Hindi cinema’s genres are very loosely defined, with almost all films having a central romantic theme. It’s not just the romantic melodramas, the romcoms, the romantic action films… The typical story and structure of a Bollywood romance is that a beautiful man and woman meet, take some time to fall in love, then an unexpected crisis brings us to the interval. In the second half of the film, the plot has to find a resolution, taking the film to the full three hours.
There should be five to eight songs to mark nodes in the narrative, such as meeting, falling in love, union, separation and so on. Many romantic films end with the promise of happily ever after, but the key romantic moments are often those of sorrow and sadness. Love imagined, or love lost, makes the film more emotional. The songs of sorrow (‘dard bhare geet’) produce longing that was celebrated in Indian aesthetic theory as ‘vipralambha shringara’ – love in separation. For romance, tears should flow. It is no coincidence that Shah Rukh Khan, the biggest romantic hero of the last 20 years, weeps beautifully and often.
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For academics, the term Bollywood is limited to describing the mainstream Hindi film from the mid-1990s, to encompass changes in style and media contexts. So our list leaves aside the great romantic classics of a bygone era such as Awaara (1951), Pyaasa (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Pakeezah (1972) and Kabhi Kabhie (1976) – instead, we begin with a much beloved modern classic that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary…
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Director: Aditya Chopra
This romance set amid London’s Indian diaspora was a landmark in Hindi films and is still attracting audiences in a cinema hall in Mumbai 20 years later. Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan as Simran and Raj became one of the best-loved screen couples of all time. They fall in love on a European rail holiday, but when they return to London, the most romantic moment occurs when Simran invites Raj to come to her arranged wedding and he refuses. He follows her to Punjab to win over her family and persuade them to accept him as her husband. Among all the fun are wonderful romantic songs, such as ‘Tujhe Dekha’/‘When I Saw You’.
However, the changing views of romance in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (known as DDLJ) include Simran’s father’s view, that marriages are arranged by family elders and love will follow. The film’s opening scene shows his love for his traditional homeland and his detachment from London where he lives. Standing in a wet, grey Trafalgar Square, feeding birds while dreaming of the yellow mustard fields of Punjab, it is his views on love that change the most during the film.
Director: Mani Ratnam
Originally made in Tamil, Mani Ratnam’s Bombay is set against the backdrop of the December 1992/January 1993 Hindu-Muslim riots in the city that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in north India that some contested was built on a destroyed temple. Bombay is one of three political romances by Ratnam – the others being Roja (1992) and Dil Se (1998) – which explore love in troubled times.
When Shekhar (Arvind Swamy), from an orthodox Hindu family, and Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala), a Muslim, fall in love, they face hostility from both families. Shekhar brings Shaila to Bombay, where he is a journalist, as it seems a modern city. However, after six years, they are faced with rising intolerance between the communities and their family becomes under threat.
Bombay has an immensely successful soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, with songs like ‘Humma Humma’, which accompanies their search for romance in the city, and the searingly beautiful love song ‘Tu Hi Re’/‘Only You’ when Shekhar calls Shaila to him as he waits for her in a ruined coastal fort. She runs from home, symbolically losing her burqa, as they both declare their love for each other.
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
This is the story of a half Italian, the wonderfully named Sameer Rossellini (Salman Khan), who comes to a lavish palace in India where he falls in love with his teacher’s daughter Nandini (Aishwarya Rai). Their romance forms the first half of this film, but it is the second romance that is the truly moving one: Nandini has an arranged marriage to Vanraj (Ajay Devgan), who fell in love with her when he saw her singing ‘Nimbuda’/‘Lemon’. He does not sleep with her after marriage, when he realises she does not love him. He even takes her to ‘Italy’ (actually Hungary) to find Sameer, but on their travels she falls in love with her husband. This twist turns the seemingly transgressive story into a very conventional one, that of love developing after marriage rather than before.
Director: Yash Chopra
In Veer-Zaara, one of a handful of Indian-Pakistani romances, Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) falls in love with Pakistani Zaara Hayat Khan (Preity Zinta), and they travel around Punjab, but she returns home to marry her fiancé. When Veer later learns she loves him, he leaves his job to go to Pakistan, where he is imprisoned as a spy.
This film was seen as the great Yash Chopra’s tribute to Punjabiyat or Punjabiness, showing that while the state may have been divided on religious grounds in 1947, there is much shared culture and history. Chopra himself, born in 1932, moved across what is now the border many times before the Partition. The film uses songs composed but never used by the late Madan Mohan, mostly sung by Lata Mangeshkar, which give an older feeling to the film. Their dramatisation in the film shows Chopra’s skill with film and music, perhaps the finest example being ‘Tere Liye’/‘For You’, about being willing to sacrifice for love, and ‘Dekh Lo’/‘Look’, another song about how love can overcome difficulties.
Jab We Met (2007)
Director: Imtiaz Ali
This romcom was much loved for superstar Kareena Kapoor’s depiction of a stereotypically feisty Punjabi girl, Geet Dhillon, who meets Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) on a train and forcefully persuades him to come to meet her family. Her incessant talking and optimism initially irritate Aditya, but he eventually falls in love with her. The trouble is that Geet is in love with someone else…
The film’s romance is all about the chemistry between the couple, who were known to be an off-screen pair at the time. Kareena Kapoor’s performance as the lively girl and Shahid Kapoor’s as the depressive boy were beautifully matched. Jab We Met continues Bollywood’s love for trains as a prime location for romance, as seen in DDLJ and Chennai Express (2013), with the railway carriage still serving as a place for chance encounters and adventure.
Love Aaj Kal (2009)
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal takes a very romantic view of love never changing, although ways of romancing are different. Jai (Saif Ali Khan) and Meera (Deepika Padukone) are in a happy relationship but break up for career reasons, with Jai staying in London, hoping to go to San Francisco, and Meera going to India. Jai becomes friends with an older Sikh, Veer Singh (Rishi Kapoor), who tells him that when he was young he would do anything for his love, Harleen, travelling by train just to see her, but getting beaten up by her family.
In the reenactments of this story, Saif plays the young Veer. Meera marries another man, but she and Jai will eventually come together, and the final song ‘Aahun Aahun’ shows that love is the same, although courtship changes.
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Lootera is a love story between Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) and Varun (Ranveer Singh). The first half of the film begins in 1953, where Varun is an archaeologist on Pakhi’s family’s considerable estates in West Bengal. They romance in the style of a heritage film – elegant clothes, houses and lifestyle – and are about to marry but he runs away. In the second part of the film, Varun is on the run but takes refuge in Pakhi’s house in the hills, where she is dying.
The film is based on the 1907 short story ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry, in which the heroine knows she will die when the last leaf falls, so the hero paints and ties paper leaves on the tree until he can do so no more. The music by Amit Trivedi, including hits such as ‘Sawaar Loon’/‘I’ll Decorate My Heart’, evoke the 1950s and the golden age of Hindi film music.
Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013)
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, this romantic-action film is set against a background of armed feuds in rural Gujarat and centres on a couple from rival families who fall in love with each other. Ram (Ranveer Singh) wants peace, but when he and Leela (Deepika Padukone) elope, they are separated by their families. Later, with Ram and Leela installed as heads of their families, they try to bring about peace during riots that occurred during the Dussehra festival.
Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (‘The Play of Bullets, Ram and Leela’) is loved for its portrayal of the doomed and beautiful couple. It has the exquisite design that’s associated with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, as well as his typically wonderful use of music. Apart from a 1941 Gujarati song, ‘Mor Bani Thanghat Kare’, he composed most of it. The festive songs are now played at events on those occasions, in particular the garba song ‘Nagada Sang Dol’, which is a favourite during the Navratri celebrations.
Hasee Toh Phasee (2014)
Director: Vinil Mathew
Many Hindi romances feature one member of a couple realising they’re marrying the wrong person on the day of the wedding itself. The couple have to reconcile their romance with their family obligations, which include constant references to money, whether for education or for weddings.
Meeta is another of Parineeti Chopra’s quirky offbeat roles. Here she plays a clever but awkward engineering geek whose older, much more glamorous sister, Karishma, is engaged to Nikhil (Sidharth Malhotra). However, Nikhil and Meeta become close friends, and it’s only at the last minute he realises what the audience already knows, that he’s in love with the wrong sister, even as Meeta’s behaviour becomes ever stranger. The film explores the idea that love is not always based on conventional ideas of beauty and desirability but on other emotional bonding, so the surprise is that the handsome Nikhil falls in love with the sister who does not conform to these norms.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015)
Director: Sharat Katariya
In Haridwar, India, in 1995, Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana), who runs a music shop and has little education, has an arranged marriage with Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar), an educated woman. He finds her unattractive as she is overweight, but he can’t see his own limitations or consider how she might feel about him. After enduring troubles and insults, she leaves him, blaming his father for neither educating his son nor teaching him to respect women. Sharat Katariya’s film then explores the emotional bonds of marriage and love, which are much more important than the conventions of female beauty.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha is deeply nostalgic about music, focusing on the period’s romantic song, at a time when Prem’s cassette shop business is being threatened by the arrival of a CD shop. Kumar Sanu, one of the most popular singers of the era, makes an appearance in the film and sings ‘Dard Karaara’ for a moment when the couple dance and romance in 1990s style.
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