2023 Wrap: The Trouble With Bollywood Love Stories

From ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’ to ‘Satyaprem Ki Katha’, rom-coms in Hindi cinema grappled with some tough, real-life questions this year.
2023 Wrap: The Trouble With Bollywood Love Stories
2023 Wrap: The Trouble With Bollywood Love Stories

Ranbir Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor awkwardly but somewhat endearingly fitted for size in Luv Ranjan’s otherwise incel filmography. Karan Johar celebrated his 25th year as director with a film about a Bengali  journalist — an alumna of Columbia University and Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College — falling in love with a Punjabi gym bunny whose abode looks like the White House. The ideological whiplash of Satyaprem ki Katha, which was well-intentioned, but rapidly flitted between its sweetness and regressiveness. A couple pretended to be divorced in Zara Hatke Zara Bachke so that they could secure government housing, while aggressively fetishising the middle-class experience. Bawaal audaciously and misguidedly used the Holocaust to further its central romantic relationship. And then there are the romances nestled into the action spectacle, like the cosy sub-plot that pits the vigilante and the police officer as a couple that moonlights as antagonists (Jawan) or whatever it is that falling in love does for the misogynist, provocative hero of Animal

Taking a plunge into the less-than-profitable romantic storytelling of this year revealed a tilt towards the after of the ever-after — these films do not merely focus on the process of falling in love, but also the rash of negotiations they have to navigate through the course of realising it. Romance is about packing in that neck sniffing and kisses, while drenched in torrential rain; but it is also about real estate, and the practical aspect of the tussle between an individual as a member of a family unit, and as a breathing, sprawling entity of their own. 

Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar (TJMM), Satyaprem, Rocky Aur RaniZara Hatke all feature heroines who refuse to be squeezed into regressive set-ups. For Tinni of TJMM, Katha (Kiara Advani) of Satyaprem, Rani from Rocky Aur Rani and Somya (Sara Ali Khan) in Zara Hatke — as well as the men who are in love with these leading ladies — the challenge is to adapt the existing structure so that it remains recognisably the great Indian family (no irony intended), but without enabling (or demanding) the subservience of these ambitious young women. 

To be folded into the joint family, or to go nuclear, is the question. The answer, invariably, is a compromise. 

The Heroine as a Solo act

Rocky Aur Rani follows Bengali journalist Rani Chatterjee (Bhatt) and Punjabi ladoo-business heir Rocky Randhawa (Singh) navigating a cross-cultural romance, which includes him challenging her notions of what makes for a status-appropriate spouse, and her challenging his consolidated beliefs about gendered social conventions. She teaches, lovingly. He learns, eagerly. (He earnestly spouts lines like: “Jo bhi hun, main tera hun, (Whatever I am, I am yours)” when she adoringly, exasperatedly asks him: “Yaar tu kya hai? (Man, what are you?)” Reader, I melted.)  

Rocky and Rani have to find a path to not only to calibrate the other’s quirks, but also to make sure the two families extend each other the same accommodation. Was this updated Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), with the feminism and the Randhawas and the Chatterjees and the laddoos and the kathak, able to imagine intimacy that evokes both a nostalgia for the joint family, while also pumping up individualistic fantasies? Even though Johar suggested the two would live separately from their respective families once they get hitched in an interview with Anupama Chopra, in the film, the last sequence is only of their wedding ceremony. It evades the question of where Rocky and Rani would reside after marriage, and doesn't address what would be a practical solution to the friction that is at the heart of the film.

In Luv Ranjan’s TJMM, the film ends with Tinni (Shraddha Kapoor) being folded into Mickey’s (Ranbir Kapoor) joint family setup, despite her anxiety about precisely this fate. Initially, Tinni is characterised by her fierce independence. A working woman who lives alone, she’s a rare Hindi film heroine who doesn’t have a set of parents as her accessories. This solitariness becomes almost like an excuse for Mickey’s family to absorb her as one of their own. We see Mickey’s parents casually suggest Tinny leave her job so that she can spend more time with them playing badminton. They insert themselves into every aspect of her life, right down to choosing her gynaecologist. It’s presumably meant in jest, but these are all red flags precisely because Mickey and his family are so dismissive about what Tinni finds concerning about their behaviour. 

Mickey insists upon his family's saintliness, and although Luv Ranjan doesn’t downplay or villainise Tinni, the film chooses to empathetically drum up Mickey’s perspective at her expense. In its final scenes, TJMM shows the matriarch of the family (Dimple Kapadia) packing lunch for both of her son and daughter in-law, and this is supposed to be construed as an acceptance of Tinni’s economic independence. 

But between strenuously evading the family while insisting upon its necessary pull, where does one live? 

It is worth remembering that in a vein similar to Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal 2 (2020), Luv Ranjan imagines Tinni’s financial self-sufficiency as revenge against her family unit, rather than a pursuit which can have a separate (or a more complicated) motivation than something which is so reductive. We see nothing of her beyond her romantic usefulness to Mickey, and the montages of her alone in her apartment are characterised with gloominess, melancholically suggesting a substance dependence (she is always seen casually chugging alcohol when on her own). 

We see Mickey alone once after he and Tinni break up: He is restrained, but mournful when he is driving around the Gurgaon-Delhi stretch with a glint of a tear in his eye. Otherwise, he is seen either with his closest friend, or his thriving family in Greater Kailash in Delhi, with whom he spars playfully, and lovingly. The contrast is stark and Ranjan’s fidelity towards a family-based social fabric is apparent (Ranjan has also admitted that the film is an ode to Sooraj Barjatya’s filmography of happy joint families).

Solitude and Sadness

A similar representation informs Satyaprem — Katha’s  traumatic memories tyrannise her headspace when she is left to herself. There is negligible representation of her social life outside of her biological family and the new family she acquires after marriage. The most jovial moments come out of tender divulgings from her husband, where he endears himself to her through his penchant for being charmingly straightforward. 

For that matter, both Rani from Rocky Aur Rani, and Somya from Zara Hatke, are not seen with possibly cultivated social dynamics outside of the home: The stakes are borne out of the beau’s family units imposing their orthodox and controlling notions upon them. The difficulty that emerges from this issue never spills out of the domestic space, but is processed within it — and not always in a way that acknowledges the legitimate concerns of the daughter in-law. 

In Satyaprem, hailing-from-wealth Katha marries the distinctly middle class Satyaprem, and sets the stage for a story that sets up a refreshing alternative to the conventional in-laws who are usually pictured as regressive and vindictive. Satya’s home is a far cry from the luxurious mansion in which Katha has grown up and so, a comfortable AC room is put together with the best of intentions. We know the objective is for her to find herself in a refuge where she can feel safe as she processes a past trauma, unhampered by the discomfort of sleeping on a mat (as her father-in-law does). Yet the film repeatedly undoes its good intentions with scenes like the one in which Katha’s domineering mother in-law surmises Katha should feel comfortable so that they can have a grab at her father’s wealth. Later, the older woman, who has been seen through lenses of censure for much of the film, gets one of the film’s most moving and sensitive dialogues about living with (and surviving) trauma. Rather than brewing complexity, these contrasting details give Satyaprem a bewildered energy that resists labels in the most frustrating way.

Less complex but equally garbled in its values is Zara Hatke…, which spends a copious amount of time developing the misgivings Somya has with Kapil’s (Vicky Kaushal) family. In addition to the microaggressions directed at Somya for being modern, Punjabi and non-vegetarian, the married couple do not have a room of their own. They sleep in the main hall, which infringes upon their attempts to get physically intimate. The romantic ramblings are carried out in whispers, with the threat of a family member walking in on them looming large because the fridge is a foot away from their mattress on the floor. The film treats Somya’s demand for a separate space as one that emerges out of frustration arising out of all this. It colours her as morally grey when she desperately tries to capitalise on a government scheme which would help her procure housing by pretending she is divorced from her husband. The solution merits a raised eyebrow (or two), but the implication is that Somya feels pushed to her wits’ end by the circumstances in Kapil’s home. However, what is initially sketched as a reasonable ask, is transformed into a symptom of greed. Somya’s redemption is located in evaluating her ‘disobliging’ frame of mind, and she is welcomed back into the family fold after she abandons this quest for a more detached space.

Desire and the Damsel

The joint family as a restrictive unit that dampens desire is an old setup and this year’s romances recognised it all over again. With their libidos and ambitions impeded upon, what do our heroines do? They rebel, obviously. 

In Rocky Aur Rani, the lead pair decided to swap homes to acculturate the other into their respective family. At Rocky’s place, Randhawa Paradise, Rani notices how the mother-daughter duo (Kshitee Jog and Anjali Anand) have secret lives. In the wee hours of the night, there are cakes that are crammed down, songs that are sung and side-businesses are carried out, away from the gaze of the matriarch and the patriarch

Rani and Rocky’s sexual yearnings are acted upon in the lift of her office’s building, in public spaces, but not in either of their homes. Though Rani’s family is more progressive than Rocky’s, the two have little space in their respective houses to act upon their desire throughout the breadth of the film. Instead, they are seen hooking up outside as they clandestinely arrange the meeting of their grandparents. Once at home, even the outspoken and rebellious Rani denies the intensity of her desire for Rocky. Instead, she chides her future mother-in-law and sister-in-law to craft a domestic insurrection in favour of them realising their secret ambitions respectively. Rani’s alternative worldview, and her ambitions which act as an extension of them, lurk as threat to the status quo at Randhawa Paradise. 

Satyaprem… adopts a kindly, and spaced-out approach to Katha’s sexual desire. Satya discloses to Katha on their wedding night that he has been saving himself for his wife, and is still a virgin. Katha, who is still traumatised from being assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, finds herself in a painful bind. She is not at a point where she can communicate what she went through and, due to being emotionally coerced into the marriage by her father, is unsure what to make of her spouse. She buys time by saying his snoring is disruptive and that he should sleep downstairs instead. Satya is eventually able to win her over, but the first time Satya and Katha try to get intimate, she slips back into the terrible memory of her assault. Satya’s family throws suspicion towards Katha’s behaviour, but once they are privy to what happened to her, they extend her unconditional empathy and a space to make sense of what happened to her. The lack of censure is a refreshing change from the usual hand-wringing and negativity, but from the perspective of private space, there’s a message coded into resolution. To truly have a space of your own, you need a weightier reason to substantiate the need. It isn’t enough to simply want your own space, like, for instance, Somya does in Zara Hatke

The Charm Within the Superficial 

If the standard-issue romances from Hindi cinema (with the not-so-traditional twists in their tales) gave time and space to women, the industry’s money spinners remained male-centric stories that used romantic subplots to make the audience fall in love with the hero. Sidharth Anand’s Pathaan, Atlee’s Jawan and Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal betray different shades of traditional construances of what female desirability is. Think of Padukone’s ‘Besharam Rang’ in Pathaan, her character flipping Vikram Rathore (Shah Rukh Khan) in Jawan, and the Animal song ‘Hua Main’, and you see how love stories and desire are deployed for the marketing of these films. Even though Padukone’s Aishwarya Rathore has a brief role in Jawan and is limited to being the supporting act as a mother and a love interest, the cosy and intimacy of romance between her and Vikram Rathore (Shah Rukh Khan) felt poignant. Plus, it also ravishingly capitalised on the existing chemistry between Padukone and Khan.  

These traditionally male endeavours in a traditionally male genre get away with using romance as a superficial glaze and its heroines varnish the narratives with a sidelined, decorative aspect, adding an oomph quotient (Pathaan), or as a utilitarian plot device which articulates the hero’s softness or lack thereof (Animal), or give historical context to their present motivations (Jawan). 

It is also precisely these fantastical concoctions — one that would provide a foray into a dream realm where characters endearingly, shamelessly embody these romantic whimsies — that feel missing from the recent spate of our Hindi film romances. The brooding upon grounded concerns in these romantic films is a departure from their earlier quest of being the ultimate respite from the power-tilted social existence where these stories are fewer than few, more often than not.

Something chafes about the excessive focus on pragmatism in our romances of this year. These realism-infused endeavours about negotiating for a personal space are relevant and you might be tempted to think that this focus on the practical aspects of how to realise your romance is a sign of progressivism, but it is a liberal sheen on the otherwise pervading, boring trend of seeking validation by adding reference to a systemic issue, to give an edge to the narrative. What irks here is that the emotional capacity of the narrative shrinks once the character is boxed into a messaging, often at the expense of a more sweeping notion of a love that rosily lifts us into the realm of fantasy.

Looking Back in Fondness

It is arguably more rousing to see how Yashvardhan (Amitabh Bachchan) in K3G (2001) is going to persevere through his corrosive class prejudice to accept his daughter-in-law Anjali (Kajol), than to see Satyaprem and Katha scrimmage through their personal issues as they try to get intimate in Satyaprem. The former generously focuses on the anguish of separation, revels in its sentimentality and refuses to announce an indictment on the characters solely based on ideologies. The indictments instead are the results of tangible consequences borne upon by personal choices. In Satyaprem, even if its good intentions are in place, the narrative focuses on the woman’s inner life only to the extent of her traumatic memory. There’s nothing to her, beyond either her wounding experience or how she is seen as desirable by the male protagonist’s limited point of view. It is unfortunate when the genre of romance, which has historically always contained radical strides through its focus on a woman’s inner-life, her gaze, succumbs to this tilt. 

Which is why the kind-of-sexist TJMM and doing-kathak-on-your-nose Rocky Aur Rani work (to an extent) — they are able to muster something purer in their pursuits of love: That love doesn’t need justification, that love for the sake of love is enough. Both Ranjan and Johar create a capacious enough narrative for the woman to lust without imposing judgement. Their yearnings, even as they wrestle with the question of a woman’s autonomy within the family, exist not only as an extension of their beliefs, but rather, as their own entity. (Johar, who can easily imagine conversations between two women, and their inner lives with ease — as opposed to Ranjan — certainly does a better job of making the woman feel more comfortable within the narrative.)

Those of us who grew up largely on the appetite of convictive, passionate romances, are a teeny bit disturbed at the grievous lack of this particular kind of yearning as well as intimacy. We can’t help but feel nostalgic for the years when romantic storytelling felt consequential enough to have a bearing on how we dream. Even if there are hopeful strides in certain representations of romance this year, it wouldn’t be unfair to say none of these command the vast cultural resonance which is the stuff of YRF and Dharma Productions ventures from the Nineties and early Aughts, which punctured our vocabularies and gave a framework (albeit sometimes a problematic one) for courting. Of all the heroes who have spun magic on the big screen, it’s telling that the one who stands out as the most romantic of them all is the one who positively rejoices in being the subject of the female gaze. “Taar lo jitna taarna hai, dekhne ki cheez hai (Ogle all you want. This is meant to be looked at),” Rocky tells Rani at their first meeting. All things considered, perhaps it’s no surprise that while the industry goes through the motions with half-naked, abs-riddled male bodies brawling with each other, and issues-based films that suck the essence out of a character, we’re still sighing wistfully over Rocky Randhawa’s “love you from last life”.   

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