I love Bollywood movies. The women are gorgeous, the men dashing, the good guys saintly, and the villains so evil that they make Thomas Barrow of Downton Abbey seem kindhearted. And everyone is ready to break out into a song on the spur of the moment. To an uninitiated audience, Bollywood films can seem odd, at best. The philosophy in costumes, makeup and special effects is “more is more.” The item numbers, song-and-dance sequences, are entirely unrelated to the plot. You have to completely suspend your disbelief on the most basic points. But once you’re used to the characteristic cocktail of songs, tears, love, and tinsel, Bollywood fairy tales can be the best escapist fun.
So can perfumes. Recently, when I was enjoying the heady combination of Bollywood and Guerlain Nahéma after a stressful day, I decided to explore my favorite Indian films through scents. I selected 10 movies and linked them with fragrances that captured their themes or characters. If you want to get a taste of Bollywood, please read on. Needless to say, the perfumes on my list are as opulent as the Indian cinematic extravaganza.
Lalique Le Parfum and Lagaan (2001)
Lalique Le Parfum and Lagaan have one feature in common; they’re perfect introductions to opulence, whether in perfume or Indian cinema. Lalique is a soft wrap of sandalwood, tonka bean and patchouli, with a spicy kick of pepper to keep things bright and lighthearted. Lagaan is likewise an easy to digest film that features a love story and an engaging plot. A group of poor villagers is challenged to a cricket match by British colonial officials. If they win, they will be spared heavy taxes for three years. Nominated for an Oscar (the honor it shared with only two other Indian films so far), Lagaan is the best way to be introduced to Bollywood.
Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady and Umrao Jaan (1981)
Topping the list of my favorite Bollywood films is Umrao Jaan, a story of the famous Lucknow courtesan. The 1981 version stands head and shoulders above the 2006 release. When I was thinking of a perfume that could convey the exquisite refinement of Umrao Jaan’s world with its poetry competitions, moonlight picnics, dance recitals as well as the heartbreak and melancholy, Frédéric Malle’s Portrait of a Lady came to mind. It’s appropriately opulent and dramatic; its dark undercurrent takes one by surprise after the initial sweet rainfall of rose petals. I can just imagine gorgeous Rekha, an actress playing Umrao Jaan, wrapped in its rich veil.
Parfums de Nicolaï SacreBleu Intense and Dil Se (1998)
Watch Dil Se if only for its “Chaiyya Chaiyya” song sequence atop a moving train. It’s also an introduction to a Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan. He plays a journalist who falls for a beautiful woman (Manisha Koirala) without realizing that she is linked to a terrorist organization. Bollywood rarely touches sensitive social issues, but this film is an exception. There are still plenty of songs and dances, and the location shots are incredible.
SacreBleu Intense is my choice for Dil Se, given its complexity and slowly building drama. It starts out fruity and soft, but with time it reveals its dark incense and patchouli layers. But unlike Dil Se, it won’t make you cry in the end.
Guerlain Nahéma and Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Guerlain Nahéma is a perfume I wear when I crave something voluptuous. It blends rose, ylang ylang, plums and sandalwood into an intense potion. Nahéma’s extravagance matches that of Mughal-e-Azam, a period film set in the 16th century. It tells the doomed love story of Prince Salim and dancing girl Anarkali unfolding in the glittering Mughal court. Look for the “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya” song on Youtube to get a taste for one of the best soundtracks in Bollywood. Madhubala, the actress playing Anarkali, with her charmingly crooked smile may not be a perfect beauty, but she’s unforgettable. Just like Nahéma.
L de Lolita Lempicka and Bunty Aur Babli (2005)
Romantic, colorful, and with a dash of darkness equally describes L de Lolita Lempicka and Bollywood’s version of the Bonnie and Clyde story, Bunty Aur Babli. Except that there is little violence, all ends happily ever after, and songs with costume changes succeed one after another.
Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant and Devdas (2002)
An olfactory portrait for Devdas, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s eye candy, was easy to paint. It has to be Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant. It’s a perfume journey of epic proportions that begins in a cardamom scented pastry shop and ends in an incense filled boudoir. L’Éléphant lacks subtlety and fine nuances, but it’s beautiful.
The same applies to Devdas. Shah Rukh Khan stars opposite Miss World Aishwarya Rai, while another Bollywood goddess Madhuri Dixit completes the love triangle. The doomed lover’s story is predictable and maudlin, but the sets, costumes and songs are so stunning that you won’t notice how you’ve spent 185 minutes in front of the television. Jungle L’Éléphant will linger long after you’ve regained consciousness.
Robert Piguet Fracas and Jewel Thief (1965)
Jewel Thief is my top recommendation for retro glamour Bollywood style. It’s a thriller involving mistaken identity, diamonds, dancing girls and virtuous maidens. Good girls in Indian films wear saris, so when you see a beauty bedecked in feathers and a skin-tight sequined dress, she’s a femme fatale.
Jewel Thief is a great vehicle for one of my favorite Bollywood vixens played by Helen. Judging by her mini-dress in the song, “Baithe Hain Kya Uske Paas,” she’s downright wicked. Helen was the most popular Bollywood dancer of her time, and my word, can the lady dance! Robert Piguet Fracas, a shocking pink tuberose, is Helen.
Parfums DelRae Amoureuse and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ran for an astonishing 800 weeks in Mumbai when it was first released. It has the popular star-crossed lovers plot and two megastars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. The backdrop to the story alternates between the mustard fields of northern India and the snow capped mountains of Switzerland. Such a dizzying adventure needs an equally flamboyant perfume, and Parfums Delrae Amoureuse fits the theme. It’s a lush bouquet of every imaginable white flower, with pepper and cardamom giving it an electric shimmer.
Knize Ten and Sholay (1975)
What perfume would fit Mr. Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan? Something dark but elegant, macho but with a sensitive side. My pick is Knize Ten, one of the best leather perfumes for those with classical tastes. My favorite Amitabh Bachchan’s film is also iconic. Sholay is an adventure story of two criminals hired to capture the notorious villain Gabbar Singh, and it makes Hollywood Westerns seem tame.
Chopard Casmir and Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
A drama centering around the romance between the Muslim Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great and the Hindu Princess Jodhabai, Jodhaa Akbar is another entry in the extravagant Bollywood film category. As the New York Times review puts it, the film has “enough elephants and gold to sink the Titanic.” Consider that 2 kg of gold were used for the Emperor’s sword case alone. Chopard’s Casmir has enough vanilla to supply a bakery for a month, but its amber, jasmine and sandalwood will make you feel as if you too are dressed in gold from head to toe. It may not be an everyday fragrance, but I promised an escape from the ordinary, didn’t I?
Do you like Bollywood films? What are your favorite opulent, flamboyant perfumes?