This is a semi-random non-Indian post. Partly it’s because Niki has been talking about the show in her comments lately, partly it’s because I just started a rewatch while unpacking yesterday (I know it so well, I don’t have to pay close attention or even see the screen to enjoy it, so perfect for moving around boxes). Anyway, I always want to write about anything I am seeing, so why not let myself? And just to make it vaguely relevant, I’ll also talk about the things that are and are not Indian in the show and why it would and would not (mostly would not) work in a true Indian remake.
Friends was not just the last massive hit TV show in American television (the numbers that the top shows do now are laughable compared to Friends and the hit shows that came before Friends. Internet changes everything!), but it is also the most successful international export from American TV. Constant story you hear is “Back when I was living in Korea/Zimbabwe/Japan/Russia/Greece/wherever, I learned English from watching Friends.”
So, why does it export so easily? Well, at the heart of it, this is a pretty simple story. It’s about young people forming their own family/support group as they try to navigate the tricky period between leaving home and starting their own family. Which is also why it is kind of hard to translate to an Indian context, where there isn’t so much of a gap between leaving home and starting a family, and thus not as much space for those friendships outside of your original family and your eventual family.
(Plenty of college stories to tell about friend groups, but post-college is a bit rare)
Although what I find fascinating is that, structurally, it would translate very well to an Indian film. If you watch all 10 seasons back to back (as I have done many many many times), there is a natural rhythm to it that matches with the 6 act structure of Indian films. First act, season 1 and 2 in which we meet the characters and the Ross and Rachel romance slowly builds. Second act, season 3 and 4, Ross and Rachel complications. Third act, Monica and Chandler slowly build. Interval, Monica and Chandler reveal at the end of Season 4. Post interval reset, Act 4, season 5 in which Monica and Chandler are on the front burner and Ross and Rachel go to the back. Act 5, Season 6-8, Monica and Chandler relationship develops and moves forward. Act 6, Season 9-10, Ross and Rachel come back as a better stronger couple and happy ending for all!
(Kind of the Bangalore Days structure. Which is also, come to think of it, one of the few films realistically dealing with young people supporting each other. Although their families are still way more important than they would be in an American TV show)
Okay, the structure isn’t exactly the same, but that is mostly because Season 6-10 were kind of disasters in terms of logical plot movements. Thanks to the constant threat by the actors of quitting after one more season, we had to suffer through all these false starts to the Ross and Rachel resolution, and then they backed off, and it just made the characters seem wishy-washy. If it were made in a perfectly planned way, it would have swung right back to resolving Ross and Rachel as soon as Monica and Chandler were set.
(Like how we picked back up on the Ranbir-Anushka relationship right on schedule for the start of the final act once Ranbir-Aish were over in ADHM)
The structure is also kind of related to why it wouldn’t work in an Indian setting. The first half of the show, seasons 1-5, are about people whose lives are a disaster clinging to each other like survivors on a lifeboat. They each go through their own significant romantic disasters, which are significant because they are their first romantic disasters, because they haven’t grown up and figured out how to handle these things yet. And they find their responsible grown up career type jobs. And generally they figure out the last few steps of growing up.
(Jhoothi Hai Saahi tried to do something like this, and it was just weird to me. Planning a wedding and falling in love and everything and your parents aren’t even mentioned? Ever?)
And then the second half of the show, seasons 5-10, that is about adults building up their own individual families and planning for the future now that their presents are finally under control. Only they keep putting off that future a leeeetle bit longer than makes sense (except for Monica and Chandler, The Best Characters), because that’s what the show requires.
(At one point I thought Rani and Saif could pull off Monica and Chandler, but now I just don’t know)
So, why won’t this work in India? Well, each of these characters has their own reasons for needing to find a family outside of the traditional family. Rachel has just run away from her wedding, which causes a break between her and her parents. Ross is in the middle of a divorce, which has driven him away from his parents since he doesn’t want them to know the details. Monica was never close to her parents and never felt loved by them. Joey was the only boy in his family, and fled the pressure to live in the city. Chandler came from a messed up broken home. Phoebe’s parents were dead/missing. They were people who would cling to any random group that would welcome them, their closeness made total sense.
But, let’s play this out in India. Rachel running away from her wedding, okay, that translates and could cause an actual break. Ross getting divorced? Okay, maybe, in today’s modern India. Monica not being close to her parents and moving away and avoiding them just because she doesn’t feel loved? REALLY? Would that really work? Or would all of society judge both sides for living separately? If it did happen, wouldn’t it be like a massive Thing, not just something kind of in the background?
(Massive Thing. See also, Dear Zindagi, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil again, and the other handful of movies with young leads, especially female leads, living on their own)
And then the same is true for Joey. The only boy in his family and he leaves home to live in the city and try to be an actor? WHO DOES THAT??? Well, Shahrukh, but it was like a massive complicated thing and he still ended up just moving his whole family to Bombay with him. But Phoebe, strangely, is the one I have the hardest time with. Because she does have family, she is living with her grandmother. And yet spending all her free time with her friends her own age instead of with her grandmother. In fact, her grandmother seems a hardly remembered part of her life, only appearing in a handful of episodes, and mentioned in a few more.
I’m not saying that noooooooo one in India has stories like this, I am sure it is just as possible for people to get divorced, feel unloved by their parents, etc. etc. as it is in America. People are essentially the same. But while in Friends these backstories are comic, treated as interesting but not unique, if you used the same backstories in India, it would turn into a drama instead of a comedy. The idea of being broken away from your family enough to spend all your time with your friends and live with your friends and all of that, that would be a tragedy in Indian popular culture, not comedy.
(Unless it is treated as a total comedy, like Dostana. But that Friends mixture of comedy with a touch of real emotions, just doesn’t work. It either has to be totally light, or total tragedy, to explain why these young people aren’t still finding their family with their parents)
And, again, Rachel’s backstory works best. Because it is treated as, not exactly a tragedy, but dramatic. Fleeing a wedding is dramatic, no matter which way you cut it or which country you are in. But divorce, family tensions, living with your grandmother and not spending much time with her, that varies a bit.
Okay, now I feel like I have challenged myself! How can we legitimately have 6 people living in the city without any other family but each other, but also no massive tragedy, and no massive social judgement, in Indian pop culture? I think we can do it. But only by changing the background so much as to make it close to unrecognizable as the same story.
UPDATE: The next section used to just be character descriptions, I went ahead and added casting suggestions too. Feel free to disagree or provide your own casting ideas in the comments.
Rachel: the easy one! Same thing, spoiled rich girl who runs away from her wedding at the last minute. And for casting, let’s say Alia Bhatt! Good at that spoiled little girl look, good at the fashionista effect, and a nice meta thing since in real life everyone sees her as a spoiled little girl.
Monica: the really really tricky one! Let’s say stepmother? That would be acceptable, right? For her to leave the family home/be driven out kind of because her father remarried? She can still love her biological dead biological mother, and her living father, but have tension with the stepmother without it being a super shocking kind of thing. And for casting…….Anushka? She feels slightly older than Alia, but that also works since Monica is supposed to be kind of the “mother”. And I think she could pull off the super organized girl with traditional dreams. Kind of like her Band Baaja Baarat role.
(Like Ranbir in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani! Remember how he was all sad and unable to commit because he was distanced from his parents/stepmother?)
Ross: Also tricky! First, he can’t be Monica’s brother any more, because it is too complicated with the stepmother thing. Let’s say cousin-brother. And obviously his ex-wife can’t be a lesbian any more, because then the whole show would be about that. Let’s keep it simple, he had an arranged marriage, was completely happy with his boring settled life, and then just as they were talking about starting a family, she told him she had fallen in love with someone at work and left him. I think that works, right? An arranged couple getting divorced just because she fell in love is equal to shocking and social rule breaking of a woman being a Lesbian? And then to add on to it, she can be pregnant with his child still and planning to raise it with her new boyfriend/husband. And for casting…..Arjun Kapoor? He’s ending up with Alia, and they have nice chemistry together. And he would be really good playing the sad sack with inner strength.
Joey: Simple! Instead of the only boy in a bunch of girls, he is the youngest of many boys. Spoiled as the baby, but given no responsibilities for the family, so he can go off and try to be an actor without having to make it a big Thing. And let’s make it Varun! I know it seems like kind of a waste, but Joey is sort of the secret weapon of the show, super amusing and fun. And heck, we can even keep that little subplot of him having a crush on Rachel to pick up on the Varun-Alia chemistry.
Phoebe: Well, her grandmother can’t be around. At least not in the same way. And that whole tragic backstory barely worked in the original let alone in an Indian context. How about just changing it around altogether. We can keep the mother suicide and the missing father. But we can make her a child of hippies. Her Dad was a white guy who took off somewhere, her mother stuck around for a while. Her grandmother raised her, and then she ended up traveling to the city because she got a job as a masseuse. And obviously, Kalki Koechlin (and Kunaal Roy Kapur can play her eventual husband, because I really liked their chemistry in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani)
(Obviously a perfect Kalki role)
Chandler: Last one! Hmm. I guess we can keep him as a child of divorce, but then leave it at that. Divorced parents, sent away to boarding school, therefore clings to his oldest friend from boarding school (Ross) and his family. Also, most difficult to cast! Chandler is just an amazingly layer character. Super witty, but also with this great love story to play, and in a lot of ways sort of the “father” of the group. And opposite Anushka. Hmmm. Who in the younger crowd has just wowed me with their dialogue delivery? Call me crazy, but Ranveer? He’s got the kind of manic class clown energy, but we also know he can tone it down when he as to. What do you think?
That solves the set-up, and then so long as the rest of it takes like 2 years tops instead of 10 (which, as I have said before, is ridiculous even in the original), I think it all still works. Chandler and Monica get together, resolving their parental issues as part of the wedding planning. Rachel and Ross get together, then break up because they hadn’t dealt with her desire to build her own life and his trust issues after the end of his marriage, then get together again in the end once he works through his stuff and she has the career and validation she needed. Joey finds success as an actor. And Phoebe discovers that she wanted a traditional life all along and marries a nice guy. And Ross and Rachel get together again at her wedding (wedding song ending!).
Well, that was a completely self-indulgent post! Very minimal actual analysis, maximal indulgent talking about the thing I happen to be watching. Oh well, let it go just this once.
(Yes, I know there actually was an Indian remake, Hello Friends, but it flopped, which kind of proves my point. Plus, they made “Gunther” from the TV into a fatherly advice giving type, which also proves my point, that young people only relying on each other just doesn’t fly)