On Valentine’s Day this year, Smriti Mundhra’s The Romantics celebrated the house of Chopras and their 50-year legacy of love and romance. But in an age when Gen Z and millennials have adapted to love at first swipe, where is the ‘great romance’ to celebrate the transformed definition of love?
For generations, Bollywood — Chopras, Bhansali, Imtiaz Ali, and of course, Shah Rukh Khan — defined love — mushy, swoony, and dreamy. Love that stops time, that makes the wind change course, all while violins play in the background.
Millennials have grown up longing for their own Raj, Rahul, Prem, Simran, Geet, Aditya, Kabir, and Anjali.
If I ask you to name the best Hindi romantic film of all time there will be an abundance of contenders, from Mughal-e-Azam and Silsila, to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Jab We Met. But what if I limit the time frame to the past five years? Take your time. Besides a whisper here and there, nothing remains etched in memory.
Love is no longer the same. Romance that requires patience and persistence has ‘left the chat’, and its new-age iteration, that happens at first swipe, has no takers among filmmakers. And just like that, love and romance are fading from the landscape of Hindi cinema.
“Storytellers will always reflect the times. If there are no love stories on-screen, then, perhaps, it is because of the way people have started to love,” said director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who struck gold with Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), a small-town romantic comedy. She added that the contemporary audience has little patience which reflects on screen.
Shakun Batra attempted to unwrap the complexities of modern-day relationships with Gehraiyaan (2022). Ditching the tropes of big gestures, swooning eyes, and teary-eyed declarations of love, the film took a commendable leap and dived straight into the messy conflicts that plague new-age relationships but it still cannot be deemed as a true-blue romantic film.
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From then to now
The mid-2010 saw a burst of new-age love stories with films like Lootera, Bajirao Mastani, Tamasha, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and Bareilly Ki Barfi but those were the last of a dying genre.
It has become an inconsequential subplot not what moves the film forward. It’s a mediocre side-kick to the action, suspense or social commentary.
Bollywood tried to depict an evolved version of love with films like Love per Square Foot, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Luka Chuppi, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, and Gehraiyaan. They broke gender norms and impressed the Tinder generation. But rarely did any of them leave a strong enough impact.
Oddly enough a consequence of the lack of great on-screen romance has made its way into mainstream conversations — the disappearance of soulful music.
“It is only when you make a romantic film that you get the scope to create soulful music. Otherwise, you will just be adding songs [in the films] for the heck of it,” said veteran playback singer Alka Yagnik in an interview with Film Companion. Yagnik, who has lent her voice to numerous Hindi romantic songs, is the world’s most-streamed artist on YouTube with 15.3 billion streams.
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Custodians of romance
Even if The Romantics is dismissed as PR for Bollywood’s most-storied production house, there is no denying that Yash Chopra shaped the contours of ‘great romance’ like no other.
At a time when Bollywood was bombarded with formulaic action films, Chopra bet on romance with films like Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila and Chandani. His fascination with love never waned, even his last film, Jab Tak Hain Jaan, was a grand romance.
Who can forget the awkward but heart-breaking meeting between Amitabh Bachchan and Raakhee’s characters in Kabhie Kabhie when they come face to face years after their separation. The lingering sense of adhuri kahaani (incomplete love) is present in each word despite having lived lives independent of each other. Or the airport scene in Silsila, when Sanjeev Kumar’s character — without saying much — urges his wife (Rekha) to reconsider their marriage.
His son, Aditya, carried on the legacy with the iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Raj and Simran is the Millennial equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.
Apart from the Chopras, the genre was helmed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s grandeur and Imtiaz Ali’s understanding of contemporary love.
Bhansali, known for his high-scale production, set his romances in the backdrop of a period drama (Bajirao Mastani) or Shakespearean dynamics (Ram Leela). He has been delivering since the 90s, but after 2015 (when Bajirao Mastani released), he seems to have taken his hands off the proverbial romantic wheel.
If the Chopras’ heroes had to overcome external obstacles for their love — think the patriarchs in DDLJ and Mohabbatein — Ali’s heroes had internal battles to face before they got the girl, be it Jordan in Rockstar, Ved from Tamasha, Veer in Love Aaj Kal, and Aditya in Jab We Met; bringing the drama quotient down by few notches. It was the first step in the evolution of modern love stories. But it’s not moved forward since then.
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Dearth of romantic heroes
But Chopra, Bhansali, and Ali seemed to have moved on — who next?
While Bhansali has traded in romance for more female-centric projects (Gangubai Kathiawadi and Heeramandi), Aditya Chopra has not directed since the failure of Befikre (2016), and Ali seems to be struggling to get along with the genre itself (looking at Jab Harry Met Sejal and Love Aaj Kal 2).
In 2018, Ali backed a romantic film Laila Majnu as a producer, many would not even remember that such a film exists if not for the interest in its lead actor Tripti Dimri.
There also seem to be no candidates to fill the Shah Rukh Khan-sized gap in front of the camera. Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor were the frontrunners but the latter has already announced that he will not be doing romantic films after his latest release Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar as he is “getting older”.
And as far as Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar is concerned, it was another dive into Luv Ranjan’s dated (read: sexist) humour. Even here love is lost in the cocktail of boredom and ‘family values’.
After a string of flops, Singh’s next is a romantic drama alongside Alia Bhatt — the Karan Johar-directorial Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. Johar — a man considered to be one of the wiser ones in the film business — and two of the best actors of this generation might just turn things around.
But as it stands, the champions of romance are disappearing from both sides of the camera. It begs the question, is Bollywood’s hallmark, the ‘great romance’, dead? From the looks of it, yes.
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This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)