Thursday, February 10, 2011

Love in the times of Bollywood

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy loses girl. Boy fights for girl. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. This is a plot straight out of several Bollywood potboilers that all of us have grown up with and enjoyed. However, this simple two line plot has been treated in several different ways, leaving behind some very memorable cinema that has left its impact on generations and generations of youngsters. I have always been fascinated by the influence Indian cinema has had on shaping the psyche of people who sit in dark theatres Friday after Friday and watch their matinee idols  serenade each other, fight goons and face several trials and tribulations on the big screen. We have all had our own favourite stars that we have idolized and wanted to be like, whose posters we put up in our rooms and for whose releases we waited desperately. I am particularly interested to trace the portrayal of love and romance in Indian cinema over the generations and how it both reflected the reality of our society and shaped it in many ways in this valentine week.
One of the oldest movies I ever watched and that has stayed in my mind is ‘Achoot Kanya’ released in 1936. Since, this was a movie made in the pre-independence era, it dealt with the taboo subject of love between an upper class boy and a dalit girl. Memorable performances by Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani and the circular screenplay where most of the movie takes place in flashback made this movie one of the biggest hits of those times and established the pair as one of the most memorable romantic pairs of the black and white era. It was still the time when transformation of the society was uppermost in the film makers minds and romance as we know it today took a little bit if a back seat. However this is the era even right up till the 50’s that gave us gems like Sujata, Bandini, Anupama, Saraswati Chandra etc and no one is complaining since each of these movies is a master piece in itself.
Romance came in its fully developed form in the Indian Cinema in the 60’s and I truly believe that a hero that spelled Romance in the 60’s was Shammi Kapoor, one of the most original actors of all times. He has several romantic classics to his name but in a way one cannot really differentiate the character he played across these different movies. He often portrayed the scion of a rich family, who is happy go lucky, independent but still tied to the roots of tradition and does not want to take any bold step without his mother’s approval. He was ably complemented by heroines such as Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore who again fell into the mould of the quintessential Indian Woman. Before they meet the hero, they are portrayed to be bold, vivacious women with a mind of their own, but somehow a drastic transformation happens the minute they fall in love. In love, most of these leading ladies seemed to bend to the will of parental approval and became passive spectators in their own love stories. In many of these stories, parental approval is not won by the grit and determination of the lovers, but due to a random evil act perpetrated by the villain in the story that opens the eyes of the parents to the love of their children.
However, I honestly believe that the 1960 cult classic ‘Mughal-E-Azam’, that portrayed Prince Salim’s love affair with the courtesan Anarkali truly is the pillar stone for depiction of love that is bold, courageous and breaks the bounds of parental approval. This was K.Asif’s labour of love that took 9 years to make and until ‘Sholay’ happened in 1976, was considered to be the highest grosser at the box office.  There are several path breaking scenes from this movie that have etched themselves forever in the collective conscious, especially the scene where Dilip Kumar caresses Madhubala’s face with a feather. I honestly believe that a movie becomes path breaking when it creates a character that defines the direction in which society is moving. I feel the much in love, yet honour bound Prince Salim portrayed by Dilip Kumar and the passionate courtesan who while knowing her place in society still does not shy away from declaring her love, portrayed by Madhubala were characters that shaped an entire generation’s definition of love. ‘Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya’ (Why fear if you are in love) became the anthem of a generation and sowed the seeds of rebellion in the name of love in the minds of several youngsters. While the end of this epic love story is tragic, the determination and pride brimming in Madhubala’s eyes while she mouths this song, made young people of the generation want to fight for their love and stand up to their elders for this if required. I should know. My own parent’s love story reflects both the class divide and this rebellion to a large extent J.
The 70’s and 80’s were decades ruled by ‘Garam Dharam’, super star Rajesh Khanna and angry young man, Amitabh Bachan. The epithets earned by each of these stars are important to note, as they reflect a key characteristic these actors wrought in their persona and portrayed in movie after movie. The truly romantic hero out of all of them was Rajesh Khanna who has several smash hit love stories to his credit. However, I believe that what helped Khanna was his boy next door looks, wonderful music and an approachable charm. I don’t believe that in the form of character he defined anything different from what Shammi Kapoor did in the 60’s. The 80’s were probably some of the worst years for Indian cinema, where multi-starrer magnum opuses with a focus on drama and violence ruled the roost. But, the advent of the Khans, Aamir, Salman and Shahrukh in the 90’s can be heralded as the next big milestone in terms of romance in Indian cinema. It is Amir’s ‘Qayamat se Qayamat tak’ released in the late 80’s that brought the trend of simple love stories focusing on the boy and girl back to Indian cinema and Salman’s ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ re-emphasized this message. But out of the three of them, the Khan who became the undisputed king of romance is definitely Shahrukh Khan.  
‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’(DDLJ) released in 1995 is a path breaking movie for several reasons. It is the movie that for the first time highlighted the business that can be made from the NRI markets and more than that it introduced ‘Raj’ to the Indian audience. Raj, the character portrayed by Shahrukh is a spoilt, rich kid without a goal or aim in life, very different from the romantic heroes of the past. But a unique twist that to me marks the greatness of this movie is Raj’s decision to not run away with his love Simran, but to stay back and make her family also fall in love with him. This movie heralded the arrival of a hero who was truly the boy next door, who respected his woman, her parents, her aspirations and wanted her to follow her heart. He was a unique mix of modernity and tradition which made youngsters believe that there was a middle path between rebellion and surrender that can be walked to make their love stories successful. Shahrukh reaped the benefit of playing this lovable character in several movies and made a super hit pair with Kajol in many of them. Movies like ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ that said love is friendship and ‘Dil to Pagal Hai’ that spread the message that there is the ‘someone’ out there for every one shaped the expectations of a generation on  how they wanted their love stories to be.
I loved the Simrans, Anjalis and Mayas of these movies while I was growing up and they left an indelible imprint in my mind of what romance and feminity were all about. In fact, like several girls of my generation, I believed that there is someone out there made only for me. Lucky for me I got him early on in life before cynicism jaded my views J. But, I still remember a comment a friend of mine passed after watching DDLJ. She did not understand how Simran, who was so bold in the first half that she was ready to embark on a Eurail trip only with friends was not able to stand up for her love and what she believed in, in the second half. Funnily, this difference is also shown in what she wears – western outfits in the first half and the chastest Indian outfits in the second half. I did not make much of this comment then, but when I think of it now, I feel that while the romantic hero has undergone a huge transformation in Indian cinema, the heroine sadly remained stuck in the time warp of the 60’s.
But happily, the most recent cult romantic movie, ‘Jab we met’ helped break these bounds that have been holding the Indian heroine down for decades. Kareena Kapoor through the inspired madness of ‘Geet’, in the movie showed us a character who has beliefs of her own (no matter how warped they may be and how much trouble they may get her into) and more than that sticks to them through thick and thin. In fact, in many ways I felt, she was the hero of the movie rescuing Shahid when is about to jump out of a train and sticking with him till she believes he has turned a corner. For the first time since ‘Kati Patang’, there was a heroine with a past, who was in love with someone else when she meets the hero. Even in the end, Geet takes the decision in her hands when Aditya wants to sacrifice his love and goes for what she wants. Here was an endearing, strong yet vulnerable character that I want this generation to follow. She was quirky and mad but still loyal and honest. In many ways, I feel ‘Jab we met’ is as path breaking as DDLJ, as it is the return to a character based plot, where the biggest villain in the movie is not external but internal. It reflects two lost souls finding the perfect companion through the trials and tribulations in life. While it still points to ‘there is someone out there for everyone’, it also gives this generation the message that in the route to finding that ‘someone’, they may make mistakes. It is alright to make those mistakes and accept them as a part of growing up but when they find the truest love of their lives, it is good to take a risk and go for it.
I don’t know what the next cult romantic movie will be or who the next romantic super star will be, but I do know that just like in the generations before this, Bollywood will continue to make the boy meets girl kind of movies, although, I have great hopes from the current crop of film makers that they will keep it real and fresh. I also believe that this generation is more complex and difficult to understand than in the past and I guess the love stories we see today are a reflection of that. But, I am sure that like in the past Indian cinema will continue to influence our notions of love and romance for many more generations to come. So this Valentine weekend, drop the cynicism and go catch the next romantic flick that comes to town. Sometimes, leaving the head behind and just taking the heart with you to the movies can be a hugely liberating experience.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


  1. Wonderfully written. Just wondering - what do you think about Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna? I personally think that this particular movie is very beautifully done and everytime I watch this movie, I have tears :-).

    - Sarvani

  2. Wonderful, Ambica. Loved reading this and it brought back memories of scenes from the movies mentioned. I would like to mention Devdas here for being the one story that has inspired generation after generation of film makers in India and each generation brought their own sensibilities into the making of their "version". And, what better story than Devdas to portray love! Keep writing and I shall keep reading.....

  3. I think one man who epitomizes love kal bhee, aaj bhee and kal bhaa is HAMARE YASH CHOPRAjee.

    I feel generations have got inspired by his craft to celebrate love.

    Very well written. Are you thinking of script writting...if not ..u must now:-)