Negotiating romantic love in India: Family, Public Space and Popular Cinema

Meghna Bohidar (University of Delhi)

Session 10.1: South / South-East Asian Romance Communities

This paper highlights some particularities of the romance culture produced in India by popular Hindi cinema from the 1990s to the contemporary. The 1990s saw distinctive shift from previous eras of cinema by focusing on escapist, family-oriented romance, aided by the rise of the right-wing political campaign and their juxtaposition of “Indian values/culture” with the increasing globalization and assimilation of Western ideals of romance. More significantly, the issues faced by the male protagonist no longer revolved around injustice, violence, and unemployment as in “realist” cinema of earlier periods; rather, the search for romantic love became essential.
In this paper, [Bohidar discusses] how urban subjectivities, dreams, and desires regarding romantic love are reflected in and produce by the thematic repetition of lovers’ rebellion against parental authority. This feature owes its uniqueness to the family playing a crucial role regarding choices of love/marriage in India, unlike the West where the romantic couple is the central unit of the society. Specifically, this rebellion was articulated through the deployment of song and dance sequences in urban public spaces (e.g., buses, marketplaces, parks, promenades), often dream sequences situated in either foreign lands capes or Indian cities. Ironically, through these sequences, lovers are able to undermine the parental authority and find privacy in public spaces where they are able to express love openly. Besides being produced as romantic locations, such public spaces are accessed by couples in the real-world to express love without parental interference. However, their existence in these spaces is fraught with regular violence from conservative groups.
By analysing these themes central to popular Hindi cinema, [Bohidar demonstrates] how this
representation of the romantic ideal facilitates a reading of “true love” in the Indian context as not simply requiring the ability to negotiate private and public spaces, but also courage, subversion, and transformation to navigate romantic aspirations strategically

From open ended interviews

  • Couples indicated that Hindi cinema of 1990s was idealised high point


  • Late 80s & early 90s
  • Liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation
  • Economy opened up
  • Threat of romance for women (rather than arranged marriage)
  • Movies available to diaspora
  • Westness vs Indian-ness

Rise of Shahrukh Khan as a global star

  • Balancing modernity and tradition
  • Family values

Many of the couples knew there was no future together, so maximising time together

  • Navigating secret relationship in anonymous secret spaces
  • Urban culture of consumption

Unreal spaces and collective fantasies in film

  • Cinema of interruptions: Lalitha Gopalan
  • Melodrama and song/dance sequences (previously only the ‘vamp’ character had danced indoors, good girls did not)
  • Cinematic landscapes in the 1990s
  • Active psychic positions
  • Seamless foreign landscapes
  • Landscapes of consumption: Ann Friedberg
  • Interior spaces and sanitised streets; Ranjini Mazumdar
  • Public display of affection as fantasy

Gaps in reel and real landscapes

  • Right wing wrath on westernisation (anti modern)
  • Evoking the importance of family (Mother / Father’s Day set up to be on the same as Valentine’s Day)
  • Moral policing
  • Self-policing: performing anonymity


Fractured modernity 

Upper middle class couples

  • Find movies unrealistic
  • Don’t like public spaces
  • Aware of cultural capital
  • Find displays of affection ‘tacky’

Lower middle class couples

  • Aware of their lack of buying power
  • Find cinema a fantasy
  • Navigate romance in public spaces
  • Emphasis the romance of natural spaces – close to nature

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