Where are Bollywood’s grand, sweeping romances, asks Anupama Chopra
Tales of star-crossed love facing villainous opposition seem to be a thing of the past. The new opponents are much duller: careers, commitment, choices.
Can Bollywood not make good love stories anymore? A colleague asked me this after Shiddat was released on Disney+ Hotstar last month. The film, which attempts to portray grand passion, is startlingly inept. The sparkling leads, Radhika Madan and Sunny Kaushal, are thrown into a series of ridiculous scenarios, including one in which Sunny’s character is attempting to swim across the English Channel, from France to England, to reunite with the woman he loves, who is marrying someone else. It’s stalking, taken to an international level.
Love, once a key ingredient in Hindi cinema (even horror films and thrillers made space for characters to swoon), seems to be languishing. The most glorious love stories I’ve seen in the last few years haven’t been from Bollywood. I’m thinking of films such as Sairat (Marathi; a take on young love centered on caste, with a startling end), ’96 (Tamil; a delicate tale of a school reunion and the meeting of a childhood sweetheart), Premam (Malayalam; a story of heartbreak, new love and self-discovery), Mayaanadhi (Malayalam; about a crime, a blighted love and a man who will risk everything for one more meeting), C/O Kancharapalem (Telugu; about love that arrives at different ages and stages and meets new definitions).
Meanwhile, Hindi cinema is floundering. Think of the recent missteps by Imtiaz Ali, who took over from Yash Chopra as Bollywood’s high priest of romance. Imtiaz debuted with the terrific Socha Na Tha in 2005 and then proceeded to craft a contemporary language of love with films like Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Tamasha (2015).
These were mainstream hits, but they contained layers and offered something fresh as they unwrapped stories about young urban couples struggling to find love and define themselves, albeit while travelling the world and living it up.
Imtiaz’s last two films, Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017) and last year’s Love Aaj Kal 2, however, have functioned more as nails in the proverbial coffin. When the heroine of Love Aaj Kal 2, Zoe (played by Sara Ali Khan), tells her boyfriend, “Tum mujhe tang karne lage ho,” she seems to sum up our sentiments for the genre.
What has gone wrong? Perhaps it is tougher to construct an urban Indian romance in the age of Tinder. A solid romance needs opposition — the mighty emperor Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam, a man whose glare is enough to make Anarkali faint; the spectre of caste in Sairat, which Archie and Parshya cannot escape; the doomed warring of families in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Mansoor Khan’s lilting retelling of Romeo and Juliet.
Hindi film directors setting up love stories in urbane, affluent settings no longer have insurmountable walls for couples to climb. The angst is now over careers versus relationships, being commitment-phobic, or simply having too many options. Which is a step forward in the real world, but makes for rather mundane cinema.
It doesn’t have to be so. One of the most aching romances I’ve seen recently is a Marathi-Hindi short film set in Mumbai, directed by Abhishek Chaubey. Part of the Ankahi Kahaniya anthology released on Netflix last month, it’s adapted by Chaubey and Hussain Haidry from a Kannada short story by Jayanth Kaikini. The film is moving and surprising. It draws on cinema as a backdrop, using snatches of fantasy to underline the stark setting of its own exceedingly unusual love story.
“I enjoy it when a love story can locate characters in a time and place. And then they go about their daily lives doing small things that show that they are in love,” Hussain said to me recently. “It has to be nuanced and delicate. That is very hard to do. Love is also political. The power dynamics are political and perhaps filmmakers are shying away from that. What we see are love stories about a certain category of people being made for the same category of people. It’s limiting.”
Four years ago, in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, Deepika Padukone told me that she was keen to do a love story but was unable to find a script good enough. That’s how bad the situation is in Bollywood. I’m looking to Karan Johar to save the day. His under-production film, Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, might turn the tide. As with all lovers of love, I live in hope.