Education About Asia

Teaching India’s History and Contemporary Society Through Film

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Indian films, traditionally known as Hindi films but today more commonly referred to as “Bollywood” films, named in honor of Bombay (Mumbai today), offer a wonderful opportunity to teach students about the history and culture of India and South Asia. There are dozens of movies about Indian historical subjects and cultural issues that are accessible to American students. Many of the movies are typical Bollywood fare that include lots of upbeat songs and dancing. However, some, especially of late, are more nuanced and sophisticated, and reflect both technical advances and emerging attitudes among Indians as their country undergoes dramatic changes.

Since the 1920s, India has had a flourishing movie industry, and for at least two decades, India has produced more studio films than the United States. By the 1930s, there had emerged two fairly distinct types of Indian films: Bollywood films and art house films. Bollywood and Hollywood are the epicenters of Indian and American filmmaking, respectively. Both Hollywood and Bollywood are unabashed moneymakers, but Bollywood is heavy on romance, song, and dance, all intended to leave the audience in a good mood. In contrast, art house films have long targeted a much smaller and sophisticated audience that prefers movies that challenge their intellect rather than their emotions. From roughly 1955 until 1992, the great Indian director Satyajit Ray made many outstanding art house films about India, including his masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955). Occasionally, Bollywood produces a film that captures the essence of India at a particular time in history. The classic Sholay (1975) is a case in point.

Since 1991, India’s dramatic economic growth and attendant social changes have profoundly affected India’s film industry. With the emergence of a much larger middle class, the line between art house film and Bollywood film has blurred. Today, more and more filmgoers in India, especially urban India, prefer films that avoid the simplistic, formulaic plots of traditional Bollywood fare but also pack the kind of visceral intensity and fast pace that traditional art house films have shunned. In essence, Indian film is becoming more like American film. Yet Indian film remains in many ways more surprising and diverse than American filmmaking because the rapid pace of change in India is encouraging, if not requiring, Indian filmmakers to think more broadly and perhaps more creatively than their American counterparts. What follows is an annotated list of films about India that may be useful for teachers and instructors in a number of different survey courses. Most but not all of the films in the essay are Indian.

The list is far from complete, and teachers should share with each other which Indian films they use and how. I rarely show any of these films in their entirety, given how long they are. Instead, I show one or two excerpts, perhaps ten to fifteen minutes each, that reflect important historical attitudes and perspectives, and allow for constructive discussion. Many of my students become so intrigued by the films that they go on to watch the films in their entirety. Most Indian films are easily available with English subtitles as DVDs or through subscription-based online streaming services such as Netflix. Many free streaming services such as YouTube may have clips of an Indian film (sometimes the entire film is available), but often films do not have English subtitles and are thus less useful.