In the classic romantic comedy, love must surmount obstacles—romantic rivals, disapproving parents, class or caste differences, and the misunderstandings and misapprehensions of the lovers themselves—before the couple can be united for the happy ending. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for example, it is not only Darcy's stubborn pride and Elizabeth's hasty prejudice that must be overcome, but differences in social status (he is immensely wealthy while her family is beset by money difficulties), other potential matches (Darcy is intended by his aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh to marry her daughter Anne, while Elizabeth is wooed by both Wickham and Mr. Collins, and has a brief flirtation with Colonel Fitzwilliam), and social disgrace (the near-ruin that Lydia's elopement brings on the Bennet family).
So in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible? The evidence from three recent Bollywood movies only leaves a little room for optimism.
Tanu Weds Manu (2011)
"Opposites attract" is a time-honored device in romantic comedy, dating back at least to Beatrice and Benedick's "kind of merry war" in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. There are too many Hollywood "opposites attract" movies to list, but some classic examples include Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934), Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). Latter-day versions include Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day (1993). I'm sure you can think of many more.
For an "opposites attract" movie to work, though, we need to have some feeling of hope for the couple, some sense that each of them is trying to bridge the differences that divide them. That's not a feeling I had while watching Tanu Weds Manu. NRI doctor Manu (Madhavan) returns to India to look for a bride and encounters the free-spirited Tanu (Kangna Ranaut), who has been forced to meet Manu against her will. There are some subtle signs that Tanu might not be the best choice for Manu, such as her revelation that her boyfriend's name is tattooed on her breast, or her plea for Manu's help so she can elope with that boyfriend, street-thug Raja (an effective Jimmy Shergill).
It's possible to understand why the quiet, dutiful Manu might be attracted to the vivacious Tanu: she embodies freedoms that he has never allowed himself. But Himanshu Sharma's script doesn't show us enough of what might attract Tanu to Manu, or give us any long-term hope for this couple. I found myself thinking "This is such a bad idea" throughout the final Tanu-Manu wedding scene—not exactly the note on which you want to end a romantic comedy. At least Krsna's Punjabi-inflected soundtrack is enjoyable.
Aisha is based on Jane Austen's Emma (1815), and like that novel features a heroine who can't keep from meddling in the lives of everyone around her—usually to ill effect. But Emma's interventions are motivated by a spirit of generosity; while they are generally misguided, they are not mean-spirited.
That's not case with Aisha (Sonam Kapoor). In one particularly ugly incident, she tries to fix up her friends Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar) and Shefali (Amrita Puri) by taking them to an out-of-the-way restaurant. She drives off, and Randhir and Shefali discover that there's no restaurant: instead they've been left in front of a hotel at which a room has been booked in Randhir's name. After paying for the expensive room Randhir walks back to town with Shefali as she struggles in her unfamiliar high heels (are there no cabs or auto rickshaws around?).
So exactly why Arjun (Abhay Deol), the Mr. Knightley character, winds up professing his longtime passion for Aisha isn't really clear. It doesn't help that Aisha is played by Sonam Kapoor, who as an actress is pretty enough, but blank: her performance suggests that Aisha really is as shallow as she seems. By the end of the movie we've seen three couples united, and all of the romantic happy endings feel unearned. Why any of these folks wind up with each other rather than with someone else seems entirely arbitrary; and if it's arbitrary, why should we care?
Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, Horns, Revelry, 2010)
BBB almost gets it right, but (if you must rely on subtitles, as I do) has a serious misstep at the end—the most crucial moment in a romantic comedy, of course. Shruti (the appealing Anushka Sharma) goes into a wedding-planning partnership with Bittoo (the appealing Ranveer Singh). Shruti is all business, and she has a firm rule never to mix that business with pleasure.
But after "Shaadi Mubarak" successfully carries out their biggest wedding to date, Shruti and Bittoo's drunken celebration ends up with them in bed together. It's clear that the discovery of the unexpected depth of her feelings for Bittoo has unnerved Shruti; uncertain whether Bittoo returns those feelings, she hints to him the next morning that she only wants to be friends. His utter relief at her suggestion stabs her right in the heart.
Anushka's portrayal of Shruti's complex and contradictory emotions in these scenes is heartbreaking. In an earlier post on Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009) I wrote that "love overcoming obstacles is indeed a classic story line, but the obstacles have to be something other than the couple's willful disconnection from their own feelings." But now I'm not so sure: BBB makes that disconnection dramatically and emotionally compelling.
The two split up personally and professionally, and discover that—like Lennon and McCartney or Strummer and Jones—separately neither one is as good or as successful as they were together. When a client demands that they work together once again, they must come to terms with their true feelings for one another—only in the meantime Shruti has become engaged to a wealthy businessman.
So far, and in combination with Salim-Sulaiman's catchy soundtrack, so excellent. As a sample, watch Bittoo and Shruti get the party started in "Ainvayi Ainvayi"; I love Anushka's exasperated expressions:
Warning: If you're in any suspense about how BBB turns out you should stop reading here! Of course as he works with Shruti again Bittoo finally realizes that he has loved her all along. He takes her aside to confess his love for her—a key romantic-comedy moment. But as the subtitles render Bittoo's speech, it's all about why he wants to get back together with Shruti ("I have so much fun when I'm around you," etc.)—not why she should want to get back together with him.
For a lesson in how a romantic comedy confession scene should be handled, scriptwriter Habib Faisal should watch Ball of Fire (1941) ("I love him because he's the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk!") or When Harry Met Sally ("I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts...."). Bittoo's speech is all about himself, not Shruti. As I wrote in a comment on Beth Loves Bollywood's post on BBB, "I would hope a woman who had such ample evidence of how clueless and out of touch with his own emotions Bittoo is would want to hear something about how he's changed and grown."
In response to that comment, though, both Aparna and maxqnz offered thoughtful and passionate defenses of this scene. Subtitles, of course, often abridge or misrepresent what's being said onscreen, so it may be that I can't be a fair judge Bittoo's speech. As a prisoner of subtitles, though, I felt a bit let down. Still, BBB gives me at least a little hope that in an era when the obstacles to love are mainly self-created, there are still possibilities for romantic comedy.