Bollywood’s trademark “Love Conquers All” vintage romances have a notorious reputation for being unrealistic, crazy, and suspiciously stalkerish. They are also responsible for causing maaajor problems in the real love lives of people like yours truly (due to unrealistic expectations). But despite learning that love in real life is nothing like what Yash Chopra promised me (can we sue him?), I can’t imagine my filmy duniya without those grand love sagas and their priceless OSTs. And I certainly do not want a world without them.
Which is why it makes me so very sad that this particular Bollywood tradition has died a tragic death at the hands of the typical Hollywood romantic comedy slash chick-flick (a genre which I wish would die an ugly and un-romantic death of its own).
Love in real life might be mundane but it doesn’t have to be that way in the movies, does it? I mean, if we can’t put Love up on a fairy pedestal even in cinema, can we just shoot ourselves now?
Then again I demand a very high level of passion from my filmy love shove dramas. Can you blame me though? Look at what I was raised on: Love Story (not Erich Segal’s obviously), Silsila, Hero, Betaab, Ek Duje Ke Liye, QSQT, Maine Pyar Kiya, Aashiqui, Deewana, Lamhe, 1942:A Love Story, DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Paagal Hai, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara (<–didn’t like that one but it fits the genre). As a grown up I watched the epic odes to romance – Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam, Dilip Kumar’s Devdas and so many more – innumerable tales of grand love, sacrifice and tragedy.
But the world has changed.
Within the span of a generation, Heathcliff went from being Ultimate Tragic-Romantic Hero to Ultimate Douchebag. It is not possible to make like a Victorian and die of Heartbreak – it doesn’t even get you a day off of work. Romeo & Juliet (or Laila-Majnu) are only regarded as the Ultimate Soulmates because they never had to deal with deathly serious issues such as who gets to hog the remote control.
Hollywood figured all this out a LONG time ago.
So out went any traces of Romantic Drama/Tragedy (an almost non-existent genre in Hollywood because it’s so un-marketable), and in came the Romantic Comedy. Love sucks, sex is weird, let’s laugh about all of it and make sure the ladies drag their boyfriends to the theaters in February.
The standard Hollywood romcom formula is narrated in a “love is just so confounding ” tone, where the lead couple spends the entire movie nervously dancing around the very idea of being in love. This, however, doesn’t prevent them from having lots of sex. Then in the 3rd act an epiphany hits them, and they finally declare “you complete me” like they’ve just saved the world.
“You complete me” is where most Bollywood love stories BEGIN (the earlier kind, not this new-fangled wannabe-cool at-par-with-Hollywood-romcom nonsense). They begin with the grand declaration of love, then society gets in the way, high melodrama ensues, no one has sex (but everyone sings incredible songs) and many sacrifices are made. The problems aren’t with each other but with the world around them. The whole point was to showcase that you would do anything for love, not hem and haw till kingdom about acknowledging that you’re in love to begin with.
Romcoms are about the nitty-gritty humorous details of dating & relationship. Love stories – at least the way I think of them – are about Love Itself. It’s got nothing to do with “how to make a relationship work” – it’s got to do with exploring the fantasy of love as fairy tale. It’s the kind of improbable, impossible love that endures no matter how many times the world/society around us changes, where remote controls and compatibility checklists and phrases like “third base” never enter the equation. Bollywood has always adopted this model. But not any longer.
The dichotomy between “modern” love and “old world” love was a theme lightly explored in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal but even that movie wasn’t satisfying enough for me. There’s something deeper that was missing from it – the unapologetic passion of all-consuming love and heartbreak. That deeper essence Imtiaz portrayed very beautifully in Rockstar. (Sidenote: Where would Bollywood love be without Imtiaz Ali. He’s the new Yash Chopra. Alas, as Yashji’s obsession with foreign locales, so Imtiaz’s obsession with foreign models.)
I don’t think that the romantic comedy is a genre that is organically suited to Bollywood or to any form of Indian cinema. The genre exists in Bollywood now solely because of the Hollywood influence. And it sucks. The only Hindi romcom that worked for me was Band Baaja Baarat and that’s only because they managed to capture modern yet Indian sensibilities at the same time.
But why should the romcom be suited to Bollywood? It’s not a natural fit. India’s concept of love has never been an irreverent one. Their perception of it has its roots in the concept of divine love – Love that is felt as the direct link to God if not as God Himself. It’s serious, it’s dangerous and it’s passionate in a way that doesn’t flinch from passion, from self-destruction, even death.
The concept of fanaa, for example, comes from Sufism – destroying the ego – or the self – for love. Kunal Kohli did a terrible job of translating that concept in the suitably named Fanaa but Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se is a mind-blowing and far superior rendition of the same.
This theme of reverence, devotion, sacrifice and destruction is at the heart of the love story templates that used to be the primary influence for Bollywood – literature such Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Shireen-Farhad, Sohni-Mahiwal and mythology such as Radha-Krishna or Ram-Sita. The idea of love as sacred has been at the root of most Hindi films and I believe, despite the influence of Westernization (and, to be fair, Reality), it still lingers at the heart of Indian culture.
So it just confounds me when the influence goes from those eternal, inspirational models of love, to the angsty, moody, dysfunctional, and comic takes on love that are more organically appealing to typical Western sensibilities. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s an accurate portrayal of relationship & romance in one dimension of consciousness. But it’s not the only portrayal. It’s not the only way love can be experienced.
And that’s why it makes me mad when Bollywood seems to be so in favor of abandoning their own roots for that particular formula.
Don’t get me wrong - I know modern love in India has nothing to do with Radha-Krishna-like devotion either. But real life is one thing and cinema is another. And I hate it that Bollywood’s new filmmakers are allowing the Hollywood model to be the final authority on how love stories can be told.
Love is the ultimate enigma. Whatever you believe it is, it is. It is the grandest story in any writer’s arsenal. It is also the grandest of all human experiences. It doesn’t have a formula and to simplify it into a 3 Act “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl” format is frankly, an insult.
Rumi wrote that “Love is the astro-lab of God’s mysteries.” None of us have figured God out yet. And neither have we figured Love out. It’s the whole reason we’re here. Maybe what we call “reality” is the problem – not love. Reality has changed and will change innumerable times but the quest for ideal love will always endure.
Stories are how we express that eternal quest. I wish we wouldn’t forget that in our zeal to be so smart-alecky about it.
Because just when you thought Bollywood was done with improbable romantic dramas, Twilight came to haunt Hollywood.
What do you think? Rom-coms or Rom-dramas? Both? Neither? Opinions welcome!
Check out the debate on this post/topic at the BollyWhat Forum, some interesting opinions there too.
For my post on how Times of India & their subsidiary Zoom TV blatantly copied this article go here.