For the love of a good rom-com
Stanley Donen’s ‘Indiscreet’, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, came out in 1958, in the golden age of Hollywood romantic comedies. Back then, Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister of India, the Cold War was a political situation rather than an Oscar-nominated film. In short, it was a very different time. And yet, Donen’s film about two commitment-shy people who fall in love feels so much more contemporary than most 21st-century rom-coms like ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ and ‘Luka Chuppi’.
Written by Norman Krasna, ‘Indiscreet’ is about the love affair between an actress and an economist. Neither is young; both are successful. The film feels modern because it shows an equal relationship. Here are a grown man and woman falling in love. Krasna’s writing makes the unconventional look easy, but the two films that came out last week show just how hard it is to write romance.
In the past couple of decades, romantic comedies haven’t had a very good run. Even legends like Richard Curtis have found themselves floundering when trying to write romances for the 21st century, with its turbulent debates about the power dynamic between genders. Ideas like sexual fluidity and consent are unsettling well-established conventions of attraction and courtship rituals. And yet, in the middle of all this, we still want the comfort of fantasy that love stories have delivered since the first one was told in whispers around a fire. Romances don’t just offer us relief when reality becomes oppressive; they create ideals for lesser mortals. We can’t all look like Bergman or Grant, for instance, but we can certainly dream of the same tenderness with which their two bodies fold into one another to become a vision of support and sensuality in ‘Indiscreet’.
Both ‘Luka Chuppi’ and ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ could have taken tips from Krasna’s story. The first is about a couple that doesn’t want to get married and being commitment-shy is at the heart of ‘Indiscreet’. ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ is determined to turn rom-com conventions on their head, starting with a mouthy heroine who is plus-sized instead of size zero. ‘Indiscreet’ does something similar – Anna is not an ingénue by a long shot.
Unfortunately, both ‘Luka Chuppi’ and ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ suffer from the same problem – the writing just isn’t clever enough. Both films are very self-aware of the context they’re in and the stereotypes they want to mock, but the tricks in the scripts don’t add up to moments that make you feel fuzzy with longing. Instead, everything feels either repetitive or unrelatable.
Director Laxman Utekar’s ‘Luka Chuppi’ wants to use its central pair to poke at social norms that govern romantic relationships in India. And so, the point of the film isn’t the central relationship between Guddu the reporter (Kartik Aryan) and Rashmi the intern (played by Kriti Sanon). ‘Luka Chuppi’ is less Guddu and Rashmi’s love story, and more about how everyone reacts to the idea of them being together. It doesn’t help that the jokes are about as fresh and engaging as overchewed gum. While ‘Luka Chuppi’ targets the Indian and conservative Hindu social conventions, ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ takes pot shots at the clichés that are cornerstones of Hollywood romantic comedies. Rebel Wilson plays Natalie, a no-nonsense architect who is knocked out in a mugging incident in New York City. When she wakes up, everything is rose-tinted perfection, with Liam Hemsworth wooing her and Priyanka Chopra cooing over her best friend Josh. If you’ve heard Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank You, Next’, then there’s no twist in ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ and on paper, the film’s slogan of loving yourself should be exactly what the millennial ordered. Unfortunately, on-screen, it just comes across as lame because all we see Natalie do is dissect rom-com clichés.
The two 2019 releases are keenly aware that nothing screams status quo as loudly as a romance. Every aspect – from the hero’s looks to the heroine’s attributes, and the promise of marriage – hammers home the importance of adhering to convention. And yet, there is no rebellion as charismatic as two people rejecting traditional figures of authority and no adrenaline rush quite as powerful as knowing someone you love chose you. Provided the writing can make you fall for the con that the rom-com is selling.
(‘Indiscreet’ is freely available on YouTube. You’re welcome.)