Who killed the Bollywood romance?
by Gautam Chintamani
John Ford had a dictum – when in doubt make a western. For Hindi cinema, no time was the wrong time for a romance. No matter how implausible or stilted its interpretation became, romance, along with some good songs, has been the mainstay of Bollywood. But in the last few months a slew of romances - Mausum, Ek Main Aur Ek Tu, Ekk Deewana Tha, Jodi Breakers, Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya, London Paris New York down to the latest, Teri Meri Kahaani – have all tanked at the box office. Now it could well be that it was because they were just lousy films. But it does make you think – is the Bollywood filmi romance on its deathbed?
It sounds impossible. Who can even imagine Hindi cinema without the traditional boy-meets-girl-their-parents-oppose-so-they-rebel-and-run-away-to-either-die-and-be-together-forever-or-be-wooed-back-by-parents and its numerous rehashes? Romance was a genre that worked across generations.
Star children were launched under this very genre right from Bobby (1972) to Love Story (1982) to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) all the way up to Barsaat (1995) and Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai (2001). The first time romance in Hindi films changed gears from its usual evergreen pretty template was with Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) where the boy didn’t run off in the traditional sense. The rich kiddo traded his father’s house for the real world where he slogged to earn two thousand rupees in order to impress the girl’s father. The next change happened with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) where the young lovers won over the girl’s authoritarian father.
Ironically enough the success of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which might be regarded as a seminal modern day classic today, was a body blow for romance in Hindi films. The pleasing the parent component that worked for it has since made it impossible for any film in the genre to think otherwise. Films like Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1988) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) couldn’t really escape the curse of DDLJ but were saved by the manner in which they circumvented the traditional cookie-cutter treatment of Bollywood’s romance films. The recent successes in romance genre such as Hum Tum (2004), Jab We Met (2007), Band Baaja Baraat (2010), and Ishaqzaade (2012) would make you think that they were truly different in order to break the mould but look closer and you will see how it’s just their treatment that made them stand out. There are ten master plots as far as writing in cinema goes, perhaps fewer still in Bollywood, so to believe that these films were path-breaking would crediting them with far too much.
More than anything else these films, particularly Band Baaja Baraat, drastically changed the background of a regular romance by situating its characters in seldom seen before settings. Ishaqzaade transported the lovers to a very specific milieu that ended up making all the difference and although hugely inspired by When Harry Met Sally, Hum Tum stood slightly apart from the usual suspects thanks to its atypical for Bollywood treatment.
But producers will likely draw the wrong lesson from the success of, say an Ishaqzaade. So they will seek different romance all right but only as long as it’s set in the boondocks and a motor mouth heroine in tow would be better. Success might spawn off imitations but in reality it hampers the chances of something better coming out of something good. The critical response to Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro (2007) might have inspired many such ensemble films that explore contemporary urban relationships, but sadly such intentions steered clear of the best thing from the film. The charming Dharmendra-Nafisa Ali track where a 70-year old man, Amol (Dharmendra), returns to India to spend his last days with former love Shivani (Nafisa Ali) after four decades was one of the best things that happened to Bollywood romance. But one is yet to see a film explore later years romance as well as it can be done. We are still a long way from The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Balki’s Cheeni Kum (2007), which incidentally released a few weeks after Life in a Metro, had a nice May-October premise for a Hindi film but the traditional Bollywoodesque execution marred it beyond repair. Replace the 60-year old lover with a younger man of a different religion or a divorcee with a dog, or a widower with young kids and every reaction of the girl’s father would still be the same.
Romance, in a larger sense, for Bollywood works more on marketing ploys and set definitions rather than the story, script or casting. For the longest time it believed that the casting of a real-life couple will make reel romance better but that doesn’t work as much it’d like to think. Saif-Kareena’s biggest flops have been films like Tashan (2008) and Agent Vinod (2012). Ditto Priyanka-Shahid (Teri Meri Kahani). Even seemingly intelligent and sensitive filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali believe that a single heroine works better in romantic films than the married ones; Kareena’s impending marriage killed her chances of being Juliet in Bhansali’s next Ram-Leela!
This week yet another film, Cocktail, tries to be same, same but different. Set in London, Cocktail is the story of a man (Saif Ali Khan) who moves in with his girlfriend (Deepika Padukone) and her roommate (Diana Penty) and life isn’t the same again. Directed by Homi Adajania the film pitches itself as "a beautifully balanced friendship between three people" where life’s changes don’t change their intentions for each other and their friendship only grows stronger. While the film promises to be different it looks a lot like a segment of Imran Khan-Deepika Padukone’s 2010 disaster called Break Ke Baad mixed with a dash of an alternate Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and a shot of Saif Ali Khan’s own Love Aaj Kal (2009). Hopefully this isn’t the recipe that concocted this Cocktail.
Whether Cocktail can add the nasha back into romance remains to be seen.