Forbidden Love: Arranged Marriages and the Influence of Bollywood in Nepal

by Rylan

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.

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20 Responses to Forbidden Love: Arranged Marriages and the Influence of Bollywood in Nepal

  1. Andrew Sullivan says:

    Nice analysis on the effects of Bollywood on romance. To really show off how this relationship works it might be good to compare and contrast the influences that Hollywood has over American romances.

  2. Anna Wood says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Andrew, above. It would be interesting to analyze how movies influence the practice of romance in Hollywood as well as Bollywood. Specifically, I was thinking about how Hollywood productions shape what people look for in the “ideal” relationship. This can refer to a man who is strong and handsome, a woman that is funny and beautiful, and a partnership that is light and easy, when in reality, American relationships are shaped by very different values.

  3. Olivia Smith says:

    It is interesting to look at love in other film industries besides Hollywood, given that relationships can be very different in eastern cultures compared to western cultures. I believe film can majorly influence people, thus it is intriguing to see the affects film does play on people’s ideas of family, relationships, and friendships

  4. Chelsea McGuire says:

    I really like this post, it made me curious about what kinds of stories tug on different cultural heart strings. Obviously there are certain themes that are prevalent in different cultures and it would be amazing to study what kinds of themes are notably prevalent in all sorts of cultures, the way you looked at Ballywood. In my own experience, I was in Asia this summer and I found Hindu stories in incredibly complicated, with tons of characters, and every local I met in this particular area was familiar with all of the same stories, and some villages were even ruled my different deities. I guess what all I’m getting at is that stories are extremely revealing about a culture and this was a great topic.

  5. Nice blog post. I think it is interesting how you talked about the juxtaposition between romantic love and traditional arranged marriages. I do agree with your sentiments that this would be a confusing issue for people living in Nepal (and India) and result in a paradox of values. Like Bollywood, Hollywood has the ability to influence the culture around it. How often are girls in the United States comparing their love affairs to some popular Nicholas Sparks book turned movie? Movies can skew perception. Nice use of post structuralism and practice theory to explain how these movies impact this culture and way. I think it will be interesting to see how prevalent arranged marriages will be in the future, as movie culture continues to impact the way young people view love and marriage.

  6. Kirsten Jaqua says:

    The way you wove the two theories together was great–both practice theory and post-structuralism showing the conflict between established power structures and people’s actual actions in every day life. I thought it was very interesting that you showed how they aren’t merely sticking it to the system with these ‘forbidden love’ stories but also maintaining a modicum of respect and reserve because they want to honor family wishes. A great topic and well written essay!

  7. Nayantara Nelson says:

    Your article beautifully described the difficult choices young people are faced with in, I would say both, Nepal and Indian. Your article hits home for me, my mother left India to break from an arranged marriage to go to school in America, where she met my simple, American raised dad. Looking at this issue through practice theory as you have described makes the concept so much more clear for me. Being raised on Bollywood films in a still pretty traditional Indian household I grew up romanticizing these “forbidden love concepts,” whereas my mom, who was one in the few to break from tradition and marry for love, saw these films as corny and unrealistic. Practice theory sort of uncovered the truths in this issue, where these films show two people falling in love, dealing with the obstacles of tradition, and still living happily ever after, the reality in quite different. Once my mom decided to marry, her family completely cut off contact and relationships were only mended years later and even 8 years after the divorce, she still keeps it from them. Bollywood films fail to portray the reality of marrying for love, and that is probably why the reality remains, that most will do as their parents say, and not resists the family hierarchical notions of love.

  8. Michaela Cavanagh says:

    While reading this the movie, Bend It Like Beckham came to my mind, where it was a twist of what you could call a classic Bollywood movie but made by Hollywood film directors. This change of heart parents feel in Bollywood movies simply do not compare to true emotions parents and lovers face. I think it would be refreshing to see a Bollywood movie that showed what truly occurs when you go against your culture and your families traditions.

  9. Maddie Ohaus says:

    I really enjoyed reading this essay and point of view on this subject. I think what is happening is the younger generations are exposed to bollywood, and even hollywood movies and get this idea of love that is not the generically accepted one in their culture. And teenagers, who are usually the ones taking part in arranged marriages, always want what the can not have so seeing this romantic idea of love instead of a practical one makes them crave just that. I think as the younger generations grow up and they are the ones making decisions for their children that the idea of arranged marriages will become less prevalent.

  10. Mackenzie Carson says:

    I liked hearing this perspective on this topic because I’ve seen many of the movies you talk about in which the arranged marriage doesn’t work out and they characters are able to find “true love” instead, but I’ve never seen a movie about a arranged marriage they go through with. I think this just shows how people in general like to romanticize people and relationships.

  11. Ben Sardinsky says:

    This essay reminds me of the dynamics in Veiled Sentiments between normal spheres of discourse and poetry. In just the same way, it seems that the movies produced by Bollywood are a place where discourses against the accepted system are not just tolerated but celebrated. And in the same way, people still feel genuine obligation towards honor in their values whilst also gauging the same systems cracks.

  12. Charlie Travis says:

    I liked how this essay explored and compared local traditional hierarchies and global hierarchies thematically in Bollywood films however I’m not completely convinced that struggle of falling in love stems directly from global conceptions of love; I think its universally a human phenomena that all societies try to moderate through social rules. I do think global hierarchies directly affect how Bollywood chooses to construct their plot lines but I also think falling in love is something that humans everywhere experience in contradiction to societal rules even without interacting with global conceptions or global hierarchies. However global hierarchies definitely influence and alter the perception of traditional marriage customs.

  13. Sydney Britsch says:

    There does seem to be a shift from arranged marriages to love marriages in that part of the world, especially in India. I wonder if western culture has impacted this shift. Since I am so grounded in our cultural norms it is hard for me to picture being in an arranged marriage, especially if I wanted to be with someone else, and staying in that relationship to please my family. It says a lot about their way of life to know that family is at the top of the hierarchy. I think family is a top priority in the United States for many people, but not quite to the same degree. I feel that the majority of Americans would want their parents and family as a whole to approve of their future spouse. However, I do not think that a lack of acceptance would prevent many marriages.

  14. Chris Manning says:

    reading this gave me a laugh because i though back to the Bollywood few films i have seen and every single one had the exact plot between a forbidden love and the disproval from family figures. though in retrospect it is interesting to hear about both sides and learn a little about how these sorts of things are actually portrayed within the countries themselves. Obviously the family feud for chosen love is quite common within the united states, but fathoming the concept of arranged marriage is a foreign concept to me and throws a different spin to how it may play out elsewhere.

  15. Jacqueline Joyal says:

    I like your analysis of Bollywood films. I have never seen a Bollywood movie, but I understand the common theme. I especially like the practice theory explanation. Hollywood films try to stay true to what is real and often fall short, but it seems Bollywood just throws out reality and does their own thing. It is interesting to hear a different culture’s perspective of their entertainment.

  16. Mariah Stoneman says:

    Is it truly a resistance against current practices of love? I think it would be better if you analyzed how the people actually interpret the movies and whether or not it is viewed as influential on their personal take on romance. Having seen Bollywood movies myself, they are sometimes hard to take seriously.

  17. Laura Graham says:

    My best friend is Pakistani American and I grew up watching Bollywood films with her. When we were little we just watched them for the dancing and the singing but as we got older, different things started to pop out at us, dating in particular. Her parents would never force her into an arranged marriage, but they would prefer if she married a good Pakistani boy that her family knew. At weddings and family events all the aunties and grandmas and moms get together and discuss who they know who is of courting age and would you be interested in having your son/ daughter meet them. Her mom will occasionally send her an email about a single young Pakistani doctor who is looking for a wife, just to see if she’s interested. Her mom even offered to find me a Pakistani husband once. Her parents of course love her more than anything, and ultimately it is up to her who she marries. It’s interesting to watch as both a caucasian american and also her friend.

  18. Frank Minor says:

    I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a correlation between how post-structuralism applies to your post and the post regarding EDM. Bollywood is in a way rebelling against the older generations, just as counterculture does here in the US, but it comes in a much different form. Instead of drug use being the form in which they rebel, they just bring up the discourse through the media, and that is able to reach many people by that means.

  19. Josie Anderson says:

    I agree with your point that globalization is a huge external force that is influencing many traditional aspects of people’s lives to change. Although, I also believe that even without globalization people still have the desire to marry who they want and not the person their parents arrange them to be with. I think it’d be good to include feminism in this because the inequality of women is highly prevalent in situations like arranged marriages. Feminist theory could help further this.

  20. Priya Byati says:

    I really found your essay to be interesting, because, as an Indian myself, have watched many Bollywood movies (and Hrithik Roshan is my favorite, by the way :). My siblings and I would often say that the basic plot of this movies could be boiled down to “they fall in love, and something gets in the way”, but your analysis of how the parents’ approval plays a crucial part in the role was something that I had never thought of before. I wonder how a functionalist theory would perhaps describe the role of Bollywood movies in the peoples ideals about marriage. Perhaps merely as meaningless entertainment or useful in the way that some people prefer sci-fi or fantasy movies to hope for something more?

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