Love and Labour

October’s experiments with the Bollywood romance genre

01 May 2018

In a scene mid-way through the movie October, the lead character, Dan, played by Varun Dhawan, is chided by his friends for wasting his time looking after a dying girl he barely knows.

What’s the point, they argue.

“Do you guys only do something if there’s a point?” he asks.

The point, historically, of the love-story plot in Hindi cinema has been about the hero initiating romance, often in regressive ways, with a goal towards establishing a heterosexual upper-caste couple that either lives happily ever after or sometimes dies together when unable to do so. Bollywood movies abound with declarations of love, but the emotional labour and financial stresses that may burden a couple are usually invisible. In October, a film about a hotel-management student who falls in love with a woman in a coma, some of this is made visible. It is the long, laborious act of undertaking care that brings about romantic love, one that remains unrequited but the development of which is an end unto itself. The female lead, named Shiuli, suffers such severe brain damage that there is little possibility of marriage or sex, the end goals of most Bollywood love stories.

October foregrounds a kind of masculinity, glimpsed occasionally in the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, that has not been prominent in mainstream Hindi cinema. There are only a handful of contemporary films where the male protagonist looks after an ailing romantic partner, such as the elderly husbands of Waiting (2015) and OK Jaanu (2017) or the younger ones in Khwaahish (2003), Woh Lamhe (2006) and U Me Aur Hum (2008). This is always justified by a pre-existing bond. They perform care in ways that have little to do with alleviating the suffering of the afflicted and more to do with affirming their own masculinity—measurable in terms of money that the affluent male character can provide for medical care or the aggression they can direct at the hospital staff. This sort of male romantic lead, so firmly rooted in the sexist and melodramatic genre of Bombay film, is becoming increasingly incongruous.

kamayani sharma is a writer and research associate with Sarai (CSDS), New Delhi. She contributes regularly to Artforum, ART India,, and tweets at @SharmaKamayani.

Keywords: Hindi cinema Bollywood romance feminism masculinity gender stereotypes