An Indiscreet Love for Romance
There are few things that spark more joy and hope in me than a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it seems writers of romantic comedies are becoming more and more incapable of imagining proper, sigh-inducing romances these days. It’s almost as though grudgingly inching towards being progressive attitudes is making us less romantic (damn patriarchy! What have you done to us?). Recently, Bollywood and Hollywood each released a romantic comedy, which should have meant good times for rom-com fans like me. Instead, I found myself feeling thoroughly disgruntled and wading through YouTube to find Indiscreet, released in 1958. Next thing you, I have thoughts.
(A version of this was published last Sunday in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times.)
At one point in Luka Chuppi, the new romantic comedy starring Kartik Aryan and Kriti Sanon, the lead pair solemnly tie a knot using their pyjama strings and start walking around a bowl in which some newspaper is burning, while some Sanskrit mantras drone out of a friend’s phone speakers. Just about 20 days ago, Sanon’s Rashmi had balked at the idea of getting married, but having lived in orgasmic sin for 20-odd days and then being treated as a beloved bahu by Guddu’s (Aryan) family, Rashmi now wants the bonds of matrimony with a junkie’s desperation.
The flip from being unenthusiastic about matrimony to desperately wanting to husband and wife reminded me of a film in which the lead pair does a similar about face.
Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and written by Norman Krasna, is about the love affair between a famous actress and a celebrated economist. Grant plays Philip, a commitment-phobe who has found a nifty way of romancing women without having to marry them – he tells them straight off the bat that he’s estranged from a wife who will not divorce him. That way, the women have no reason to expect anything more than an affair, which is all he wants anyway. It’s no surprise he falls for Anna (Bergman). She’s beautiful, witty and fiercely independent.
If you thought the twist in Indiscreet’s tale is the lead couple having an (allegedly) adulterous affair, think again. It turns out Philip isn’t actually married and when Anna finds out he’s been conning her, she decides to return the favour by poking the alpha male beast in Philip. By the time we’re in the final act, Philip, who was resolutely avoiding commitment, can’t imagine not being married to Anna.
In both Indiscreet and Luka Chuppi, the desire to get married is depicted as a somewhat manic reaction to an unconventional state of affairs and a frantic final move to return to convention after having defied it. While in the contemporary Bollywood film, we get antics showing visual and physical comedy, Indiscreet keeps it crisp, witty and insightful. Like in this scene, near the end of the film, when Anna tries to find an amicable resolution to their conflict:
Philip: What do you mean?
Anna: I mean we'll go on as before.
Philip: And not be married?
Anna: That's right.
Philip: That's the most improper thing I’ve ever heard.
Philip: I can hardly believe my ears.
Anna: What are you so shocked about?
Philip: I didn't think you were capable of it.
Anna: Well, what is different?
Philip: We're not married!
Anna: We weren't before.
Philip: But you didn't know I wasn't married.
Anna: You knew.
Philip: I knew you didn't know. What's the matter with you? How could you ask me to do such a thing? Haven't you been following what I’ve been saying? Oh, I tell you, women are not the sensitive sex. That's one of the great delusions of literature. Men are the true romanticists.
Nestled in this hilarious repartee is a wealth of social commentary. It reverses the conventional setup in which the woman is the one obsessed with propriety and demanding marriage – a simple device with complex results. Now, all of a sudden, the cool-as-cucumber hero is the hysterical one while the heroine remains (relatively) poised. If you’re shocked by Anna’s suggestion that they continue their affair, then this exchange forces you to ask why it felt amusing when Philip did the same (and less transparently, one might add).
In Anna’s reluctance to become a wife is the subtext that marriage may mean a loss of independence for a working woman who is set in her ways and possessive of her personal space. By the same token, Philip’s enthusiasm highlights the way labels change the power dynamics of a relationship – he’s rooting for a change that tips the balance in his favour – but softens the blow by making him effectively beg her to surrender to him. The exchange is also a reflection of how love is expected to change the way people behave. Anna and Philip are quite calm after they have sex the first time – we don’t see it. This is the 1950s, after all. But we get enough of a hint that they’ve done more than… rub noses – and it’s only when you compare the finale to their composed morning-after chat that you realise that rather than lust reducing them to frenzy, it’s love that makes the pair irrational and insecure (while holding out the carrot-shaped promise of companionship and joy).
Donen’s 1958 film about two commitment-shy people who fall in love feels significantly more contemporary and bold than most 21st-century rom-coms, particularly the two that were recently released. While Luka Chuppi released in theatres, Netflix served up Isn’t it Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson. (Considering how unsettling and violent February has been in terms of current affairs, there couldn’t be a better time to release romantic comedies. I, for one, am not even slightly surprised Luka Chuppi is on its way to be a blockbuster hit.)
As a genre, the romance is ancient, but the romance with a happy ending is a modern invention. Romantic comedies as we know them are 20th-century beasts with rebellion and conformity in their DNA. On one hand, romances take on social conventions (which is why they traditionally ended in tragedy, offering to the audience the moral that ignoring society and prizing your individual desires can only end badly. For you. Society will shimmy along happily, thank you very much). The idea that love stories can end happily — with a little give and take in which the couple do their bit to conform to social expectations (by getting married) and society doing its bit (by accepting individuals have the right to prioritise themselves over others) — is actually quite radical.
Not that romantic comedies feel this way. Like a Trojan horse that would make Odysseus proud, these stories usually give the impression of being deeply rooted in convention and even conservatism. The men — So good looking! So rich! So accomplished! So male! Growl! — are always depicted as being out of the heroine’s league and the professions they flaunt are fool proof indicators of what a society prizes. Princes remain favourites, because for all our revolutions, feudalism (and the idea that you can make a nation pay for a lavish lifestyle) still makes our hearts go pitter-patter. Businessmen and doctors are perennial favourites. Investment bankers had their moment in the romantic spotlight before the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Try finding rom-com hero who is a professor or a bureaucrat.
The women are almost always young, innocent and nubile. Irrespective of age, colour or body type, the rom-com heroine needs a man to make her feel beautiful and complete, to open her eyes to the truth. Invariably, the woman is misunderstood and the man is the one doing the misunderstanding. Particularly if he’s big enough to apologise, then she must also find herself sobbing and apologising for having bruised his male ego. And then they get married, cheerfully and voluntarily entering an institution that was devised to classify women as a man’s possession and protect men’s rights to property, capital and heirs.
Yet for all the formulaic plots that uphold stereotypes and norms, the best romances (particularly in film) are filled with mischief and subtle irreverence. A standard trope is that the heroine is not conventionally beautiful or ‘suitable’. Sometimes, this means a makeover — usually funded by Prince Charming — but then there are those that demand the hero and the audience see the women differently. Perhaps the oldest example of the self-aware, non-conforming heroine is in Jane Austen’s novels (most famously, Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice). More recently, from the world of films, we have the Bridget Jones. Characters like these women — and the men who like them just the way they are — have become the gold standard for modern romantic comedies. They are, however, pretty damned hard to get right because they have to not just have the perfect balance of vulnerability and confidence, but they also need to be paired with men who can make pulses flutter with just one look (arched eyebrow, ruffled hair, wet shirt: optional).
Isn’t it Romantic is a good example of how hard it is to get the heroine of a rom-com right. Wilson plays Natalie, an architect who doesn’t seem particularly concerned about her looks. She’s plus-sized and cynical, and spends most of her screen-time dissecting and dissing romantic comedies. One evening, on her way home from work, Natalie crashes into a pillar after successfully defending herself against a mugger. When she comes to her sense, everything is a little bit rose-tinted and a whole lot rom-commy. There are good-looking men everywhere, her gorgeous client (Liam Hemsworth) has heart-eyes for her, New York City smells fragrant, Natalie’s dog is well-behaved and her hair is blow-dried perfection. Only if you’ve never even heard of a rom-com will it come as a surprise that — SPOILER ALERT — this is a hallucination. (Bollywood fans, Priyanka Chopra is in the film and has pretty much nothing to do except look good and get dumped.)
Written by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman, Isn’t it Romantic is supposed to be a snarky, self-aware romantic comedy that turns the conventions of the genre upside down. Great idea, but terrible execution. The film is boringly predictable. All the clichés are there, in full force, but they feel tiresome. Clichéd stories can and are regularly redeemed by clever writing and actors’ performances. Isn’t It Romantic fails on both fronts. The film has two heroes and neither of them share any chemistry with Wilson. Everything feels fake — it doesn’t help that Natalie keeps pointing out that none of this is possible — and more importantly, we don’t even want it to be real because not a single character feels endearing or relatable in either reality or fantasy. Netflix got it right with Set it Up and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, but Isn’t it Romantic tries too hard to be clever and ends up being a flat-out disappointment.
In the recent past, romantic comedies haven’t had a very good run. Even legends of rom-com writing like Richard Curtis have found themselves floundering. The conversations and concerns of the 21st century seem to be at odds with the candy-floss fiction that romantic comedies spin. How do you fit gender equality or the idea that sexuality may be a spectrum into a boy-meets-girl story? The well-established courtship rituals that are central to romantic comedies have heterosexual attraction and male privilege as their foundation. What is this new world where it isn’t sexy to dominate a woman without her consent? Where she doesn’t collapse with gratitude at being the chosen one, but wants to have her own sense of agency?
Both Luka Chuppi and Isn’tiIt Romantic struggle with this problem of wanting to be faithful to the established conventions of romantic comedies while also acknowledging the times in which these stories are set. Both films have confident and opinionated women as heroines (although that, as I mentioned earlier, is in itself a rom-com golden rule for centuries now). Isn’t it Romantic takes its cue from Ariana Grande’s “Thank you, Next” — what could be more on point than self-love? – in an attempt to redeem itself from making Wilson’s Natalie literally run after the man she loves. Unfortunately, this ends up to be self-defeating because one of Natalie’s charms was that she didn’t show any signs of self-loathing or insecurity. If all her previous sass was posturing, then she really is the clichéd damsel in distress.
Rashmi of Luka Chuppi isn’t written to be unconventional, but her wanting to be a journalist and demanding that her boyfriend stall marriage and share a house with her first makes Rashmi seem like a champion of women’s empowerment. Unfortunately, the script can’t figure out what to do with her hankering for autonomy so halfway into the story, Rashmi does an about-turn and insists on getting married. Whether or not Luka Chuppi’s writer Rohan Shankar intended it, the film’s second half ends up offering a rather unforgiving view of the youth as Guddu and Rashmi embark on ridiculous schemes to get married in secret. Their hare-brained ideas should ask the audience to wonder about what exactly does it mean to get married? For Guddu and Rashmi, it isn’t the legal status that matrimony confers upon a person because the one thing the couple don’t do is sneak off to get a court marriage. What we do see is them trying to perform different religious and social marriage rituals. It doesn’t seem to strike them that not using their real names is a problem since it technically suggests their pseudonyms — rather than Guddu and Rashmi — are the ones with the marriage certificate. All that matters to these two young things is to get the religious and social stamp of approval. The script takes shortcuts to developing the relationship between the central pair and focuses instead on how others react to Guddu and Rashmi being a couple. Instead of following the rules of romantic comedy and making society grudgingly accept their relationship, Luka Chuppi’s lead pair gets obsessed with conforming to society. This is particularly ironic since the real point of the film is to criticise social conservatism (in a modest, non-confrontational way using two upper-caste Hindu characters and keeping representatives of minority communities in minor roles).
In contrast, Indiscreet, set in the 1950s, focuses on two people. It doesn’t ever turn away from the love story its telling, but ends up offering a more insightful look at society while simultaneously resisting conservatism in a way that still feels modern. Here are a grown man and woman falling in love, allowing each other space, and not holding one other back. She’s in her 40s and makes no attempt to pretend to be young. Both of them are unapologetic about not wanting to settle down because society demands it. He’s a liar and she doesn’t mind being an adulterer. Krasna’s script doesn’t bring in other people or voices. Norms and expectations are like the wallpaper — invisible and yet present, providing a background against which the actions of the lead pair play out. The decisions Anna and Philip make highlight how women are expected to behave, what men are allowed to get away with, and how much wiggling room one is afforded when one has privilege and money.
The curiosity of romances in general and romantic comedies in particular is that nothing screams status quo as loudly as a love story. Usually, 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. At the same time, 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. It’s this combination that makes romances so alluring, especially in turbulent and difficult times. Luka Chuppi is on its way to becoming a proper blockbuster and I, with my decades of reading romances and watching rom-coms, am not the least bit surprised. Considering the state of the nation, a rom-com is exactly what India wants to lose itself to because particularly in times of chaos, we 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 relief at times when reality becomes oppressive; they create ideals for lesser mortals and can help rethink what is considered indisputable. We can’t all look like Bergman or Grant — or Aryan and Sanon, if that’s how you roll — but we can certainly dream of the same tenderness with which Grant and Bergman’s bodies fold and lean into one another. We watch these movies to escape reality, yes, but in the way popular, persuasive entertainment reflects upon society, genres like romantic comedies have the potential of kindling the imagination to think of a new normal. One in which, for instance, consent is sexy, romantic relationships are between equals and discretion is overrated. At present, the writers — particularly those writing films — are failing miserably.
Fortunately, Indiscreet is freely available on YouTube.