Romance as a genre in cinema is perhaps as old as cinema itself. In the Indian film industry in particular, romance has historically been the most popular genre. However, an excess of love stories has tended to cause some fatigue in the recent years. For me, it's the offbeat love stories which stand the test of time, films which challenge the narrative of recurring themes in popular culture. Below are my 5 favourite romantic movies:
While Jab We Met would be most people's pick as Imtiaz Ali's best love story, Socha Na Tha has a special place in my heart. This breakout movie for Ayesha Takia and Abhay Deol was really refreshing at the time. It was about time Bollywood was breaking out of the age-old plotline of parental objections in love stories; it was no longer an external force preventing our protagonists from being together, it was their own insecurities and internal conflicts that they had to battle. Socha Na Tha explores this aspect very delicately. Viren and Aditi meet for an arranged marriage they are not interested in, but do hit it off as friends. They decline the marriage proposal but continue their friendship discreetly. Before they know, the friendship has turned into love, and now they have to fight for a marriage that their families wanted in the first place. The movie rests on the sincere performances of the leads. The script demanded new faces, and Abhay and Ayesha do not disappoint. There is an inherent innocence in their performances. Even when they are lying and deceiving their families, you can't help but root for them. It was a rare movie that looked at the issues of the urban youth without judgment, and the movie is as engaging today as it was 17 years ago.
There wouldn't be too many who would disagree with Titanic being an epic love story. A poor boy wins a last minute third class ticket on the ship to America in a game of poker and barely makes it in time for its departure. By pure chance, he meets a young first-class girl who is betrothed to a wealthy man. Their worlds are different, but fate has something else in store for them. There is so much to remember of Rose and Jack's rendezvous across the Atlantic; their first meeting when Jack convinces Rose not to jump into the sea, their first kiss at the bow of the deck, the unforgettable painting scene, the passionate tryst in the backseat of a car, and the eventual separation as Rose lets go of Jack. It was indeed a love story never seen before by a generation of Indians. But the reason Titanic makes my list is the description Rose gives of Jack, as she remembers him 84 years later. "But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved." Surreal.
On the surface, Secret Superstar is more a mother-daughter story than anything else. How a teenage girl helps free her mother from an abusive marriage by banking on her singing talent is indeed inspirational and moving. Yet every time I encounter this film on TV, I can't help but notice the innocence in Insia and Chintan's innocent love story. Adolescent love is a tricky subject; depicting it onscreen even trickier. However, director Advait Chandan captures this equation beautifully. As we see Chintan yearn for Insia's reciprocation for his feelings, we realise what true love really is – he just wants to see this girl happy. He is happy to be a punching bag for her to forget her domestic troubles. He is happy to help her catch that flight to Mumbai that will make her a star. He does not want anything in return. He is too young to be corrupted by greed or selfishness. He just wants to see Insia happy, even if he is not the reason for that happiness.
Insia takes some time to come around to this relationship; she is too occupied with her domestic troubles to think about Chintan at the beginning. But as she slowly comes to recognise her own feelings for him, we see an adorable love story unfold in front of us. In a beautifully innocent moment, she asks him to check her email on his computer, and reveals his name to be the password. A perfect snapshot of adolescent love.
This one makes the list simply because of the performances of the leads. Without any dialogues, Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra stitch together the most mesmerising love story for us. What makes this love story stand out is how aspirational it is, despite the limitations of the lead characters. He is deaf and mute, she is autistic. He is a poor boy living in a wooden house, she is the embarrassment of an affluent household. Through an unexpected turn of events they are forced to spend time with each other, and in this process they discover something more than love; they find purpose in making each other happy. Barfi is initially in love with Shruti, but she rejects the hardships that may come with a life with an impaired man for a stable life. Barfi is heartbroken, but when she comes back in his life he has found something greater than just poetic love; he has found purpose in Jhilmil.
Every time I go back to this masterpiece, I am mesmerised by how effortlessly the romance between Barfi and Jhilmil plays out. Without a single dialogue, everything is clearly communicated. Trust between the protagonists is built through falling lamps, standing outside washrooms guarding the door and holding pinkies while sleeping at night. Barfi maniacally searching for Jhilmil and the reunion in the climax is one of the most powerful scenes in Indian cinema, and the last time I cried in a movie theatre.
Films often tend to portray love as an instinct; boy meets girl, instant infatuation coupled with some friction which eventually yields. In reality however, love is more a skill than instinct. We need to learn how to appreciate the positive qualities of our partner and make them work for us, while learning how to adjust to the shortcomings to have truly fulfilling relationships. Hum Tum is one of those rare movies that captures this correctly. Karan and Rhea are two very different people with different values. As young spirited college kids, they don't get along and have a major falling out. It takes them multiple encounters spanning a decade to develop mutual respect for each other, and realise that this respect can lead to a strong foundation for a marriage.
The film rests mostly on the strong performances of the leads. While the film did get its due at the time of its release, it can't be denied that it was definitely ahead of time. For starters, it captures the right person, wrong time phenomenon perfectly. Typical Bollywood movies show initiation of romance from a neutral position, i.e. when both partners are physically and emotionally available. In reality, however, things are usually more complicated. Everyone is on a journey, and we tend to meet people in the midst of a journey than when standing still at a station.