This isn’t a list of every single Indian film with a European section, just the three most interesting ones from the Hindi industry. And the connections I find between them.
Sangam is famously the first Indian movie to have an overseas sequence. That doesn’t necessarily mean it actually is the first movie to have an overseas sequence, there could very easily be some film out there no one talks about, but Sangam is accepted as the first one. Meaning it is the one people look back to when they try to figure out what they want to do with their European sections in their films.
Sangam is a love triangle, yes. Our heroine is in love with someone else when she gets married and goes on her European honeymoon. But more than being a love triangle, it is about class and social roles. What makes this a different love triangle is that the one Vyjantimala is pressured into marrying is actually the one who “fits” less with her according to society. She fell in love with a nice decent rich boy from a good family just like her nice decent rich family, and they had a nice decent love story, the kind that is gentle and unspoken and discrete. But then out of pity and obligation, she ended up marrying a poor orphan war hero who idolized her and loved her with big gestures and outspoken emotions.
It is going to Europe that changes everything. Away from the familiar world Vyjantimala discovers that she can find a different version of herself, one who doesn’t want a quiet respectful love but can enjoy a big embarrassing love. Who can find herself doing a sexy dance on tables and having a snowball fight, completely unlike the proper sari wearing person she would have been back home. And who can let herself fall in love with this inappropriate lower class husband.
The first half of the film sets up a tragic love story, an impossible triangle, the traditional Indian idea that a woman’s first love is always her only love. Sure, she may marry someone else, but that love will never be the joyful free love of her first love. It seems like that will be the story this film tells, Vyjantimala as the sacrificial victim, hidden misery, lots of drama, and so on. But Europe breaks all those rules. In Europe, she isn’t the visibly wealthier and prettier and higher class than her husband, and she isn’t the dignified “good girl” everyone knows. He is a war hero, and she can do a sexy dance for him alone in their bedroom. It’s wonderful, these two people all alone in an alien land able to be more themselves than they ever could be at home. It gets Raj Kapoor past a plot obstacle he could never have solved otherwise, and along the way he discovers a magic wand that he passed on to other filmmakers, the possibility of a trip through Europe somehow making everything different.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange picks up Raj Kapoor’s magic wand and moves it forward. Between Sangam and DDLJ there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of Indian films with a European shoot. But most of the time it was like the tulip song in Silsila, the characters didn’t go to Europe, just the film. And the few that had actual European settings didn’t really move forward from Raj Kapoor’s idea, movies like An Evening in Paris used Europe as a place to visit, to escape from the “real” world and have an adventure. But DDLJ did something a little different. In DDLJ, it was an escape to the real world and away from the fantasy life they were living.
What’s special about the time Shahrukh and Kajol spend together alone in Europe is that it lets them have a glimpse of life outside of the cage of their families, life as it will be lived once they “grow up”. At the start of the trip, Shahrukh has been spoiled and protected his whole life, and he is on the brink of taking responsibility, preparing to take over his father’s company so his father can stop working so hard. And Kajol has spent her whole life infantalized, kept inside the house and inside the family, and is preparing to be married off and turned into a grown wife in a brand new family. This European interval lets Shahrukh take charge and take care of other people (Kajol), and Kajol test out what it is like to just be herself, grown and independent. Europe isn’t a fantasy land where nothing counts, it is a real world where they get to live as real people. India is the fantasy land, where people think arranged marriages and Karva Chauth fasts still matter. In India, Shahrukh and Kajol starve themselves as a magical offering to God. In Europe, Kajol eats a hamburger because she is hungry and it’s food.
And then there’s Jab Harry Met Sejal. Sangam was about creating this bubble where you could be free and safe and different in a new land. DDLJ was about revealing for some people, India is the bubble and Europe is the reality. And finally, Jab Harry Met Sejal. Which shows that this bubble is something you carry inside, and it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, it is all the same.
Anushka in JHMS goes on an internal journey during her physical journey through Europe with Shahrukh. It’s kind of an odd miss-match of the two previous films. Anushka is going through the same awakening and changing as Vyjantimala in Sangam, complete with striptease. But Shahrukh is the same as he was in DDLJ, he isn’t looking for fantasy and freedom, he is looking for reality and responsibility.
Really, looking at these three films, what I see the most is that Europe is a clean slate for directors. It is like a dreamscape that can reflect whatever is inside of the characters. For Raj and Vyjantimala it is a fun modern different world where their class differences no longer matter. For Shahrukh and Kajol, it is a reality world of shops and trains and houses where they can find a place to be independent adults. And for Anushka and Shahrukh, it is space to grow and change, or space to return back to your roots and find yourself again.
The heroine of an Indian film represents the nation, always. She is sacrificing, dutiful, there to serve, and be protected, and be naturally untouched and beautiful. She is divine, she is perfection, she cannot change. But if you remove her from the nation, place her in Europe, suddenly she becomes a woman again and her hero becomes a man, and that is all they are.
This is the beauty of the overseas film. When you emotions are too much, when your situation is too hard, there is nowhere in India you can go to be free of it. When you find Indian culture, Indian families, Indian judgement, following you everywhere. It is Europe where you can be free.