The recent release of Shiddat – a strange old-school romance that confuses obsession with affection – raises an uneasy question: Is the Bollywood love story all but extinct? Over the years, it's become apparent that the genre isn't what it used to be. The easy explanation is cultural evolution — times have changed. Love is no longer the simple and aspirational emotion the movies once made it out to be. Storytellers have woken up to the fact that love is real, resonant and complicated – not a language of escapism so much as a celebration of naturalism. Earlier, the average Hindi film viewer hoped to be the larger-than-life lovers on screen. Today, the average Hindi film lover hopes to be the viewer watching them. This means that lesser and lesser movies pivot on romance as the definitive peg now – the historicals, the comedies, the coming-of-age tales, the biopics and the social-message dramas tend to treat love as a secondary element.
What we're left with, then, is memories of classic love stories that we can revisit on Valentine's Day. The formula is gone, the feeling persists. Here are the all-time greats of Hindi cinema:
A modern classic, Barfi! is a rare Hindi film that looks like love. Just as the loss of one sense is known to sharpen the others in humans, the film's exaggerated sense of feeling and colour – the popping greens, reds and goldens of West Bengal – is a direct result of the two protagonists being differently-abled. They see, hear, smell and feel harder than the regular Bollywood couple. The scatterbrained love story between the deaf-mute young man (Ranbir Kapoor) and an autistic girl (Priyanka Chopra) is synonymous with the love story between the film-maker and Kolkata, as well as the unrequited love story of the third wheel – a city girl (Ileana D'Cruz) – who enjoys a holiday romance only to never locate that emotion again.
Before DDLJ and KNPH, there was QSQT, a watershed moment for the renovated Romeo+Juliet musical. The debut of Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla, as well as the ultimate late-80s college anthem, was so much more than just that – especially in terms of how the movie weaponized the intersection of two cinematic eras by design. QSQT represented the afterlife of the feudal '70s Thakur-heavy Westerns, with the two new-generation lovers symbolic of how a new Bollywood was finally ready to replace the stubborn old one. It may not have ended well for the kids, but their spirits reverberated throughout the '90s, a post-liberalization decade that saw the true blooming – and evolution – of the immortal love story.
It's a good time to recognize the irony that one of the most perfectly composed tragedies in all of cinema is based on an artist who is dismissed for not writing love stories. The journey of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa has mirrored the journey of its tortured protagonist – with the film belatedly finding acclaim long after the 'demise' of its fabled creator. Most importantly, Pyaasa has reclaimed its identity as a progressive love story: between romanticization and romance, artist and art, poet and street-girl, fiction and reality, love and hate, disillusionment and fulfillment. The Vijay-Gulabo-Meena triangle remains the definitive triangle of Indian storytelling. Eras have come and gone – but they don't make them like Pyaasa anymore because they were never supposed to.
What's a list of immortal love stories without the very mortal love of a Basu Chatterjee–Amol Palekar classic? I find myself revisiting Rajnigandha the most, just for its audacity to be ordinary – fallible, flawed, normal, indecisive, human – at a time when escapism became the official language of mainstream Hindi cinema. The unassuming love triangle remains one of the first chapters of urban, middle-class, cross-cultural rivalry – with the Bombay v/s Delhi narrative etched deep in the everyman chemistry of the protagonists. Chhoti Si Baat and Chitchor were natural descendants – and arguably more emotionally evolved films – but there's something about Rajnigandha that, to this date, suggests how our perception of all-conquering love need not mirror our derivative expectations of it.
Sai Paranjpye's modest masterpiece features arguably the greatest – and most intellectually truthful – portrait of physical disability in Hindi cinema. Naseeruddin Shah's National Award-winning performance as a defiant blind man aside, the love story at the center of Sparsh is in fact an indictment of feeling. It questions the inherent core of unequal companionship and the complex price of caring. Whereas isolation is a choice for one, it's a license for the other. The relationship between two emotionally marginalized souls defines the textural integrity of a film that has, over time, transcended the craft it once lacked. The love in Sparsh is a differently-abled institution of its own, where the empathy of seeing replaces the vision of sympathy.
The genre of epistolary romance, where careful letters replace the physical being, is a site for some of the most quiet, distraught, and painful revelations. If Aparna Sen's The Japanese Wife gave it a pure, untouched innocence, Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox gives it a more immediate, messy, but equally cathartic pay-off. When the lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) prepares for her distracted, cheating husband reaches, instead, the hungry fingers of Saajan (the late Irrfan), a disgruntled accountant on the verge of retirement and a lonely widower, a tender romance is struck through notes between strangers who reveal themselves in words, written in a way they can never do in words-spoken.
When the bubbly Geet (Kareena Kapoor Khan) meets the forlorn Aditya (Shahid Kapoor), something moves. Over the years, they swap personalities, and it is the impulsive and idealistic Aditya, this time, who needs to rescue Geet from depressive ambivalence after suffering a humiliating heartbreak. Imtiaz Ali's funny, irreverent, musical, and profound take on lovers who leak personalities has become seminal in cementing and celebrating the trope of the Bubbly Punjabi Heroine.
When Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) slips and falls off a balcony, she is hospitalized. Her last words before that was "Where is Dan?" Dan (Varun Dhawan), another intern with Shiuli at the hotel, aimless, boisterous, kind-hearted but not kind, is suddenly moved, and keeps visiting her, fighting with everyone, losing his gig at the hotel. Why are we so moved by a gesture, a sentence, a moment of attention, enough to turn our lives around completely? Is that love too? Shoojit Sircar brings Juhi Chaturvedi's slow-simmer script to an evocative lump in the throat.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's first brush with extravagant and dildaar maximalism, this film, set in Gujarat and later Italy (it is actually Budapest), charts the emotional journey of a husband (Ajay Devgn) who selflessly tries to reunite his wife (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) with her former lover (Salman Khan). In between, there are rainbow riot sequences of dance, establishing romance in pearl pink and lavender lehengas, with stars strewn about the bejeweled, musically throbbing background. Beauty is love too, Bhansali whispers at us.
Before October 1995, the leading trope in Bollywood love stories was the running away of the star-crossed couple. They were young and in-love, but without their parents' consent, had no other choice but to elope to find their happiness together. Aditya Chopra's directorial debut, DDLJ, however, introduced a new way of dealing with the situation in hand: instead of eloping, the leads would now try and convince the parents – because love could win over everything, including orthodox, stubborn mindsets. Cowbells and sarson ke khet became symbolic of love, while this narrative, Raj and Simran (not just the characters, but even the names), and the train, of course, became household names – to an extent that the film remains textbook romance for many love stories made even today. Parts of the film don't stand the test of time, but the nostalgia it carries lingers on till date.
There perhaps had been several films before the Maneesh Sharma directorial that were based in Delhi. But this was arguably the most Dilli love story to release in the longest time. Bittoo (Ranveer Singh) and Shruti (Anushka Sharma) made for that highly novel couple that not only brought in binness and break pakodas to the fore of the filmy, desi lingo, but pretty much established the wedding industry as a career choice for the youth. This was a couple that fit together like a puzzle – with Bittoo's street-smartness complementing Shruti's ideation and managerial skills. They had fun when they were together – the mazaa forming the core of their relationship – both professionally and personally, giving a fresh perspective to modern-day love.
Yash Chopra's story of love, heartbreak and acceptance, written by Sagar Sarhadi, was as poetic as it was progressive. Vijay (Shashi Kapoor) is married to Pooja (Raakhee), who shared a past romance with Amit (Amitabh Bachchan). The two were in love and could've found their own happy ending had it not been for Pooja's parents, who, without her consent, got her married to Vijay. Two decades later, as Vijay comes face-to-face with the truth, he accepts it with grace and respect – unlike the stereotypical 'hero' who blames his wife for loving someone else in her past.
Not all love stories have a happy ending. And Mughal-E-Azam, despite its ethereal and exquisite sets and sounds, didn't have one either. But somewhere, the tragic love story of Salim (Dilip Kumar), the crown prince, and Anarkali (Madhubala), the court dancer, continues to endure. Call it the chemistry between the lead characters (remember that stunning scene where Anarkali and Salim share an intimate kiss as a white feather blocks them out from the world, and each frame looking like a painting in itself?) or themes of casteism and classism coming in the way of a love of a lifetime, K Asif's magnum opus remains heart tugging, 61 years on.
Yet another film that subverted the tropes of its time, Gulzar's Aandhi poignantly dealt with an ageing romance. JK (Sanjeev Kumar) and Aarti (Suchitra Sen), an estranged couple, come across one another after years of separation. Their story started in their heydays, only to see an abrupt end. Aarti's relationship with JK comes in the way of her ambitions of becoming a political leader. He asks her to choose between the two, and Aarti sticks to her ground – valuing herself as an individual and not only as a mother and wife. She goes on to fulfil her ambitions, while JK becomes a single father. When they meet again, the familiar feeling of care and love returns, granting their lost romance a refreshing rekindling.
As its name suggests, the film is bursting with vibrance and colours, capturing the Bambaiyya streets and its love for cinema in a gaze that's almost romantic in itself. Mili (Urmila Matondkar), a background dancer in the movies, aspires to be an actress. She finds her confidante in Munna (Aamir Khan), her childhood friend and a good-hearted tapori who sells film tickets in black. Munna is aware of his feelings for her but remains hesitant to confess. A gnawing sense of inferiority further forms within him when Mili becomes an actress and starts hanging out with the lead actor of her film, superstar Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff), who is also in love with her. It could've been yet another love triangle but the inherent goodness of the characters, the effortlessness of the eventual romance and an evergreen soundtrack by AR Rahman keep it alive, arresting and alluring.