When Aditya falls in love with Geet in Jab We Met, a boy falls in love with a girl. For a Hindi film that is an uncommon thing to happen. Usually, when a hero and heroine fall in love, they carry with them the burden of something larger, either by way of a class divide, or the unpaid debts of an earlier birth, or perhaps the idea of modernity and tradition. To fall in love with someone else without such accompanying baggage is rare and, exceptions apart, a phenomenon of our times. We see it in Jab We Met where the girl does come from a mustard field-infested rural Punjabi background, but that in no way impinges on the choice she is faced with—whether to go with the boyfriend for whom she put herself on the line or with the new boy in her life. In Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, another recent romantic success, the protagonists carry no mythic weight; they are two friends who should be lovers and everyone else knows it; the film merely outlines how they find this out for themselves. In both these films, falling in love involves people who are grappling with the idea of choice itself, rather than agents of class or social background.
Shahid and Kareena in Jab We Met
The idea of choice in Hindi films has historically translated into a struggle to have one. The absence of individual choice is part of the truth about society in India in general where the great anxiety to keep the family structure intact led to many restrictions on the extent to which individuals could exercise personal liberty. This is particularly true of romance where we saw a high degree of social control. The need felt for such careful monitoring is easy to understand, given that romance was seen as a defining expression of the youthful need to act in accordance with their instincts. Even today, we see examples of this in real life, with episodes where police officers randomly rough up young couples in public parks to 'teach them a lesson'. The idea that the young be allowed to choose their own mates is one that India has begun to accept with difficulty, and depictions of romance down the ages reflects our ambivalence towards romance and its many social implications.
The idea of lovers coming together only to come up against a wall constructed by society has been a common theme with most 'epic' love stories following this structure. From Devdas, Laila Majnu down to Ek Duje Ke Liye and QSQT, we see the mythic tale of love thwarted by society retain its timeless appeal. These stories tend to end in tragedy, for that perpetuates the 'epic' nature of these tales, making them seductive in an idealised form but discouraging emulation in everyday life.
Individuals in the films of the '50s and early '60s are depicted as forlorn figures that yearn to come together against the backdrop of larger notions of family honour, caste, nationalistic responsibilities and tradition. Examples include Devdas, Andaz, Mughal-e-Azam and Bandini, to name just a few. Love meant stealing oneself away from the prying eyes of the world (aa gup chup gup pyaar karein) and finding some moments of tenderness together before fate intervened. Romance quivered with yearning, and love was felt most strongly through pain. The time spent together was fleeting and the real intensity of the emotion experienced only when the lovers were apart. Some of the truly memorable Hindi film songs of this time are about the most exquisite sense of repressed longing. Love was usually expressed in symbolic terms and what we, as viewers, were consuming was the idea of love rather than love between the protagonists on our screens. The rebirth motif in particular glorified love at the cost of its practitioners by positing bodily forms as transient and love as something eternal.
In the '60s, this gradually gave way to a fascination with the process of falling in love. If in the '50s couples slipped into love through some small accidental meeting, the wooing game was the centrepiece of the romantic caper of the '60s. The '60s and '70s were full of romantic-social capers where in the first half the boy (Shekhar), accompanied by sidekicks harasses the girl (Sunita), with giggly girls in tow, at a hill station, till the interval, after which some social complications take place, which are finally resolved to the sound of mild dhishoom-dhishoom at the end.
Nutan and Dharmendra in Bandini
When I look back on my first memories of Hindi films, beginning with the late '60s, it seems to me that romance between the hero and heroine was always a foregone conclusion. The hero and heroine had to fall in love since they were, well, the hero and the heroine. Both were marked out as protagonists and the specifics of the characters they played didn't really matter. Romance was part of the deal; they had made reservations on the Love Express and made sure they had adjacent seats. Romance became more physical and found expression much more in open spaces. Love became an act of social enactment, involving exaggerated 'hero-like' gestures and puffed up declarations of love. Songs were addressed as much to the invisible viewers as to each other. The use of long shots and the depiction of vistas with the mandatory echo across hills became the staples for representing romance.
The genteel reserve of the man begins to give way as a more biological version of masculinity gets employed in the wooing of the woman. She is manhandled, teased and subject to sundry stimulations till she gives in. In Sudhir Kakar's words, the Majnu lover gave way to the Krishna lover, and as he puts it, "for the Krishna lover, it is vital that the woman be a sexual innocent and that in his forcing her to become aware of his desire she get in touch with her own". The Shammi Kapoor brand of romance follows a 'shake well before use' view of dealing with the other sex, with the woman's role being increasingly that of reacting to his amorous advances (shut up, stupid) rather than participating. Love is made to the woman till she is tamed.
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The explicit acknowledgement of the role of the body and sex came with films like Bobby and Julie. Both have non-Hindu characters as female protagonists, and the social context gets further abbreviated with the use of their first name as the sole mark of identification. The 'Hum tum ek kamre mein band ho' reverses the idea of cavorting in public spaces and explores the pleasures of intimacy within guaranteed confines. The 'chabhi kho jaye' bit is critical, for only then can something happen. Julie took the sexual motif further with an explicit depiction of the longing for the female body. This, of course, meant that it had to be couched in a sordid morality tale, but Julie is a film that had an influence which is perhaps not recognised sufficiently.
The coming of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi helped mark the transition of romance from an experience to a physical performance. Romance began with the hero harassing the woman but by saving her from more advanced forms of harassment by other men, and began to be represented by elaborate dances that were acted out with callisthenic exuberance. In any case, Amitabh Bachchan, the defining figure of the '70s, was far too preoccupied with the likes of Nirupa Roy (his mother in Deewar), past injuries and grievances to focus too much on the women in his present.
Aamir and Juhi in QSQT
An interesting sidelight of romance in this time was the awkward enunciation of "I love you" as a self-conscious declaration of one's feelings. When said in English, the meaning itself altered, not merely of the sentence but of those uttering it. "I love you" was an emulsion painted on the exterior of one's self and connoted what transpired between couples wearing trousers. Both 'Angrezi mein kehte hain ki I love you' and the later, decidedly more cringe-inducing 'Ilu ka matlab I love you' show off this awkward adoption of an uncomfortable western attire.
If the faultline that created tension in the romantic aspirations of Hindi film protagonists was class for many years, from DDLJ onwards we began to see a much greater focus on the notion of tradition and modernity. The decisive shift here is in believing that tradition can be moulded to the needs of individuals, and the choice to be made is not between submission and rebellion. Raj, through his exaggerated submission to tradition, wins the freedom to follow his heart. As individual choices began to carry greater currency and as the market began to extract people from the collective context in which they were embedded, romance on screen has gradually begun to mirror the emerging concerns around love.
Kamal and Rati Agnihotri in Ek Duje Ke Liye
Romance today is less exalted, less about the idea of love and more about the experience of the individuals involved. Of course, the kind of romance we are seeing is adolescent in nature, involved with exploring questions about the overlap of love with friendship and sexuality. But it is a more real engagement with the question, even if it often does come packaged in ways far removed from the real. Romance in cinema has to deal with an entirely new reality today—for virtually the first time it is not an unrealisable ideal for most viewers in their lives. It will be interesting to see how Hindi cinema reacts to this change.
(The author is a columnist writing on everyday life and popular culture.)