Fifty shades of love: The changing face of Hollywood Romcom
There will always be a market for love songs, and romcoms. It’s an age thing, a mood thing, a loved-them-and-lost-them heartbreak thing.
There isn’t always going to be as much of a market for the White, straight, Hollywood version of the romcom. And in a world where new storytellers are taking to new channels, the changes we’ve seen in others popular genres of filmmaking — action, superhero, spy — are already filtering down to the pink, rose-tinted world of the romantic comedy.
Four Weddings and a Funeral— that classic from 25 years ago, featuring Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell and nary a person of colour (POC) — has been turned into a mini-series by Indian-origin American Mindy Kaling, on Hulu, and is peopled by a diverse cast representing a range of sexualities, races and religions.
Always Be My Maybe on Netflix had an Asian couple (Ali Wong-Randal Park) in the lead and Keanu Reeves in a cameo. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before starred an American teen Lana Condor, who is of Vietnamese origin. The satirical Netflix film Isn’t It Romantic starred the plus-sized Rebel Wilson, with Liam Hemsworth and Priyanka Chopra in secondary roles.
“The OTT platforms have certainly created room for more diversified content within the mainstream,” says documentary filmmaker and film writer Paromita Vohra.
Last year’s Warner Bros’ hit, Crazy Rich Asians, was people entirely by Asians and raked in $238 million worldwide. And Love, Simon by 20th Century Fox, was a romcom focused on a gay teen.
The romcom is relatively late to the body positivity / coming out party — even children’s literature got there faster. But then this is a genre defined by convention, formula and cliché. There must be love, there must be conflict, there has to be a happy ending; the movie mustn’t leave you confused or wondering, but rather satisfied and hopeful.
That last bit is also why the romcom is so crucial. It is most young people’s first view of the adult world; these movies shape our ideas of ourselves, relationships and love in ways that no other medium but the fairy tale does.
“It’s like finding your comfort food and adding a new twist to it. It is finding the right balance between somebody who resonates with everyone and still has aspirational quality about him/her,” says Srishti Arya, director for international original film- India, Netflix.
When it comes to romcoms, they’re getting the audience to click play by using faces of diversity that have already become familiar to the audience through their work in other genres — Kaling and Park have both starred in popular TV sitcoms, Wong is a powerhouse stand-up comedian.
“It seems appropriate and necessary that the films and shows we make reflect our truly global audience. So we prioritise diversity in casting and portrayals of culture,” says Ian Bricke, director of Original independent features at Netflix.
The formula is working well. According to Netflix data, Always… was viewed in 32 million households worldwide in the first four weeks after its release.
Able to cater seamlessly and simultaneously to audiences around the world, streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu say they realise that the true potential of their global audience is best explored through content that is, quite simply, more diverse.
“This proves that the White world of Hollywood in general has finally woken up to not just the potential but also the demands of the global market,” says film critic Rashid Irani.
Both Irani and Vohra agree that diversity for diversity’s sake is not desirable. “Many of today’s romcoms still focus on the most visible aspects of identity — race, size, colour,” says Vohra. “These are not the only things that define people. It would be nice if eventually the romcom could see beyond the surface, and not make a big song and dance about doing so.”
Meenakshi Shedde, film curator, critic and South Asia consultant to the Berlin film festival, says she’s looking forward to more of the woman’s point of view.
“One of the trends here we have seen is more women writing the stories and directing them, bringing a woman’s point of view to love and complicated relationships and giving them more intelligence, sensitivity and humour,” Shedde says.
For Vohra, what will be interesting is to see the themes tackled within these films change. “Romcoms are driven by love and power and the tussle of personalities. The really successful romcoms are where there are two people on opposite sides of a political divide, as in You’ve Got Mail [where he ran a massive chain of bookstores and she ran a sweet old neighbourhood bookshop]. That’s why romcoms are an interesting and important format in the spectrum of cinema,” Vohra says, “because they can address the social, the emotional and the individual and the crossing of boundaries. Which boundaries… that’s what I’d like to see change.”