From You’ve Got Mail to Jab We Met, why rom-coms are the ultimate comfort-watch during coronavirus lockdown
At a time like the coronavirus outbreak, one feels like going back to the old and the familiar, rom-coms like Bridget Jones' Diary and Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na.
There is something about a comfort-watch when things are not going great. Right now, scrolling through people’s stories on Instagram, I am not surprised to see so many people are rewatching their old favourites: Kal Ho Naa Ho, Sholay, Friends, even Ramayan.
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For me, and a lot of people I know, comfort watches and comfort reads happen to be rom-coms. Recently, a friend messaged me, “Can you send me the rom-coms we watched and read in college? I want to go through them again.” I do not blame her. When everything seems hopeless, and there is no clarity on when and how much our lives will change, it is natural to hold on to the old and the familiar. And that is what romantic comedies are, really. Old and familiar.
The modern romantic comedy has its roots in William Shakespeare’s comedies: the As You Like Its and Much Ado About Nothings. And they have retained many elements of the comedy of Shakespeare. Comedies in Shakespeare’s time had one major element that really differentiated it from his tragedies, a simple formula- happy endings. Whatever the drama was, however much the hero and heroine had suffered, or fallen prey to mistaken identities, in the end, everything was tied up satisfactorily, and the hero and the heroine (and many side characters) ended up married. In fact, many modern romances are simply retellings of Shakespeare’s plays (10 Things I Hate About You is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew; She’s The Man is based on Twelfth Night).
Rom-coms are often criticised for following a set formula but it is precisely this that makes them so popular and comfortable. At a time like this, we often do not have the mental energy to invest in something completely new and intense, we would much rather prefer something that does not take too much of our time or attention. We are looking for something that allows us to take our mind off things by being light and breezy, with jokes thrown into the middle.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) always works for me, for these reasons. It is funny, keeps you hooked, and the story is so familiar that it is okay if you miss a scene or two because you were reading a tweet a health journalist had just posted.
The characters are another essential element of rom-coms. They have to be relatable, and you have to root for them. Rom-coms do not work if you are not hoping Jai and Aditi will end up together (from Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na) or you do not like Lara Jean in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
When I am reading rom-coms, it is also extremely important the male protagonist is described as someone I find hot. He could be the nicest, most sought-after bachelor in the ton in London but I switch off the minute he’s not dark-haired. And that is probably why women in rom-coms are often wallflowers, because the readers/viewers see themselves as wallflowers, and it is easy to relate. Who is not rooting for a wallflower to end up with Tom Hanks, after all?
And finally, the happy endings. I am seeing a lot of lists online of pandemic-themed movies and shows to watch but I’m seeing an equal amount of “I need a break from this” posts. Movies might be your mirror to society but movies are equally an escape from the society you feel constrained by.
Bollywood, especially, makes aspirational and glorious tales, because people want a break from their mundane and horrible daily lives. In this sense, rom-coms work because they offer you an escape from your life, and they also promise you a happy ending. We all love watching two people in love, and rom-coms show you all the stages: the awkwardness, the confusion, the struggles and miscommunications, and finally, the acceptance of someone else.
One of my favourite rom-coms is 27 Dresses, and it is one I keep going back to. Katherine Hiegl plays Jane in this 2008 romance, about a woman who has been a bridesmaid 27 times! She loves weddings, and has all her bridesmaid dresses saved up. She is a little bit of a pushover, and seems to have accepted, and even embraced, the “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” mantra so much so that she does not even flinch when her sister is about to get married to the man she has been in love with for years. James Marsden plays the wedding reporter who is going to cover this wedding but he realises Jane's is a much better story anyway. I love this movie. It really gets Jane so well, someone who is now reached that age where people ask, “So when are you getting married?” but she just smiles and bears it because she actually enjoys weddings, and wants to be there for her friends and family. It is also really funny, especially the bridesmaid montage, and Marsden is at his hottest here.
Jab We Met is another romantic comedy I have watched multiple times. I find it funny (do not underestimate the importance of humour in a rom-com, it is called romantic comedy for a reason), and it has great acting and music. I love the scenes with Geet’s family in Bhatinda: the loud, boisterous, and exceedingly warm family is so typically Indian. Jab We Met has the same problem all Imtiaz Ali movies do: the lead female character does not really do much except “save” the guy but at least Geet does it with so much elan that I don’t mind watching it. Geet, of course, became an iconic Bollywood character (probably Kareena Kapoor Khan’s most-loved since Poo from Kabhi Khushi... Kabhie Gham) and some of those dialogues and scenes are etched in the minds of any Bollywood fan (Main apni favourite hoon, akeli ladki ek khuli hui tijori ki tarah hoti hai). And Jab We Met fits the traditional rom-com requirements: it is funny, has relatable characters, and has the boy-meets-girl-but-they-like-someone-else-till-they-do-not formula.
You’ve Got Mail is another rom-com that fits all these criteria. It goes one step further, where the boy-meets-girl-and-they-hate-each-other formula is really perfected. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are business rivals, who also send emails to each other, without knowing who the other is. I would personally root for any indie bookshop owner so it is no surprise that I love this movie, and there is so much romance, I am almost happy to ignore what would happen with the bookshops post the kissing-in-the-park scene. You've Got Mail makes you believe in the idea of a happily-ever-after, and also in the idea that the person you will fall in love with might even be sitting at the next table at the cafe, or could be someone you hate right now. It gives you hope.
Lilah Susanne, in her article in The Mary Sue, has, in fact, even written about how the rise of rom-coms in the US corresponds with a particular difficult time in the country's social and economic history. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw the Great Depression in the US, with people losing jobs and the market crash affecting all sections of American society. Significantly, the 1930s saw the birth of romantic movies in the US. Even Mills & Boons, the leading publisher, started printing solely romance novels in the 1930s, when the demand for escapist romantic fiction was at its height. Is it any surprise then, that now, at a moment of crisis, we are tuning into rom-coms to give us hope?
All images from Twitter.
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