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On Romantic Comedies
Yes, they provide an escape, but they also provide a template to live our lives with
“Time is how you spend your love.” — Nick Laird
In To All The Boys: Always And Forever, the newly adolescent Kitty asks her elder sister’s hunky boyfriend, Peter, about the most memorable text he has ever received from a girl. Kitty is asking because she wants to text a boy she has now found affection for and is grappling with the inadequacy of vocabulary to express desire. How do you say “I want to kiss you” and “I want to hold your hands”, without ignoring or privileging either demand?
Kitty’s sister, Lara, is snuggled beside Peter, coo-coo-ing in secure love. Peter thinks about Kitty’s question for a moment, before telling her to ask Lara instead— “the queen of love letters”. Kitty is the voice of reason in this romantic-comedy, whose skepticism of romance isn’t bitter or militant, but strikes that balance between the power of desire felt, and the awkwardness of desire expressed. Kitty makes an ew-face and says, “I said ‘memorable’ not ‘cheesy’.”
It’s a throwaway line, but it’s also a diagnosis for the forgettable, but deeply irresistible genre of romantic-comedies, one that peddles cheesy, often at the cost of memorable. Irresistible because, despite knowing how the stories are fraught with inaccuracy, ending mostly when the courting and cubby-crisis is done, we all know that to entirely reject it, is to entirely reject both, the possibility of vicarious pleasure, and the straw-thin possibility of having Ryan Gosling strip down to his sculpted self for you. The films thrive on this aspirational quality. Hope pads even the most skeptical of us; it’s the wheels that keeps civilization going.
Forgettable because hope is not a permanent condition, and neither can it be deferred; the hope felt in a moment melts with it. So we must get back to the calculated grime of life, where remotely programmed algorithmic swipes are more effective than the ever elusive fate. These movies aren’t designed to speak to the condition of living and loving. But despite, by design, playing out at a level singularly out of reach, these films are powdered with a mirage of reachability. It’s this lethal cocktail that makes for easy, engaging, enviable watching.
This genre embodies the criticism that cinema has often received—to create a world so singularly sexy, that either we orient our lives towards it, or constantly court sadness by pitting our lives against its threshold. It embodies the best of humanity—hope and heart— and the worst of capitalism—competition and comparison.
On the flip-side of this aspirational quality is the question: How would you tell your own story? Silken, silhouette-y sex, catty compliments, a rousing musical score, and a banging outfit. I don’t think anyone seeks nuance in retelling their own lives. (Listening to friends complain about lovers, and listening to myself complain about lovers has strengthened my conviction—no one likes nuance in telling their own stories; it’s always a begrudging footnote.) So we look at these films to give us a vocabulary to express our own lives. This vocabulary is useful in helping pin down the amorphous, ever-changing landscape of desire. When Tom Cruise says “You complete me”, and Renée Zellweger says “You had me at Hello”, there’s nothing literal going on in these dialogues, because humans aren’t pie for a piece to be missing, and neither does our brain work with such determined, deterministic accuracy to be had at Hello. But these lines, famous, oft-repeated, give words to a feeling that just cannot be expressed adequately. So, to run-down rom-com dialogues is to desecrate an attempt at trying to explain what cannot be explained. It’s a useless endeavour, because you are criticizing something that is designed to fail.
The comedy in rom-com becomes an antidote to the raging intensity we see in Notebook-s and Nicholas Sparks-s. It’s easy to see those movies as aspirational, but, unlike rom-coms, it is easier to see them as improbable. The comedy—messy hair, awful dating history, weird friends—help create an aura of relatability around the intensity of romance.
“The movie has no unconscious, no quiet moments of reflection, no frustrated desires, no introspection, no real secrets. The story’s underlying symbolic power remains untapped. But maybe that very power suggests why romantic comedy is the genre most prone to distortions and deceptions, why it’s the one that offers the greatest temptation to sugarcoat and cut corners: because it’s all about identity, the stories it tells are the ones that people tell themselves about themselves. Its revelations are the most troubling, and its clichés are the most comforting.” — Richard Brody on The Other Woman
There is however, a comforting aspect to this aspirational quality. The fact that a rom-com from the 50s still strikes as entertaining, and pleasure-giving shows that the aspiration hasn’t moved much. If they used to make mix-tapes before, today Peter shares a Spotify album with Lara (What’s The Story, Morning Glory?), the diary becomes the blog, the meet-cutes change locations but the feelings tether. Of course, there are changes too—the fact that we have Lana Condor, an Asian American headlining one of the most profitable Netflix rom-com franchises, the downplaying of the “feminine versus masculine”, the inclusion of not just race, but also sexuality, and age, getting in stories of the older, and the younger high-school kids—the ones who have lived a life, and the ones who pretend to have lived a life.
The fact that the genre has been with us for so long has also led to meta-references within films of the genre; making jest of itself even as it embodies the very thing it is making jest of. This is a recognition of the impact of these films on popular culture and living. Some of these internalized stereotypes can wreck havoc. In a 2008 study by a university in Edinburgh, it was noted that watching romantic comedies can spoil your love life, though I don’t think the reality is as simple as that. It spoils it inasmuch as it propels it with a vigour to be and do better. This is also at odds with the minimal emotional investment with which we view such films; their forgettable quality.
"Relationship counselors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they'd know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films.” — Dr Bjarne Holmes
In the modern love stories there are obvious nods to these misconceptions, or tropes, even as they sell it, a sort of self-awareness. For example, in To All The Boys: Always And Forever Lara and Peter discuss how they make a “terrible rom-com couple” because theirs is a love that didn’t follow the rules of the rom-coms of yore; this includes:
Always make grand gestures
It’s okay to interrupt a wedding.
Ruslaan Mumtaz’s Pink Lips
Nowadays, there’s a distinction to be made within the romantic-comedy genre—teenage mush-pot romances which deal with the difficulty of articulation, and first flushes, and the older romances which deal with the tragedy of articulation, and the disillusionment with flush-after-flush. The parents, a barrier of the teen tales, become foot-note-ish in the adult ones. The barriers now are more interior.
This difference I think is best noted in Ruslaan Mumtaz. In 2007, he made his film debut with MP3: Mera Pehla Pehpa Pyaar which I saw for two reasons—Mumtaz’s pale beautiful face with thin pink lips, and the climactic minute+ long kiss in front of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a story of teen-love, the awkwardness of inhabiting an adult feeling in a not-so-adult body. A dozen years later he is back on Netflix. In between he was part of a watery remake of Juno, and some stray work. But this time, the market demands of masculinity means he has gotten buff, his stomach lined with abs as he walks out of the ocean in Namaste Wahala, a straight-off awful rom-com where he breaks the ice by asking a Nigerian girl to marry him. The preoccupation of the two films is different. One is to express love, and one is to congeal it into an institution. That the pale lovers of the first film have become more diverse with Nigerians, and plus sized women might be a sign of change. Take the food in their climactic wedding, a synergy of cultures—Nigerian Kachumber Salad, Gbegiri Dal Makhni and Jollof Biryani. But still there is that odd scene where the Nigerian lover and the Indian mother fight to cook and feed Ruslaan’s character, but this is also societal, so there’s no point blaming the film.
The pooh-poohing of the “death of the rom-com” was challenged by Netflix’s Summer of Love in 2018, and the barrage of films and series since. This makes perfect sense, because every film being watched on Netflix has a lower marginal cost. You don’t feel embarrassed about seeing a film you will forget about anyways. The latter half of last year I was reviewing back-to-back romantic-comedies that Netflix was producing—A California Christmas, The Princess Switch: Switched Again (for which I 1.5x-ed the first part), Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, Holidate, Love Guaranteed, The Kissing Booth 2, MILF, and I barely remember having watched some of them; a hazy aftertaste. (I noted, in one of my reviews, how odd it feels to write somewhat critically about rom-coms, making me feel like I am carrying a sword to a pillow fight.)
This is why, I think, the rom-com films stopped working in the late 2000s— the recognition of time + money spent to get to the theater, watch it, and get back home, only to have it barely impress upon you. I used to only watch these films on DVDs from my local video parlour, where the film posters he would paste would either be the latest Bollywood film or the hottest Hollywood film. The streaming revolution axed all these considerations. The crazy blockbuster success of Crazy Rich Asians keeps the tradition of theatrical alive, even if its threadbare, and less frequent.
In India the genre seems to be associated mostly with Sonam Kapoor, and given her and her sister’s obsession with Jane Austen this isn’t surprising. The lightweight films though are a hard sell right now where Hindi cinema is trying to anthropologize male defects, and small-town life, while the big stars are looking for big films. Romantic comedies don’t make for “big” films.
The success of such films on streaming shows that the minimal emotional and financial investment make it the perfect product for the Netflix and Amazon Prime (The Map Of Tiny Perfect Things) catalogue.
That something happens between that charming beginning and that charmed ending, something that moves us deeply to reconsider how we want to live, but also something that is so watered down you refuse to take it seriously. A paradox that you reject with the same enthusiasm with which you click Play.
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