My friend and I are laughing about Hrithik Roshan’s most recent film, “Bollywood,” she declares, “the stories always portrays forbidden love. It talks about loving who you choose, but actually people in Nepal are still pretty traditional.” Before this moment it hadn’t occurred to me that my friend’s experience with love might be different than my own. Her family is from Nepal; she lives in the intertwined space of her family’s ideals and her own romantic hopes. She knows, all too well, how Bollywood can portray idealistic versions of romantic love that resist traditions of arranged marriage.
India’s film industry is one of the largest film industries in the world. Many of its films portray a clash between love marriages and arranged marriages. They have a similar theme where the parents, particularly the father, are unwilling to budge on their views of marriage. Their views are seen as rooted in tradition. These contradictions in ideas of romantic love often villanize the parents, as they become a pivotal obstacle in the plot. Eventually, the solution is found when the parents have a change of heart, accept the once unacceptable spouse into the family, and the family is reunited. Messages of the importance of family and a movement away from “traditional” viewpoints are salient in these plotlines. In Nepal, Bollywood films are very prominent and some of the most popular forms of entertainment.
In her ethnography, Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal,Laura Ahearn looks at love letters written in Junigau. Ahearn argues that literacy can give agency to women who are in an undesirable engagement that has been arranged by their family. Though this agency often fails to break off the engagement, it is used to express resistance to established structures of love while ultimately agreeing to comply with those same structures. In their discourse on love, Bollywood films show a similar resistance to arranged marriage that the love letters showed in Junigau. From a poststructuralist standpoint, Bollywood’s portrayal of romantic love is a resistance to ideas of arranged marriage. Simultaneously, Bollywood films thematically stress the importance of honoring the wishes of one’s family. They demonstrate two types of hierarchies people in Nepal contend with. Bollywood’s ethnocentric condemnation of traditional marriage practices is an example of external forces and global hierarchies trying to change traditional marriage practices in Nepal. Current power structures inside of Nepal stress the importance of family. Even though Bollywood characters resist traditional norms, subordination in the romantic choices of the individual is inevitable. These power structures are not easily maneuvered. They show hegemony within traditional practices of love under hierarchies that allocate more power to the family and while simultaneously feeding into global hierarchies in the ideologies of love.
For many, the importance of family desires overrides messages of romantic love portrayed by Bollywood. A practice theorist would look at Bollywood’s discourse on love as a contradiction to the way life is really lived. Though arranged marriages are far less common in Nepal than they once were, the actual practices of finding a spouse show that the family’s desires are an important factor in marriage. Acceptance of the family, like many Bollywood movies suggest, is the ultimate form of success. While Bollywood films often stress the autonomous choices of the main character, real life practices show the dilemmas someone faces when theirs and their family’s desires contradict one another.
While many people’s practices contradict Bollywood’s critique of arranged marriages, the continued presence of the Bollywood film industry in Nepal could be an important indicator of resistance against current practices of love.