There was a time when Hollywood peddled its happily-ever-afters with flair and fervour. One could perhaps say that it was ushered in 1989, with the release of the rom-com blockbuster, When Harry Met Sally, written by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner. Its wisdom was undisputed and its dialogues, uncorked wit. One might argue that no one really says things like, “When you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” But a girl can hope, can’t she? A generation of girls started hoping. Ephron, their fairy godmother, waved her wand, and hey presto, the golden age of Hollywood rom-coms dawned. Ephron herself wrote two more iconic ones―Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998)―and they, in turn, birthed one of Hollywood’s beloved pairings: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
There were others too―Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride), Drew Barrymore and Michael Vartan (Never Been Kissed), Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman (While You Were Sleeping), Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney (One Fine Day). They existed in the endless continuum of a forever love that never grew jaded.
But forever love is a myth, and Hollywood had to find out the hard way. Our brave Romeos were soon vanquished by the caped crusaders. Marvel came up with its big-budget, superhero franchises, and studios started toeing its line. In the post-Avatar world, the rom-com became collateral damage.
“The world has changed [since the golden age of the rom-com], especially the societal structure of the west,” says film historian Gautam Chintamani. “Gender categories themselves have become fluid. How do you put your story in this context? Also, there are no big stars in Hollywood anymore like there were in the 1990s. Movies are more agenda-driven than ever before.”
But even as Hollywood studios lost the plot of the rom-com, streaming platforms found it, albeit a pale, sickly version of it. Netflix started churning out romance after romance. Unfortunately, many of them were more cringe material than binge material. Love triangles were rampant, Christmas became an overused trope, and playboy princes were a dime a dozen.
“Netflix is driven by demographics,” says Chintamani. “Its aim is to increase its audience base. So, it has very specific content aimed at different sections―like period dramas and crossovers.” Perhaps it is no wonder that the Hollywood rom-com is on life support. It almost feels like neither Netflix nor its consumers believe in the content that it is selling. Love seems to be more a marketing strategy than an actual possibility. According to Pew, the share of American adults aged between 25 and 54 who are currently married fell from 67 per cent in 1990 to 53 per cent in 2019, while live-in relationships more than doubled over that same period (from 4 per cent in 1990 to 9 per cent in 2019). The share of those who have never been married has also grown―from 17 per cent to 33 per cent.
However, there is hope for the hopeless romantic. Internationally, the world of romance is thriving. Those who have been dipping in Hollywood’s baby pool should know that there is a sea out there for them to swim in. Typically, Hollywood rom-coms are schooled not to take themselves too seriously. They are meant to be easy, breezy watches. Not so an international romance. For it, love is still serious business.
Take the Spanish young adult romance, My Fault (2023). It follows 17-year-old Noah who moves to a seaside chateau after her mother marries a dashing billionaire, and cannot help her attraction to her step-brother, Nick. It is well-trodden terrain with all the familiar tropes―the bad boy hero, the rebel teen, the Formula One-worthy car chases, the drunken parties, the poolside banter, the brawny villain. Where it differs from your average Hollywood rom-com is in its conviction: My Fault truly believes in true love. Its fault might lie in superficiality, but not in sincerity. Even the superficiality―the Ferraris and the Ferragamos―which makes love seem improbable, only makes it more valuable, like finding an heirloom on a kitchen counter.
If My Fault’s modus operandi is to make the old new, there are others who have departed from the old altogether―like the Taiwanese romance, Man in Love (2021). Almost every Hollywood rom-com culminates in The Kiss, which often comes after a moment of reckoning and a race to the airport. But no one really bothers about what happens after The Kiss. Man in Love almost begins where most Hollywood rom-coms leave off. It is about a debt collector and small-time gangster, A-Cheng, who falls in love with the daughter of one of his debtors. The movie really begins after they fall in love, and is steeped in gritty realism. The film does not shy away from violence―in fact, the opening scene is of A-Cheng smashing a bottle against his head―and neither does it subscribe to the bubble-gum fantasy of the Hollywood rom-com.
“Sometimes the main themes of these foreign films are impacted by the culture of Hollywood, but everything around them―the architecture of the houses, the relationship of parents, the aesthetics―are steeped in their own culture,” says a friend and lover of foreign romances who did not want to be named. “Also, I find the aspirational things they show in movies to be so different in different cultures. I once watched this Zimbabwean romance about a woman who wants to be in MasterChef Zimbabwe. Just by looking at the quality of their national cooking show, you can immediately see what rich means in a different country.”
It is a testament to their diversity that both realism and exaggeration can co-exist in these foreign romances without the charm of either being affected. “In Korean rom-coms, the comedy is a lot more physical and exaggerated than in Hollywood ones,” says Sanjay Ramjhi, president and founder of The K-Wave India, a Chennai-based K-pop and K-drama group. “Also, Korean rom-coms are famous for something called ‘aegyo’, where the boy or girl acts cute to please the audience. You will never find this in other cultures. Anyone else doing it would just look weird.”
Of course, there is always the less savoury fare even in world cinema, like the Balinese romance, A Perfect Fit (2021). It is Cinderella story in reverse, where fashion blogger Saski who is engaged to the son of a multi-millionaire ends up falling for a shoemaker. It is steeped in stereotypes and tries to blend tradition and modernity without doing justice to either. Here, it might not exactly have been Prince Charming who found the glass slipper, but even this mediocre offering might point to a deeper truth― that you might not find the perfect fit in real life, but you should never settle for anything less in the reel one.