This is primarily because they not only entertain but also display the crucial aspects of human nature. How people behave when placed in situations of conflict? What emotions come into play?
Be it any genre – crime, social, horror, medical, family – dramas provide exposure to human behavior and tell us what we need to know, which influences our thoughts and action. Except romantic dramas. In his book Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency, American author William Jewett argues that romantic dramas will not tell you what you need to know in order to act in this world. It can, however, make you intimate with that need.
It is, perhaps, this very intimacy of emotions that led classic poets, dramatists and authors to give a language and meaning to feelings leading to the emergence and subsequent rise of Romance and Romanticism in “the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century during which time, it is argued, ‘Romantic’ ideas first gained their currency” (Cox, 1996, p2). Developed through theatrical staging and literary conceptualization, romantic representations made their way to the visual world of film and TV, paving the way to one of the most loved universal genres – romantic dramas.
Decoding Romance in I’m On Your Side
One such romantic drama that recently emerged from Ukraine is I’m On Your Side, which revolves around two contrasting individuals, Nastya and Maksym, who come together in unusual circumstances. While Nastya is a young, successful surgeon of a hospital, Maksym is a hitman and the chief security officer of his uncle, Mykhailo’s pharmaceutical business. When Nastya becomes an involuntary witness to a murder committed by Mykhailo, he orders Maksym to execute her. But Maksym threatens Nastya at gunpoint to marry him in order to save her life.
The character of Nastya can be viewed as the romantic representation of Galician women that Ukrainian writer and poet Uliana Kravchenko writes about in her poetry. Kravchenko illustrates a poignant image of the suffering woman, creating an anti-thesis between the ideal woman-princess and the real woman-captive, who is confined to the golden cage of social conventions.  Nastya is an embodiment of this “anti-thesis” in a patriarchal world where on one side, she is an attractive woman, an idealist who believes in love, having been raised with immense love and care by her protective elder brother after the untimely death of their parents; and on the other, after marriage to Maksym, she is held “captive” in Maksym’s uncle’s family mansion, which her doctor colleague and friend Lydia refers to as golden cage, where Nastya would have to function within the social conventions and observant eyes of Mykhail and his family members.
Maksym’s character symbolizes the construction of hegemonic masculinity of the Soviet and Post-Soviet era, of the old Russia and New Ukraine. During the Soviet period, the depiction of a healthy, strong trained body was part of the heroic and patriotic Soviet propaganda (Kon 2001). Such an image was referred to as the “Athletic Man”, who was the protector of his family and nation but unexpressive and unromantic. However, the decline of Soviet reintroduced the notion of masculinity with the emergence of a new man, referred to as a “New Lad” who was influenced by the western lifestyle values and appealed to “independence, control, and individual freedom”(Hankivsky, Salnykova, 2012, p334). Maksym is attractive and physically strong but impassive and doesn’t believe in love. Having trained his body and mind to be agile, he’s the protector of his family, and an ardent listener of western hard rock music and wears western clothes.
There is an old saying that opposites attract but how does it work? How do two people so different from each other can make peace with such differences? Nastya and Maksym are like the “contrasting Shakespearean characters: the innocent Imogen, the evil Iago” (Burwick, 2009, p1). He is evil to her innocence. He takes great pleasure in her pain and vice versa. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet. So, how does a story bring together two different individuals when the narrative does not bring attraction into play? The majority of love stories project conflict between two individuals who are either single, or in a relationship, or one of them is married or they come together in an arranged marriage. But what makes the story of I’m On Your Side unique is that both the main characters get married under compromising circumstances with total hatred for one another right from the first act. How through unspoken words and gestures they develop a bond is where the beauty of the series lies. While their love story is at the core of the narrative, the series also explores multiple themes such as class difference, gender roles & inequality, patriarchy and “adolescent expression of passion” (Graefe, 1993).
The Meanings of Slow Smile in I’m On Your Side
The complex and challenging structure of conveying romance and intimacy through non-verbal communication rather than words has been explored since the Roman period. An expression used to articulate affection and tenderness of a relationship was the subtle expression- the slow smile. Roman lyric poet, Horace, hints at the power of this delicate human expression in one of his poems (Odes), “the mind which feels delight in the present moment should not worry about what is to come, but should dilute all bitterness with a slow smile” (2.16.25-28). These immortal words and the beauty of the slow smile that Holace talks about are explored in two moments of I’m On Your Side. After performing a crucial surgery, Maksym takes Nastya for lunch to recuperate. In the restaurant, Maksym asks Nastya why she wanted to become a doctor. Nastya, with a slow smile, shares a private childhood memory about the death of her parents motivating her to become a doctor. When Nastya asks Maksym if he always wanted to become a gangster, Maksym, with a slow smile, shares a childhood incident, stating that he wanted to become a veterinarian, much to her surprise. It is for the first time that both Nastya & Maksym let one another enter their personal space by sharing a private moment and Nastya sees what Maksym might truly be – a kind and caring person. In another scene, Maksym and Nastya hide in a cottage in the woods from thugs who are out to kill them. In the lodge, Nastya enquires from Maksym about the passionate kiss they shared earlier after her happiness of seeing him alive following an encounter with the killers, and whether the kiss meant anything to him. Maksym lies to her that he didn’t have time to think about it. He turns around and a slow smile appears on his face. The moments of romance emerge not from the physical attraction but from the elusive expressions and the personal conversations between the two, indicating the possibilities of romance between Nastya and Maksym. The resentment that was once omnipresent in their relationship begins to dilute which is made visible through the window of a tender slow smile. They begin to take delight in the present moment (in the restaurant and cottage) and not think about the challenge that lays ahead (of being pursued by gangsters).
In one of the crucial moments of the drama, when Nastya and Maksym are about to get married despite their obvious hatred for one another, Nastya tries to convince Maksym that they should not take that step and asks him, “We hate each other. Will this (marriage) even last?” Maksym, responds with a slow smile, “We’ll see.” In a way, Maksym reflects the feeling and thoughts of the audience as they witness the journey of two opposite individuals who go from total disagreement to absolute faithfulness to one another.
I’m On Your Side is an intriguing modern romantic drama with a “serene intermingling of the unexpected and the everyday” (Reardon, 1991, p3) presented in a thrilling manner. A poignant love story that explores the feelings, desires, motives, compulsions and situations “that exceed or defy routine ways of explaining how people do things” (Jewett, 1997, p5) when love is the central driving force of their life.