I'll Be There for You
In the 90s, India, a closed socialist economy, was opening up to the world. The state run stodgy television channel was giving way to cable television. And a generation of Indians excited about the new India were hooked onto American series like Friends.
FRIENDS THEME SONG OPENING BARS
What could a show like that even mean to someone in Kolkata or Chennai or New Delhi?It was about charming but wilfully blind self-obsessed white New Yorkers.
But It embodied something they thought they needed to aspire to.
Oh to be young and white in Manhattan, to have lifelong friends and part-time lovers, live in adjoining apartments, drink endless cups of coffee and play endless games of foosball.
It was the ultimate hangout comedy and Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing was at its wisecracking heart
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata
Friends star Matthew Perry’s death in a hot tub has been mourned in India as if he was one of their own.
In a sense he was. Other American shows have had more memorable characters (Seinfeld), longer runs (ER) and more critical acclaim (Frasier). But for those of us outside America, Friends felt like a slice of all-American pie. Everyone wanted to be part of the Friends group.
That’s not to say people didn’t recognise its problems. A gay friend says he had a hard time in college. Because the show made LGBT people the butt of its jokes despite little woke touches like a lesbian wedding but no kiss allowed. All things gay were always a joke. And when someone assumes Chandler might be gay, gay panic ensues
Much of Friends has not aged well. It was not just the unbearable whiteness of being Friends. There was trans-mocking when transgender rights weren’t part of public discourse. And let’s not forget the fat-shaming when that wasn’t quite a term
Yet despite all this Friends remains exceptionally popular even in the age of cancel culture. San Francisco has a Friends experience “museum” that it hopes will help revitalise its downtown. The 25th anniversary in 2019 had a Friends light show on the Empire State Building in New York while Grammy winner Meghan Trainor sang their theme song “I’ll be there for you.”
The show exuded a kind of warmth that we all wished we had in our lives. We too wanted to have close-knit friends who had all the time in the world for us and would always be there for us. My school WhatsApp group from Kolkata is called Friends Forever though we are scattered around the world and rarely see each other.
That bond was so special I remember cringing when they introduced romance into the series. I was afraid the friendship would not survive the romance. That’s when I realised I was rooting for Friends not lovers.
And Matthew Perry’s struggles with addiction and rehab made him feel flawed, real and vulnerable even to those in India far away. His memoir where he talked about a colon that exploded due to opioid abuse, years of addiction to pain-killers, two weeks in a coma and 15 stints in rehab made news in India, a country which has not seen too many addiction memoirs.
Perry understood the gift that Friends gave him and its burden. He talked about how he tried to help other addicts even when he couldn’t always do it for himself. He created a sober living facility for men in Malibu.
But he admitted when I die, I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends. And he was at peace with that but added it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people.
I know it won’t happen but it would be nice.
And as he prophesied it didn’t happen but at its best Friends, despite its comedy and its problems, filled some essentially lonely corner in our lives. But Perry’s troubled life, during Friends and after, reminded us that it was in the end all make-believe. But we still sang the theme song hoping against hope that our friends too would be there for us. And these Friends will, at least in reruns.
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW