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How Bollywood gave me unrealistic expectations of love

Originally published on SBS

I grew up in Kenya where Bollywood movies were the source of entertainment. My family were big Bollywood movie buffs. Every weekend, we sat down to watch the latest blockbuster on videocassettes and later on DVDs. I even recall going to the movies with my grandad when I was 4 years old.

With the introduction of satellite TV in our home when I was 9 years old, we were all in heaven!

Bollywood movies and TV shows were now available 24/7. I watched movies, celebrity interviews and music videos when not in school. I must have watched countless hours of women acting coy and helpless, dashing men rushing in to rescue their damsels in distress, brash and romantic dialogues and over the top gestures, colourful outfits and songs sung around trees.

Women gyrated in the rain and in fields singing about their love. Even if they were unwilling before, they eventually gave into the men and fell in love with them.

All the movies ended happily with the two lovers winning against the world and united at last.

By the time I was 14 years old, Shah Rukh Khan, the undisputed King of Bollywood had burst onto the silver screen with two epic movies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (the brave of heart will win the bride) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (something is happening). I watched these movies on repeat.

I watched Shah Rukh woo and romance his leading ladies in beautiful locations like Switzerland. The butterflies, the secret glances, the sari and hair flying in the wind (classic Bollywood move), the boy turning to catch the girl’s eye just before they parted, were all clear signs to me that this was love and that’s how it should be. I wasn’t willing to settle for anything else.

I started high school and suddenly my life started feeling like a Bollywood movie. I fell head over heels for the cute guy in my class. The butterflies came in full force and I was on an emotional rollercoaster. Typical of Bollywood movies, I couldn’t sleep, eat and spent any spare minute daydreaming. Unfortunately, the object of my affection didn’t seem to know I was alive.

I’m not proud to say that I used feminine wiles I’d seen in movies like slipping blank cards into his desk on Valentine’s Day or finding excuses to stand around in places where he liked to go. I had seen these used to great effect in movies – I was confident they would work.

Whether these moves did work, I’ll never know, but he got the message eventually and we started dating. The four years we were a couple were tumultuous and rocky. Instead of enjoying a happy, healthy relationship like other teens, many of the situations we found ourselves in didn’t resemble a movie.

I had trouble understanding how to solve these issues. I didn’t understand why he behaved in a way that wasn’t typical; he didn’t understand my range of emotions and couldn’t communicate in a manner I expected. We eventually went our own ways after graduating high school – there was no happy conclusion for us unlike in the movies.

Research published by Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh studied 40 top Hollywood films released over 10 years (1995-2005) to establish common themes. People who took part in the study filled out a questionnaire to describe their beliefs and expectations when it came to relationships.

The conclusion was that movies influenced people’s perspectives of a ‘perfect relationship’ and created unrealistic expectations of romance and love – preventing them from finding true love in real life.

Nowhere is this true more than in Bollywood where adoring public revere actors like demi-gods. These actors are also victimised by the media and the same adoring public for being mere mortals with flaws.

Couples counsellor and relationships expert, Hailee Walker said, “Movies tend to affect our expectations right from the beginning of our relationship like falling in love. They affect how we interact and stay connected to our partners, even intimacy. If our partner doesn’t meet our expectations, we can feel disappointed. Often it doesn’t click where we even got these expectations in the first place or if they are realistic.”

“It’s well known that deep passion and butterflies don’t last past the honeymoon period. Sometimes it can take years for love to develop. You need to invest in a relationship in order to feel that deep love,” said Walker.

In hindsight, there were some good parts to our relationship like our similar values and we both learnt a lot about each other and ourselves. We reconnected a few years later and talked about all the things that went wrong. We emerged as friends, but much later on, when we were mature adults.

On my part, I realised there was no such thing as soulmates - compatibility plays a large part in whether a relationship works. And this takes much longer than the three hours a movie lasts.

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