The Friends reunion will be aired on Indian television for the first time on Sunday. There is no doubt this series defined an entire generation’s television experience, perhaps even shaping their expectations of dating and friendships. A key takeaway of this series, echoing the lyrics of its title song, was that friends will stay together, be there for each other, no matter what.

This pandemic, with its lockdown situations certainly brought the spotlight back to friendship as friends get together on video calls (a weekly catch-up session is a must for some friendship groups), and more technology-savvy ones use software (as Gathertown) to create virtual meeting spaces (a park, forest, mall) where each user chooses an icon/character for themselves and meanders the space joining small groups of friends for chit-chats.

Nostalgia has been running high as people are getting back in touch with old school/university/work friends to ask after their wellbeing or reminisce that shared experience when “everything was normal”.

Undoubtedly these friendships have been a source of great support, trust, and warmth in the past and particularly in these terrifying times. Many proudly explained to me that friends, much more than extended family members, have stood by these difficult times when a loved one or they themselves were suffering the virus, and have helped organise food, look for beds in hospitals, and asked after their health every day. Friends were seen as those that one could “fall back on” in times of ill health or death in family.

On the screen

Indeed, Indian cinema too has beautifully captured the purity of friendship (though often more between male friends than female friends), which is exalted to siblinghood in the narrative of these films, as friends sacrifice for each other, either their life (Sholay, 1975), or a love interest (Chaudhvi Ka Chand, 1960, and many more since then on this theme). More recently, films as Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) have traced the tumultuous journeys of friendships ­­­­– their highs and lows; and how these friendships emerge stronger through these experiences.

While this is an appealing and heart-warming narrative, it is also to be noted that friendships are not always forever and can fall apart. In fact, they can be a great source of stress and pain. In my research experience, most narratives of social life are rife with tales of betrayals and distrust when a friend has let down the other by either letting out secrets, manipulating their vulnerabilities, or knowingly guiding them to wrong decisions.

To a great extent, the pandemic has also brought attention to this aspect of friendship, leading people to reassess friendships, re-define their importance and relevance, and re-arrange categories of friends.

In some ways, there is a Marie Kondo-ing, if you will, of friendships, where those that “do not spark joy”, are being reconsidered or rearranged in that order of friendship that most operate with and rarely reveal except through subtle politics of invitation (to parties, events) and confidence (who we choose to tell our secrets).

It is therefore not surprising that as the world emerges from lockdown, leading newspapers and magazines are carrying articles opining on how to cherish one’s social relations that one has come to value during the pandemic by focussing on more meaningful friendships. For instance, The New York Times ran an article, “We want our friends back (but which ones?)”, and The Atlantic, The Pandemic has erased entire categories of friendship”.

The lockdown period has revealed the capacity of self-reliance and the special value of social groups and activities that are not borne out of duty or obligation but are based on affections which truly feel meaningful. A recent Harvard Business Review article “How to say no to ‘grabbing coffee’”, for example, explains how to avoid that coffee-request from a colleague in favour of spending quality time at home or engaging in activities with loved ones.

In other words, much discourse is being directed at making sense of values of friendship. A crucial aspect of this process, according to me, is to understand that friendships are not static, unilinear, or set-in stone. It is important to realise that feelings of love, support and trust do not always remain and can often either fizzle out or take more painful turns.

Ebb and flow

Recent series on OTT platforms have added to this discourse by highlighting the nuances of relationships. One such example is Geeli Pucchi in Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans that traces the friendship and romantic relationship between two women, which begins with support for each other but is also a tale of sabotage and betrayal. Another Netflix series, Bombay Begums too traces relationships (friendships, romance, marriage) that are not always of unbridled support.

These times, more than ever, have brought focus on how friendships are chequered, and ebb and flow. While lockdowns have encouraged a feeling of nostalgia for friendships, it has equally enabled a reassessment of friendships to see how they might have caused wounds, hurt, and pain or at best, simply have expired their shelf life.

While this friendship’s day we certainly will be rejoicing the beauty of this social formation, we will do so with caution and mindfulness, addressing the important questions of what forms of friendship matter most in the post-pandemic world.

Parul Bhandari is a sociologist and author of Match Making in Middle Class India: Beyond Arranged and Love Marriage.

August 1 is Friendship Day.