In the new Bollywood love stories, the couples have no daunting opposition
Earlier obstacles: the angry dad, caste, class. Now: career, commitment phobia.
The promos of Love Aaj Kal create the illusion that time is standing still. The original, starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, released in 2009. Ten years on, writer-director Imtiaz Ali is back with Kartik Aaryan and Sara Ali Khan, who play a couple torn apart by career and ambition (like Jai and Meera in the first film). And once again, the modern-day love story is juxtaposed against an earlier romance featuring the same actor — so Kartik is falling in love in 2020 and in 1990.
Which begs the question: is Imtiaz out of ideas? Or is it just harder to create a great romance now? I’ve often heard that a superhero story is only as good as its villain (think Thanos). Similarly, a romance is only as good as its opposition. Earlier, Hindi cinema had so much to choose from: class, caste, religion, status and the always reliable disgruntled father. From Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, the towering patriarch has played an effective spoilsport. How memorable would Raj and Simran’s love story have been if Babuji wasn’t such a solid obstacle?
But the modern, urban couple in Bollywood is no longer fighting against external obstacles. Even Dhadak, a remake of Nagraj Manjule’s infinitely superior Sairat, diluted the caste angle, presumably to make it more palatable. Largely, the opposition in contemporary romance is less daunting — career, commitment-phobia, are-we-friends-or-lovers confusion, geography. None of which is hazardous to health in the same way that loving Prince Salim was for the dancing girl Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam; in that instance, the Mughal Empire itself was at stake. Contemporary romances don’t get this dramatic. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil featured cancer but that wasn’t the obstacle to the love story. By that time, Alizeh had already friendzoned Ayan.
For modern love, which is hobbled by internal issues, to have an impact, the writing has to sparkle. We have to be wholly invested in the emotions of the characters so that we feel their hurt. Like with Ved and Tara in Imtiaz’s Tamasha — their fight in the bar is messy and ugly, like love often is. Or with Bittoo and Shruti in Band Baaja Baaraat. Or with Prem and Sandhya in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. But this doesn’t happen often enough.
In fact, the most swooning romances I’ve seen recently haven’t been made in Bollywood. Like the Tamil film, 96, in which Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan play high school sweethearts who part and then meet again as adults and spend one night together trying to make sense of the cards life has dealt them. There is such an ache and wistfulness to this film. As there is in the Malayalam film, Mayaanadhi, a reworking of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless. Tovino Thomas plays a gangster who dreams of someday making a home with the woman he loves but his crimes catch up with him. Or the Malayalam film, Premam, in which Nivin Pauly is George, a man who loves and loses, again and again and again.
You rarely get this depth or nuance in contemporary Bollywood romances. At least, not the heterosexual ones. I’m looking forward to Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. In which, for the first time, an A-list mainstream hero will partake in a same-sex romance. That hopefully will redefine the Bollywood love story