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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How to Play the Awkward Miffed Lover

It happens to everyone at some point. We all hate this situation. You land the girl of your dreams, you take her to a fancy dinner party, and just when everything is going your way, her ex-lover crashes the scene. With the heavenly voice of a playback singer, the new contender bursts into dramatic song, calling out his passion with your girl in front of EVERYONE.

Plus, the more the song goes on, the more you realize you’re trapped–any interruption would only backfire. And on top of it, your girl is getting embarrassingly emotional.

So what to do? It’s clear everyone in the audience is just cheering for those two to reunite, leaving YOU with the ugly villain label. The rules of the game prevent you from simply cutting the song off short—you have no option but to helplessly be made a fool. It’s such an unfair tactic, and heroes of Bollywood films LOVE to use it.

In times like these, we reflect on the inspiring behavior of greater men. They too were placed in these compromising and uncomfortable situations. Each one had their own style, their own method of handling the filmi fire life dealt them.

As I see it, you have five main options to choose from. Let us examine their protocols below.

The Vinod Khanna: Get Angry

During the beautiful love ode “Koi Nazarana Lekar” from Aan Milo Sajna (1970), Vinod Khanna shoots daggers from his eyes at the shameless flirt Rajesh Khanna.

Option 1. Get angry. It’s bad enough that you showed up to this event in a lime green tuxedo. Complete the look and let your face turn pea green with envy. Who cares who judges you? Be a party-pooper and scowl your way through the song, sucking the joy out of everyone else’s fun.

The Rehman: Blush

Ugh. Nothing worse than having your own crimes turned into public poetry. Although it’s a black-and-white film, you can see Rehman turn a hot pink during Guru Dutt’s classic lament “Jaane Woh Kaise” from Pyaasa (1957).

Option 2. Blush. You’re guilty and there’s no hiding it. Don’t make eye contact with anyone! Instead, mentally review the cquestionable ethical decisions you took along the path that led you to this debacle. You will realize what a jerk you’ve been, and although you have to stay the course, colour will rise to your cheeks.

The Raj Kapoor: Play it off as a joke

Always a goofball, Raj Kapoor attempts valiantly to make light of the humiliating situation wrought by Dilip Kumar singing “Jhoom Jhoom Ke” from Andaz (1949).

Option 3. Play it off as a joke. You’re at a dinner party, after all and this is no time to aggravate the situation. Keep that bow-tie straight and act casual. With enough non-chalance, maybe the party-goers will think it’s only a bit of fun among friends?

The Rishi Kapoor: Give up

Horror and resignation overwhelm Rishi Kapoor’s face during Tariq’s performance of “Kya Hua Tera Wada” from Hum Kisise Kam Nahin (1979)

Option 4. Give up. Just give up. How could you have not known of this beautiful subverted love story earlier? This is entirely your fault. You’re overwhelmed with moral guilt and regret–do the righteous thing and withdraw your nomination from the ballet entirely. In this way, you can quickly drop the villain label and return to your proper place as hero!

The Pran: Enjoy the show

Pran doesn’t ruffle a feather during Shammi Kapoor’s heartfelt and passionate “Dil Ke Jharoke” from Brahmachari (1968). But hey, when you’re as devastatingly sophisticated as Pran, you wouldn’t have time for these amateurs either.

Option 5. Enjoy the show. After all, who’s worried? This other guy has nothing on you, you suave gift to womankind.  Keep the entertainment coming! Oh, I’m sorry, honey, are you crying? Here, take my silk handkerchief. You might need it.

So the next time you hear the tinkerings of a tragic song start on the piano behind you, don’t panic. There is a way out! Just pick an approach from the textbook of Hindi films. If classic Bollywood has taught us anything about these moments, it’s that they can and will happen all the time. Tell us whose approach YOU prefer!

-Mrs. 55

The Bollywood Bromance: Songs of Manly Love

qurbani1980

There are few things cuter than a wholesome die-hard Indian bromance. In the past decade, the term “bromance” has become popularized by the American media and by high-grossing summer flicks that explore its comedic aspects—but its roots can be traced back to Hollywood first academy award for best picture Wings (1927). This silent heart-wrenching World War I love-fest between two men inspired dozens of commercial hits down the road from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) to Top Gun (1986). Say what you want about those films, however, Bollywood was unarguably where this concept blossomed to its colorful fullest.

Perhaps it’s cultural—I can remember visiting Simla when I was younger and seeing teenage boys holding hands as they walked down the street. It was just considered a normal expression of friendship. Things have changed plenty since my childhood, but regardless, the marketability of the bromance genre may also likely stem from what had (and has) been for a long time a male-dominated industry–from directors to screenwriters all the way down to the lowly production assistants. In fact, in the early pre-talkie years of Indian cinema, women were not even allowed to act in films, much less attend viewings. Y-chromosome melodrama sells, and sells big. The bonds of manly love have been a glorified subject of Bollywood expression since time immemorial and has inspired some of the best movies you’ll ever watch.

In this post, we’ll explore our top 5 “bromantic” songs of yesteryear films long before the days of Dostana (2008) and even Qurbani (1980). From declaring eternal devotion to sobbing over betrayal, each one has a special place in our hearts and cinematic history.

Amitabh Bachhan and Dharmendra sing out their love in Sholay (1975)

Yeh Dosti (Sholay 1975):

This song is the crowning jewel of Bollywood bromance. Set at the beginning of an all-time megahit, this song showcases two men (Amitabh Bachhan and Dharmendra) riding a single motorcycle and singing their love for each other. Chest-hair is just blowing in the wind as their friendship is put to the test at the film’s climax. Overdone slightly, but a timeless tear-jerker!

Raj Kapoor pours his heart into his sad song of betrayed trust in Sangam (1964)

Dost Dost Na Raha (Sangam 1964):

Talk about tragedy. Raj Kapoor flies to war and saves his country, only to return and discover that his wife Vijayantimala is really in love with his own best friend Rajendra Kumar. This song of betrayal and lost friendship played morosely on the living room piano makes everyone in the room awkward. Please note that low-cut v-neck top. No, I’m not referring to Vijayantimala.

Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachhan being adorable in Namak Haraam (1978)

Diye Jalte Hai.N (Namak Haraam 1973):

A Rajesh Khanna classic. Although best friends, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachhan come from two very different socio-economic statuses, ultimately leading to a huge public morally-charged battle of principles. Rajesh Khanna plays the good guy as usual, and his on-screen chemistry with Bachhan evokes the joy audiences loved in Anand! Did I mention the obligatory and visible fluffy chest hair?

Facing starvation and homelessness, two boys find friendship in Dosti (1964)

Chahoonga Mai.N Tujhe (Dosti 1964):

This film was unique in that it is entirely about two teenage boys (neither of whom were big stars then) and the sacrifices they make for each other. Did I mention the hero is blind and homeless? It makes it more endearing. This beautiful Mohammed Rafi song of tragedy is when the hero realizes his best friend is better off without him, and decides to get out of his way forever. These are kids, guys. It’s really, really cute.

Pran works to get a smile out of Amitabh Bachhan in Zanjeer (1973). This is a must-see--Pran is just such a beast in this movie.

Yaari Hai Imaan Mera (Zanjeer 1973):

Oh, Pran, you are a legend. This famous song celebrates the friendship between an Indian (Amitabh Bacchan) and an Afghani patthan (the inimitable Pran). He embodies this character so skillfully—look at how he twirls and gives that sly shake of the head, you’d think he had grown up in a mountainous outskirt of Kabul. See, Bollywood knows how to cross political boundaries too!

An extremely honorable mention goes to “Anhoni Ko Honi” from Amar Akbar Anthony (1979). Does it really count as a bromance if they’re actually supposed to be brothers?

Amitabh Bacchan, Vinod Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor are three brothers on a mission in Amar Akbar Anthony (1979)

Share with us your thoughts and additions to our list!

-Mrs. 55

Who Is Mani Rabadi?

You’ve probably never heard of her, but I’ll bet you’ve seen her work before. A behind-the-scenes legend, Mani Rabadi was a fashion designer to the stars. This woman was the final word in costume design for Bollywood films of the 60s and 70s (even continuing to work until Hum Aapke Hain Kaun in 1994)! If you wanted something run-of-the-mill, Mani Rabadi was not your woman. But if a director wanted something to stand out, to set bold trends, and to wow the audience with glamour, she was the only choice. When you see some of the pictures below, you can readily understand how this silent woman in the background transformed the careers of the stars. Her styles turned actors into icons, and made actresses into idols.

Starting her career in a humble toy factory to help pay tuition, and then joining the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Mani got her first break doing Gujarati films before moving to Bollywood. Here is a gallery of her designs from the movies we all love:

An Evening in Paris (1967)

Sharmila actually plays a dual role in the film. The villainous side incidentally always shows her tummy–just to help the audience keep things straight.

Uhh, what precisely are you looking at Pran?

Cutsy hair clip that’s bigger than my nose? Don’t mind if I do.

Jewel Thief (1967)

I’ve talked a lot about my feelings for Helen in a chicken suit from this film, but this picture definitely deserves one more mention.

Yup, those are cotton balls puffing out of that red sari like polka dots. Just saying, it takes a bold and confident woman to try and pull that off.

Dev Anand poses as a French jewelry importer. Can’t you tell by the beret?

Aradhana (1969)

Who can forget Rajesh Khanna’s tall Nepali hat as he bellows “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani” on a hillside?

Rajesh Khanna in a blue suit with a hot red turtleneck during “Kora Kaagaz Tha” is the epitome of suave.

Unarguably the most famous scene from Aradhana, Sharmila Tagore makes a sari out of a flimsy blanket…and the rest is history.

Bobby (1973)

Youth and freedom must mean a tight leather jacket!

Umm, ok Dimple Kapadia, where did the rest of your shirt go though?

Cute but completely arbitrary villager costume for “Jhoot Bole Kauva Kate.”

Farz (1961)

Nice ascot, Jeetendra.

Oh, those tight white pants that made you who you were. It’s no wonder Jeetendra was nicknamed “Jumping Jack”!

Prince (1969)

Did someone say “hep cat”?!

Helen and Vijayantimala dance off in “Muqabla Humse Na Karo.”

Kati Patang (1970)

Asha briefly portrays a 70s bride before running away from the ceremony.

Bindu makes a spectacle of herself in comparison to Asha’s stark white sari..

Amar Akbar Anthony (1979)

Rishi Kapoor dresses as a qawwal by night.

There actually aren’t really words for this.

Moss green pleather jacket with religious bling.

You are wearing a fedora? Clearly, you have become a millionaire.

Don (1978)

Nothing says “bad boy” like a big red bowtie.

Don’t mess with her scarf.

Or his.

Helen rocks an overly slitted dress for “Yeh Mera Dil” in Don (1978)

The bottom line here is, could Jeetendra have seized Bombay by storm without his famous tight white pants? Could Dimple Kapadia have shot to stardom without costumes that only covered half of the minimum required? Doubtful. Sure, you might not want to be caught dead in a ditch with many of these outfits, but her work is so diverse, eye-catching, and unpredictable: Mani Rabadi is unarguably genius. Next time you watch one of these hits, consider the people behind the scenes and appreciate their fluid artistry hidden within the films.

-Mrs. 55