A love story — or a modern love story, however you want to think of modernity — must throb as more than a summation of its mushed moments. What we remember from Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015), Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), Shakun Batra’s Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) are not just the sweet seconds, but a cumulative fragrance that emanates from the film, a fragrance that comes from having two actors so thoroughly entrenched in each other’s presence.
In sharp contrast, all three Modern Love anthologies — Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, six stories each — are varying shades of scentless exhaustion. At best, there is a pulpy sweetness. There are some shockingly intimate moments. Charm comes as pinpricks. Some of the best films are buoyed by performances that turn stares into an expression of inner turmoil. These are only occasional, rare reprieves.
Oddly, three different cultures and their three different industries have completely misunderstood what made New York Times’ Modern Love so compelling that it was considered ripe for the visual medium as the anthology Modern Love (available on Prime Video). The ongoing series collects real life stories of love and loss, and what we read were extraordinary stories told in an ordinary voice. This was life narrativized — you could argue narratively manipulated — in ways that could inspire cinema. Still, these stories were written in a voice that did not feel sealed off, incapable of an afterlife.
In the Indian Modern Love anthologies, that quality of a life being lived before and after the credits roll is missing. The directors and writers’ intentions blur into their cinematic tropes — the musical montage, the early banter, the later arguments, the climactic catharsis. Thiagarajan Kumararaja, creative producer of Modern Love: Chennai, where he directed the last episode, junked even that, creating characters who become a mysterious ether-like presence, taking forward his eccentric filmography as opposed to taking forward the series, leaving us with odd, silly questions (Do these lovers exist or do they not? Are there aliens? What is real? What is imagined?). What should feel like a barrage of candy begins to feel like genre experiments.
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There is also a shocking lack of sensuality. In Hansal Mehta’s Baai in Modern Love: Mumbai, when characters kiss, it is shot with such an uncomfortable gaze, as though grazing chins. In Uday Gurrala’s What Clown Wrote That Script? in Modern Love: Hyderabad, there is a dream sequence where the characters run through a forest, to express the joys of sex, childishly evading graphic visuals. Even in Kumararaja’s Ninaivo Oru Paravai in Modern Love: Chennai, which does show characters having sex, it is so farcical and played for giggles, anything resembling sensuality doesn’t get expressed. The earth shattering orgasmic pleasure is, instead, rendered very literally. They spend so much of the hour-long film in bed yet there is not a moment of that seething desire. Kumararaja, with his whip-smart dialogue exploring ideas of power within a couple, gags at the idea of intellectual masturbation, but where’s the eros?
So for those who want what the title says, here’s a vague ranking of the Indian Modern Love anthologies, all lightweight, progressive swerves
Nagesh Kukonoor anchors this series, which begins with My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner, directed by him, starring Nithya Menen and Revathy as estranged daughter and mother. The mere physical presence of sensitive actors can bring a story to life. The way Revathy stares — all that hurt, longing, regret, and adamance — and the way Menen stares back — all that adamance, arrogance, softness, and righteousness — gives silence an amorphous depth. This is the kind of film where a Shia-Sunni marriage becomes a fracture in a family, which ultimately, through time, divorce, Hyderabadi cuisine, and a Hindu-Muslim flirtation, finds some semblance of balance.
The rest of the anthology tapers into the vacuous — from terrifyingly shallow depictions of the modern Telugu woman who takes to stand-up comedy as both therapy and validation, to terrifyingly creepy depictions of the modern father, spying on his daughter who is going on dates, to make sure she is okay. Dating travails is the backbone of another story, with another female protagonist. When writers — all men — and directors — three out of four are men — inscribe what modernity is supposed to look like (disproportionately) on women, there is something suspicious going on in the garb of progressive rhetoric. Women carry the burden of pulling society into the modern era.
The hallmark of an impressive short film is the feeling it leaves you with a conclusion that can feel resolved and unresolved simultaneously. Modern Love: Hyderabad is patched together by the belief that short films need to be able to be explained in simple, short sentences, and can be stretched out by repetition.
For all its cinematic pyrotechnics, Modern Love: Chennai suffers from verbal diarrhea and montage sickness, and is haunted by Mani Ratnam and Gautham Vasudev Menon — both directors' films even make a small appearance in Krishnakumar Ramakumar’s Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji. There is nothing wrong with verbosity, per se. But there is a rhythm in the exchange of dialogues which Ratnam distills best and Menon cannot hit or hint at. Characters have to dance around an idea, flirt around it. If two people speak to each other, knowing exactly what they are thinking and wanting to say, dialogue feels like speech. Ratnam allows thinking through dialogue in a way Menon refuses, in a way all these writers and directors refuse to do. To hear people talk to each other, feels like people talking at each other. Where’s the love then?
None of these films — none — have a propulsive emotional force. They are all busy making cinema while we are, patiently at first, waiting on the stands, for a story to unfold. Nirav Shah’s cinematography, which captures three out of the six films, is a reminder of why his clean frames are both striking and ugly. The colours pop like a filter gone rogue. They are all trying to do something grander, pursuing something more ambitious when they have not even done their footwork.
All six stories spotlight female protagonists, with an emphasis on religious pluralism — Hindu, Christian, across the spectrum of the broad and amorphous “middle-class”; there is even the sound of the azaan in the morning in Bharathiraja’s film. The emphasis on the feminine brings up questions like how do women think of the male anatomy, why are there so few breakup songs for women, and for every masculine ideal in a film — a man puffing cigarettes — you will get a feminine counterpoint in another film — a woman puffing cigarettes. Like Modern Love: Hyderabad, this anthology suffers from conceiving “modern” as something outside of our experience, fresh, and controversial. There is a distinct unease in all the films, a laborious duty they all seem to take upon themselves to lug Tamil cinema into modernity.
Sure, there is a meta-juiciness to many of these films, peppered with references to Ilayaraja — who also composed music for a few films here — and Balu Mahendra, and if you can derive cinematic joy from this smartness there are various “meanings” you can yank out of a film. Modern Love: Chennai works as an artifact, as an example of how cinephilia can hollow out cinema, snuffing out emotional logic with its chin-stroking posture.
There is a syncretic imagination at work in the Modern Love series. Women — old women, young girls, included — are disproportionately foregrounded as protagonists. Christian, Muslim, and queer characters peek out now and then. Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Hyderabadi swirl. Love, too, exists casually across these labels. There is a deep awareness of caste, even if there isn’t a deep inclusion of it.
Yet Modern Love: Mumbai, for all this posturing, gets its “moments” right. Even if the films don’t come together as a whole, suffering from the short-film syndrome where you don’t know where and how to end a narrative, there are small punctures of such effective sugar.
Shonali Bose’s exaggerated sketch of a Kashmiri girl, played by Fatima Sana Shaikh in Raat Rani is a standout example. Cycling on a flyover is both a metaphoric and literal odyssey, and the way this keeps getting interchangeably used in dialogue has this irritating gong-like screech, undercut by its love for life, the beauty of the images, and Shaikh’s amusing physicality. The use of the mirror in Alankrita Shrivastava’s My Beautiful Wrinkles, where characters perform versions of themselves for it, like the use of the mirror in Akshay Sundher’s Margazhi in Modern Love: Chennai is so sincere and intimate, that it rips through the “Shrivastava-isms” of spinning a female character into a feminist fantasy, leaving behind the debris of shockingly hollowed out men. Even Nupur Asthana’s lazily conceived Cutting Chai is visually compelling, with Chitrangada Singh’s curls having this aesthetic chokehold over our attention. Then there is Vishal Bhardwaj’s striking film that pushes the idea of modernity, love, and Mumbai, even as its fragile dialogues refuses to make a tonal choice between curiosity and caricature, leaving Wamiq Gabbi to flail through her role of a “vegetarian daayan”.
The fact that this anthology ends with all the characters, somehow, crossing paths, shows a grander, if unfulfilled, vision is at play — to link stories of Mumbai, even if there is a disproportionate South-Bombay tilt.