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A beginner’s guide to Bollywood: The Indian cinema classics to add to your must-watch list

Dramatic close-ups, fierce hair flicks, flawlessly choreographed dance routines and explosively colorful scenes — all in a day’s work for Bollywood.

As South Korean director Bong Joon-ho said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

A portmanteau of “Hollywood” and “Bombay,” the Bollywood genre refers specifically to the Hindi-language sector of India’s massive film industry. However, there is more than one language in India — Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and many more — all of which have their own film industries.

If you’re a Bollywood beginner, this list of the industry’s greatest classics is your ultimate introduction.

So get cozy and pour yourself a cup of chai — not “chai tea” — which literally translates to “tea tea”.

A few things to note:

First up, meet the golden triangle of Bollywood

Get ready to lose all control of your emotions as you laugh, sing, cry and dance to these three crown jewels of the industry.

1. Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham (2001)

What’s the translation? “Sometimes happiness, sometimes sorrow.”

For many Indian cinema newcomers, Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, or K3G, is known as the “gateway movie”.

You won’t find a single Bollywood fan who doesn’t know it.

The 2001 cult classic has a runtime of three and a half hours. (Supplied: Dharma Productions)

The frontman of this 3.5-hour cult classic is Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan.

With its timeless songs and moving story about family, pride, love and social prejudice, K3G is one of the grandest Bollywood films — an absolute must to start with.

Synopsis in a sentence: Years after his father disowns his adopted brother for marrying a woman of lower social standing, a young man goes on a mission to reunite his family.

Song to remember: Bole Chudiyan — when you hear the first note of this song on the dancefloor, you know it’s about to go down.

2. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)

What’s the translation? “Something happens.”

Resembling an 80’s pop culture musical with a touch of Grease, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a movie for a lifetime and for all ages.

From the same man who directed K3G, Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is renowned for stunning performances by, yet again, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol Devgn. Their on-screen chemistry will easily give Rose and Jack a run for their money.

A promotional photo for the Bollywood film, Kuch Kuch Hota
Two love triangles set years apart: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai nails chemistry like no other film(Supplied: Dharma Productions)

Synopsis in a sentence: Anjali is left heartbroken when her best friend and secret crush, Rahul, falls in love with Tina. Years later, Tina’s young daughter tries to fulfill her mother’s last wish of uniting Rahul and Anjali.

Song to remember: Ladki Badi Anjani — we haven’t even pressed play and there’s already tears in our eyes.

3. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)

What’s the translation? “Tomorrow may not be there.”

A film that you can watch once and still have running through your head days (or years) after.

Kal Ho Naa Ho is a tear-jerker and will have a lasting impact on you.

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A girl living day-to-day finds a new meaning to her life when she meets her new neighbour.(Supplied: Netflix )

Once again, Shah Rukh Khan steals the spotlight and does a magnificent performance in this film that has it all — comedy, romance and tragedy.

The moment you try to stop crying, another scene begins and you start all over again. Seriously.

Synopsis in a sentence: An introverted MBA student falls for her charismatic new neighbor who charms her troubled family. But he has a secret that forces him to push her away.

Song to remember: Kal Ho Naa Ho — a song about mortality and cherishing the present moment? Get out your vision boards, everyone.

4. Dhoom (2004)

What’s the translation? The Hindi word for noise, ie, to create an uproar.

Let’s shake things up with an adrenaline rush. Meet India’s very own Fast & Furious: Dhoom.

Filled with high-speed chases, extraordinary camera work and technical effects wizardry, Dhoom is a thoroughly entertaining watch with some insane visuals and high-energy songs.

A promotional movie poster for the Bollywood film, Dhoom
An edge-of-your-seat action thriller, Dhoom is filled with non-stop fun and suave — just look at the outfits. (Supplied: Abhishek Bachchan)

Synopsis in a sentence: A mysterious gang of bikers is on a robbing spree across Mumbai. A police officer enlists the help of a motorcycle mechanic to help him with the case. With the clock ticking, it’s up to them to catch the criminals red-handed.

Song to remember: Dhoom Machale—the moves, the beats, the energy. It’s all here, people.

5. Dil Chatta Hai (2001)

What’s the translation? “The heart is yearning.”

A romantic comedy with no shortage of drama. Dil Chatta Hai is a heartfelt coming-of-age movie that follows the lives of three college friends as they try to navigate life and love after graduation.

Snapping up the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, Dil Chatta Hai has been described as a breath of fresh air.

A promotional poster for the Bollywood movie, Dil Chatta Hai
Akash goes to Australia, Sameer gets busy wooing a girl and Siddharth devotes himself to art.

Synopsis in a sentence: Three inseparable childhood friends have just graduated college. Nothing comes between them until they each fall in love, when their wildly different approaches to relationships create tension.

Song to remember: Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe — Justin Timberlake called, he wants his Rock Your Body music video back.

6. Koi…Mil Gaya (2003)

What’s the translation? “I’ve found someone.”

One of the unlikeliest pairings: Bollywood and sci-fi.

Hrithik Roshan plays a young man trying to continue the work his father did in communicating with extra-terrestrials from outer space, which leads to something miraculous and wonderful.

With a blue, childlike alien who doesn’t speak also at the center of the plot, Koi Mil Gaya closely resembles the Steven Spielberg classic, ET.

An image from a scene out of the Bollywood movie, Koi Mil Gaya
The star of Koi Mil Gaya: an alien named Jaadu.(Supplied: Netflix)

Synopsis in a sentence: A young man with an intellectual disability is trying to continue the work his father did in communicating with extra-terrestrials from outer space, which leads to something miraculous and wonderful.

Song to remember: Koi Mil Gaya — we can’t help but feel some slight Twilight vibes in this one.

7. Monsoon Wedding (2001)

You’re invited to a big, fat Indian wedding.

Bursting with bright shades of red, orange and yellow, the opening credits of Monsoon Wedding are just as breathtaking as its story.

An image from a scene out of the Bollywood movie, Monsoon Wedding
The BAFTA-winning film tells the story of a father trying to marry off his daughter in a traditional manner. (Supplied: Netflix)

A blend of Hindi and English, Monsoon Wedding is a portrait of a modern, upper-middle-class, dysfunctional family in Delhi.

Director Mira Nair doesn’t beat around the bush in presenting viewers with the reality of the situation, while still treating it with dignity and realism.

Oh, it also won the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film. No big deal.

Synopsis in a sentence: A story set in the modern upper-middle class of India, where telecommunications and a western lifestyle mix with old traditions, like the arranged wedding of a young daughter, who accepts when she ends an affair with a married TV producer.

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