Released during 2016's festive season, Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) was the embodiment of a brave, new mainstream Bollywood romance. The film ticked all the boxes for a Diwali release - ensemble of the biggest movies stars, foot-tapping 'hit music', and the director's signature NRI setting of the love story.
A warm, gooey love story or so you would have thought. The supposed blockbuster didn't turn out to be a love story as much a portrait of unrequited love. And the conclusion of the story which would ideally be of the boy and the girl living happily ever after, was tempered accordingly towards a more realistic progression of the story.
To see an unconventional ending in what people expected to be a true-blue Bollywood romance shows how things have evolved over the years. The filmmakers, the audience and the expectations from a mainstream Bollywood romance has become less manipulative, more realistic in their approach. This conclusion comes roughly four years after Johar produced a film called Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, where the boy and the girl don't fall in love, even as it tries to do a quirky spin on the formula of a stiff, quiet boy falling in love with the exuberant girl.
Bollywood has most entirely been about escapism. A demographic where a majority of the audience enter the darkness of a cinema hall to forget their daily grind, a happy ending is what most would hope for. And that was true till as recently as the early 2000s, where the boy and the girl HAD TO walk into the sunset. But the emergence of a loyal middle class population which expects more from its love stories coupled with the force of new, gritty directors meant that Bollywood romances, or even love tracks went in unconventional directions. And a lot of this has been achieved because of its strong women characters.
Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance showed two struggling actors fall in love while trying to make it in India's very own Bollywood. While Farhan Akhtar's character goes on to become a bondafide movie-star, Konkona Sen Sharma's character continues to grind it on the small screen. The relationship crumbles under the sudden shift in statuses, and while the man comes back to his woman, asking her to be his 'support system' the woman flatly refuses. She puts an end on the romance for good, calling out the man's selfish needs of being looked after. In an era when it was preached that love conquers all, Luck By Chance came up with a mature solution.
In Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox, a housewife strikes an unlikely bond with a middle-aged widower. Exploiting the one erroneous delivery out of the ten million in Mumbai's dabbawala service, the director cultivated an intimate romance through hand-written letters and food. The film sees an ignored housewife trapped in loveless marriage, find solace in the wise words of the middle-aged man on the verge of retiring as an accountant. The difference in age is not questioned for once, since the bond is rooted in something as pure as urban loneliness.
Karan Johar didn't blink twice before writing the character of an older woman, who becomes his protagonist's rebound in ADHM. It's no longer taboo in mainstream Bollywood, as it was when Shah Rukh Khan was shown getting in a romp with Deepa Sahi in Maya Memsaab. Akshaye Khanna's character falls for a much older Dimple Kapadia in Dil Chahta Hai and even though she is bumped off by the writer-director under the garb of 'alcoholism', the love track was still very progressive for 2001.
Director Imtiaz Ali has time and again experimented with different narrative techniques to tell the same love story. In a time when most directors were signalling that the GenY had become too practical for relationships, Imtiaz Ali made a whole montage showing his ambitious protagonist slowly losing steam in his dream job. Because he chooses it over his dream girl. And as much as he thought he could fill the void with his excitement for the new job, the void drags him down.
Imtiaz gives his lead character time to come to this realisation without overt manipulation. That montage is the only saving grace of an otherwise bland film. And the director gives great insight into the coming-of-age element of love stories. He explores more of it in Highway, where we see an abducted girl come to terms with her childhood horrors.
This slow but sure shift in stories about love is only confirmation that along with a new breed of filmmakers who are ready to delve into in the complexities of stories around love, there's also an audience for it. Last week's release Haraamkhor is just another example of how storytellers are ready to address issues of adultery and pedophilia under the garb of a Bollywood love triangle.
A whole demographic which is exhausted with the same old boy-meets-girl template, and are open to more resolutions than the lovers walking into the sunset. While the Romeo-Juliet template will continue to roll out in Bollywood, it is a relief to see pioneers of mainstream romances like Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali write stories about love more rooted in reality. Which instills more courage in the Shlok Sharmas of the country.