Readers Write In #107: Why 96 subverts every romcom trope and still is a brilliant example of a romcom

Posted on October 27, 2019

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(by Sudharshan Garg)

A romcom like all other genre movies has its own arc. It is defined very clearly and very few romcoms subvert it. Even the subversions if you might call it that are changing the setting maybe, maybe a romcom set in the 18th century, maybe one set in space. Maybe they are high school kids but the point is the tropes and the arc is the exact same. You could call it the Romcom “heroes journey”, pretty much set in stone.
These are usually  3 part acts. You have the meet cute where this mismatched couple meet, the circumstances aren’t favorable and the girl is always the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Ofc our Masala movies have dialled it up like she has snorted 300 lines of cocaine and you have the pet carrying Manisha Koirala (from Indian) level loosu Ponu.
You then have the denouncement / the fight -this is almost always a misunderstanding that could be easily resolved but well they aren’t.
Finally the dramatic culmination where the boy and it is almost always the boy gets the girl.
The subversions within this narrative universe happen in this given 3 part arc.
So a Notebook sort oh subverts the fight (there is none), or a Ek Mein aur Ek Tu  / Vinay Thandi Varuvaya the boy doesn’t get the girl. In Notting Hill it is the Girl who gets the boy, but in all these movies the other two parts of the three part act remain the same.
Even brilliant movies like 100 days of summer broadly follow these same patterns and arcs.
So why is 96 so exceptional in my books? Because it subverts every single trope and yet tugs at your heart strings AND your tear glands just the same.
The meet cute – doesn’t exist. They know each other from childhood, and in school it was a given that Ram & Janu (I love this name combination, so well chosen) will end up together. If Indian schools had yearbooks, these would have been chosen as the couple most likely to end up together. She is no manic Pixie Dream Girl, he is no depressed nerd who needs saving. Their love story is just it.
The second act – the conflict, just doesn’t exist, he is a 15 year old kid whose dad due to circumstances beyond his own control have to move house. And being ashamed of debt is a very real thing in our villages and small towns. No cellphones and possibly very limited landline connections in 1994 (when they lose contact) means it just was. I was reminded of my own  crush from 8th grade and we lost touch because she moved to Delhi. I never could get past the Dwarapalaka that her dad was in the landline and it wasn’t till some 10 years later and Orkut that I could hunt her down.
Finally the culmination. The boy doesn’t get the girl nor does the girl get the boy. This is where the movie acts within our Indian cultural codes where we put family over self. An American watching this might wonder just why they did not end up together (like in the notebook) but then an Indian watching it would find that odd. A married woman with kids just won’t give up her family, it happens very rarely if at all. The social stigma, the price to be paid might just not be worth it.
Even within the universe of 96, I was stuck by just how much tropes were subverted. It was the girl who was dominant. She knew what the wants, even if it is just to talk, and capture every bit of that one magical night with her love. It is the guy who is shy and retiring. This is like Revathy asking Kamal to sing Inji Idupazhagi. Tamil cinema very rarely has this strong male, submissive female trope reversed.
As a self confessed romcom aficionado, one final difference I observed was that 96 has no heightened melodrama, no rising crescendos of violins like in Love Actually or a Valentine’s Day to get you to shed those  tears. I was struck by how scenes with pedestrian conversations pulled at the heartstrings hard. Like when Ram and Janu meets his students. She very cheerfully and if a touch wistfully reminisces about the “what if”and you are taken along in that journey and though the bgm is upbeat and tempo, the heartstrings are tugged harder than it was a guitar in a rock concert! Onions were definitely chopped and the only saving grace was that it was on board a flight. Though the lady next to me kept looking in my general direction as am sure she heard those sniffles.
I do wish we had more of these heartfelt romcoms that don’t follow the set in stone narrative. 96 shows that it can be done and in spades.