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9 films that reflect a changing society and different facets of love – Valentine's Day special

This Valentine's Day, we look back at the changing approach of Indian society, reflected in Hindi cinema, towards love. 

Shriram Iyengar

Society might improve, or degrade, but humanity's driving emotions have remained unchanged for millennia. Of these, love remains a powerful force for good, or for evil, depending upon the circumstances.

With changing times, Indian society's perception of love, its consequences and portrayals have also changed, and this is reflected in Hindi cinema, which is seeing the slow evolution and exploration of different aspects of love.

These romances do not always end well. Nor do they progress in a conventional manner. Sometimes they result in brutal tragedy, as in Masaan (2015), or sadness, as in Aligarh (2016), or the joy of self-awakening, as in Piku (2015). Each of these films was a product of its time, showing the direction in which Indian society has been moving through their conflicts, their ideas of romance, their radical approaches. The outcome might not always be pleasant, but such is love. It doesn't always go the way you thought it would.

Here, then, are nine films that set the tone for changing perspectives of romance in 21st century India.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

Even as a conventional coming-of-age tale, Farhan Akhtar's iconic film held within it the seed of a more evolved perception of romance. Though the film revolves around Akash (Aamir Khan), it is in Akshaye Khanna's poised Siddharth that you find the ideal of love. Unlike his friends' hormonal approach to the emotion, Siddharth is driven by his ideals. He falls for a woman who understands his art and, therefore, him. That she is older is of no consequence. At the turn of the millennium, when the older woman-younger man combination was fodder for lechery or comedy, this was a lovely touch, a new perspective. 

One of the more poignant moments in the film is when Siddharth sits beside the poor young woman who has a crush on Akash and explains that you cannot love someone by holding on tight. It is there that the heart of a romantic artist emerges. In a film that is practically a growing-up tale, it is a grown-up moment of romance.

Wake Up Sid (2009)

People often reduce romance to the chemistry or attraction between people. It can be a far more transformative experience. In Ayan Mukerji's Wake Up Sid, the romance is an underlying part of a coming-of-age story. Love, in the film, is not simply an attraction. It stems from a mutual passion for work, struggling through the daily chores, and growing together. Aisha's pride and self-respect demand that Sid (Ranbir Kapoor) change from irresponsible man-child to adult. Aisha (Konkona Sensharma) is a departure from heroines of the past who would put up with irresponsible heroes and weep for them.

The year 2009 was a remarkable time for India. With the first decade of the 21st century drawing to a close, larger numbers of young Indians were living away from home, some in live-in relationships, spending a major part of their lives at work. Among their ideas of romance could be a quiet day spent on the terrace, like Aisha's idea. But the romance is not limited to the significant other. It encompasses their way of life, their friends, their work and, above all, the city in which they live. For a generation that is mostly away from home, caught in a hectic lifestyle, this is more relatable than a hero who spends hours chasing a woman.

LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010)

The inclusion of Dibakar Banerjee's film in this list might be as shocking to some as the film itself was. Radical, stylish, shocking, incisive, LSD was something Hindi cinema audiences had never seen. With three interwoven tales delving into the themes of honour killing, MMS scandals, and sting operations, LSD was pioneering in style and technique. Banerjee used handheld cameras, CCTVs and spycams to create the atmosphere that makes the film and its experience so raw. Beneath it all was the exploration of love — as a dangerous thing. It becomes a cause of death when it encounters caste in society, a tool of exploitation in the hands of an unscrupulous person.

Banerjee's film was born in a new India that was entering the digital age. The themes and stories explored in it proved to be precursors to the violent and horrific forms of abuse that are prevalent on social media today. In its own way, LSD showcased that darker side of love, or everything done in the name of love. This is not a Valentine's Day celebration by any means. This is the dystopian shadow that lurks beneath all those cinematic celebrations of beauty, societal integration and courageous romance. For every one of them, a hundred probably go the LSD way. It is about love as seen by a patriarchal, exploitative, abusive society.

English Vinglish (2012)

Gauri Shinde's directorial debut was a refreshing, optimistic take on self-love — perhaps the most underrated form of the emotion, understanding and loving oneself — and came at a time when social media platforms were beginning to peak. English Vinglish brought forth this sense of insecurity through the character of Shashi, a timid housewife whose identity is tied to her family. Her discovery of self-worth, understanding of love and building of companionship are as cathartic as it gets. She does not need her husband's acknowledgment or any form of love. She grows to be confident and secure in her self. The film is also fiercely feminist in representing the many women who are ignored in plain sight, simply because their efforts do not contribute to the GDP. To the untiring mothers labouring unacknowledged across India, this was a quiet tribute. 

While the movie has a conservative ending with Shashi returning to her family, it remains a step forward for a film industry that used to look at women only as accompaniments to the leading men or as non-conforming rebels.

Masaan (2015)

In a society as divided and conflicted as India, love is not always a life-affirming experience. Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan offered an incisive look at this society, warts and all. From the patriarchal oppression by the police of Devi (Richa Chadha) to the looming shadow of caste over Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), Ghaywan explored the many dimensions of society through which the experience of love passes. It is never simple or straightforward. At no point is the audience allowed to feel sorry for one character more than another. Devi is as much a victim of society as is her father, Vidyadhar. The same goes for Deepak and Shaalu, struggling to find moments of quiet in a chaotic world.

Masaan's relatability, and the critical acclaim it received, stem from the rootedness of its story, which is part of the experience of Indians in the country's myriad small towns, far removed from the big cities with their Westernized lifestyles, broad roads, intermingling cultures. It was a reminder that not all of India can afford the romance of a Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). For the Devis and Shaalus of these towns, love comes with its share of risks and requires a great deal of courage and support.

Piku (2015)

Shoojit Sircar's sensitive film is a tribute to single women struggling throughout the world. While the film might appear to be about her domineering father (Amitabh Bachchan), it is as much about the love — or lack of it — in Piku's life. Her struggle to be understood, for someone to simply accept her troubles as their own, remains constant. Sircar's exploration of romance as a part of life's journey rather than as the central obsession of an individual feels uplifting in its own way. The romance of Piku lies in the slowly blossoming friendship between Rana (Irrfan Khan) and Piku (Deepika Padukone). That sense of comfort in friendship and camaraderie is far more important, and probably common, in the world today than romantic love. With people living more strenuous lives, with little time for themselves, Piku's struggles, comforts and joys feel relatable.

In the end, life is about finding your place in the world, whether society accepts it, criticizes it or admires it. Of course, it helps if there is a friend to share a joke with once in a while. That, after all, is the truest form of love.

Aligarh (2016) 

Hansal Mehta's film, like many of his other works, is a delicately etched character sketch that brings out the life and personality of a man who went through mental oppression and vilification because of his sexuality. Manoj Bajpayee's sensitive, broken professor Siras is a romantic at heart. His love for Lata Mangeshkar songs, a single glass of whisky, and flowing poetry are born out of a need to be understood. In a society that looks down upon people who are different and vilifies them, even hunts them down, his search for this understanding is moving and heartbreaking. Hence, when Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) shows the empathy and kindness to simply listen to Siras, the professor bares his soul. These moments of dialogue between two fantastic artistes define the film. The tragic end only makes the idealized romance of Siras's ideas more durable.

Aligarh remains a momentous film in its exploration of the interference of society in individual freedoms and in love. In a country where state governments now seem to think it is their bounden duty to legislate against inter-caste and inter-religious marriage, the film raised a fundamental question about society's right to prevent an individual from loving whomsoever he chose to. The question, sadly, remains more relevant than ever.

Badhaai Ho (2018) 

While there has been the odd portrayal of inter-generational love in Hindi cinema, Badhaai Ho broke barriers in the portrayal of love in a couple past its best years. Amit Sharma's film explores the unexpected pregnancy of a middle-aged couple (Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta) and its consequences on their family. The humour and stellar performances apart, the film reflected the reality of love in a hyper-conscious middle-class family. The presence of nosy neighbors, the lack of privacy and the societal pressures often prey on any ideas of romance a couple might have. While youngsters still have the option of heading out on a trip, the ageism prevalent in Indian society stops older couples from taking that route. Hindi cinema, in turn, has often portrayed love between older people as sanitized, pure, almost devotional.

Badhaai Ho portrayed this scenario with the right dose of humour. The banter, the little quarrels between the husband and wife, add to the beauty of their romance. While it started as an Ayushmann Khurrana-led film, it is Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta who emerge as the 'it' couple. The film questions why romance should be the domain of the young. If love is indeed blind, why does it look at age?

Sir (2020) 

Class has been a constant hurdle to romance in Hindi cinema, whether in the Raj Kapoor era or in the 1990s, so much so that the rich boy-poor girl, rich girl-poor boy combinations became tiresome clichés. In Rohena Gera's Sir, class comes to the fore after the romance as a real, unchanging hurdle. Ratna (Tillotama Shome) and Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) do not fall in love with each other for their looks. Yet, the film is not so naive as to suggest that love can overcome all differences.

Gera's film captures the struggles, fears and occasional hypocrisy that are part of our class culture. Consciously or otherwise, these divides show themselves through our actions. For all his open-mindedness, Ashwin assumes he is the only one who will face vilification for loving Ratna. "I have a problem as well," she informs him. It is an eye-opener that no matter how much they try, differences will remain in their relationship.

Yet, there is love shown through respect, encouragement and kindness. These are the little moments of comradeship that bridge class, gender and societal divides. Divides that have long existed, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.