Romance in Indian cinema

In the U.S., popular romance dominates the publishing industry. But is the written word ‘naturally’ the format best suited to telling romance stories? Not necessarily. Scholar Jayashree Kamble speaks about popular romance’s dominant role in Indian cinema.


Why teach popular romance?

I think Indian romance, by and large for me at least, and I think a lot of people would agree, is—it’s celluloid. It exists on the big screen. It’s larger than life. It can’t really be contained in a text [. . .]

[. . .] by and large they don’t end happily. So that’s a different sort of love tradition. It’s there, but it’s not always a happy ending for these characters, and they often go against society and they sort of pay for it in some way.

Because Indian cinematic tradition is very vast, and there are as many cinemas as there are languages, and we have at least, I think 26 official languages. So there’s a lot of it going on. And Bollywood is the term that was recently given to Hindi-language cinema that comes out of Bombay or Mumbai and is the most widely distributed, the most money-making of all the regional cinemas. So in that particular strain of cinema, romance is very dramatic. It frequently has—people recognize it by the song and dance sequences, so a lot of the sort of declaration of love, the admission of love, a lot of that happens in very public settings.

And I don’t know if that’s part of the oral tradition—I suspect it is. Because somehow, I think the written tradition is about communion with the self and it’s about the individual in a way and about realizing yourself as an individual through the romance narrative. The same way as sort of realizing the idea one-on-one with your text.

Whereas Indian—the idea of Indian romance, because it’s always about community and sort of establishment of family, I think in cinema that comes out too, you know. It’s a public display. And they’ll sort of pull in, sort of, folklore oral traditions.

So for example there’s a very famous sequence from a movie that came out, I think, in ‘91 I want to say—there is this song tradition in India called antakshari where—and it’s usually played at weddings or other social functions—you start by singing a popular song or a popular—not necessarily from a movie song, but any other—and then the singer ends on whatever letter the end. And then the challenge is for somebody else to pick up that sound and pick up something else. So this is sort of very commonly done, people do it all the time, but there was this movie that took the concept, and they essentially took songs from all the other Indian movies sort of that had gone before and the hero and heroine are essentially declaring their love through the sequence of songs—very inter-textual, right, very sort of postmodern, in a way.

They’re pulling out of all these other movie narratives, and, you know, the minute they mention a song, the audience immediately goes back to that movie and that movie and that movie, so you sort of are able to mobilize all these other lovers in a way, in your defense, so it’s very communal. At the same time, it’s private because you’re doing it through these other songs, so your, you know, disapproving father may not know that you’re actually declaring your love. So the oral tradition sort of enters into Hindi cinema and Hindi romance in sort of these interesting ways.

It was called Maine Pyar Kiya which means I Loved.

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