Minor spoilers ahead. I remember the first time I really understood what love was — or at least what a nine-year-old could understand as romantic love. Sitting in my parents basement, dressed up in our hand-me-down suits (courtesy of our cousins across the country), my sister and I watched 2001’s Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham (K3G), mesmerized by the swirling colors of the saris on-screen. Most importantly, we were enraptured by the palpable chemistry between the leads. We watched Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) slowly slip a set of bangles over the palm of Anjali’s (Kajol) hand onto her wrists, as he intimately whispered: “There are many bonds more than friendship. Bonds that we don’t understand, bonds that we don’t need to understand.” As the final bangle slipped down her wrist, Anjali, overcome by emotion, turned to run, their hands and fingers clasped until the very last moment, as the pair broke out into song.
By the time the closing notes of “Suraj Hua Maddham” — essentially a steamy, sensual, and envy-inducing acknowledgment of their mutual love — trickled out, both Anjali on-screen and myself, wide-eyed, with a major crush on Shah Rukh Khan, and sitting in my parent's basement, were done for. It was glossy, frothy, over-the-top, and the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
This market scene, and the subsequent scenes of “Suraj Hua Maddham”, shots of Khan and Kajol frolicking through the Egyptian desert in a myriad of colorful lehengas and see-through shirts, are the perfect encapsulation of everything I love about Bollywood films, specifically those released during the 1990s and early 2000s. This is a cinematic era that gave us stories of young people trying to make their way in the world independent of their parents. And most importantly, the films from this time are predominantly about romantic love.
So it makes sense that during my formative years, Bollywood movies, and relationships like Rahul and Anjali’s, shaped just how I view and what I expect from my own romantic relationships, at least initially. And while as an adult I don’t necessarily expect the over-the-top romantic love that you only see in movies, these films have instilled a lasting celebration of love in me and the idea that however love may come my way, I’m more than worthy of it.
Growing up a ‘90s West Indian kid in suburban (and very white) Vancouver, Bollywood films were’t universally acclaimed, or even watched, among my friends. Aside from our few and far between watch parties in the basement of our childhood home, when my sister and I would dress up and force our friends to dance along to the songs with us, our viewing habits tended to lean more towards Lizzie McGuire or cult classics like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Because of this, films like K3G felt otherworldly and different from everything I’d seen. Even now, the songs and dances buzz with color, and the women (including Kajol, a darling of the screen throughout the '90s and 2000s) are funny, intelligent, outspoken, and can rock a lehenga and a great pair of ‘90s jeans. The men are hunky. But even more than that, they're romantic, in touch with their feelings and, more often than not, super earnest about them. (Find me a man on a modern dating app willing to follow me all the way across the world to convince your parents he’s a good guy or who’ll serenade you on the violin in a perfectly fitted sweater set). In the world of these films, it’s not only normal to give yourself over entirely to the impracticality of all-consuming love, it’s encouraged and even celebrated — often with a vibrant and stunningly beautiful dance number.
While I didn’t know it then, these films of the early ‘90s felt different because they were, even from other Bollywood films of the time, and their impact has lasted until the present day. The Romantics, a four-part docuseries from Smriti Mundhra (the creator of Indian Matchmaking), looks at this specific period of time in Bollywood through the filmography of Yash Chopra and his son Aditya, following the iconic dynasty that started it all and the evolution of Bollywood films into the modern-day love stories that fans have come to know, expect, and love. Specifically important was the 1995 release of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), directed by Aditya Chopra, that marked the true genre revolution. Now the longest running film in the history of Indian cinema, DDLJ follows bad boy Raj and good girl Simran, who fall in love but must win her family’s approval. What sets the now iconic movie apart from many of its predecessors is that the hero isn’t the only character whose emotions and wants are centered. Raj fights for Simran’s love (and equally for her family’s approval), and Simran chooses his love back — a decision she makes for herself.
As actor Anupam Kher says in The Romantics, “Indian cinema is before Dilwale Dulhanie Le Jayenge and after Dilwale Dulhanie Le Jayenge, in terms of how a hero treated a heroine.” In these films, the women aren't just a patriarchal possession to be taken away or passed from one man (her father) to another (her love interest). They have a voice of their own, and the free will and volition to make their own decisions — including who they fall in love with. By centering romance in the way that they do, dressing it up in the saturated colors and joyful exuberance of song, these films like DDLJ and those that came after it and were inspired by it (like K3G), celebrate and believe in love and make it okay to believe in love too. And in the decisions of their heroes and heroines, they show that love, and more importantly choosing to love someone is just that — a choice that you can make for yourself.
It was powerful for me to see as a young woman, especially one who didn't typically see herself in the mainstream. Even if I didn’t necessarily understand it when I first watched K3G, or in the subsequent years of my tweens and teens, binge-watching other iconic movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mohabbatein, and Kal Ho Na Ho, seeing these young women heroines who look like me (at least more than the Kate Hudson’s, Mandy Moore’s and Hilary Duff’s I was used to seeing), who are smart, funny, flawed, struggling with their cultural identity, often unsure, but ultimately figure it out, was essential. In spite of or perhaps because of these characteristics, they found — and chose love. In turn, this reinforced and allowed me to feel like I too could do the same; be my own romantic heroine, deserving and able to choose love for myself. While the realities of dating as an adult have caused my confidence in this statement to ebb and flow (I haven’t always felt deserving of the type of romantic love I hope for), these films offer a great reminder as I agree to yet another Hinge date, or am left wondering if my date actually went to the bathroom or just left me with the bill.
The genre has evolved, and so in turn have its fans, myself included. As a tween, watching Rahul and Anjali fall in love over a pair of bangles in the market made me believe in the existence of that type of love for myself. And even as an almost 30-year-old woman, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The luxury of time and my own personal dating experiences has taught me a lot about relationships: Primarily not to idealize on-screen relationships as the be-all-end-all of love. In real life, that love can oftentime be even better and more fulfilling than what you imagined as a tween. Of course, there really is no such thing as a perfect relationship, and being in love definitely won’t solve all your problems. Case and point: we never get to see whether our heroes and heroines live happily ever after after the credits roll.
But even in a time when dating is at an all-time low and dating culture has left many of us feeling like we need to settle after being perpetually exhausted and scarred from going on 150 first dates, Bollywood films and their belief in love as something for everyone feel reassuring. Despite the somewhat dated fashion and cultural references, they give me a bit of hope for myself. And hope is rarely ever a bad thing.