I've only gotten familiar with the term "meet cute" in the last year. What's middle-aged fascinating for me is that there is a term for a moment that's not exactly love at first sight, not fully serendipitous, not completely a Whatsapp emoticon and not quite an accidental date. Conventional wisdom has labelled the meet cute as the first 'unusual' meeting of future lovers. Technically, that can be every first scene of every second romantic film. But it's a personal thing. It tells you more about the list-maker than the fiction being written about.
For instance, I was a pre-teen caught in the throes of fresh infatuation when Madhuri Dixit's Pooja was briefly swayed by a 'tune' being whistled from the next cubicle in a trial room in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, before seeing the panicked whistler's pantless legs seconds later. After Notting Hill, I contemplated running a bookshop so that one morning a famous actress would nonchalantly enter in moviestar dark glasses and get amused by my social awkwardness. At least twice in my life, I thought of being the brooder on a train so that I could become the hybrid lovechild of Before Sunrise, Jab We Met and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Great Expectations even made me consider indefinitely drinking gallons of water at a cooler so that another pair of lips would magically (and indecently) meet mine. You get the gist. At least I now know what these delusions are officially called.
On that note, I can't let you go without unleashing upon your concerned mind 12 of my all-time favourite meet cutes:
An annual bash, a Des'ree song and a giant fish-tank combine to deliver a 'partition' metaphor like none other in Baz Luhrmann's eccentric punk-Shakespearean saga. Blue eyes meet through bluer water, and a spark – perpetually in danger of being drowned – is lit. For a few minutes it feels like dashing Romeo is playing Leonardo DiCaprio and demure Juliet is playing Claire Danes, instead of the other way around. For the rest of the evening, the knight in shining armour and the winged fairy exchange bashful glances at a costume ball.
Speaking of DiCaprio's early embodiment of handsome tragedy, Titanic – a blockbuster where a massive ship threatened to out-act everyone else – sort of wrestled the meet cute away from the monopoly of romantic comedy. Jack and Rose "break the ice" over the freezing Atlantic – she is on the verge of leaping off the Titanic, he is trying to mentally disintegrate her suicidal intentions. The result is a strangely disarming conversation at a time words are meant to melt the bridge between life and living. It's only fair they end up in each other's arms, by both hook and crook.
"You know when a song comes on and you just gotta dance?" is how drifter Dean describes his semi-meet-cute with Cindy, a pretty girl he sees at a nursing home. After pining for another encounter, chance becomes Dean's cupid when a grumpy Cindy hops onto his bus. Their flirting is banter, morbid jokes, crooning every American President's name as a nursery rhyme, and dancing and singing goofy in front of a heart on a store door. The origins of their coupling feel even cuter, because these scenes are reminisced about – in the not-too-distant future – with a sense of oldness, loss and longing.
There is no such thing as chance, the blue-haired university student tells the shy schoolgirl. 15-year-old Adele has wandered into a lesbian bar after locking eyes with bohemian Emma in the middle of a busy Lille street. Now Adele – who is the center of the woman's attention – is torn between blushing and burning with shame at the thought of her own 'alternate' sexuality. But Emma's flirty grin and relaxed vibe puts her at ease. In a heterosexual universe, this meet cute (sounds weird in this context) might have pushed predatory boundaries, but it's oddly liberating here: Not once does the thought of being 'groomed' or broken into by an older body occur to Adele, and not once does the notion of being a trend or a cliche in a youngster's coming-of-age explosion occur to Emma. This is the kind of tryst – flimsy and profound at once – where both participants locate a lost piece of themselves.
Not the pool party, not the yellow dress or the dance at magic hour. It's the meet cute that never happened: an aspiring actress follows a haunting piece of music into a restaurant only to get snubbed by the fired pianist. But it's the what-could-have-been that lends context to this fleeting moment. The final montage features an alternate-reality universe where the actress, once she gathers the courage to approach the pianist and express her unbridled admiration, is kissed by him instead. This is the end but a missed beginning. Their fates promptly branch out into a future of happily ever afters, even as the famous actress now watches him play that same tune in his own jazz bar. She leaves with her husband; he nods at her the way he should have years ago in a dark restaurant.
Tara has so much baggage – emotional, physical – that she can't lift it anymore. She's also moving houses. A sensitive boy passes by, notices her struggle and offers his help. Tara is initially distrustful of him; given her failed marriage, male strangers cannot be trusted. But he hangs around with his dimpled grin, knowing that she needs the extra hands, his receding hairline giving him a distinct wiser-than-his-college-years aura. Sid is his name, and once he helps her with his baggage – unwittingly creating some of his own – he mentions that he is a painter. He is an artist. At this moment, he has found a muse to love. And she has found a shoulder to hold. Theirs is both a meet cute of metaphors and a meeting of old souls.
They live in the same hotel in an alien country, but they are barely alive. They've seen each other around, looking equally out of place, feeling identically lost and lonely, thus sharing unspoken jokes and silent gestures about the frantic world around them – the human equivalent of liking each other's wry tweets. The two finally meet at the hotel bar, engaging in the kind of introductory conversation that transcends small-talk. Terms like 'midlife crisis' and 'not sure' and 'taking a break' flow in an unassuming tone. He is drinking the Japanese whisky he's there to promote, she lights a cigarette – the first of many platonic meet cutes that condescend on their unsubtle age difference. The moviestar and the philosopher meet at a place in life where cameras aren't conditioned to be.
Theodore's shirt matches the colour of his bleeding heart, but also the setup of his new operating system. He waits and, within seconds, is amazed by the intelligence and clarity of her voice. Her mind. Her personality. Any other lonely man would be coming to terms with the magic of modern technology, but Theodore – on 'meeting' Samantha – reacts as if he were on a first date across a truly fascinating woman. "Hi" becomes more of a curious question for him than an assertive greeting. Like, why are you here in my living room alone with a loser like me asking questions and answering with genuine interest? Her name, her matter-of-factness, her gentle but playful tone – soon, Theodore's shirt also reflects the colour of his cheeks.
Movies are generally made about Rumi and Vicky, two mercurial lovers who thrive on drama and small-town defiance. They are the ones who earn the privilege of a meet cute on screen. But Anurag Kashyap's romantic drama (yes, for real) reserves the moment for Rumi and the safe guy. Robbie, her future husband but not quite her future partner, meets her on the terrace after matching biodatas. They are like chalk and cheese; he is amused and impressed by her, she mistakes a goat proverb for a donkey one and asks if he is on Tinder. The scene – with a 'manic pixie' and an adult – is done to death in cinema, but there's something inherently modest and self-effacing about the way Abhishek Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu play it out. At some level, even the actors are reacting to one another, discovering each other and easing into a (working) relationship.
I wonder what it says about me that perhaps my most cherished meet cute on screen involves two animated characters and no humans. I never thought I'd be writing a sentence like this, but the boxey yellow robot and the coy white one emulate a typically boy-girl dynamic in machine language. A fire rages behind them. Their silhouettes glisten. The adoring yellow robot whistles and moves closer; he's like an awkward engineering student trying to be cool about having a female in his vicinity. He melts at the sound of her curt voice repeating his name. The white robot narrows her pixelated light-eyes when she giggles. He makes her laugh. It's love at first download.
Holy shit. These two words – paradoxical in togetherness but seamless in sound – are thought, not uttered, at the end of an elevator ride where a girl overhears a boy's headphones and connects to his acquired taste in music. She loves The Smiths, he can't believe it. His male mind goes: Holy shit (she loves my music, now maybe she loves me?). That's all it takes: he is besotted by someone who is more of an unattainable romantic construct than an actual person. Tom and Summer soon become paradoxical in togetherness and seamless in sound.
Jackson Maine's smoky voice drifts through the space of a drag-queen dressing room, where he's come to meet the unsuspecting singer of the best La Vie En Rose cover he's ever heard. She is Ally, not gay and struggling to reciprocate his directness: He asks if her eyebrows are real (they're not), watches her with the sort of aliveness he's only known for on stage, buys her a drink and even touches her nose, before he watches her punch an obnoxious fan in his face. Then, with an iced packet of peas soothing her bruised hand in a supermarket parking lot, he listens in awe to a song she's written. Of course it was meant to be: an alcoholic falling in love with her spirit. They don't make meet-brutes like these anymore.