For all their preoccupation with romance, mainstream Hindi movies are only now beginning to fill in the details. The way you think you want people and then you don't, you want someone else. The way you fall helplessly out of love too. They have begun to acknowledge long-distance relationships, exes, different ambitions. The films might be forgettable, but they're introducing new elements, trying to infuse something real into a conservative genre.
Pick any random movie, and you see the small subversions. Imtiaz Ali's romantic comedies decisively let go of the Johar-Yashraj magical thinking to explore the flux and confusion of relating to each another. Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal all have moments when you're thrown. No, Kareena Kapoor doesn't throw herself into Shahid Kapoor's waiting arms when he finds her, jilted and broken, because she's still hung up on her awful boyfriend. Deepika Padukone even gets married to her lukewarm fiancé, as Saif watches. There's a small ping, of expectation belied. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu shows us a provisional ending, where Imran is still trying to talk Kareena into a relationship.
But Shuddh Desi Romance is different from all of these movies toying with the conventions. It simply upends them. It's about being young, daring, determined to make a new thing out of your life. About romance as joyful and sexy and silly, a utopian force at odds with jhoote riwaj and jhoote samaaj. There is a pioneering spirit to it that makes you forgive the film its loose editing. Think of small towns — what is oppressive about them is the social fishbowl quality, the sense that nosy neighbours and uncles are examining your choices. This movie treats them with the disregard they deserve. Philip Larkin once wrote about his society, where sexual intercourse began in 1963. Before that, there had only been "A sort of bargaining/a wrangle for the ring/A shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything." Shuddh Desi Romance is about people on the edge of that miracle in small-town India, where expectations of shame, asymmetries of power in a relationship are being rearranged. It may be fantasy yet, but it's a compelling one.
Gayatri, played by Parineeti Chopra, makes much of living truthfully, measuring her feelings, not fooling herself or anyone else. Not for her the hypocrisies of weddings and marriages. Raghu isn't particularly introspective, but he's easy in his skin. He's curious about Gayatri's past but doesn't brood over it. His questions come out of a brief flash of insecurity, not sexist possessiveness. But for all the hormones in Shuddh Desi Romance, there's also a certain sincerity of feeling. When Gayatri bolts, it is out of vulnerability, the fear of being left, now or in the future. She knows the trauma of having her heart broken for "the third, the fourth time". Its sexual politics are also remarkable. Remember how Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the '90s-defining romance, made a heavy point of a Hindustani ladki's izzat. When sex between the unmarried lead pair actually made it to a movie like, say, Hum Tum, it was played with equal parts of shame and desire. Shuddh Desi Romance is the only movie I've seen that's libidinous and glad, where both lovers are enthusiastic participants. Though it is interested in how love, sex and marriage appear to many young people these days, it doesn't end up misunderstanding or judging them like, say, Love Aaj Kal or Cocktail, which made shallow assumptions about this hookup generation.
There are other notable points — he offers to make tea, she says she'll do it if it's only a two-day offer. They live in her house, on her terms. They share chores, and even if she seems to be doing the bulk of them, one assumes it's because she is the more take-charge person. These are un-self-conscious ways in which independent young people are working out a fairer domestic contract.
This is not to say the SDR is some sort of summit as far Hindi movie romance goes. There have always been progressive, thoughtful movies about men and women, and there have been fairytales. The nice thing is that SDR isn't aiming for radical, but for honest. Romance and marriage have different impulses, which is why most rom-coms have to stop at the wedding. There is no narrative engine in a happy marriage. The drama in SDR is precisely about the need for a wedding — and rejecting it, in the end, is an act of civil disobedience that is truly romantic.