Valentine’s Day! Day of love! And for that reason, a good day for a one off post just about love stories. The two kinds of them, the socially relevant ones in which the romance is just a jumping off point for a broader social issue, and the fun fun fun ones that just make you smile.
(I am using the generally accepted tactic and starting Indian film with 1947 instead of 1913, since the industry as we know it today didn’t really come into being until post-Independence)
Love in Hindi film can be a revolutionary act and a social statement. Not always, sometimes it is just plain fun. But sometimes the romantic couple are a metaphor for larger social issues. Or are presenting a story that is true to life, in a country where honor killings are a very real danger. Or are simply trying to argue that young people have the right to make their own lives, they are not possessions of their families. And so, on today’s Day of Love, I am going to give a quick refresher of love stories through the decades, both the socially relevant ones and the fun ones.
Socially Relevant 1950s: Shree 420
Sure, Awara was the bigger hit, and had the more romantic scenes, but it is really a film more about father son relationships than romance. Shree 420, on the other hand, is essentially about the Nargis and Raj characters and how they change each other. Plus, it introduced us to the umbrella song, a standard of every Indian romance since. I am still sticking it in the “socially relevant” section though, because their romance is equally about two characters falling in love, and the youth of India in general being stalled due to a failed economy, afraid of the future even to the point of fearing falling in love.
Just plain fun 1950s: Mr. and Mrs. 55
Guru Dutt is supposed to be the tragedy king, but actually his romance is a lot happier than Raj’s. And a lot less concerned with the troubles of the world. The closest it comes to a political statement is when new bride Madhubala is told to ignore the newspapers, the modern problems and changes, and just embrace her life as a woman in love with her husband. Which can sound a little regressive in terms of feminism, but is also wonderfully freeing in terms of the heavy social consciousness that is usually grafted onto these love stories.
Considered and rejected for not being all romance all the time:
CID, in which Dev Anand is devastatingly attractive and torn between Waheeda Rahman and Shakila. But he spends most of his time trying to solve a murder instead of winning their hearts.
Pyaasa, in which Guru Dutt spends most of his time wandering the streets and trying to forget Mala Sinha while also serving as a Christ figure taking on all the sins of society. And then every once in a while remembers to romance Waheeda Rahman.
Kaagaz ke Phool, which starts out as an all time great romance with the adorable first meetings and sweet love story of Waheeda and Guru Dutt (again), but then slowly turns into bittersweet tragedy by the end.
Anything with Raj and Nargis, the original Jodi of India. There are just way too many to consider, I went ahead and started at the top with Shree 420 and Awara, and landed on Shree 420 for the reasons stated above.
Socially Relevant 1960s: Aradhana
Coming right at the end of the decade, it almost belongs more in the 1970s, with the superstar focus, the action scenes, the questioning of societal norms, etc. etc. But it also has the hopeful youthful leaping without looking romance that was the norm in the 1960s. What definitively puts it in the socially relevant romance pile is how, while the first half feels like a light-hearted love story, by the time we have jumped 12 and then 10 years into the future, it has become the saga of a woman suffering for her sins and being eventually redeemed. But, most importantly, it brought Rajesh Khanna-SUPERSTAR into being, and gave us this amazing song sequence, one of the all time sexiest.
Just plain fun 1960s: Junglee
Really, I could have picked anything with Shammi in it. Kashmir ki Kali, Brahmachari, Janwar, even Teesri Manzil is really more of a romance than a mystery. But I went with Junglee because it kicked off the Decade of Shammi in a spectacular fashion, and because it has the iconic “Yahoo!” song. And I had to pick something with Shammi, because he is the originator of the rom-com hero that lives on today, the spoiled rich boy who rebels and grows up a little when he falls in love. The same hero his grand-nephew played in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and his grand-niece was romanced by in Jab We Met.
Socially Relevant 1970s: Guddi
Speaking of bringing superstars into being…. Guddi was the film that officially brought Jaya Bhaduri (later Bachchan) to the world. And she is ADORABLE! 23 years old, just graduated from IIFT, she plays a teenage girl so in love with movie star Dharmendra (who plays himself), that she is unable to see the sweet boy next door who is right there. Add in some classic 1970s character actors like Om Prakash (also playing himself!) and A.K. Hangal, a script by Gulzar, and direction by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and you have all the ingredients for a prime farce. But it still lands in the socially relevant side of things because, while the romance is central, it is really just a framework for looking at how celebrity and the movie culture in general have changed the face of India.
Just plain fun 1970s: Anamika
Another Jaya film! With bonus Sanjeev Kumar! Weirdly, Anamika piles on so much social relevance that it ends up all feeling irrelevant. You can’t have a tortured artist, a forced marriage, prostitution, and a snowball fight all in the same film! But it really all rests on the chemistry between Jaya and Sanjeev Kumar. Check out this song in which Jaya, because of amnesia, thinks she is married to Sanjeev Kumar.
Bonus 1970s: Amitabh in love
The problem with Amitabh romance films is that, most of the time, he is just so Amitabh-y that he over-shadows any co-star, including a romantic partner, and any pure romance film just turns into a movie about how Amitabh is feeling instead of how two people feel about each other (like, say, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar or Silsila). For me, his romances work best when they are scattered in among other plots. His few scenes with Jaya in Zanjeer are pure sweetness. Ditto in Chupke Chupke, which is really more of a comedy than a romance. And Abhimaan, of course, which starts out pure sweet romance, and then somehow takes a turn to realistic portrait of a marriage about halfway. Huh. That list is all Jaya, no Rekha or Rakhee or Zeenat or Parveen or any of his other common co-stars. I think that is because there really is something special about his connection with Jaya onscreen. While the other women may have brought a sexier or more romantic energy, I feel like with Jaya, I could more sincerely believe that they actually enjoyed spending time together.
1980s Socially Relevant: Tezaab
First, as I have said before, Tezaab is a remake of the supremely unusual Streets of Fire, which you should all watch immediately. It is the rare Indian remake that actually has to tone down the visuals of the original, because the Indian audience would find them too odd. Seriously, watch Streets of Fire. Willem Dafoe wears leather overalls without a shirt.
I’m putting Tezaab in as a romance, rather than an action film, because the relationship and chemistry between Anil Kapoor and Madhuri are really what drive the whole thing (just like the love triangle between Micheal Pare, Rick Moranis, and 18 year old Diane Lane drives the plot in the original). However, it is still a little more focused on society, crime, the criminal court system, and violence than you would want in a whole-hearted good time romance.
1980s Just Plain Fun: Chashme Buddoor
This movie is the sweetest most realistic gentlest romance ever. The plot sounds like the set up for a classic gross sex comedy (which is basically what they made it into in the remake), but the execution saves it. Farooq Sheikh is a serious student living with two roommates who spend all their time leering at girls. He falls in love with Deepti Naval when she knocks on their door selling laundry detergent. And then there are misunderstandings, waiting at bus stops, going out for lime juice, and so many signifiers of time and place that by the end, I was sincerely nostalgic for my college days in 1980 Delhi. And then I remembered that I wasn’t born in 1981, and also I have never been to Delhi.
Bonus: Yes, I know I ignored some of the biggest romantic hits of all time
For a decade that is popularly thought of as being all about the action movies, there were a shocking number of romantic classics released in the 80s! Although, that kind of makes sense, for a romance to make a profit it really had to be something special. We start off the decade with Ek Duuje Ke Liye, introducing Kamal Haasan to the Hindi language audience in a realistic cross-cultural romance. That same year, there is Love Story which launches Kumar Gaurav, who went on to a slightly less impressive career than Kamal, to put it mildly. Through out the decade, we have Rishi Kapoor, proudly holding firm in the lover boy roles no one else was doing, in everything from Zamane Ko Dikhane Hai to Chandni. And of course, right at the end of the decade, Salman and Aamir arrived, with the one-two punch of Maine Pyar Kiya and Qayamet Se Qayamet Tak. Frankly, either of those films could have been slotted in to replace Tazeeb up there, but Tazeeb somehow feels more quintessentially 80s. Plus, it gave me an excuse to talk about Streets of Fire again.
Socially Relevant 90s: Hum Aapke Hain Koun
You thought I was going to do DDLJ, didn’t you? Well, I’m not! Because DDLJ transcends eras, there is a reason it is the only film from the 90s still running today. Whereas Hum Aapke Hain Koun defined the 90s. It proved that a pure romance, no action, no drama, can still make money. But I am putting it in the socially relevant bucket, because it also had plenty to say about family responsibility, gender roles, and Hindu faith.
Just plain fun 90s: Kabhi Haa Kabhi Naa
To this day, Shahrukh lists this as his proudest role. It isn’t a showy performance in any way, not like My Name is Khan or even Chak De, India or Swades. He is just playing a lovelorn teenage boy. But the way he manages to add subtle little touches to his expressions and mannerisms, makes you root for him, even while you know he isn’t going to get the girl. Although his performance is the centerpiece, it is in service of a delightful script and directing job. Somehow, even with all the magical realism and dream scenes, this world ends up feeling like a real and wonderful place, and you want to live there.
(Don’t you want to go to this carnival?)
Bonus: All the other 90s movies that followed or led up to Hum Aapke Hain Koun
Also released in the 90s: Khiladi, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mann, Pardes, Sapnay, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Raja Hindustani, Dil To Pagal Hai, Dil, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Hamesha, Yeh Dillagi, and Pyar To Hona Hi Tha. And those are just the first ones I could think of! It truly was the golden age of romance.
Socially Relevant 2000s: Kal Ho Na Ho
I know, it seems like pure fluff. But buried in there, we had a suicide, multiple cross-religious and/or cross-regional romances, a queer positive message, and a lesson against gender preference and birth versus adoption preference. It is also a uniquely 2000s kind of film, with a fluid diasporic identity, some interesting stylistic advances, and all built on the back of massive club friendly dance numbers.
Just plain fun 2000s: Jab We Met
Another hard one! But ultimately, I have to give it to the movie that is built on the story, not the stars. Which isn’t to say that Shahid and Kareena aren’t vital to this film’s success! I can’t imagine anyone else in those roles. But by 2000s, in a lot of these romances, the whole thing was just sort of coasting on the star appeal of the heroes, and doesn’t really turn them into characters. Which is why I rejected Hum-Tum, for instance. That’s mostly just Rani hanging out with Saif. But Jab We Met is about two indelible characters and how they meet, fall in love, and get together at the end. And it’s just plain fun! The only social message of any kind is some sort of loosey-goosey thing about forgiving people for falling in love, or letting them chase their dreams, or being the best you can be, or something. I forget, but the point is, Shahid and Kareena are so cute together in this film, it actually made me upset when they announced their break-up in real life!
(Love is good because it makes you bring your guitar to work? Something like that)
Socially Relevant 2010s: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
Another one that seems like fluff, but really isn’t. Living abroad versus making your home in India, choosing a satisfying career over a relationship, the obvious and never addressed massive addiction issues of Aditya Roy Kapur’s character-this thing has LAYERS! But it’s also definitely a romance, there is no big action plot or anything going on in the background, it’s all about two people slowly coming together. Plus, I love this song:
Just Plain Fun 2010s: Bang Bang
Yes, I know, it’s generally considered more of an action film. But if you think about it, what’s the main point of everything that happens in the film? Not like the character’s motivations, but what the end result of their actions is in terms of the plot? It’s all just in service of getting Katrina and Hrithik together! They have a classic adorable rom-com meet cute, he sweeps her off her feet, they keep getting thrown together, and at the end he takes her home to meet his parents. It feels like after 20+ years of romance films ruling the industry, they have matured into always being something deep and meaningful. But the happy light love stories have to go somewhere! So they are landing in what might be considered “action” films instead. I mean, look at this song! It is clearly about a girl in the throws of first love, even if her first date happened to have been interrupted by bullets: