Khan-a-Than: The Best Bollywood Movies on Prime & Netflix
How my isolation-driven Khan marathon turned up some of the best Bollywood movies of the last 20 years.
Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest movie star in the world, and most Americans do not know who he is. This simple fact, which I discovered about ten years ago when he was — even then — the biggest movie star in the world, got me interested in Hindi cinema. But what are the best Bollywood Movies on Prime and Netflix for someone new to the genre?
As background, I’m not Indian. I’m a GenX white guy who grew up in rural West Virginia. I had no experience with Bollywood as a child. I don’t pretend to have deep roots in Indian culture or expertise on Indian cinema and its history. So, where should someone begin if they want to try out a Bollywood movie or two, but don’t know where to start and have no proper connection to India?
Sitting in isolation, I reached out to some friends with more knowledge, then caught up on some of the more popular Bollywood films I’ve missed over the past twenty years. I did it by having a Khan-a-Than — five movies linked by the surname Khan, which encompass four of the greatest modern Bollywood stars.
How are Bollywood Movies Different from Hollywood Films?
If you’ve never seen a Hindi film, there are some differences compared to western cinema:
They average about 3 hours. As my friend Minda eloquently stated, “audiences in India don’t mind seeing the long process of characters moving.” You could chop about an hour off any given Bollywood movie and still tell a good story, but efficient storytelling isn’t the purpose.
There are lavish musical numbers, but the films aren’t musicals. Sometimes the songs connect to the plot only tangentially. It’s odd to someone who isn’t used to it, especially because the stars themselves don’t really sing the songs — which is great! The playback singers are so much better! The point is to be blown away by spectacle.
Hinglish. Though only 10% of the Indian population speaks English, it has the second highest number of English speakers in the world after the United States. Most of the dialogue will be in Hindi with subtitles, but expect to hear full sentences in English thrown in, out of the blue.
Abbreviations. People love to abbreviate the names of Bollywood films. My Name is Khan? MINK. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham? K3G. Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna? KANK. KKHH. HNY. If the name of a film is long, check the internet for an abbreviation so you can discuss it with friends. It beats mispronouncing Hindi.
You may not get all the cultural references, and that’s okay. India has its own pop culture and cultural touchstones, and sometimes they’ll fly overhead. In fact, some significant cultural references will escape non-native viewers. Do average white Americans understand the scars left by the India/Pakistan partition of 1947, or long-simmering religious tensions? Probably not. Roll with it. Or, research it.
5 Great Bollywood Movies, Ranked
#5 Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes There’s Joy, Sometimes There’s Sorrow)
(2001, Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)
Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan star in a film about I-don’t-quite-know-what. Adoption! Forbidden love! A brokered peace between father and son! Families with money and beautiful daughters who wear beautiful costumes and dance! Helicopter blades spinning behind handsome men who remove their sunglasses in slow-motion!
Why it’s great
Full confession: Though this belongs on any “best Bollywood movies” list, I wouldn’t start with K3G as an introduction. Circle back to it after you’re used to the pace and aesthetic.
Why include it, then? Because it’s everybody else’s favorite. Millennials grew up with it. It has an enormous cast of famous Bollywood stars including the two Khans, Hrithik Roshan, Kajol, and the Godfather of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan.
Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol are one of India’s most famous screen couples. They have made 7 films together and still have chemistry. Director Karan Johar has worked with them on some of India’s biggest films.
Bachchan and his toupee are another of my favorite Bollywood screen couples. If you haven’t seen him in the more recent Badla, it’s an outstanding non-Khan.
At nearly 20 years old, K3G feels a little dated. While I’m certain the more conservative family dynamics portrayed are still alive and well in modern India, the India I’ve come to know is more progressive, dynamic, and laid-back.
Still, if you really want to discuss Bollywood, you’ll have to see it at some point.
#4 My Name is Khan
(2010, available for purchase through Amazon Prime)
Shah Rukh Khan plays an autistic Muslim man named Rizwan Khan who lives in America. When the events of 9/11 foment anti-Muslim sentiment that impact his friends and family, he goes on a quest from California to Washington to tell the President he is not a terrorist.
Why it’s great
My Name is Khan again features the holy trinity of Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, and Karan Johar who all made Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, above. While K3G may be a little tough, My Name is Khan is a more accessible introduction to the world of Bollywood.
Khan’s acting received praise, though ten years on his portrayal of a person with Asperger’s Sydrome seems a touch cartoonish, not unlike Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. When filmed in 2010, there was less social discussion about whether an abled actor should play a person with disabilities. Of course, eight years later he appeared as a dwarf in Zero next to Anushka Sharma in an electric wheelchair. So, you know. Hold my beer.
# 3 Three Idiots
(2009, Streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV)
With Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan, based on the novel Five-Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. Many years after college, Farhan and Raju search for their disappeared friend Rancho, whose unorthodox outlook on life empowers those who know him.
Why it’s great
Aamir Khan likes to tackle films that question normalcy and tradition in India. In Three Idiots, he has much to say about the academic culture that pushes kids toward societal success and drives them away from who they are meant to be.
Three Idiots wanders from its plot into fun-filled digressions, my favorite being the story of a family with an unwed sister, a paralyzed father, and a mother who hasn’t owned a new saree in over ten years.
Khan was in his 40s when he played a college student, and he made it work. Kareena Kapoor is charming, as always.
#2 Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Brother Bajrangi)
(2015, Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Kabir Khan directs Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan. An 8 year-old girl from Pakistan is lost in India with no way home. She finds her way into the life of a religious man with a munificent spirit, who quests to enter Pakistan illegally and reunite her with her family.
Why it’s great
Bajrangi Bhaijaan allows us to empathize with good people on two sides of a contentious partition. Salman Khan is like a giant teddy bear — the frustratingly optimistic man who won’t stop seeing the good in things. Kareena Kapoor is underused, but it’s good to see her. Most importantly, there’s a song about being hungry for chicken at a restaurant in old Delhi. Chahiye Naan Ya Roti, Chahiye Raan Ya Boti…
#1 Taare Zuumin Paar (Stars on Earth)
(2007, Streaming on Netflix and Sling TV)
Produced, directed by, and starring Aamir Khan. A boy named Ishaan, who has undiagnosed dyslexia, feels he can do no right. Then, a sympathetic art teacher arrives at his school and empowers him.
Why it’s great
If there were one Bollywood film I would have people watch, it would be this.
Again, Aamir Khan likes to tackle films that question normalcy and tradition in society.
There are more than a few American movies about the power of teachers to impact kids, but at worst they center a teacher who goes through a transformation by “fixing” marginalized kids — and always get fired at the end. Taare Zuumin Paar doesn’t do this. It gets a whole bunch of things right through attention to detail and meticulous planning that never feels heavy handed. Young Darsheel Safary, as Ishaan, is understated and perfect in the role.
This is a movie for anybody who has ever felt different or misunderstood. It kicked me in the feels around the midpoint. I started ugly crying, and I didn’t stop until long after the end credits.
What are the Best Bollywood Movies on Prime and Netflix? What do YOU think?
There’s a whole lot of Bollywood to love Beyahnd Khan. Now it’s your turn! Have I missed a Khan film better than the ones above? Can you help me create a “Non-Khan” streaming list? Clap! Comment! Criticize! Argue with me about Dangal below!