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Essential Bollywood Musicals

Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page M03

My first taste of Bollywood cinema involved watching several dozen Indian actors shaking their shoulders and swinging their hips atop a moving steam train, all to a tune that stayed stuck in my head for days. A year later, I still get that song stuck in my head, and Bollywood musicals -- the colorful creations of the world's largest film industry, based in Mumbai (the B in Bollywood is for Bombay, the city's former name) -- have become a regular guilty pleasure for my friends and me.

What makes these super-long melodramas so addictive? The catchy songs and mesmerizing choreography are part of the appeal, but the movies are funny, clever and action-packed to boot. They also tend to have a wholesomeness missing from many American movies: Kisses on the lips are almost unheard of . . . but those wet sari scenes can get pretty steamy!

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Want to check them out yourself? Get started with these faves, all of which are available with English subtitles from area shops.

DEVDAS. In this four-hour weepfest, the title character (played by boy-next-door Shah Rukh Khan) falls in love with childhood friend Paro (Aishwarya Rai, 1994's Miss World), a woman from a lower social class. When his mother won't let them marry, Devdas spirals downward, boozing and shacking up with a courtesan (Madhuri Dixit). A remake of a 1956 original, the 2002 film was then the priciest Bollywood movie ever produced, boasting opulent sets and hundreds of bejeweled costumes.

DIL CHAHTA HAI (THE HEART WANTS). This down-to-earth 2001 flick follows three college friends -- played by Akshaye Khanna, Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan (no relation to Aamir or Shah Rukh; there are a lot of Khans in Indian cinema) -- with very different philosophies on love. The trio splits as each pairs off: One falls for an older woman (Dimple Kapadia, one of Bollywood's grand dames); another fancies his betrothed best friend, played by silver-screen sweetheart Preity Zinta; and the third finds his heart broken time and again. Inevitably, the plotlines converge -- but not before a side-splitting send-up of Bollywood stereotypes plays out.

KABHIE KHUSHI KABHIE GHAM (SOMETIMES HAPPY, SOMETIMES SAD). Heartbreaking one moment and hilarious the next, 2001's K3G is the perfect Bollywood starter movie. In it, elder statesman Amitabh Bachchan plays a wealthy, gray-bearded father who disowns his adopted son, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan, again) for -- you guessed it -- deciding to marry a woman of a lower caste. (His disapproval is so strong that nearly all his scenes are punctuated by ominous thunderclaps.) But Rahul's younger brother (hunky dancing machine Hrithik Roshan) is determined to bring father and son together again -- against a backdrop of elaborate musical numbers set in a British nightclub, a lavish ballroom and at the base of the Great Pyramids.

KUCH KUCH HOTA HAI (SOMETHING HAPPENS). Starring that much-loved pair Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, this cute 1998 film takes a twist early. The wife of the main character, Rahul (Khan), dies soon after childbirth, leaving eight letters for her daughter, Anjali (the adorable Sana Saeed), one to be opened on each of her first eight birthdays. In the last, she gives her daughter a surprising charge: to reunite her father with his best college friend (Kajol) -- a tomboy who secretly pined for him.

LAGAAN (LAND TAX). One of a handful of Bollywood flicks that have entered the Western movie mainstream -- and can regularly be found at Blockbuster -- Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar in 2002 for Best Foreign Film. A British officer in colonial India offers to cancel the Lagaan -- an annual land tax -- if the villagers can beat his men in a cricket match. Iron-willed farmer Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) accepts the challenge; mirth ensues. Emily Messner

Where to Get Your Bolly Fix

India Emporium. 6848 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park. 301-270-3322. This small, friendly store is packed with films to rent -- from Hindi hits to Tamil documentaries. After a refundable $10 membership fee, you pay $2 for DVD rentals and $1 for videos.

Loehmann's Twin Cinemas. 7291 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 703-573-5774. Need the full moviegoing experience? Check out this theater -- it's not all Bollywood all the time, but it does offer two or three movies each week.

Shivam Music & Spices. 4231-C Markham St., Annandale. 703-916-8616. DVDs line one wall, videos another in this stocked shop. If you love the Bollywood music but not the movie length, you can find plenty of CDs on offer here, too. Rentals are $2 per week for videos and $3 for DVDs. There's a Shivam in Fairfax, too: 11139 Lee Hwy., 703-591-5116.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company