Romantic reality check: 11 onscreen love stories for a crash course in couple's counselling
Rom-coms are a great escape but it’s the realistic ones which hold great wisdom
Imagine picking up the phone to make an emergency call, the Fire Department officials arrive and find you in a compromising position. They’re required to help extract penis rings, from well, your penis. Nine men in London, to be exact, found themselves in these ‘sex accidents’, inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey. It got so serious that the department had to release official statements of caution. If someone insists that what we watch on TV doesn’t influence us, please direct them to this article.
Whether steamy movies inspire your bedroom antics or rom-coms soothe a broken heart, there’s no denying that pop culture influences how we perceive real-life relationships as well.
There are times when we want to escape into Karan Johar fantasies to get a break from reality. But given the growth of quality content on OTT platforms, we’ve had the opportunity to watch realistic love stories which hold some important lessons for us to take back to the real world.
These layered approaches to love, romance and relationships can give you clarity when you’re unable to fully understand why Gautam ghosted you. You relate with your favourite characters in these realistic love stories as they struggle with residual feelings of tenderness for a partner even after a bitter divorce. Or find solace onscreen watching the pain of unrequited love, while every one of your own friends keeps telling you to “just move on, yaar”.
Realistic love stories on screen hold nuggets of wisdom in the intimate moments and tensions experienced by their characters. It can be cathartic to watch our favourite character evolve in a way that mirrors our own choices, and offers takeaways for us along the way.
We picked out a few of our favourites for you to stream, some old and many new, all which explore the complexities of modern love.
Realistic love stories that will change your views on romance
Sally Rooney’s best-selling book and now Hulu screen adaptation tells the tale of high school jock Connell and unpopular, snarky smarty pants Marianne, who have a secret relationship in their last year in school and then again in college.
Popular kid Connell holds the power at first, and these roles flip when they reunite in college. Here, Marianne’s intelligence is valued and she’s popular, whereas Connell feels like an anxious fish out of water. The new power dynamics put their four-year-long relationship to the test.
Takeaway: Distress come from their inability to talk about how they feel. Oftentimes neither is able to articulate what they want and need, assuming the other person would already know. In one telling scene, Connell tells Marianne, “I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t want you to leave.” She replies, “I don’t find it obvious what you want.”
‘Communication is key’ maybe a tiresome cliche but there’s truth in it. Apart from discussing what you ate for lunch and the bulb that needed to be replaced three months ago, communicate your feelings to your partner. Psychologist Jaini Savla says that it’s not just what you say but how you say it.
“It is equally necessary to communicate in a manner that is not offensive and demeaning to the other. Instead of saying ‘This is not what you should do’, try saying something like ‘this is not what I like, could you please try doing something else?’ instead.”
Watch on Lionsgate Play
In John Carney’s Once, Guy is a busker who spends his days fixing broken vacuum cleaners and performing with his guitar in the streets. He meets Girl, a young Czech flower seller who shares his love for music. Over the next few days, they bond over music, create songs together and learn more about each other’s lives. Guy has a cheating ex-girlfriend who left him and Girl has a toddler at home and a husband in the Czech Republic, but through it, they grow closer.
Guy and Girl may not have ended up together, but they created something beautiful in their music that will transcend and live longer than their brief encounter.
Takeaway: Love isn’t defined by time but by intensity and feeling. Maybe it was when you went on vacation and met a dreamy stranger you instantly clicked with. In these fleeting moments what you feel for this person fills you up. Sometimes the only way to let it out is to pour it into a creative work.
From The Kiss embellished in gold leaf paints by Gustav Klimt to Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, love has been the motivator of some of the world’s greatest works of art.
So instead of wallowing in thoughts of what could have been, channel those feelings of passion into something else in your life. You can still create everlasting memories and art.
Watch on Youtube
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole, a stage director and his actor wife, struggling through a gruelling divorce and child custody agreements.
There has perhaps not been a more honest look at the extremes of divorce on screen. What director Noah Baumbach manages to perfectly capture in this remarkable film is that it’s easy to pick a hero and villain in such a situation — but it’s not always easy to decide who is who when take a closer look.
Takeaway: In fits of frustration, both Nicole and Charlie use each other’s deepest insecurities and secrets as weapons. The most important reason for civility has to be co-parenting your children, which our protagonists manage to do at the end of this tumultuous journey.
Your relationship may have ended but the one between your child and their other parent shouldn’t. Broaching the subject of co-parenting with your child and pulling it off successfully in the long run can be a challenge. More so when one partner starts to move on.
“Making children choose sides is unhealthy for their mental wellbeing,” says Dr. Kritika Dharia, clinical psychologist, Mpower.
“My daughter is 19 now, and we have been co-parenting since she was 9. If you want co-parenting to work, please do not put the other parent down in front of the child. Show a united front,” adds Pooja Mehta*. You can read more about successfully co-parenting in our handbook.
Watch on Netflix
Based on the Villanelle novel series by Luke Jennings, Sandra Oh plays Eve Polastri, a British Intelligence officer who becomes obsessed with capturing a notorious female assassin, Villanelle. She gets recruited by a secret division in MI6, hot on Villanelle’s trail.
Villanelle meets Eve and kickstarts a fatal attraction. They’re protective of each other, care for each other, but then, have also stabbed and shot each other on different occasions.
Takeaway: There’s no better example of a toxic relationship than Eve and Villanelle on TV recently.
Maybe relationship therapist Clare Faulkner is right and it’s the magnetism of Vilanelle’s psychopathic tendencies which keep Eve hooked. “People who might be described as psychopaths can have an appeal; people find themselves magnetically drawn to them,” Faulkner explained. “I can understand that [chasing Villanelle] must have been a very intoxicating and exciting experience.”
We’re not saying your partner has antisocial personality disorder, but any Villanelle-esque behaviour of a toxic relationship should be a major red flag.
Watch on Prime Video
Jules (Hunter Schafer), a young trans woman, is new to town and Rue (Zendaya) has just returned home after a stint in rehab following a drug overdose. The two bond instantly and are soon inseparable.
Together they navigate the politics of high school. Their friendship changes when Jules expresses concern over Rue’s addiction and gives her an ultimatum to quit to end their friendship. Rue’s been slowly falling in love with Jules this entire time.
When Jules breaks the news of her new feelings for another other girl to Rue, it deeply hurts hers. It cuts, even more, when Jules decides to leave for New York without her as Rue chooses to stay behind for her mother and sister.
The tearful ending broke our hearts when they went their own ways. A two-episode special was released at the end of 2020 which gave a glimpse of an emotional reunion at the end.
Takeaway: Their relationship trajectory tells us that no matter what kind of support system or relationships you have in your life, no one else can be responsible for your sobriety and mental health.
It’s an immense responsibility to put on another person, and takes away from you holding yourself accountable for your actions. Drug abuse and poor mental health can put relationships through the strainer. Most recovery centres suggest single life for former addicts, as a new partner can easily become their new dependence, or addiction. We see signs of that in Rue and Jules.
Making someone else the reason for your good mental health isn’t a lasting solution. The length of that relationship then determines your happiness and health, which doesn’t have a realistic or hopeful outcome for anyone involved.
Watch on HBO
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil
Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) builds a friendship with Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma). They share stories of betrayal by their respective partners, and then take off on a week-long trip to Paris to get away from it all. Ayan falls in love with Alizeh, who constantly reiterates she wants nothing but friendship.
The rejection drives him towards Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). News of Alizeh travels to Vienna, where Ayan and Saba are based, taking him back to his heartbroken days.
Years later, Ayan meets Alizeh once again after she’s been given a fatal cancer diagnosis. Ayan tries to convince her to love him back, but she explains that nothing has changed between them. Leaving our male protagonist to finally, hopefully, come to terms with her rejection.
Takeaway: You may love someone unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean you can force them to love you back.
According to mental health counsellor and dating coach Samantha Burns, the pain you feel while trying to come to terms with unrequited love is similar to that of a break-up. It could actually be even more difficult “because you often put your crush on a pedestal.”
Watch on Voot
Felicity Jones plays Anna and the late Anton Yelchin portrays Jacob in this nuanced film about love and distance. She’s a British journalism exchange student who falls for an American design student and they have a summer of love. Anna ends up violating the terms of her student visa. When she tries to return to the US after a visit back home, she’s denied entry and deported.
The couple is left in emotional and geographical limbo as months of separation slowly turn into years and they try their best to sustain their relationship across international borders.
Their once-intense relationship stagnates, and their periods of separation lead them to a decision to see other people. Even as they venture into other relationships, they’re constantly drawn back to each other.
Viewers are given a happy ending, so to speak, with the reunion of the two protagonists. But in the closing scene, one meant to highlight the intimacy and closeness of our leads, lingers an invisible wedge between the two.
Takeaway: Like Crazy has remained a favourite for many among the realistic love stories that we’ve seen on cinema for its honest approach to long-distance relationships on the big screen.
This film encapsulates all your fears of separation and the possibility of outgrowing the one you love. It prods at that nagging fear at the back of your mind that when the time comes, after all this time apart, can you even be together anymore?
Watch on Jio Cinema
Over three seasons, Little Things manages to realistically depict the ups and downs of a millennial live-in relationship. We don’t see Kavya, played by Mithila Palkar and Dhruv, played by Dhruv Sehgal, in the honeymoon period, but at a stage of comfortable modern-day domesticity.
Real life begins when the honeymoon ends, and that’s what we see in this show. Two characters weighing the pros and cons of being together, making choices for their own careers and struggling through a major change in their living arrangement.
Takeaway: It’s something many people will relate to as couples were forced into long-distance relationships during the pandemic. And one of the unfortunate side effects of distance can be the person evolving and living an independent life without their partner. The feeling of being disconnected and separated from your partner’s new life can strain your once-solid relationship.
The realisation that dawns on the protagonists and the viewers is that a complete dependency on the other for your emotional and physical gratification can stunt your own personal growth.
Fighting through the adjustment period of loneliness, stress and frustration, Kavya and Dhruv learn to be happy with each other and for each other, and so must we.
Watch on Netflix
Jane (Meryl Streep), is a successful baker, and has three adult children with ex-husband Jake Adler (Alec Baldwin). Even though her husband remarried a much younger woman, the two have stayed on good terms after the divorce.
An alcohol-fuelled night after their son’s graduation ceremony has them reconnecting. Jane is torn between the reignited feelings for her ex-husband and a budding romance with another man.
Divorces are complicated. Getting back together years after the marriage ends, even more so. While the film is a light-hearted comedy-drama directed by Nancy Myers, it also hit the right notes for showing a romance between older protagonists.
Takeaway: Even after a bitter divorce, reconciling with your former partner may just be possible. Or was it just a fantasy fling? The lockdown has many of us contemplating reaching out to that one particular former flame with whom we left things in a state of flux. Perhaps this time it will be different, or would it just be more of the same?
In her study of 1,001 reunited couples from around the world, Nancy Kalish, professor emeritus at California State University, found that only about 6% said they married, divorced and remarried the same person.
It depends on whether you believe people can truly change in nature. If nothing else, maybe you’ll get closure over issues that have nagged you since your separation.
Watch on Netflix
Tillotima Shome plays Ratna, a young widow who leaves her village to start afresh. She works as domestic help to Ashwin, played by Vivek Gomber, an America-returned architect and writer who is trying to move on from a broken engagement.
Their story addresses one of the biggest stigmas in our society and the film’s writer and director Rohena Gera portrays it with subtlety and nuance. A relationship between a live-in maid and her employer. There is a social, economic and linguistic divide that makes a possible relationship between them unlikely to flourish but there is also genuine affection between them.
While their relationship may not have worked out, they both gave each other something – an opportunity to take another step towards pursuing what they want to do in life.
Takeaway: While Ashwin and Ratna belong to two drastically different worlds that might never have converged in real life, they show us that you can always find common ground if you try.
Some experiences are just so human that we unknowingly share them with countless others. Both Ashwin and Ratna dealt with a loss – Ratna losing her husband only four months after her marriage at age 19 and Ashwin ending his engagement. They both have different aspirations compared to what they’re currently doing for work because of circumstances beyond their control, and this is what gets them both to Mumbai.
Even if you find yourself at loggerheads with a neighbour or caught in a hopeless argument with someone on Facebook, there will be a shared trait or interest that will humanise your nemesis. Maybe you can try social psychologist Arthur Aron’s 36 questions to create closeness with strangers, and attempt to bridge the divide.
Watch on Netflix
Boy meets girl against the picturesque backdrop of a vacation in Corsica, France. They explore the island together, pretend to be movie characters and have an all-round great time without disclosing their real identities with the understanding that it’s how they’ll prevent themselves from falling in love. Tara, played by Deepika Padukone ultimately falls for Ved (Ranbir Kapoor), but leaves without revealing the truth.
When they bump into each other a few years later, Ved is no longer a carefree spirit, but a stick-to-routine type, far removed from the charismatic man she fell for.
Takeaway: A delirium-fuelled exploration of a strange land with an exciting stranger is an ideal love story, but coming back down to earth, there are societal demands that you can’t just shed. Ved feels crushed under the weight of those expectations, which seeps into his romantic relationships as well.
In a similar circumstance, you could walk away because your love interest has changed into someone else, or you could choose to work things out along with them, find compromises and create new paths in life together.
If you feel yourself getting weighed down by other people’s emotional baggage, then maybe a lesson in setting boundaries is in order.
Watch on Netflix