Hooray for Bollywood's tales of love

"star wars" couldn't have been made here: No one gets married.

"Mission Impossible"? Not without a dance number.

In Bombay - the L.A. of India, also known as Bollywood - forget action-adventure, horror, drama, sci-fi, and comedy. India produces 800 films a year, twice Hollywood's output, yet in a formula that almost never strays: boy meets girl.

Unless of course, girl meets boy. They fall in love amid mild adversity and much song and dance. They marry and live blissfully ever after. Indians never tire of the formula.

Sociologists say India's urban world is now more commercially driven, violent, and lonely. Its rural populations, however, are still desperately poor, and often live in strict, medieval-style patriarchies. So when it comes to cinema, as popular here as religion, Indians do not want art to imitate life.

In this amazingly diverse country, one thing everyone can agree on is films that allow an escape from harsh realities - into a simple and happy dream of uncomplicated heroes and love that is always requited.

In the 1990s, partly due to the influence of the West, the love story here has changed paradoxically. Call it a new mixture of Hollywood and Hindu: Ever younger audiences want hipper characters who live in suburban utopias, wear jeans and sunglasses, and talk like Leonardo DiCaprio. But they want them acting in films with a more traditional Hindu "family values" script - and a story line so fancifully romantic that tearjerkers like "The Princess Bride" or "Titanic" seem ho hum.

Even against-the-grain Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose new picture "Earth" is being screened this month in the US, has nodded to the power of a love story. "Earth" is set in the pathos of the 1947 breakup of India into India and Pakistan - the largest population switch in history. Yet its backbone is a love triangle between two Muslim suitors and a beautiful Hindu nanny.

Fantasy lives

"Indians all know they have another hard day tomorrow, so if you want a commercial blockbuster, you have to do a love story," says director Tanuja Chandra. "People want complete fantasy, a world minus problems. We don't see anything wrong with that."

Just ask Sanjay, Siachen, and Makarand, a team of vacuum-cleaner salesmen in Bombay who are in line at the popular Art Deco Regal theater, located near historic Churchgate, which plays Western films. Tonight "The Mummy" is on - it's a slick Hollywood thriller with the special effects and technical virtuosity that has started to corner a market in India. Still, these young men say their hearts are with the Hindi love story. "We work from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and we only sneak away once in awhile," says Siachen. "We want love. A moment like that is the most important thing, especially if a person is missing it. It makes us feel good to see it acted out."

"Our life today is more materialistic, and love seems further removed," says Rauf Ahmed, editor of The Premiere, Bombay's top film magazine. "There's so much violence on the streets that no one wants to pay to see it any more. Three of the four megahits of the last two years had no violence or sex. They were films of happy, celebrating people."

A good example is last year's Bollywood blockbuster, "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" ("Something Happens"). Patterned after "Sleepless In Seattle," the film opens with college scenes of a man and his two close female friends. He marries one who later dies giving childbirth. Then, at age 8, the child conspires to put the man together with his other old girlfriend - who has sacrificed loyally for years, never saying how much she wanted the man. Cut to a rosy, tearful ending.

"Kuch Kuch" struck a chord with Suvendu, a chef in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The film dealt indirectly with the complex emotional issues around arranged marriages - that often never get dealt with. Polls show Indians young and old still overwhelmingly desire the security of having parents find their partners for life.

Yet these marriages still leave many former romances in the lurch and unresolved. A love story like "Kuch Kuch" often raises expectations that aren't met at home - but does so in a way that leaves everyone imagining happy circumstances. "A lot of us marry to satisfy our families, and we say goodbye to our girlfriends," says Suvendu. "It isn't easy."

Hollywood influences

The Hollywood juggernaut has permanently altered Bollywood landscape, says Mr. Ahmed. Action thrillers are on the wane, for example. B-grade plots, corny dialogue, homespun production values, and overacting, for example, (gangsters are still referred to as "boss") seem pass. In middle-class homes, the kids can watch American film on cable TV movie channels every night.

A talented new generation of under-30 Bollywood directors has arrived - but they have stuck with the commercially safer, low-budget love story. Director Karan Johar says that the tone and look of the college scenes in "Kuch Kuch" are patterned after "Beverly Hills 90210." "The art, the costumes, tilt toward the West," says Mr. Johar. "But the soul of the film is Indian."

Mr. Johar, like Ms. Chandra, admires epic Western films. The Cecil B. deMille style matches at least in time the requisite three-hour Bollywood film. "Ben Hur" and "Gone With the Wind" are big with Bollywood directors, as are family films like "Stepmom," "Jerry McGuire," and "Kramer vs. Kramer." "Titanic" was perhaps the most popular of all.

"I bought all the emotional stuff in "Titanic," I let myself be used and maneuvered, and the rest," says Johar of the "Titanic" hit of last year. "I didn't care, I cried in the aisles."

If Indian film has consolidated around an Indianized middle-class dream of happy families - it has also further moved away from earlier themes of social justice and tragedy.

Critics say the traditional Indian love story still has women confined to roles either as family-breaking vamps, or as dutiful wives. Mr. Johar says this is commercially necessary. He can't do a blockbuster that challenges the traditional male-dominated gender formula. He could not, for example, make a picture like "Kuch Kuch" where a widow looks for a new mate. "You have to satisfy so many audiences, most of which are in villages, and they won't want a film where women change roles. Females need to be seen as sacrificing themselves for the idea of family," says Johar.

Traditional roles

Yet as Bombay columnist Amrita Shah points out, many females seeking liberation themselves often admire less-than-liberated males. She visited a women's college shortly after the release of a film called "Darr." The film had two male leads. One was a troubled man obsessed with the female lead. The other was an Indian naval officer hero famous for fighting pirate-terrorists, and who eventually stopped the psychopath from hounding the lady. But in discussion groups after viewing "Darr," the college girls were, almost to a woman, smitten with the first male lead. "That," confided one, "was true love," Ms. Shah recounts.

One reason for monocinematic love stories, say experts, is that for the majority of Indians, especially in villages, relations between boys and girls are still tightly controlled. Holding hands and even extracurricular talking is often verboten, though this is changing in cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, and New Delhi.

"The kids in the villages can't freely express love. But the boys and girls on the screen can," says Ahmed. "It offers a transparency of relationships that has an allure."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.