Classic Bollywood for Dummies: 15 Hidden Signs, Tricks, and Clichés

Classic Bollywood for Dummies

Scenes from classic Bollywood often make zero sense when taken out of context. In fact, much of classic Bollywood makes no sense even in context.

Do you remember your first old Bollywood film? Or worse, when you forced your previously uninitiated friend to watch a classic Hindi film with you? What about that game-changing moment when you realized you could predict the film’s outcome based solely on the simple fact that Lata Mangeshkar only sang for the real heroine and Asha Bhonsle always sang for the vamp?

We at Mr. and Mrs. 55 know how it goes. We understand the mass confusion that can ensue during a naive viewing party. The recovery can take years. You see, classic Bollywood movies have a secret language of their own. So we’ve put together a guide to old Bollywood films: a compilation of hidden signs, tricks, and cliches that make understanding any classic Hindi film WAY easier. Think of our list of 15 key cinematic tropes of Bollywood as a translation for what the director is really trying to tell you. Welcome to Classic Bollywood for Dummies.

1. A woman faints in the middle of a public gathering.

mother india faint pregnant

In her starring role as Mother India (1959), Nargis collapses after an agricultural celebration into a pile of hay. There can be only one explanation.

She’s pregnant. Is there a valid physiological explanation for this? Questionable. Did it happen to every single Indian woman who ever became pregnant in the 1950s-70s? Obviously. As far as the director is concerned, it sure beats filming an episode of morning sickness.

2. The camera pans from a couple making eyes at each other to the mountainside.

RK

Mumtaz and Rajesh Khanna start to get uncomfortably close before the camera hurriedly pans away from the threatened PG moment in Aap Ki Kasam (1974).

Expect a baby soon. The scenic pan is one of the most classic tropes of Hindi cinema. When a camera pans away to nature’s beauty just before the money, it’s the director’s way of letting the audience know that everything we dreamed of happening is happening…only they can’t let you watch because of censorship law. The baby always shows up on cue a few scenes later.

3. If there are two (or three!) possible love interests, but only one is wearing traditional Indian clothes.

Nanda teen devian indian clothes

Framed by rural imagery with a white chunni billowing the wind, is it any surprise that corn-fed Nanda is the chosen one in Teen Devian (1965)?

He’s going to pick the more Indian one. Despite our hero’s love of the wild wild West, when it comes down to marrying someone he can proudly introduce to his mother, he picks the girl who consistently wears traditional Indian clothing. Equally ridiculous is the director’s oh-so-subtle hint that the film vamp has morally reformed when she at last dons a sari in place of her miniskirt.

4. The camera pans to a candle by the bed and the flame blows out.

aradhana saphal hogi teri

Sharmila Tagore comforts her ill father by convenient candlelight in Aradhana (1971).

Don’t expect that character to return in act II. I don’t know what it is about filming a death scene, that classic Bollywood actors and directors balked at the thought. They’ll usually cover you up until that very last breath–and then the camera will suddenly zoom-in on the candle by the bedside. When the candle blows out, it’s game over for our sick friend.

5. Fog enters the scene.

ghar aayaa mera pardesi fog awaara

In a sequence famously choreographed by French artist Madame Simki, Nargis appears in the moonlight shrouded by fog in Awaara (1951).

There is a 50/50 chance this is all just a dream sequence. Fog indicates that this scene is taking place inside someone’s (or a collective) imagination, but may have never really happened. Song sequences are particularly notorious for this maneuver, portraying fantasies that are not congruent with everyone’s real relationships in the scene immediately following. Take everything you see enhanced by a fog machine with a generous grain of salt.

6. A woman’s sindoor gets smudged.

sindoor smudge amar akbar anothony

Nirupa Roy’s sindoor gets smudged in the opening sequence of Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977). By the look on her face, it is clear she understands the cinematic implications.

Her husband is as good as dead now. The symbolism of the red sindoor (not to be confused with any old party bindi!) is well-understood by native audiences to denote that a woman is married. If you didn’t know that, and further didn’t know that the director likes to take artistic leaps of judgement, you would probably not understand the horrors of accidentally smearing your sindoor in a classic Bollywood film.

7. A male lead has distinctive shoeware.

dev anand shoe jewel thief

The integrity of Dev Anand’s feet is questioned in Jewel Thief (1967), demanding removal of his shoes at what is about to become a much more interesting house party.

He’s the secret villain. From having feet of two different sizes in Yaadon Ki Baarat (1973), missing toes in Jewel Thief (1967), or the white shoes of death in Humraaz (1967), footware has an important and sinister role in classic Bollywood. Beware the man who draws attention to his shoes. It may mean he has something hidden up his sleeve.

8. Someone’s photo suddenly has a garland around it and they’re nowhere to be seen.

nanda ek pyar ka nagma hai

Manoj Kumar keeps a garlanded photo of his deceased wife in Shor (1972).

That character is now dead. This subtle Indian custom has tricked many a naïve Bollywood viewer. Look specifically for a garland around the frame–it’s no mere decoration! A garland around someone’s photograph indicates that this beloved member of the troop has passed on to greater things. The director assumes you take this for granted as he does, so don’t let this prevent you from following the rest of the film, awaiting that character’s overdue return.

9. When anyone goes to touch an elder’s feet and they try to stop them.

kati patang touching elder's feet

Nasir Hussain awkwardly attempts to block Asha Parekh from touching his feet in their first encounter in Kati Patang (1971). He will prove solid from this point on.

That elder is a good person. We can count on them. The custom generally goes that when someone younger meets or takes leave of an elder, he or she bows down and touches their feet out of respect. You’ll only rarely see this formality taken to completion because if the elder is a good guy, they try to block you halfway, as if to indicate that they are not worthy of such a show of deference. Of course, even the elaborate blockage itself is a formality, but both parties have to give it their best shot. And if the elder successfully intercepts the feet-touching, he or she is officially going to be your friend for life.

10. A miracle occurs. Mom gets her eyesight back after a freak accident, or the lover you thought was dead returns to life.

Rishi Kapoor Amar Akbar Anthony

No matter what your faith, Rishi Kapoor proves devotion pays in Bollywood by divinely igniting the temple lamps using nothing more than his boyish good looks in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Someone has recently prayed. I dare you to point out a Hindi film in which the hero or heroine prays and God doesn’t listen. Usually, the opening line goes something like this, “Bhagwan, main ne tujhe aaj tak kuch nahin manga.” [God, until today I have not asked you for anything.] You would think miracles were a dime a dozen in the ’70s.

11. The nightclub has white people in it.

bramachari white people in nightclub

Mumtaz dazzles her fan-base with grooves even the white folk can’t keep up with in Brahmachari (1968). How many can you count boosting the decor of this hep cat joint?

This is a really, really fancy joint. The director is trying to let you know that hero must be super cool and this place is really fashionable. You get extra points if there is a white woman in the heroine’s posse of girlfriends. I don’t like it either, but these are just the rules of the game.

12. A woman is dressed in all white and sings.

Sadhana2_WohKaunThi

With sari white as snow, the mysterious femme fatale Sadhana creeps on Manoj Kumar in Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)

She might be dead. An all-white sari means she’s either a widow or dead, but you can narrow it down that if she’s singing a Lata song, she’s probably dead. The ghostly femme fatale is a hallmark of the Indian film noir genre.

13. Pran walks onto the set.

pran bhramachari

Oh, Pran. Did you never get your day in the sun?

Despite his obvious game, Pran will never get the girl. So don’t be too worried. I don’t care if he’s the richest, the suavest, or even the best looking guy in the film. His matrimonial prospects are always foiled. On a related note, if you see “And…Pran!” flash at the end of the opening titles, you know the film is going to be good.

14. Lymphosarcoma of the intestine is diagnosed.

amitabh bachan rajesh Khanna anand

Amitabh Bachhan diagnoses Rajesh Khanna with the dreaded lymphosarcoma of the intestine, sealing his fate in Anand (1971).

They will die. Kiss this character goodbye right now for death is inevitable. We dedicated an entire post to this bizarre Bollywood trade secret.

15. The hero grows a beard.

Rajkumar beard heer ranjha

Rajkumar’s suffering is so much more believable once he sprouts more hair in Heer-Ranjha (1970).

Things have really gotten bad. Tragedy has hit a new low. Young Indian men who have no place among the clergy do not grow beards without a reason. In classic Bollywood, that logical reason is misfired love. Once you spot the hero shirking his daily man-scaping duties, his romantic prospects have hit rock bottom.

Feeling like you’ve been struck by lightening? Our all-inclusive Classic Bollywood for Dummies is the first step toward enlightenment! Did we miss a key clue to classic Bollywood films you wish you had known? Add to our list in the comments!

– Mrs. 55

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32 thoughts on “Classic Bollywood for Dummies: 15 Hidden Signs, Tricks, and Clichés

  1. This list is brilliant and hilarious 🙂

    I think #9 was one of the first I decoded when I started watching (newer, initially) Hindi cinema. I remember telling my sister or someone, “Notice how Amrish Puri doesn’t stop people from touching his feet? Yeah. He’s a bad ‘un.” (As if you couldn’t tell anyway, lol).

    A couple on here I hadn’t really thought about. The sindoor smudge, for example.
    Also #11, the “Fancy Club” signal being the presence of white people. . . I think it’s more hilarious now than offensive . . . because the white people almost always look sickly and confused about the nature of the event they happen to be attending.

    #15 I think deserves a facial hair footnote:
    –While a full beard is usually a bad sign, a newly-sprouted mustache is ambiguous. It could signify that the hero has gone rogue or has become morally deficient. But it’s just as likely to mean that the hero has gone through some maturing event and has now decided to take on the mantle of manhood or fatherhood.

    • Haha excellent additions!! The newly sprouted mustache is indeed ambiguous–and must be carefully separated from the untamed beard of despondency. And you’re quite right–no one rejects a foot touch quite like Amrish Puri! I always feel so embarrassed for anyone who tries! Thanks for the great thoughts!

  2. Thanks for a very funny and readable post. I’m sure one could come up with many more such tricks and codes. For example, when rain starts pouring down in the middle of a crisis, what could it mean? Nothing else but that Brahma has seen through the larki’s love-life, no?! I suggest you carry on watching films with them in mind, and soon you’ll have another post ready for us to devour!
    cheers!

    • Thank you for reading! Rain has such a complicated role in old Hindi films–glad you brought it up! Typically, I’ve found an unexpected rainfall to mean good things for the village famine, the heroine’s love life, or the local political embroglio–especially when associated with the coming of the monsoons!

  3. This was a great list and hilarious. A must read for any would be Bollywood viewer or director
    While I am sure I could think of a few more, another classic one goes as follows:
    There’s a little baby, a snake and a villain. While the villain clearly has evil intentions, the snake provides reassurance to all of us that it will protect the precious innocent from harm by simply fanning its hood (yes, its always a king cobra- are there any other kinds of snakes in Bollywood?) at the bad guy

    • Ah yes, the old snake-who-saves-the-day routine! The ultimate example of this of course is in my favorite film Pakeezah in which the snake saves our heroine from the villainous client who threatens her purity. Thanks for the great addition to our list!

  4. Loved the post. I watch movies with my hubby and usually have to decode for him. The conversation usually like -me : see “this” is happening next
    Him: how do you know?
    Me: have we not watched enough Hindi movies to know this already?

    # 9 has another avatar where the person whose feet are to be touched moves back stiffly. Secret code for “we are not happy”

    How about rain/storm at the end of a happy duet the hero and heroine were singing…

    Trouble ahead, in more ways than one 🙂

    • Hahaha you’re movie-watching routine sounds very familiar to me! Glad you are able to serve as interpreter! The feet-touching ritual has so many subtleties–you’re absolutely right! It’s one of the most easily misunderstood gestures by people unfamiliar with Bollywood and/or Indian culture. Thank you for the insightful comments!

  5. Ha ha, great. What about two friends, who start singing a song at random discover that they are indeed siblings who got separated due to tragic circumstances, but the luckily they remember the song that their parents had thought them, reunited and with many tears.

    • Mo, that is definitely one of the greatest cliches of Hindi cinema–and in fact deserves its own post! If two people who think they’ve never met actually know the same lullaby, they will always be long-lost siblings. The number of movies about siblings separated at birth was so rampant in classic Bollywood, it became its own genre filled with bizarre idiosyncrasies and loose ends that would never hold water in any other industry. But we all can’t get enough of them!

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  8. How about two flowers kissing (can’t think of a song)… something related to the two doing hanky panky. At the end of the song, showing fire.. lady getting pregnant(roop tera mastana song from Aradhana). Tearing of a spider web.. indicating a woman loosing virginity.. I think this was in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati movie.

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  11. Mr. & Mrs. 55. This entire website is so selfless and clearly a product of genuine passion. I was lucky enough to have taken a course on Indian Cinema at Brandeis University but unlucky enough for it to have ended, fortunately this site fills the void! Very provocative Thank you 🙂

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  14. Well one more is seeing Nirupa Roy in the casting means that she the story will ultimately shshowcase atleast one (maximum 3, like in amar akbar anthony) lost son of nirupa Roy in the film, sometimes accompanied with her blindness and deafness. Also, either she has taught her children the same song or given them the same locket or at least one of them has some sort of birthmark! This was especially the case in the 70s.

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  16. In older movies the villain who would not do “the deed” with the heroine unless he marries her, so he would kidnap her and try to get her to the priest to go around the fire. The hero would spare no pains to stop this and while the villain is taking the heroine in the car or jeep, she is shouting ‘bachao, bachao’ and the hero would jump on a horse and ride cross-country and is always just a little late at those deep turns until they get up to the top of the mountain where there will be a big fight where the villain is always about to throw the hero over the cliff. In the meantime everyone else is coming including the police. The hero somehow manages to throw the villain over to his death. The entire families comes and the parents places the girl’s hand into the boy’s. Then there is the sound of a siren and the police arrive after everything is over. All so very funny now when you think back………

    • Just “discovered“ your website and loved it! The last post reminded me of Darr where SRK’s character tries to kindle a fire in order to drag Juhi’s character around it until Sunny’s character prevents this simulacrum of a legal wedding…
      Oh, and from various movies: when the hero playfully grabs the heroine’s duppatta or pallu, draws it onto his shoulder and struts in front of her – this is something like a marriage proposal, isn’t?

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