I am currently suffering through my first debilitating New York allergy season. So while I’ve been laid up in bed I’ve been making full use of Netflix’s amazing Bollywood library. And because all great epiphanies come when you’re weak and your guard’s been lowered, I realized something: cheesy Bollywood movies from the 90s shaped my expectations of love pretty forcefully.
There is this golden span of years — 1995–2005 — during which every pivotal Hindi film came out. The Karan Johar holy trinity of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham were all released during these years, as was the beginning of the the flow of hormones that would carry me over the threshold into teen-dom. Other honorable mentions include Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Dil Hai Tumhaara, and Kal Ho Naa Ho.
Hindi cinema to me is overly-dramatic, highly stylized, saccharine and absurd. Everything is tied up at the end in a pretty bow and a wedding lengha. There was a while when I hated watching these movies because they didn’t fit into the perfect, pensive world that Western films told me I inhabited. Breaking into song was one thing but the over-acting and flimsy story-lines were the real culprits that made Bollywood movies taste grainy and over-sugared.
Eventually I eased into them, just as I eased into the rest of the homogenous Desi culture spoon-fed to me on Saturday mornings along with Bharatnatyam classes and homemade dhokla. Hindi films were three hours of spell-binding romance that always promised a lavish wedding at the end — to the over-stimulated, hormone-hyped 14 year-old brain, what else could be better?
There is one scene that gets repeated over and over (or maybe it just happened once but it could have lived in every other film) in these movies: the girl whooshes past the boy at a wedding or party and her jewelry gets caught on his sherwani. This innocuous action turns into the beginning of a romance as they lock eyes. But she always glances away, giggling as she runs off to meet her friends. He is left, winded and stuck firmly in the tar pit of his destiny. And so was I.
Love looked so easy in that moment — add two potential people, give them a second and they’ll find each other, drawn by gravity and loose jewelry clasps. Like atoms in a box, they’ll crash into each other eventually, and the rest of time will fall into place around them. This is where these films caught me, first when I was a child and later when all I wanted was to be in love.
As I opened up to the magic of Hindi films, I could feel them rooting in my life — weddings I attended included choreographed dances to the latest tracks, Saturday mornings were full of television broadcasts that included movie reviews and music videos, drives to the Indian grocery store meant listening to Lata Mangeshkar sing about love in her little girl’s voice. Bollywood was as crucial to my determination as an Indian-American as it was to my knowledge of love. As such certain Hindi movies, whether they were critically acclaimed or not, became landmarks of my childhood and directed the flow of traffic for my memories.
So while I was happily lapping up the manufactured romances Bollywood exported, I didn’t realize how much I was imbibing in terms of romantic expectation. Every item girl, the sexy center and selling-point of the film, had a tight and tiny belly. She wore bells on her feet and a top that left her whole torso exposed. She was fair, flighty and perfect. She was coded as a slut but if you put the film’s heroine in the same outfit, you wouldn’t be able to tell the two apart. Both were light-skinned, skinny and pretty. Two sides of the same unattainable coin. To be loved was to be beautiful but you had to be beautiful first to be loved.
And by extension, the people that ended up happy at the end of the movie were always fair. Always. There was never an exception to this. Beautiful dark men like Prabhu Deva showed up for a song then left. Dark women didn’t exist.
But feminism and colorism aside (as if you could ever put them aside), what really shaped my understanding of romance was the near lack of it in these movies. Affection was there. Poetry was there. Over-the-top love triangles were also present, but for a long time Hindi cinema never showed anything riskier than a tight embrace. Couples didn’t even kiss. They would travel from love at first sight all the way up the aisle at their wedding, but they never kissed. They could be singing together in the rain, his black mesh shirt clinging to his hairless chest, her read sari curling seductively around her body, but the most they would do is touch and flinch away in shyness.
Affection in Desi households was only as warm as the food on the table. From what I gather, my family was not unique in the way my parents abstained from showing physical affection to each other. Their’s was a love built on responsibility, companionship and dedication, not whirlwind romances. And while I could swoop in for hugs and kisses whenever I wanted, affection was distributed primarily through dinner portions, micro-managing and yelling matches that shook the whole house.
Combine this upbringing with the fact that while white people were going at it on the big screen literally all the time, the brown people I saw in movies resigned themselves to heavy sighs and stolen glances. I didn’t think love and romance were something that existed for me for a long time. It wasn’t done and it wasn’t shown.
I wouldn’t say that I’m repressed romantically or sexually, though would I even know if I was? What I will say is that romance has never been the end goal for me in my relationships. I’ve had flings and partners that lasted only weeks, or even hours, but all they are is fun. They were overwhelmingly meaningless. Relationships to me, the ones I want to last for years, have never been about kissing or holding hands or exchanging gifts, they’ve always centered around companionship. I want the true love, kismet connection Bollywood affair but I also want the deep, long-lasting ending with a big wedding and united families and a future that extends beyond the finale of the film.
Oh, and I want the blockbuster musical numbers with backup dancers and light effects too. Obvs.