Bollywood Bliss: Rediscovering Romance in Indian Cinema

“You have to admit Indians do romance right.”

My mother casually said this to me this past winter break as we sat at her cousin’s wedding in Houston, Texas.  

The celebration was a beautiful multi-day event that featured colorful saris, a Brazilian dance team, a choreographed couples dance and endless platters of delicious pakoras. All of that, however, paled in comparison to my favorite part of the wedding: the ceremony itself. It was filled with romantic symbolism that emphasized care and respect between two people, reminding everyone in attendance how wonderful love is.

By the end of the week, I couldn’t agree with my mother more. Despite the many criticisms I have of Indian culture and its treatment of women, I admire the hopeless romanticism that pervades Indian life. If you want to see what I’m talking about, check out the Bollywood section of Netflix.

I’ve never cared much for romantic movies. Sure I scream delightedly whenever someone mentions Moulin Rouge, but I generally find “chick flicks” to have underdeveloped characters and bland plots. Yet, I love romantic, Indian movies. Maybe it’s the melodrama that always involves a teary hospital scene or maybe it’s the musical numbers that put Broadway to shame, but Indian films are unparalleled when it comes to enchanting love stories.

While many American movies try to idealize love or poke fun at it in rom-coms, Indian films address everything that love encompasses from dream-like giddiness to bottomless despair. When you fall in love, it can feel like the world is this wondrous place you don’t believe really exists. Indian films encapsulate that perfectly with dramatically unrealistic scenarios.

In the song “Poovukkul Olinthirukkum” from Jeans, the enamored protagonists travel to the seven wonders of the world solely to make the point that the girl is the eighth wonder. This number alone was shot in six different countries, showing the lengths Indian filmmakers will go to in order to get the most spectacular and cheesy, romantic moment.

Another recurring theme in Indian popular cinema is the idea of love prevailing against all obstacles, whether that’s family drama, social class or even death. One of my favorite Bollywood movies, Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai, is about a woman named Sonia whose lover (played by the infinitely suave Hrithik Roshan) is killed by gangsters. Depressed after his death, she moves to New Zealand. But who should she find in the land of sheep and hobbits? An exact look-alike of her dead lover (Again played by His Sauviness)! After a series of gorgeous musical numbers, the two fall in love and live happily ever after. While this plot is somewhat problematic in its portrayal of a woman whose livelihood depends on a man, it also sends the message that love can be reborn into new forms even when we believe that it has left us. Plus, have you ever seen a cuter reaction to someone saying “I love you” than this scene of Hrithik Roshan triumphantly spinning and smiling like a lunatic?

For those of you who are still skeptical about the magic of love, Indian cinema has great scenes and songs for the doubtful among us. In Lagaan, a girl named Gowri finds that an English woman has captured the affections of Bhuvan, the man she secretly loves. In a skillful and expressive dance, she conveys her frustrations with her love interest for not noticing her while also dismissing him as unworthy of her time. Even without an English translation, her dance routine expresses a level of sass that gives Beyoncé a run for her money. Don’t worry, though. Bhuvan eventually comes to his senses and gives our girl all the love and care she deserves. And if you’re looking for stories about unrequited, lost or betrayed love, basically every popular Indian movie protagonist goes through a period where they mourn their lack of romance. My favorite example of this would be this intensely dramatic montage from Taal where Aishwarya Rai reminisces about her old flame while staring at a bottle of Coke. Now that’s what I call tasteful product placement.

Whether it’s a dog reuniting two lovers or a flirtatious musical number on a yacht, Indian cinema knows how to take romance to new heights. It may be outrageously showy and needlessly dramatic, but sometimes that’s the way love is. Instead of worrying about realism (or budget for that matter), Indian filmmakers see love for the crazy, unpredictable and often magical roller coaster that it is and ask their audience members to take the ride with them. It’s an inherently optimistic outlook in a world of that’s often cynical of romance, and I think it’s one that deserves our attention. So next time you’re craving a romantic cinematic escape, scroll right past The Notebook, pull out your tissues and samosas, and get lost in the wonderful world of popular Indian movies.


Image credits: Feature, 1, 2, 3