BOMBAY — Judging by the typical Bollywood film song - that syrupy confection of boy-meets-girl doled out in almost every movie made here - India must be the most romantic country in the world.
Indians have as many words for "love" as the Inuit have for "snow." Songwriters choose from the many subtle variations: pyar (affection), mohabbat (love, in Urdu), prem (love, in Hindi), ishq (passion), or even junoon (obsession).
These sweet nothings are timeless, but the lyrics surrounding them have changed dramatically. In the 1950s, boys and girls would pine for each other, but accept their parents' or society's better judgment. Today's lover lives and dies by his or her own mistakes or inner faults - immaturity, pride, poor dress sense - and the modern concept of love is spreading at the speed of sound to cities and villages, on radios and music videos, and into the minds of the humming masses.
The result, cultural watchers and filmmakers say, is a country teetering between its traditional rules and the giddy individualism of the West, with profound effects on India's urban youth.
"This is the first generation that believes that tomorrow will be better than yesterday," says Santosh Desai, president of the advertising firm, McCann Erickson, in New Delhi. "There's this sense that the world is opening up with the lifting of constraints. There is an unspecific optimism, and one part of it is economic, but the other part is the lifting of mental barriers."
Consider the societal change implied in these lyrics, translated from Hindi.
In the 1950s, songs warned against falling in love, because of what people would say. "Be careful lest the world see us together/ and our love will become a story for people to tell," went one popular tune.
By the 1980s, young people were ready to defy the world, at least in the films of Bollywood. "I'm a lover, you're a lover/ so what are mommy and daddy to us/ the whole world is useless," another song proclaimed.
And in the 1990s, filmmakers were pushing the outer boundaries of taste. "What's behind your blouse?" sang a hero in one infamous tune. "My heart," the heroine replied. (Perhaps the proper response would have been "one tight slap.")
As India's predominant form of entertainment, Bollywood songs are crucial to the social research conducted by advertisers like Mr. Desai. He wants to be sure his spots for Coca-Cola and other companies are speaking to the current mind-set of India's prosperous youth.
Until recently, most Indian youths let themselves be defined by their families. Respect for elders was paramount, therefore a son could not add to the family's name or fortune, he could not outdo his father for fear of shaming him. Ironically, Desai says, a good son could only make mistakes.
"Today, all that has changed. So many parents are bewildered by the choices their children have, especially in terms of jobs," Desai says. "Therefore the ability to assert their authority is reduced. How do you tell your children what to do if you don't understand what the choices are?"
Desai admits that these changes have occurred only in metropolitan cities like Bombay (Mumbai), Delhi, Madras (Chennai), Bangalore, or Calcutta.
After all, nearly 70 percent of India's population lives in villages, where traditional values are not only the norm, they are enforced in sometimes brutal ways.
Yet, even villagers are not immune to the lures of the big city coming at them over the radio and in theaters everywhere. It is urban-themed movies and songs that set the tone of India's modern aspirations, if not its values.
Yash Chopra, the éminence grise of Bollywood film directors, says, "Films are mirrors of society. What we observe around us in society, we try to portray on the screen."
Some films - like Mr. Chopra's "Veer-Zaara," a love story of an Indian boy and a Pakistani girl - capture the popular mood and sell well. Others sink with barely a bubble. But over time, the trends in love stories are significant. And these days, Indian society is no longer an obstacle to love. "Man is his own hero, and his own villain," says Chopra. "This is the model of the modern love story."
Consider the blockbuster Dil Chahta Hai (What the Heart Wants). In it, the main character, a successful but sarcastic business executive, undermines a perfectly good flirtation with a young woman through his own self-defeating cynicism about love. "Come to think of it, love brings only suffering," the character sings, or rather, lip synchs. "In love, cruelty abounds/ In love, humiliation reigns/ Though hurting, smile you must/ So why fill this life with such poison?"
For the young filmmaker Farhan Akhtar, who made "Dil Chahta Hai" in 2001, the attitudes of such songs are plucked from the real lives of India's modern youths.
"There are a lot of young people who are getting married late," says Mr. Akhtar. "I wouldn't say that they have been put off of love. It's more that they are cautious about the process being right. They want more fun, and they want to have achieved something by the time they settled down."
But just as the aging sex pots on HBO's "Sex in the City" can attest, freedom does not always bring happiness. Putting aside traditional arranged marriage for a "love match," can increase the risk of divorce later, many Indians believe. Putting off marriage to pursue a career also increases the risk of not getting married at all.
Nagesh Kukunoor, the thirtysomething filmmaker of the hit comedy "Hyderabad Blues," says that today's young filmgoer is more conflicted.
"Before, Indians were well educated but had no money," he says. "Now they have money, but they are more confused. They have the education so they can move forward. But they have this value system which holds them back."
Yash Chopra says this tension now lies at the heart of today's films, replacing the teasing drama of romantic innocence. "In the old films, if a girl or a boy touched hands, just accidentally brushing against each other in a crowd, there was a chemistry," he says. "Now boys and girls live together, and it's a simple thing."
Yet even in this fast-changing world, Chopra says he has hope. "Love is the only thing that doesn't go out of fashion."