereotypes might start you out with some ideas. I've seen Pad Man and thought it was very good, but of course, that was from several years ago.
posted by blob at 5:52 AM on January 13

Piku is about a woman played by Deepika Padukone and her relationship with her elderly, irascible father played by Amitabh Bachchan. There's a love story thread but it's quite understated. I enjoyed it.

Gully Boy, mentioned in the 2019 recommendations thread you linked, is really, really good.

Aaja Nachle centres a female character, played by Madhuri Dixit, who plays a divorced (!) mom (!!). She returns to her hometown to save the dance theatre where she trained from being demolished to make room for a shopping mall. I can't remember too much about the film, but I remember the love story angle being quite subtle.

I've heard good things about English Vinglish, about a married woman played by Sridevi who enrolls on an English course because her family make fun of her poor English speaking skills. I haven't seen it, but it seems like it would meet your criteria. I think Queen would as well.

Older movies that may fit:

I saw Jab We Met ages ago, but I remember liking it a lot as being just a sweet love story between two people (played by Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor) who were both pretty nice and deserved to be happy. Plus the songs were good.

Parineeta is based on the Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. It stars Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan in a slow burn romance between childhood best friends and neighbours. Saif Khan's character is something of an idiot, but I still found this story very heartwarming. The songs are lovely as well.

Edit: Oh, oh! The Lunchbox should be up your street as well.
posted by unicorn chaser at 6:17 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

Hmmm i haven't gone back to watching that many Bollywood after completely swearing off the whole industry after the one-two punch of Devdas followed by Mohabattein so I feel you.

But over the years, I've still managed to catch a few that i would recommend based on your criteria:

- Toilet: based on a true story of a guy who went on a quixotic quest to install a toilet in his village home for his wife. Glossy because it IS Bollywood but it's got a nice story of a man devoted to his wife and basically talks about female sanitation poverty issue.

- Neerja: can confirm i cried to this based-on-a-true-story as well about the Air India stewardess who was instrumental in taking down a plane hijacking.

- Malang: a thriller which subverted the fridged wife trope. I especially liked the songs which were mainly ghazal/sufi music but unfortunately for rl political environment reasons (i think) they couldn't fully credit the Muslim/Pakistani original artists

- Chennai Express: it's ... Okay, but at least the female lead didn't enrage me and for once a more recent SRK movie that doesn't make me want to throttle him. A LOT of Northern stereotypes about the South, so if you wanna see the nonsense the northerners tell themselves, it's a pretty interesting pop culture artifact. Shah Rukh tries to do Rajni.

But you mentioned 'indian perspectives' so i now wonder if you're using Bollywood as a catch-all term instead? If you are, i feel a bit more steady in my following recs for the movies from the southern movie industries:

- Mahanati: not exactly *my* favourite but this Telugu movie got accolades and deservedly so. It's a biopic about Savitri who was a star in the 60s iirc and famously also married (and betrayed) by this other superstar, Gemini Ganesan.

- Mandela: a sweet and affecting parable about a low-caste guy in the village who discovered he literally was the tiebreaker vote in the upcoming elections. His love interest isn't really played up as such, and it's this really fierce postal office worker. This one is in Tamil.

- Jagame Thandiram: also Tamil and a bit like a Guy Ritchie crime drama, the female lead is a Sri Lankan Tamilian refugee in the UK. This is relevant because it's about the intersection of crime, human trafficking, and also the impact of civil war. Very stylish despite all the Messaging.

- Enthiran: you can try this one which is the Tamil original or the Bollywood cover which is RA.One. I'm mostly recommending it for the bonkers SFX though.

- Baahubali: yes, i will never stop recommending this movie (which is actually two movies). Based on your criteria, you have to watch it for Sivagami and Devasena.

- Paadmavat
- Devdas
- Mohabattein
posted by cendawanita at 6:23 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

Sherni? Lipstick under my Burkha?

There's also the whole genre of course of old school slapstick "fails the Bechdel test completely!" which at least avoids the cringey 90s/00s sexism: Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, etc
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:28 AM on January 13

Oh! Disregard the second half of my recs then, i should've reread the first half of your question! Let me have a deeper think and browse my history and I'll update if i got anything. (ETA: Baahubali does have Hindi versions on Netflix tho, fwiw)
posted by cendawanita at 6:29 AM on January 13

ok i got a couple more but these are from before i broke up with these movies, so, quite old:

Mann - i think this was a cover of An Affair to Remember, but i remember liking Manisha Koirala's character and Anil Kapoor didn't have to play his third wheel character as an evil guy, so that was nice.

Dil To Pagal Hai: i remember appreciating that the love triangle didn't go straight to the girls hating each other. Also the random song in the rain at the orphanage is a true banger. But hmm, this one really is a straight up romance all in all. That orphanage song tho....

Dil Se : yes, their random song on top of the train has been appropriated by more than one Hollywood action movie but it's actually a big break for the indie director who then decided to do a movie about domestic terrorism. Manisha Koirala's the terrorist and Preity Zinta is the third wheel who didn't do anything wrong (she's just bougie).
posted by cendawanita at 6:43 AM on January 13

Ok, last comment: basically the only superstars i trust in their project selection (which mostly fit your criteria) back in the day were Manisha Koirala and Aamir Khan. MK's mostly retired now and AK's still at it, but ever since Lagaan he's been pretty heavily #prestige and strongly on gender empowerment (not to diminish his commitment but it's like his brand now) but at least his movies have a good chance of not annoying me.
posted by cendawanita at 6:55 AM on January 13

Sherni, Andhadun
posted by dhruva at 8:32 AM on January 13

“Special 26” was pretty alright as a heist film.
posted by aramaic at 8:43 AM on January 13

Seconding Piku, English Vinglish, Parineeta, and the Lunchbox.

Dear Zindagi has some romance, but it is not cringey.

Nearly anything featuring Irrfan Khan.
posted by redlines at 9:15 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


I will never stop recommending that particular movie. Feminist as fuck even though there is only one female character, sadly.

The sequel DEDH ISHQIYA is also pretty feminist, so maybe you can watch it too, but it pisses me off because it drops the main female character of the first movie despite being a sequel. What the fuck, assholes, is Krishna not good enough to be part of your buddy group?!

I will also recommend BAND BAAJA BAARAAT very highly: it has progressive sexual politics and gender politics without denying the reality of how the world is around them - like they don't live in a magical world where their parents and community is also as progressive as they are! the movie exists and happens in OUR WORLD in OUR CURRENT DELHI and that to me is so much more hopeful and badass than some other movie which pretends we live in an alternate reality. The lead actors have fantastic chemistry.
posted by MiraK at 10:34 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

3 IDIOTS is a very good, lots of fun movie which isn't feminist so much as it's not actively anti-feminist (which for a Hindi movie might be the low bar, alas).

THAPPAD is very feminist but hard to watch. I personally avoid Bollywood feminist movies that deal with trauma, it just hits too close to home for me and ceases to be enjoyable. But this movie was both well made and less grueling to watch than others of its ilk (a movie about rape, for instance, would be so much harder than a movie about one single slap). Every one of my friends loved it. So I want to mention it here.

GULLY BOY is a fabulous even just for the music but it's a dude flick. There's a couple of scenes that pay lip service to feminism but it's all to prove "look how noble our heroes are, they speak up for women!" I would not call the movie feminist because a feminist movie would have let the women speak for themselves. (It would have been so easy in context too! Ugh.) But at least GULLY BOY is not outright anti-feminist like ROCK ON was - in that movie, the valid concerns of women - e.g. the wife of one of the rock stars worrying about family finances & children's needs - are not only dismissed but painted as the primary antagonistic force stomping on Important Male Artists, smh, it was total shit.

JOHNNY GADDAR, like ISHQIYA, is a fantastic heist movie. I can't recall how feminist or non-feminist it is but I can tell you that if it was anti-feminist it wasn't so in any egregious way. It did not piss me off (it doesn't take a lot to piss me off). I highly recommend it if you like heist movies.
posted by MiraK at 10:54 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

(Sorry, I keep thinking of more movies to recommend to you. I'll try to make this my last comment here.)

ENGLISH VINGLISH is amaaaazing. It pulls its feminist punches at the end by western standards but again, here is a funny, quirky, kickass feminist movie that exists in our real world and I respect the hell out of it. And it's a chance to watch Sridevi at her best - the actor passed away just a couple of years after this movie came out.

KAHAANI is a very feminist suspense movie with a lot of twists and a surprise ending. It does get *slightly* muddled at the very end but that does nothing to lessen the awesomeness of the move as a whole. Really, really well done. The lead character is a heavily pregnant woman who goes to Calcutta (from London, iirc) to investigate the sudden disappearance of her husband. There's this police officer who helps her as she waddles alarmingly into back alleys and gangster dens, and he clearly has a crush on her as the movie goes on but this is beautifully underplayed. Lots of lovely things like that all through.

RAB NE BANA DI JODI is pretty phenomenal as a quietly feminist movie. Again, this isn't western feminism, and it isn't trauma-focused rage-filled Indian feminism. Rather, it's a movie that speaks directly to "regular" Indian men with a staunchly feminist message about sexual consent, respecting your wife's need for space, rejecting macho posturing to get a girl's attention, and defining your own attractiveness by your authenticity rather than "coolness". Can you imagine?! And it's anything but heavy-handed, it's just a fun romp - a typical bollywood movie. It's really that good.

PARINEETA is great but it does involve a dude being a fuckwit to his lady for the whole damn movie. Not in the sense that he harasses her, but, like, he is spineless and a commitment-phobe - fuckwit in the Bridgette Jones sense. Lovely visuals, though, and incredible music. Plus an interesting look at rich folks in Calcutta in the 1920s/30s (IIRC).

Okay, that's all I got for now.
posted by MiraK at 11:13 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

I loved Mission Mangal, which isn't a documentary but is about the real Indian Mars Orbital Mission, and is a fantastic depiction of people - many of them women - using their experience and imagination to solve engineering problems.
posted by kelper at 1:27 PM on January 13

Gully Boy! Disagree with a previous commenter -- this movie, though really the story of her boyfriend, features a kickass female lead in Alia Bhatt, Safeena. Safeena is the best female character I have seen in any movie genre in years -- she's very skilled in working the system she lives under, smart, funny, and flawed. Gully Boy is a terrific movie, in large part because of Safeena.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:37 PM on January 13

Best answer: You mention Queen as in your queue so I will heartily endorse it as meeting your second criteria of "no-romance fiction about people working hard to achieve important things and help others". The protagonist is dumped by her fiancee and decides to go on her honeymoon anyways. There are some men behaving badly but they are by no means the leads, and some hints of romance with other characters but it is not at all a romance plot. Much of the story is centered on the protagonist's journey to discover her own worth outside of traditional marriage. Very joyful and satisfying. It's also set mostly in Paris and Amsterdam so it ticks your final box as well.
posted by Preserver at 2:16 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

The Lunchbox is a must-see.
posted by nayantara at 8:52 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into Pakistani cinema at all? Technically they are speaking Urdu, not Hindi, but the two sound identical in everyday speech. 'Lollywood' (based out of Lahore) is known to be a bit more focused on social issues than Bollywood--this list of the 10 best contemporary Pakistani movies includes some that might interest you, like family drama Cake and class commentary Pinky Memsaab, which follows Pakistanis living in Dubai.
posted by guessthis at 6:48 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I saw a recommendation of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a 2020 Hindi-language romcom film of "a young couple [of 2 men] trying to escape the pestilence that is arranged marriage". Have any of you seen it? Recommended?
posted by brainwane at 8:28 AM on January 19

Response by poster: Saw Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga and enjoyed it. Saw Queen and loved it and thus marked Preserver as providing a "best answer" but I will happily also take further recommendations! I'm more interested in queer romance, zero romance, or a subverted hetero romance (such as in Queen) than I am in movies in which a cis and het couple happily gets together at the end.

Also, have any of you seen the Bose: Dead/Alive historical docudrama series? Recommended?

guessthis, thanks for the heads-up about Urdu cinema; will consider!

cendawanita, thanks. I had taken one or two online Hindi classes at the time that I posted my question and was specifically looking for TV or cinema where I could practice Hindi listening comprehension. In case I in the future want to relax my criteria a bit and watch some stuff in other South Asian languages I will come back to your comment and maybe post a fresh question! My family is Kannadiga so I have watched a few recent Kannada films.
posted by brainwane at 8:41 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

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