All film lovers, amateur and professional, no matter how well-versed, have gaps in their movie knowledge. For me, one category in which I lack, and which nags at me the most, is Bollywood. I excuse myself by remembering that South Asian cinema is a gigantic entity, particularly when taking into account movies produced outside of Mumbai, which looms as large to that genre as Los Angeles does to “Hollywood.”
There’s no shortage of streaming services touting films in Hindi, but to give myself a brief refresher course in contemporary Bollywood, I initially checked out what the kids call a trusted brand — Amazon Video. In March the company began the channel Heera, which is available to Amazon Prime members for $4.99 a month. Its offerings are extensive: “Heera Bollywood Movies,” “Heera Telugu Movies,” “Heera Tamil Movies,” “Heera Marathi Movies,” “Heera Bengali Movies.” The site also offers series, including “Inside Edge,” an Amazon original about a cricket team that’s quite a bit more explicit in terms of content than most Bollywood movies — the first episode features a player having sex and taking drugs simultaneously in the workout room while a match is in progress. (While Heera itself is only available in the United States and Britain, Amazon offers the series worldwide on Prime.) Declining to give an exact number, an Amazon Video publicist told me that the site offers “several hundred movies and TV episodes.”
One salient feature of Bollywood fare is that individual movies encompass a wide variety of genres; this elasticity is part of how Bollywood film language is radically different from the West’s. “Badrinath Ki Dulhania,” directed by Shashank Khaitan and starring Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt, is a recent romantic comedy/musical/melodrama that begins with a lengthy text disclaimer about the illegality of dowries (dowries being a salient feature of the film’s action). The story concerns arranged marriages in a provincial region, but its lead characters, a handsome knucklehead and an independent-minded woman, are sufficiently stock to register as “universal.” It’s all fun and games until the woman runs off to Singapore to train for a job as a flight attendant. All the families are scandalized to the extent that one patriarchal figure vows to track her down and “hang her body in the streets so it’s a lesson that women shouldn’t go past their limits.”
Everything works out in the end. Regardless of the gravity of some of its situations, the movie maintains a consistent cheery glossiness and is lit in the manner of a particularly lifestyle-opulent hip-hop music video (like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”). The leads are attractive, the music infectious (in its Auto-Tuned way) and the big dance numbers big.
I prefer action movies, and Heera has the very frenetic 2012 spy thriller “Ek Tha Tiger” and the engaging 2004 buddy-cops-versus-motorcycle-gangs “Dhoom,” which climaxes with an elaborate robbery intercut with a musical dance number in which the participants sing “Fiesta Latina, it’s driving wild/Come salsa with me now, it’s party time.” This movie came in its original language, Hindi, with no subtitles, but if you’re a non-Hindi speaker who understands the dynamics of buddy-cop movies, it’s not too hard to follow. (Amazon Video told me: “We provide English subtitles where available and are working hard to ensure all Heera titles include them.”) I recommend you go to Amazon’s preferences and customize the subtitling to your tastes before using the channel; the default preset I had on through my PlayStation 4 yielded a small yellow box with black lettering that was a challenge to read on movies that did have subtitles. It looks as if Amazon’s own Fire TV offers the easiest way to customize subtitles.
As much as the channel offers, it’s not a one-stop shop. I had a list of movies I wanted to check out, or check out again, and they were not on Heera. They are available on Amazon Video, but in à la carte rent/buy options. These included the elaborate — and some would say eccentric even by Bollywood standards — 1992 period epic “Khuda Gawah” and the potentially overpowering 2013 Tamil action picture “Singam II,” which can each be rented for $3.99 and purchased for $19.99.
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