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The Problems With Nollywood's Romantic Comedies
Romantic comedies capture how love and culture intertwine, but are nollywood rom-coms doing that?
In the new wave of Nollywood cinema, romantic comedies have become a vehicle for commercial success. These films take two things Nigerians are obsessed with and create at least an hour and thirty minutes of scenes soundtracked by Simi and Kizz Daniel where a woman searches for the perfect man — because, apparently, Nigerian men are never looking for the perfect woman. They have become some of the highest-grossing and culturally significant films of modern Nollywood, but not a lot of writing exists about them. Why? Maybe they are considered easy watches not worthy of any analysis, but for films that reflect our values and standards around love and romantic partnerships, we should examine them more.
Love and laughter have existed in human society since time immemorial and like a lot of human peculiarities, they are universal in experience but unique in culture. Romantic comedies point a light on these things to create funny films that always assure you of a happy ending — but happy for who?
Nigerian rom-coms typically involve a woman going on a journey of some sort: finding herself, finding a job but ultimately finding a man. In When Love Happens, Mo is a twenty-eight-year-old woman who is borderline obsessed with finding true love; In Kambili, the titular character is on a journey of self-discovery solely to get her ex back, she gets over him but ends up with her best friend.
The women of our rom-coms are rarely defined beyond their search for a man, even when the films try to be progressive, you can feel the restraints of a marriage-obsessed culture holding them back. They are also made to tolerate a myriad of disrespect because, in the end, they get the guy. The beloved The Wedding Party falls into this pit by putting Dunni in the face of disrespect from Dozie’s mum, his exes and his friends only for her to forgive him easily. The women are also punished with returning to conceited, and sometimes abusive, exes for not realizing their friends — men written as Mr. Nice Guy — are in love with them. The men, on the other hand, are presented as perfectly flawed; their childishness is held up as quirks and all that is packaged in a form-fitting tuxedo at the end of the film because they are the prize.
When our rom-coms aren’t putting our women through the wringer, they are creating humour and acts of love with a Hollywood recipe that makes for awkwardly delivered lines with uncomfortable inflections. I consider rom-coms a modern form of portraying cultural identity because, as earlier said, love and laughter can be specific to different cultures. Nigerian romantic comedies have not yet struck what makes us funny as a people, they import cliched jokes and banter between couples that fail to convince us that these two people are in love or Nigerian. There is almost always a foreign presence in our rom-coms, be it the characters, as in Isoken and The Wedding Party 2; or the story, as in The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. I agree that films can have influences, but influence should be a subtle guiding hand rather than a copy-and-paste project.
Isoken is one of the better ones in this aspect, maybe because it is written and directed by a woman.
Another reason these films fail to capture us fully is the class of people being portrayed. The characters in our rom-coms all live in visibly affluent Lagos communities, work vague but well-paying jobs and never have money problems — even if they do, it is quickly resolved. These are Nigerian experiences, yes, but not for the majority of us. There is a scene at the beginning of Dika Ofoma’s The Way Things Happen — not a romantic comedy, but it beautifully captures the essence and longing of lost love — where the couple teases each other, switching between Igbo and English as they lay on the bed. As I watched it, I caught myself smiling and wondering how a culturally rooted glimpse of love like that rarely exists in rom-coms that have hit our cinemas and streaming platforms.
On days our rom-coms succeed, you will find a film dedicated to the love story and does not try to elevate it with unresolved or rushed plot lines. The many that fail do not believe in the depths of love, in the ways our minds either fight for or against love and in the ways these things manifest in relationships. They don’t consider being in love serious enough to hold space alone so they must examine some social issues directly to give weight to the film. Isoken is one of the better ones in this aspect, maybe because it is written and directed by a woman. We are taken on a journey with the titular character where she makes the difficult decision of not marrying just to cave in to pressure despite the man being “perfect”. There is not much extra to the plot but it still carries the weight of a story many Nigerian women relate to.
Unlike Namaste Wahala, for instance, which holds an array of sexist ideas over a story you are not even invested in and tries to deepen it by introducing a domestic violence subplot that is resolved in a rushed and questionable way. There are many facets to love, and it is lazy to explore them with these extra plot lines that are constructed as if to score social justice points and distract us from the soullessness of the story. The film had the potential for a vivid and expansive portrayal of love across cultures, but it never goes beyond low-hanging jokes and a strengthening of stereotypes women have been rejecting. Despite its flaws, which abounds, it at least does not cheaply weaponize queerness as a last-minute plot twist to secure a sequel.
If you follow our conversations about love, online and offline, there is a combative nature to it. We are constantly in some kind of battle, trying to swindle and one-up each other in partnerships that should be spaces for vulnerability and growth. Many times, it’s because people — especially women — are questioning things that have been touted as love for the longest time but are actually tools of subjugation. All these contribute to films that have relegated love to a series of gestures and boxes ticked instead of a powerful force that makes for memorable characters.
The next Nollywood romantic comedy will come, it will create a ton of buzz and we will be seated to watch and laugh, but in between laughs I wonder if we will think of the many possibilities present in this genre. The ways vulnerability beget love which beget humour that is true, funny and constant to character and culture. The vastness of love stories in our ways of life and the different ways they can manifest; the thrill of young love, the measured excitement of second chances and the transcending power of loving regardless; the justified fear of choosing one’s self and the triumph of being truly seen.
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