Prepare for Study Abroad in India through Bollywood!

by Madhavi Reddi

Unfortunately, Bollywood is perceived as fluff by much of the world. Many people see it as a colorful blur of music, dance, and pure escapism. However, Bollywood films reflect Indian thoughts, lifestyles, beliefs, and behaviors best, and show more about the culture than a “Guidebook to India” ever can.

Aamir Khan of the 3 Idiots.
Aamir Khan of the 3 Idiots. Photo by Gordon Correll

If you are planning on studying abroad in India, the films below can show you what to expect, from your college campus to your host family’s neighborhood. These are the top 10 movies you should see to prepare yourself for your study abroad experience in India.

1. Wake Up Sid A universal question that plagues today’s youth is “what do I want to do with my life?” Wake Up Sid addresses that exact question through the story of Siddharth Mehra (Sid), a spoilt rich college student in Mumbai who skips class, parties hard, and does not care what tomorrow brings. When Sid discovers that he has failed his college exams, he is forced to start thinking about his future. With the help of his friend Aisha, an aspiring writer, Sid goes from an irresponsible brat, to a professional photographer who values hard work. Whether you are in India, America, or even Antarctica, you may know what you are interested in, but may not know how to channel it into a career. Watching this film may help you see this struggle from the perspective of the Indian culture, and help you relate with your future classmates there.

 2. 3 Idiots The film 3 Idiots addresses many issues within the education system and college life in India. First, there is a strong belief ingrained in the Indian psyche that success is only found in engineering or medicine, forcing hundreds of students to suppress their passions in order to become doctors or engineers. This struggle is shown through the story of Farhan Qureshi, an engineering student who eventually convinces his parents to let him pursue photography. The film also showcases another practice where schools publicly announce ranks of students based on their grades. Classmates in India may talk about being “first” in their class, a desirable position that students slave to get. 

3 Idiots does a great job of showing how this system removes all the enjoyment of learning and why you may find many students simply memorizing their textbooks to get the best grades, instead of learning the concepts. Finally, the film touches on a third concept that you may want to note in your Indian “Urban Dictionary.” “Ragging” (similar to “hazing” in Greek life) refers to a procedure where seniors make freshman do ridiculous, and even dangerous feats. There is a ragging scene in the film that will give you a clear understanding of how this works. While you are not likely to deal with ragging in person, it is a college custom that you will definitely hear Indian classmates talking about.

3. Do Dooni Chaar Moving away from student life, Do Dooni Chaar depicts what you may see in your environment outside the college campus. Narrating the story of a math teacher who’s family is always aspiring for more, the film captures the essence of middle class life and culture in India, and may help you better understand your living environment if you are staying with a host family. Many scenes in the film accurately portray daily interactions between neighbors or on the streets and will help you relate to your surroundings as you commute through the city. 

4. Aarakshan Now this film has a more serious tone. It deals with a concept known as “caste based reservation,” similar to Affirmative Action in the US. You may enter India with a lot of questions about castes and it is certainly a topic you will discuss in your classes while studying there. Aarakshan provides a good representation of the realities of reservations within the bounds of Bollywood and can perhaps answer some of the questions you have, or spark ideas to take with you for future class discussions.

5. Dil Chahta Hai Dil Chahta Hai is a diary of the different approaches to love Indian youth have today. While it discusses varying viewpoints on love through it’s three protagonists, the one viewpoint presented that is perhaps the hottest topic on Indian culture is arranged marriage. After wasting years chasing girls who will never make him happy, Sameer (a character in the film) finds true love with Pooja, the girl chosen by his parents. Although Sameer and Pooja reject the alliance initially because it is arranged, they fall in love by the end of the film and admit that their parents may have been right after all. Some of your classmates in India may be going through similar situations with their families. Dil Chahta Hai can help clear any misconceptions you have about arranged marriages and open your mind to learning how this custom fits in modern day India. 

6. Chashme Buddoor Host families are a big part of study abroad and can provide a different perspective on life in India. A great dinner table conversation is, “what was India like when you were in college?” (host parents love that question). When they go on to describe the carefree nature of the 70s and 80s, days with less traffic, more greenery, and simplicity, you may find it hard to imagine India like that. Chashme Buddoor, a 1980‘s romantic comedy, is a perfect showcase of what life once was, and can help you visualize the India that your host parents were once a part of. 

7. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar For many students in India, their college is their identity. Upholding the honor of your college is a big deal, and students take winning intercollegiate competitions extremely seriously. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar tells the story of how a group of cyclists from different colleges go to dangerous extents to prevent their opponents from winning the intercollegiate bike race. The film also illustrates hierarchical dynamics you may notice amongst different colleges, showing how people are looked up or down upon based on where they study. 

8. Mohabbatein One societal difference you may notice in India is the hierarchical nature of society. This is especially prevalent in schools where students are taught never to question or challenge authorities such as teachers or principals. Mohabbatein tells the story of a principal who goes to great lengths to maintain discipline in his school, and even prohibits students to fall in love. Unlike in Western countries where you may find public displays of affection everywhere, “PDA” is still taboo in India, especially in schools. Even today, it is not likely that you will see Indian classmates publicly displaying affection on campus, because the repercussions of an authority figure seeing are too big to face.

9. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is the journey of two college best friends admitting that they love each other. While the film depicts the dynamics of the college going youth in India well, it also portrays modern families that you may encounter while there. Indian women are stereotypically thought of as homemakers, content with a life taking care of their family. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na shows a modern day mother in Mumbai who has a successful career as a motivated social worker, and also has time for her son.

10. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai This is the iconic film of this generation. Ask anyone what their favorite film was growing up, and they will probably say Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. This film is a potpourri of everything you may find in the above films: college romance, family values, arranged marriages, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, (don’t forget 90‘s fashion), all presented in a very “Bollywood” musical way.