Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.
You might be familiar with the adult awakening that most classic love stories we grew up with don’t always hold up. 16 Candles? Creepy! You’ve Got Mail? Catfishing! Yet the fact remains that there are certain texts we can’t shake, stories that helped shape us and our views on love.
I grew up watching Indian Bollywood movies, so my discomfiting realization has been twofold. Bollywood is known for epic, sweeping romance – full musical numbers in gorgeous locales, grand gestures, soulmates. They taught me that romantic love was the most powerful force in the universe, something that could make people sing and dance with emotion and always finds a way.
Since childhood, I’ve rewatched the Bollywood classics that raised me, and now, they don’t necessarily strike the same chord. I find myself struggling to understand what any two characters see in each other; the men who were my young romantic heroes turned out to be entitled, obstinate or immature, and the women lack any agency to fight their way out of their circumstances.
The worst part is, I still love some of these movies.
I regularly revisit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), hailed by many as the quintessential Bollywood rom-com (it’s been in theaters for over 20 years). It’s the story of a young couple who fall in love in Europe and how the young man goes to break up her arranged marriage so they can be together.
It sounds romantic! Beating the odds! true love! Europe! Yet now I watch DDLJ and am truly stumped by how Raj and Simran fall for each other. He’s an arrogant jerk, which makes her in turn act mean and standoffish. Raj effectively says, “I’m not that bad” at one point, when Simran thinks he may have taken advantage of her drunk, and we are supposed to be impressed that he didn’t (it’s also weirdly jingoistic; Raj explains that he’s Indian, and Indian men don’t do such things. Rough optics, to say the least).
Simran is impressed. She starts to like Raj because hey, at least he’s not a rapist, and this quickly turns into love because the bar is that low!
Lately, as an experiment, I add the subtitle “The Story of a Fuckboy” to any Bollywood movie, and it always works.
I’m aware of these shortcomings every time I watch the movie. Yet I can’t resist that Swiss mountain scenery, those infectious songs, the goddam bridge scene. Heck, I started grinning like an idiot when I watched the above trailer. When Raj has his good moments – praying for Simran in the church, winning over her family by actually being respectful and considerate, I genuinely like him. He is the ultimate myth of the romantic hero: a roguish exterior encasing a kind heart. He sucks, until he doesn’t.
Lately, as an experiment, I add the subtitle “The Story of a Fuckboy” to any Bollywood movie, and it always works. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: The Story of a Fuckboy. Dil to Pagal Hai: The Story of a Fuckboy. Devdas: The Story of a Fuckboy.
The Raj-types of the world – basically any character played by Shahrukh Khan – are not exactly special. With the exception of Rahul in Dil To Pagal Hai, they rarely have any discernible talent or interests; similarly, the women they fall in love with are beautiful, respectable (a.k.a. chaste), and little else, but they’re so exceedingly charming that you can’t help root for them, even if all their characters want is to find love in the light of the full moon.
The lack of character traits is baffling, and yet no one I know has ever fallen in love based on a resume or a laundry list of shared interests (they help, sure, but that’s not all there is to it). They fall based on a gut feeling, a core attraction of minds, bodies, and souls combined. And weirdly enough, it was Bollywood that taught me this, all those years ago. I don’t think I ever fell for these characters so much as for the way they felt, and the way they made me feel.
There are moments of malice, of pettiness, of jealousy. There are theoretically romantic overtures that could be creepy were it not for the fact that both characters involved actually like each other (a classic rom-com tactic). Characters are, ostensibly, healed by romantic love, a lofty ideal that sustains the romance genre and possibly humanity itself.
A thing I really dig about Dil To Pagal Hai is that the woman aren’t competitive or jealous of each other (except for one dope dance number), even when they’re both in love with the same kinda mean dude who has the approximate emotional maturity of a watermelon. The men spurned in that movie and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho just want the people they love to be happy, even if it’s not with them (admittedly they take too long to step down and we could do with less emotional manipulation).
An addendum for those unfamiliar with Bollywood: As with any film industry, it is continually evolving. Modern Bollywood movies – the good ones, anyway – challenge gender norms and the glorification of the fuckboy, and while things are going slower than I’d like, the progress is noteworthy. There are still the trappings of patriarchy, but an awareness that it’s a societal problem we all have to fix while still aspiring to romance that’s free of it.
There’s a phenomenal double standard we’re still trying to shake; that boys can and will date or sleep around, and that girls will wait – patient, wholesome, and faithful, whiling away the time it takes for their soulmates to come around. When they do, everyone involved will experience that life-changing transformation-by-love. I’ve seen this in movies as recent as 2013, movies that have entertained me.
As the shame creeps in for enjoying them, I remind myself that it is important to recognize perpetual problems in Bollywood, to talk about them, to better them. My reading of Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009) and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) could be illuminating for someone else, and we can spread word and improve both our films and our culture.
All entertainment junkies have faced the fact that some of our favorite art – and those who created it – is far from perfect. Just because something was formative, as Bollywood was for me, doesn’t mean it is infallible. I can like it, and I can own that I like it, but still be critical.
So, like the trash that I am, I will continue to come back to these movies for comfort and entertainment. If I watch them in a group, especially with kids present, we talk about the problems and about what we should learn from these stories – for example, my mother’s rejection of how women are portrayed in Mohabbatein (2000) has always been a key part of how I remember and relate to the movie.
And I take comfort in knowing that Bollywood is, however slowly, inching toward improvement. I rewatched DDLJ for this piece because I had to, but I found myself recently seized by a desire to watch its more modern update: Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014). It’s important to recognize what worked and what didn’t in the trash ’90s classics I grew up on, and to celebrate that they paved the road for better stories in the future.