I considered “myths”, but that’s not quite right. There are a combination of Persian legends, Punjabi folk tales, and of course the Puranic stories of Ram and Sita, which are all important to know if you watch Hindi film because they influence the way the narratives play out. Luckily, many of them are summarized and represented through simple songs!
I first thought of this when I was recommending Aaja Nachle, which has the most amazing summary of the Laila-Majnu legend. Laila and Majnu are in love as children, are separated, find each other as adults, Laila is married off to someone else, Majnu goes insane and goes off into the desert (“Majnu” meaning crazy, he was called “Laila-Majnu” or “Laila crazy”), Laila eventually dies, and Majnu dies of sorrow. So, this version changes the ending a bit, but it gives you the general idea of the story,
Speaking of simple village shows, there is also the story of Ram and Sita in Swades. Sita receives Ram’s ring, which tells her that Ram is coming to rescue her from Raavan while she sits under the tree in Raavan’s courtyard. Raavan tries to break her faith, but it cannot be broken. And then Ram and his brother Lakshman arrive with their monkey allies to rescue her.
Lagaan has another village performance. This time with Radha-Krishna. Radha and Krishna were another pair of childhood sweethearts. But Krishna was a flirt who loved all women, which frustrated Radha. (classic “hey baby, don’t be that way” line: “The other girls are just stars, you are the moon!”)
Mirzya-Sahiban ! One of the 7 popular folklore stories of Punjabi/Sindhi culture. Mirzya and Sahiban were passionately lost in love, but then separated by their families. Sahiban was to be married off to another man, but Mirzya rode into the wedding and carried her off. Sahiban’s family gave chase. Mirzya rested beneath a tree and, while he slept, Sahiban broke the arrows in his quiver, hoping to avoid bloodshed once her brothers reached them. Mirzya woke as her brothers arrived, saw the broken arrows, and was shot, dying believing that Sahiban betrayed him. Sahiban fell dead next to him of a broken heart.
Heer and Ranjha is a sad legend (okay, they are all sad legends, except for Ram and Sita and Krishna and Radha). Ranjha works for Heer’s family, and the two of them fall in love. Her family disapproves, Ranjha is sent away and Heer forced to marry. Ranjha becomes an ascetic wandering the world and eventually finds Heer again at her new marital village. Heer is unhappy, Ranjha brings her back to her parents, and her parents give their blessing for the marriage between Heer and Ranjha, finally. But on the day of the wedding, Heer is given a poisoned sweet by her uncle who still disapproves of the match. She is found too late, already dying, and Ranjha finishes the sweet after her so they die together. And then Imtiaz Ali took this whole thing and turned it into Rockstar (Ranbir and Nargis are in love sort of, she is married off, he wanders the earth becoming an ascetic, finds her again, has the blessing of her family, but it doesn’t matter and she dies anyway.).
What makes Heer-Ranjha a bit different is that they are so passive. Ranjha responds to his broken heart by wandering away and becoming an ascetic, there is no railing against fate or anything like that, he finds Heer again by accident even not on purpose. And Heer as well, marrying the other man after being convinced by her family. Even the manner of their death, passively eating poisoned sweets (ooo, now I really want sweets!). While Mirzya-Sahiban is all active. Mirzya taking Sahiban away from her wedding, Sahiban breaking the arrows. And this brings me to my favorite legend song! “Heer” from Jab Tak Hain Jaan, in which Katrina asks “Don’t call me Heer, I’ve become Sahiban, Mirzya take me away”.
And then of course there are the classic films which have created their own new legends. Mughal-E-Azam, the royal prince and the dancing girl. Sholay, Basanti who must dance on broken glass to save her tied up lover from death. And Shree 420, the young innocents in love and huddled together under an umbrella.
Or the tomboy and her best friend playing basketball in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the naughty boy shooting marigolds in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and the charmer leaning out to help the girl running for the train in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Now I know I haven’t covered every legend or every possible song! Or probably covered completely each individual legend. Feel free to tell me what I am missing in the comments!