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NPR's new podcast 'Love Commandos' tells the story of a Bollywood kind of love

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's go to the movies - not in Hollywood, but Bollywood, in India. The Hindi language film industry is one of the biggest in the world, and it's famous for romantic comedies full of songs and dancing. But sometimes the films are more than pure entertainment. They can offer a blueprint for love. NPR's Lauren Frayer has just finished a five-year assignment in India, and her final project is a new NPR podcast called Love Commandos. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: How are you feeling about no longer being based in India?

FRAYER: I am totally missing India, and so I'm just going to take you there.

SHAPIRO: Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: To a classic Bollywood cinema where I spent one of my last days in Mumbai.

It's a Sunday at 11 a.m. It's a matinee. And it is packed. Like, I got the last seat in the theater.

So this theater has played the same movie every day for nearly 30 years - this classic Bollywood rom-com called "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge." DDLJ is the acronym. That's what most people call it. And it translates roughly as the big-hearted will take the bride. It's about star-crossed lovers from different families - one liberal, one conservative. They fall in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DILWALE DULHANIA LE JAYENGE")

FRAYER: This is like the climax of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DILWALE DULHANIA LE JAYENGE")

SHAH RUKH KHAN: (As Raj Malhotra, singing in non-English language).

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: The parents get mad. The couple considers eloping. And then - spoiler alert - it all works out. The parents give their blessing. And there's this mad dash for a train at the end and a happily ever after and some fabulous dance moves.

SHAPIRO: OK, so not a revolutionary plot. What about this movie has kept it playing every day for decades in this theater?

FRAYER: So it is set in a society in transition. It was made in the 1990s, when India's economy first opened up, when India was getting richer. The protagonists, like, travel to Europe. And India is still in transition. The movie is also about this tension between a modern society with traditional values. The movie places parental consent and choice really at the center of everything when it comes to love and marriage. So now let me take you from Bollywood into the real world - to the protagonists of our podcast.

AKANKSHA: Love is a beautiful feeling.

FRAYER: Her name is Akanksha, and I'm just using her first name for her safety. She's from a small city in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, and she's got a master's in zoology. She found the kind of love that she saw on the big screen in movies like DDLJ. But she did not get her parents' blessing. In fact, she faced violence at their hands, she says.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. And so that's where her story shifts from a rom-com to more of a thriller.

FRAYER: Exactly. More than 90% of marriages in India are arranged within a certain caste or religion. And Akanksha's love was the boy next door. His name is Surya, and he's from a different caste than her. And so they knew that their match would be unconventional, to say the least. But they had this confidence. And part of that comes from watching couples on the big screen. So Akanksha and Surya date in secret. And then, on Akanksha's 21st birthday, her parents sit her down and say, we love you so much. We've done our duty as parents that we've arranged a marriage for you to a guy on the other side of the country whom you've never met.

AKANKSHA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: And Akanksha gives them right back a shock of their own. She says, I can't marry that guy because I'm in love with the boy next door, Surya. And she wants to please her parents. Like, she's sad to disappoint them. And it was true of so many couples that I interviewed for this podcast. They're really reluctant rebels. They're caught between this duty to family and a desire to just, you know, follow their hearts.

SHAPIRO: This does sound like it could be a screenplay. What happens next in Surya and Akanksha's story?

FRAYER: So Akanksha's parents say, tough luck. You're marrying this other guy. And they forbid her from seeing Surya. They confiscate her phone. And the couple, Surya and Akanksha, run away together and elope. And they go on this romantic train ride all over northern India, which is totally a plot line from DDLJ. They get married in secret. And they hope that, just like in Bollywood, their parents will come around, and they'll accept their union. But that is not what happens. Their parents actually separate them. And as they're being wrenched apart, they make this, like, cinematic promise.

SURYA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Surya makes Akanksha promise that, whatever happens, she will wait for him. And she says, yes, she will wait. And what happens next isn't something that they really know from Bollywood. They've actually seen it more on the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Shot dead in broad daylight while everyone watched.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A young man was allegedly killed by the brothers of his wife in Bulandshahr...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: His crime? He dared to fall in love...

FRAYER: You know, honor killings are rare, but they do happen in India. They're sort of the most extreme consequence of defying your parents' wishes. But threats are real, and they come sometimes from the community. In Akanksha's case, she says her parents locked her up, and she says they beat her for days.

AKANKSHA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: She told me how she remembers the ring on her father's finger as the blows struck her cheekbones. And I corroborated this account with other people who saw Akanksha's bruises afterwards and with police documents, but I did not contact her parents out of concern for her continued safety because they're still estranged.

SHAPIRO: But that makes it sound like she is in safety now. I mean, did this story have a happy ending?

FRAYER: Yes, but there are still a few plot twists. Akanksha's family tells her she's got to file rape and kidnapping charges against Surya. It's the only way to reverse the marriage and preserve the family honor. And after being held, she says, for eight days...

AKANKSHA: Horrible. (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ...She tells me how she relents and says, take me to the police station. I give up. I will file charges against my beloved.

SHAPIRO: Did she give up on love?

FRAYER: No, not yet. But she files into a police interrogation room flanked by her parents. An officer turns on a tape recorder and says, do you know a man named Surya? What did he do to you? And Akanksha says...

AKANKSHA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ..."He's my husband, and I want to be with him."

She sticks to the Bollywood script.

SHAPIRO: And in the Bollywood film, this is where the choreography and the music come in.

FRAYER: Totally. And it's also when Surya walks in. He has tracked her down to this police station...

SHAPIRO: What?

FRAYER: ...And he's come to rescue her.

SHAPIRO: No way.

FRAYER: And he hadn't abandoned her, and she had waited for him.

So what did you think when you saw her at the police station?

SURYA: I can't express that feeling.

FRAYER: He says seeing her was like putting a fish back in water.

SHAPIRO: And is that the happily-ever-after Bollywood ending?

FRAYER: Not yet.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

FRAYER: Not exactly.

SHAPIRO: Of course not yet.

FRAYER: Surya and Akanksha happily are married. But unlike in Bollywood, they have not gotten the approval of both families. And what happens next, from honeymoon onward, is the topic of our podcast, called the Love Commandos.

SHAPIRO: Well, listeners can, of course, go listen to what unfolded. But I want to ask you, Lauren, what you learned about love from reporting on all these couples.

FRAYER: I think I learned that Bollywood may be idealized and totally over the top, but it can also be a real lifeline. Like, the respect and, frankly, awe I have for these couples that I met, whose love has endured through literally the most destabilizing things you can possibly imagine - like being ostracized, facing violence from families - like, how many young crushes could survive that? And for these couples, their love has.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer, who reported the podcast Love Commandos. It's on NPR's Rough Translation and Embedded feeds. All five episodes are available now. Thanks, Lauren.

FRAYER: Thanks for having me, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.