I haven’t seen Saawariya, but the hype around its release set me thinking about the grand-daddy of young love films, Bobby, which marked the debut of Ranbir Kapoor’s father, Rishi, nearly thirty-five years ago. When Raj Kapoor made Bobby in 1973, he invented a recipe, or a formula. About fifteen years later, the commercial success of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya elevated the formula to the dignity of a genre.
We know the formula in broad outline. A girl and a boy, in their late teens, fall in love. Their love is threatened by variously bigoted fathers. They tackle adversity with vulnerable heroism and either die in the end or are reconciled with their chastened parents.
The formula requires that the young lovers be fresh faces: innocent love needs a debut. Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia, Aamir Khan-Juhi Chawla, Salman Khan-Bhagyashree hadn’t starred in films before. The young hero’s father is a wealthy man who has made his money in business. The girl’s father is generally poorer: lower middle class but genteel. Where this is the case, the match is opposed by the boy’s father for reasons of family status. But there are variations. In Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Raj and Rashmi (Aamir and Juhi) both come from Thakur families and their parents are social equals. Here the problem is clan feud, not class difference.
The heroes ride motorcycles on which they rescue their heroines from danger: a runaway horse in Bobby, villainous harassment in the other two films. There is no female character in these films who works for a living. The heroine is too young to be doing a job, but there is no indication that she might want to in the future. The heroes, when they work, are employed by firms owned by their fathers.
The sexual ethos of these films is conservative. There is dalliance, some sexually-charged flirtation backed up by suggestive songs, but the lovers remain virgin till the end. Of all the films based on this formula, it is the first, Bobby, which is the most voyeuristic. This is not surprising: Raj Kapoor’s films make it clear that he never came to terms with being weaned. Right through the film, Sonia Sahni, Aruna Irani and Dimple Kapadia have their cleavages haunted by the camera. In contrast, Juhi Chawla and Bhagyashree are demure and covered up in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya. In Maine Pyar Kiya, the hero (Salman Khan) makes it clear that he wants his heroine to dress like a modest Indian girl. Bhagyashree models clothes Salman has bought for her. When it comes to a skimpy outfit that shows a lot of skin, Bhagyashree appears on camera swathed in a sheet. In an agony of embarrassment, with her back to the camera, she takes the sheet off. Salman Khan looks his fill, then, in a toe-curling passage, tenderly wraps the sheet round her again, allowing his woman to be demure.
For all the abandon of young love, the young lovers are not equally responsible for their common destiny. The boy is in charge. At every turning point in the narrative — defiance, confrontation, rebellion, flight — the initiative (like the motorcycle) belongs to the boy. In Maine Pyar Kiya, Salman Khan wins Bhagyashree by labouring with his hands for a month and earning two thousand rupees, as stipulated by her father. Bhagyashree wrings her hands for that time and looks anxious.
In Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Raj and Rashmi set up house in an abandoned temple. Their domestic idyll is a pre-pubescent fantasy of home-making. It reminded me of the times I played ‘house’ with my female cousins. We’d rig up a roof using a chatai or a sheet and crouch under it. Nothing happened for a long time. The action advanced when I went off hunting and shot some game. This gave the girls something to do: they cooked what I brought home. In the film, the temple is roofless so Raj and Rashmi build a makeshift roof. Rashmi takes charge of the kitchen (not very successfully) while Raj forages for food, in between plunging into the jungle with an axe to find kindling. It’s a tribute to the charm of Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla that for the duration of the film, we suspend disbelief.
We’re seduced on two counts. First, we identify (or are meant to) with the unqualified intensity of first love. Second, the innocence of the lovers and their vulnerability push our protective buttons. But beyond affirming their love, the young lovers do nothing to take charge of their lives. The only reason they run away is because their parents won’t let them get married in the conventional way. If the lovers don’t die in the end, the boy returns to his family (and Daddy’s business) and the girl goes with him. Each film is a letter to Daddy, who will either see the light, or repent, in the end, for not seeing it. ‘We’ll show him’ could be the motto for these films; ‘He’ll be sorry’ could be another.
In a world where rebellion against parents has no cultural sanction, children can’t respond angrily, only desperately. And in an economy where middle-class children begin working relatively late, young rebellion is crippled by dependence and has to express itself tragically, via the reckless gesture.
The pivotal confrontation in these films is between the boy and his father. The girl’s father is more understanding. Even where the girl’s dad is overbearing, as he is in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, she never takes him on, is never openly defiant in the way the hero is with his father. The mothers on both sides count for very little.
These films aren’t narratives based on event and ordinary feeling. Jealousy, wrong-doing, debt, injury, ambition have very little work to do within the young-love formula because these films are set pieces meant to illustrate the impossibility of legitimate dissent. In this, these films are very similar to the ‘action’ films of the Eighties to which they are often contrasted: the melodramas of retributive justice through individual violence made famous by Amitabh Bachchan. The premise of both sorts of films is the impossibility of justice from Daddy. In the case of Bachchan, there’s one father, not two: Daddy has been institutionalized — he’s now the system or politics or the State. And the girl, unequal in the Bobby-style of film, is reduced to a glamorous extra in Bachchan’s blockbusters.
Beneath the façade of equal time for the heroine in the young-love films, runs an extended conversation with father. And all the women in the film and all the women watching it, are eavesdroppers, overhearing a privileged all-male conversation. The heroine in this world has an instrumental role: she’s a channel for getting a message across to the boy’s father. In the mid-Seventies, when I was an undergraduate in Delhi University, the big story about tragic young love was allegedly based on a real-life story. Some years before, in a coffee house on campus, a young man first shot dead the girl he loved and then killed himself. He set the scene for the killing by playing a popular filmi song on doomed love — Mere mehboob qayamat hogi — on the juke box. His love, it turned out, was unrequited; this hadn’t been a suicide pact and she hadn’t wanted to die. But he killed her anyway because he needed to set the stage for his tragic gesture and she was a necessary prop. He used her to write one last letter to Daddy.