By themselves, the so-called love stories Love Aaj Kal and Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan are unremarkable films, too full of gimmicks to be worth discussing. But the sum of the two adds up to something worth a notice—the death of the romantic comedy in Bollywood. Consider the evidence. Love Aaj Kal, directed by the high priest of Bollywood romance post 2000, Imitaz Ali, has gathered embarrassing reviews and returns at the box office. Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaanhas done well at the box office but is not in fact a rom-com. It is a comedy of manners. And going a little further back to last year, there is The Zoya Factor, a fully-aerated, make-believe love story, about a lucky mascot and the Indian cricket team, starring the queen of Bollywood rom com Sonam Kapoor that drew a blank at the box office. And a little bit before that Befikre (2016) about millennials falling in love and lust became one of Ranveer Singh’s few misfires.
What does a column on women have to do with the death of the rom com? Pretty much everything. The romantic comedy is considered to be women’s genre. The more disparaging name for it is chick flick. But its appeal, in fact, is based on the chemistry of the male and female leads, and the salty banter between them. In that sense, it is a truly feminist genre in that it tends towards giving more or less equal weight to hero and heroine. I say hero and heroine, because it has been a heterosexual genre for all of its lifetime, but there is no reason that there cannot be frisson and crackling wit between two men.
Romance is a feminist idea, of course, because the woman has a voice in selecting her partner. But more than romance, comedy is a feminist practice: much of the tastiness of the best rom coms comes from the sass of the heroine. Think of the most memorable rom-com sequences: Meg Ryan faking a spectacular orgasm in a restaurant in When Harry Met Sally (1989). Rani Mukerji asking Saif Ali Khan in Hum Tum (2005) if he has special X-ray vision that enables him to see inside the clothes of women, Kangana Ranaut telling Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2013) that he looks as shapeless as a piece of ginger after gaining weight. A woman who makes you laugh challenges one of the founding tenets of patriarchy—that women are unfunny.
A different kind of romance has taken over Bollywood—the love for the nation. The most prominent genres today are the historical, the sports drama and the espionage thriller, all excellent platforms for showcasing national love.
The romantic comedy has had a brief life in Bollywood. It arrived in the Noughties, and its roster makes up at best a handful of enjoyable films, mostly starring Saif Ali Khan. The impulse for its emergence was (most likely) the resounding and deeply pleasurable success of writer-director Nora Ephron’s collaboration with the actor Meg Ryan which resulted in the films When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998).
But the original age of romantic comedy in Hollywood was the 1930s, when it was called the screwball comedy, with the actors Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant making superb box office numbers and high art of the genre. Much of the energy and appeal of this genre came from the heroine—she was either an heiress or a poor young woman, diametrically opposite in socio-economic terms, but both were headstrong personas in search of romance, fun and their own way in the world outside.
It gave rise to the classic template of the romantic comedy, which the films of Ephron’s Nineties followed: man and woman meet in a situation of misunderstanding or absurdity (which gives rise to the phrase meet-cute), fall in love, misunderstanding rises to the surface but man and woman wind up together anyway. As I see it, this woman of the 1930s was very much a figure of her time: during the First World War, when men were away at war, the first generation of women employed outside the home emerged, giving rise to a taste for the world outside and what modernity offered. Hence, the heroine of the romantic comedy, an heiress who wants the real world or a social climber who wants to make her fortune in the world.
Another argument could be that this is the post #MeToo moment: humour has been replaced with anxiety, the joy of flirting is gone, the topography of romance is a landmine, how to make, or watch, a rom-com now?
In Bollywood, on the other hand, the rom-com is only an imported taste in the post-Liberalisation age, whose appeal began to wane by the end of the Noughties. The mainstream Hindi film’s default setting for romance is tragedy and drama. The best-known love stories in Bollywood are tragedies – Devdas, Mughal-e-Azam, Baijirao Mastani—or family dramas like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. This is partly because of its history—early cinema in Bombay drew from folk theatres like Tamasha, Nautanki, Jatra and Bhavai where doomed love stories like Laila Majnu, Shirin Farhad and Sohni Mahiwal were popular. And partly because the faultlines of caste, religion, and gender make romance a far more fraught, potentially fatal, project than it is in the West, a matter that causes deep family anxieties. We see this very thing in Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan, which is billed as a gay rom com, but really, the romance between the two men gets barely any time. The real drama is with the family’s homophobia, and their murderous sense of shame or honour. I use the word ‘murderous’ deliberately—the ultimate consequence of a romance outside family approval in the subcontinent is the honour killing, a crime that has gone up in recent years according to the Indian government’s own data.
In its material, Love Aaj Kal genuinely has the stuff of a romantic comedy—the central conflict is that the heroine has career ambitions and does not want romance to get in the way. But the writing has no snap and crackle, Sara Ali Khan has a few moments but there is no genuine wit or madcapery. Khan’s conflict is made out to be tragic rather than the standard dilemma that it is for every working woman. The result is a baffling idiocy, far from the delicious absurd world that rom coms are supposed to deliver.
But this is only an explanation for one bad film. More to my point is that there are no prominent rom coms on the horizon this year. Another argument could be that this is the post #MeToo moment: humour has been replaced with anxiety, the joy of flirting is gone, the topography of romance is a landmine, how to make, or watch, a rom-com now? But I don’t think that is the answer either.
A different kind of romance has taken over Bollywood—the love for the nation. The most prominent genres today are the historical, the sports drama and the espionage thriller, all excellent platforms for showcasing national love. One of the biggest releases this year is the film 83, about India’s triumph at the cricket world cup. The historical Tanhaji, which released earlier this year, earned over Rs 200 crore at the box office. In 2018, the biggest hit was the historical Padmavatand in 2019, the biggest hits were the spy flick War about a national traitor, and Uri, about India’s “surgical strike” in 2016.
As such, it feels as if every Hindi film has a nationalism complex now. And therefore, a film with a title like Half Girlfriend features a sequence with hero Arjun Kapoor in the United Nations speaking about the prime minister’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme, dance film Street Dancer has an India-Pakistan angle, a love story is entrusted with the Swachh Bharat agenda of building toilets.
Such are the times. We live under a savage government with a maniacal nationalism agenda. Most of Bollywood has lined up to serve this propaganda. The few who hold out, the Anurag Kashyaps and Anubhav Sinhas, are making arguments to dismantle this frenzy with films about casteism (Mukkabaaz and Article 15), Islamophobia (Mulk) and patriarchy (Thappad). Every film, it seems, has to add up to something meaningful, there’s no time for an absurd madcap, unserious romance. And this is a depressing development in truth. Because it is nice to see women say deliciously funny things, or prance around in eccentric make-believe situations. It is nice to see women with a sense of humour and I am going to miss seeing that on screen.