Romances, as a genre, have a lot of appeal but the telling of boy-meets-girl stories has gotten a tad jaded. Actually, come to think of it, scripting a romantic comedy is no mean task. First, it has to have all the beats (read: meet audience expectations). Cute-meet, check. Witty and amusing banter, check. The mandatory break-up moment, check. And of course, the love-conquers-all moment, double check. Heartbreak and tears. Kissing and making up. We have seen it all.
Second, screenwriters have to go beyond audience expectations and come up with something fresher than the new brand of mint toothpaste! Screenwriters have tried to meet that challenge with wittier dialogue, characters with a higher Cool Quotient, and extreme situations that border on the implausible. One such rom-com is Friends with Benefits. The Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis-starrer crackles and sparkles with witty dialogue from the word go. In her review in Seven, reviewer Jenny McCartney succinctly points out:
“Jamie and Dylan are both formidably eager to demonstrate their fashionable insouciance: they hang out, swear, text, sneer at Katherine Heigl rom-coms, and eventually evolve a mutual plan to treat sex like tennis, complete with explicit running instructions on how to improve the game.
Before long, however, the iron laws of the rom-com reassert themselves, even in the face of two characters openly struggling to escape from them. Despite its surface bravado, the film is too nervous of losing the audience’s sympathy to defy convention for long. Jamie’s mother, a flagging free spirit, lets us know that her daughter has hitherto been an old-fashioned believer in true love: code for “relax folks, she’s a nice girl at heart”.
Despite the rom-com’s pretensions of turning tradition on its head, Friends With Benefits conforms to all the beats of the traditional rom-com, and is as predictable as they come.
A few thousand miles away from Hollywood, in India, romance movies are facing a similar crisis. Bollywood has an enviable tradition of making some of the best romantic films. The difference is that Bollywood’s romances do not fit the mould of the Western rom-com but are more epic tales of love and loss. However, over the past 15 years, feel-good rom-coms have become more the norm than love-epics. But increasingly, they too are beginning to lose their grip on the audience. Yash Raj Films, the pioneers of the love-conquers-all genre of Indian films (its 15-year old Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge continues to be one of the highest grossing movies of all time in India) seems to be losing its magic touch.
The Bollywood romance has its own set of ‘iron laws’ – the cute meet, much sparring and song-and-dance routines, followed by a great opposition to the lovers, mostly in the form of parental opposition or societal inappropriateness, help from allies (or even better, destiny) conspiring to get the two together, sacrifice and/or a sad/happy ending. Getting around these laws has its risks as well as its challenges. What worked 15 years ago clearly doesn’t any more. And no one is quite sure of what is working right now! A heroine clad in sheer chiffon sari dancing on the Swiss Alps is passé. And the clichéd rain song or waterfall song – thankfully! – no longer find a place in today’s Bollywood films.
The recently released Rockstar does come up with some minty-fresh ideas in its execution of the cute-meet sequences even while it retains some of the oh-so-familiar beats of Bollywood romances. Old beat: the girl is named Heer, a reference to the epic love story of Heer and Ranjha while foreshadowing to its audience that this is not an upbeat happily-ever-after story. Another old beat: the girl is upper middle class and studies in one of the posh colleges of New Delhi while the boy, who aspires to be a rockstar in the mould of Jim Morrison, hails from a lower middle class background. New beat: the guy is not interested in wooing the girl and the girl, likewise, is more interested in finding an ally with whom she can indulge in some never-seen-before, plain old mischief making. The most endearing of these antics is the sequence where the two go to watch a semi-porn film called “Junglee Jawani” (Lusty Youth) in a sleazy movie hall. It’s all gung-ho till the point when the girl (who is now married off to a rich non-resident Indian in far-away Prague) meets up with the guy, they indulge in some crazy antics in Prague, and the inevitable happens: they both realize they are in love.
This is where the whole plot comes unstuck. Now writer-director Imtiaz Ali loses his nerve to tell a fresh-and-edgy tale and goes down the predictable path of Bollywood love stories. That old plot point of the heroine being struck by an incurable disease is rehashed. Exit, edgy romance. This is also the cue for the second track of the movie to kick in – the lovelorn hero is now propelled into rockstardom, riding his angst while strumming edgy-Sufi tunes. Music composer AR Rahman does a tremendous job of keeping audience interest alive even as the story teeters from one implausible situation to another before culminating in a faux salute to the spirit of Sufi master Rumi and doffing its hat to the age-old Bollywood stereotype of star-crossed, tragic lovers. Problem is that the superimposition of a so-called Sufi ideology, through a brilliant music track alone, doesn’t make for a compelling Bollywood romance.