Ain’t No Love Like Bollywood Love

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?

Picture Courtesy actor.bollysite.com

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.

Pakeezah Picture Courtesy thehindu.com

“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.

This one especially for Russell Peters

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.

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11 comments on “Ain’t No Love Like Bollywood Love

  1. You just sum it all. Superb write up.

    Hopefully this is going to change very soon, because the greater part of Hindi cinema is it’s mad love & romantic fantasies which sold it 100% Worldwide – Many root for Bollywood because they’re ready to buy dreams, And would love to see the ‘Soulful Bollywood’ Back, in a modern form!

    Still I would applaud for few ‘Want to be on par with Hollywood’ films including Farhan Akhtar’s ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ though it was a friendship-centered movie, I So liked how FA presented a passionate yet modern romance in Akash/Shalini love story!

    As I said before, Blames on ‘Dharma’ for ruining the memories of the fantastic old Hindi cinema,That the house production itself was successfully participating in it.

  2. I had to think about my reaction to this excellent blog post, because I am torn by it. Overall, I think I probably sympathise more with your point of view than not, but with some caveats. First, the Haan:
    YAY for someone else who doesn’t like Veer-ZZZZZZZZZaaara – a typical BW film with the USP being that its 20yr storyline was shot and ran in realtime, it seems.
    Of the other 90s-ish films you list, I probably only like about half (discounting my physical discomfort at the shrieking caterwauling that is Lata by then). KKHH left me cold (not a big SRK fan), as did DTPH, really like QSQT, and enjoyed HDDCS, Lamhe, M-e-A & DDLJ. My filmi heart lies in the 50s and 60s, which is why overall I’m on your side of the argument.
    The main reason I’m more on your side than ont is that I object to the craven “Hollywood is better, copy it” mentality that many, if not most BW “romcoms” display. The industry that gave the world Pyaasa, Junglee, Kashmir Ki Kali & Brahmachari does not need to cringe in self-loathing.

    There’s always a “but”, though. Some of my favourite BW films of this century have been those that incorporated elements of the romcom into them. There was no “tragic lovers separated by the world” in JWM, easily my favourite Hindi film of the 21st century so far, and many elements that are similar to HW romcoms (especially the whole train sequence). 2011 was also a year I enjoyed for “romcomesque” BW films – MFK and MBKD were both really fun and entertaining films that did not sell out to HW despite having many elements of the romcom in them. In contrast, the one mega attempt at “tragic lover” style BW was a stupefying disaster. If I’d walked out at halftime, I’d have loved “Mausam”, instead of wondering why Pankaj didn’t edit the film AT ALL, and just threw in every trope he could think of to fill its 6-month runtime.
    So I don’t think the BW romcom is intrinsically a bad thing. Slavish copying of other film industry styles IS, but art is always evolving and adapting, and BW films that bring the best of other genres in and blend them with Indian cinema’s own strengths can be real gems. My favourite example of this from recent times is S-e-I. I am a sappy romantic and I really like “Love Actually”, but I prefer S-e-I despite having seen it after the original, because of the way it Indianises the concept and doesn’t just copy it.
    My apologies for the bloviation, but your post deserved a comprehensive response. So, as a fan of OLD-style filmi pyaar ki kahaani, I still look forward to more BW romcoms, as long as they are of JWM, MFK and MBKD quality. Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking read!

    • Stuartnz,

      And thanks for your thought-provoking reply! You know, I was struggling with JWM because though it isn’t the typical Bollywood drama, I also somehow don’t think of it as a romcom for some reason…I feel like Imtiaz’s films belong in a category of their own and are a bit more difficult to peg, but I do love all of them. I did enjoy MBKD (MFK was a bit much for me), was expecting so much from Mausam and was so disappointed that it turned out to be so bad. Yes, if romcoms are made like BBB, JWM and MBKD, that’s not a bad thing at all. Still, they can’t replace the sweeping romances.

      There’s definitely nothing wrong with trying new formats for love stories but it’s just that they haven’t given us ANY grand sagas in forever (Mausam failed, and before that there was Veer Zara which was also disappointing). I just wish they’d give us both – because I doubt any other industry in the world can make stories like that, they’re so rooted in the culture. Wouldn’t want to see them die out forever. Hence my little rant. :)

      Awesome to have your POV!

  3. Nadaa,

    Ooh, you’re right about DCH – that’s an exception although I did think of that more as a buddy movie than typical love story. But he did capture the depth, sacrifice and torment of Shalini-Akash in a very old school Bollywood way. I mean, not to say that Bollywood can’t try a different love story format – DCH, BBB and all of Imtiaz’s films aren’t “typical” Bollywood love stories, but they’re great movies. Even the ones that ARE influenced by Hollywood – alright, they can make them, but where are the stories that are part of Bollywood’s legacy, you know? Why haven’t we seen ANY in like forever! At least balance the slate a little! ;) XO

  4. You literally just left me speechless. I have no words. This was such a beautiful piece! It sums everything up about what love is and why Bollywood shouldn’t let it go.

    I also agree on Imtiaz Ali. I actually put him at an even higher pedestal than Yash Chopra. Imtiaz understands the “epic”, dreamy side of love, along with the realistic, nitty gritty pieces of it. For example, the more I think about Rockstar, the more I understand the depth to their love story. Chopra is more of a straight, “I love you. You love me” deal. Ali just takes love to new places! :)

    • Kavs,

      My goodness, I’m blushing! Thank you so much! I knew you would be on the epic love side. ;)

      Love Imtiaz, you can tell he thinks deeply about the topic of love and understands all the shades of it – from the super-passionate Sufi stuff to the mundane, funny stuff, like in Socha Na Tha. I put him in his own category – neither romcom, nor epic love – just thoughtful.

      Also, I love that he doesn’t follow a typical format, I think he just writes organically and goes with the flow of each story. That’s why his movies don’t feel formulaic. And most importantly, he always keeps it Indian (foreign models aside).
      :) XO!

  5. Though I quite like the breezy rom-coms(they make for good ‘time-pass’, as they call it), the conviction with which you’ve written this article makes me choose rom-dramas over rom-coms any time. :) I’m convinced, and I’m left with a lot of food for thought. Brilliantly written.

  6. Brilliantly put into words! Exactly how I feel. And after watching all the Bollywood epics, I definitely believe in them, I don’t care if its unreal. Its real for me. And it needs to come back. Those values are precious to our country and we cannot let them go. Very very well written! Thanks for sharing this with the world! I can’t tell you how much I needed to read this somewhere. Hopefully, future filmmakers somehow read it too. Good job!!! :)

  7. I totally agree. But I also think it is necessary for Bollywood to change, and to reinvent itself because India as a country is changing, and as a result the change should and will be reflected in the films. But in terms of rom-com, and unnecessarily crude jokes(I have had very awkward moments with my dad because of the constant references to sex), I totally agree with you. It’s the worst of Hollywood that they have carried over to India. Film makers know that their audience is changing, and know that they have to make adjustments to their hit-making formulas, but instead of seriously thinking about how they should cater to their audience, they have gone the hollywood route.I think movies like Jab We Met could be the answer to that dilemma. It has the bollywood masala, but most importantly it has a strong female character, entertaining but very realistic at the same time. I think it is about time that bollywood film makers take time when they are etching their lead characters (unless it is a salu bhai masala movie). I saw the promo for Ek Tha Tiger, I could care less about the story, but I am definitely watching the movie. Why? Salman Khan. Need I say more.

  8. Okay, I know I’m months behind, but I just bookmarked your blog, so I’m playing catch up on your post. I’m black, female, American from the American south and had no exposure to Bollywood outside of Mira Nair movies (which, while I like her, let’s be real) until I came back to college. Admittedly, I’ve always felt uniquely drawn to Desi culture, particularly through the influence of my Bengali friends (which is an entire culture in itself, so I know better on that one, no matter how many TV serials I’m made to watch). But, I had never seen a true Bollywood film. Then Netflix recommendations happened. That feature annoys me most of the time, but it kept bringing up this movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jeyenge. Finally, I caved. Why not, right?


    Everything you’ve said about how Indian cinema does love stories is what I experienced while viewing this movie. It was SO 90s (I’m a child of the 90s so I know), a little cliche, a bit stalkerish, a lot juvenile, slightly archaic (though not untrue) and the suspension of belief mounted the further the film went along. But my God, I haven’t loved a movie this much before and possibly since. Mind you, every criticism I’ve ever heard of DDLJ is pretty valid. Hell, I’ve made several of them myself. But, it’s just so…GRAND, A few black and white Hollywood films of yore have come close to giving me that feeling, but nothing truly happened until that moment. It was just so much more than I could have ever imagined. It captured something in me. It showed me love in an entirely new way. We won’t even get into Kajol stealing my very heterosexual heart while dancing in a towel, or Shahrukh making me love him despite a questionable haircut and utterly juvenile behavior. I had to see more films like this, and so, I began digging

    I don’t obsess over many things, but after DDLJ, Hindi films had me, hook line and sinker. It’s been over three years since I started devouring them, and I think I mostly watch because I’m always chasing that feeling. The epic, divine romance that we simply don’t get in Hollywood. I’m a movie buff, and while the snobbery some have about Hindi films is justified, albeit annoying, I kind of don’t care. You SHOULD be over the top about love. There’s nothing wrong with that. Love isn’t always cynical and you’re not weaker for loving someone wholly, completely and loudly. If alls fair in love, then running through a field of yellow flowers isn’t all that odd in the long run. Truthfully, a film industry should, at the core, do what is in their soul. No matter what, French film is always kind of miserable. No matter what, there’s always a mix of Horatio Alger and cynicism in American film. There’s always an undertone of love that is free to share with everyone in Spanish films. That’s not to say every film in that country is like that, but the culture of film is, no matter how movie buffs and snobby critics push back against it, pretty obvious in a lot of the films a country puts out. You are who you are and that’s not a bad thing. Looking at the epic romances of the 90s and into the early 2000s, I wish I had stumbled upon Hindi films a generation earlier. I can still see the movies from any era, obviously. I just got around to watching Pyaasa, and I can’t think of five better love stories ever told, I swear to you. But I watch them in a disconnected way, because it’s not like that anymore. That makes me incredibly sad. That’s not to say incorporating elements of rom-coms is wholly bad. I like most of Imitaz’s stuff (I’m not as in love with JWM as the rest of the world. I know, I know, I catch grief for it on a regular basis), but it can be done as he has shown. But honestly, I’m from America and grew up on rom-coms. I lived in a world where people worshiped Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock (though I like the latter a lot). I just…if I wanted that, I could click the rom-com category on Netflix. It doesn’t speak to my soul. I would argue the passion and divine elements of love you speak of are what Nicholas Sparks’ books and movies try to capture, but it’s not the same, no matter how much Ryan Gosling you put in a film.

    In the end, I think it’s the soul of things. I think Hindi film is just as much Yash Chopra’s location shots as it is Satyajit Ray’s brilliant but subtle trilogy. I think that love you speak of lies in both, in all of the great films really. It may manifest itself in different ways because we’re dealing with different filmmakers, but it’s there. So, yes, bring back unapologetic romance. Delve deeper, tell the story of the details in new and innovative ways, or at least in caring, carefully thought out ways, but don’t abandon what has worked.

    Oh well, All of this to say, I co-sign this post %100. Again, I’m enjoying your blog. We definitely have a few, slightly varying opinions, which I’m sure will come up if I post more regularly and ever get around to seeing all of the current films (though the last one I saw was EMAET and, you and I completely agree on that one). Then again, your all time favorite actresses are Rekha and Kajol and your SRK love is strong. I have a feeling we’ll get along pretty well.

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