Director: Anand Tiwari

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Angira Dhar, Alankrita Sahai, Ratna Pathak Shah, Supriya Pathak, Raghuvir Yadav, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Gajraj Rao

About an hour into Love Per Square Foot, a lovely little scene roots a film in danger of overstating its theme. Bhaskar Chaturvedi (Raghuvir Yadav), a railway announcer at Dadar station for 30 years, is retiring. In the technical room that accommodates his precious announcer’s chair, his longtime colleagues – led by genial ticket collector Mishra (Brijendra Kala) – throw him a small farewell party. Also present are his doting wife, Lata (Supriya Pathak), and 29-year-old son, Sanjay (an easygoing Vicky Kaushal). Chaturvedi, who came to the city with ambitions of becoming a singer, joined the railway family in hopes of fine-tuning his voice for an opportunity that never came. After a typically self-effacing speech, Chaturvedi tears up on noticing his parting gift: a brand new harmonium. For his final assignment, he sings the opening stanzas of a classic Hindi song into the microphone, before signing off – appropriately – with an outstation-train announcement.

This is a quintessential “Mumbai” moment. It might even make for a charming short film. But it belongs to the story of an immigrant who will rarely ever headline a feature-length Indian film. Perhaps his life isn’t theatrical enough to merit a conventional 132-minute screenplay. “Love Per Square Foot” could well have even been the title of his marriage – a relationship that hasn’t been afforded the space to flounder within the cramped confines of a Railway Quarter apartment.

Or it could be the title of the story of Blossom D’Souza (a routinely brilliant Ratna Pathak Shah): a vehemently catholic single mother who has brought up her daughter Karina (an affable Angira Dhar) in her brother’s congested Bandra living room.

But then that’s the nature of a secular beast like Mumbai – the city is packed with unremarkable lives that mainstream filmmakers find hard to resist. They are the “masses” that films look to service, and yet producers don’t find them foreground-worthy enough to entertain the masses. Which is why we increasingly find excellent actors and veteran talents playing supporting roles in films centered on the orthodox hero-heroine equation. They “steal scenes” and “stand out” – because they aren’t allowed to do more.

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Some movies achieve a balance better than others, though. Rather than them being accessories to lend texture to a commercial setup, these stories make it seem like the younger protagonists, with their formulaic rom-com and coming-of-age templates, are employed as devices to make the Chaturvedis and Mishras (Bareilly Ki Barfi’s Pankaj Tripathi and Seema Pahwa are small-town companion pieces) of the world more accessible – and big cities more tolerable.

The more uninhabitable and chaotic Mumbai gets every year, the more romanticized and overplayed the conflicts of its lead characters become. Here, Sanjay and Karina are comparatively artificial protagonists – a movie couple with movie problems – created to represent a natural set of middle-class issues. Fortunately, director Anand Tiwari and co-writer Sumeet Vyas just about manage to recognize the essence of their own ambitions.

The real film lies in the idiosyncrasies of a cross-cultural love story. It lies in the clash of two generations within the clash of two religions – the “Shuddh Brahmin” Chaturvedis are organically at odds with the devout-Christian D’Souzas, but not before struggling to understand the motivations and personalities of Sanju and Karina. It lies in the wonderfully authentic performances of the two households: Ratna Pathak Shah as Karina’s paranoid and borderline-xenophobic mother, and Supriya Pathak and Raghuvir Yadav (whose character follows in the footsteps of his Newton avatar: an election clerk with broken literary dreams) as Sanju’s well-meaning parents.

It lies in two youngsters working at a bank, aching to break free and inhabit their own space, and finding the kind of modern companionship in one another that is driven by the primal urge to share the emotional and financial burden of surviving in an expensive city. The film need not lie in the circumstances that contrive to bring them together.

Because almost every young, contemporary relationship in Mumbai these days is inherently about love per square foot – a constant battle for identity, privacy, courage, validation and time. It doesn’t quite need a gimmicky plot device – in this case, a lottery-based Jeevan Saathi Housing Scheme driving a desperate Sanju and Karina to enter into a marriage of convenience. The flimsy technicalities of this plan form the backdrop of their blossoming courtship, which is why their sudden feelings for each other feel “written” in; they aren’t quite afforded the bandwidth and confidence to form a lasting bond on their own.

This forced Mumbai-ness of the story – ironically the USP of the film – inserts the comedy into their romance, the confusion into their drama, converting their fate (of course there will be misunderstandings, of course they will really fall in love) into somewhat of a genre. We’ve reached a stage where the concept of Mumbai needn’t be sold to us anymore; if anything, it buys into our minds by merely existing. I believe there’s enough drama in their situation – Sanju must break free of his torrid affair with his manipulative boss (an excellent Alankrita Sahai); Karina must dump her wealthy, beta-male fiancé (a hilarious Kunaal Roy Kapur) – to warrant an organically quirky movie independent of home-loan sub-plots and good-hearted brokers.

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But since the makers insist on a narrative device to bring them closer, it isn’t as compelling as, say, the crippling intimacy of  “conditions” in the Ayushmann Khurrana trifecta: Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (erectile dysfunction), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (overweight partner) and Vicky Donor (sperm donation). In each case, as in this, the stricken couples are used to access the cultural contradictions of their surroundings. Let’s just say that even though this film achieves that too, its subversion (house-marriage-love) is unnecessary and oddly sanitized (virgins, despite history?) – because the “jugaadu” undertones effectively rob the leads of the freedom to chart their own flawed journey in a highly complex and disruptive environment.

That’s the reason films like Tu Hai Mera Sunday and Ribbon make for superior Bombay-centric stories – the multi-narrative structure of THMS merely uses “space” as a generic trigger to communicate the city’s diverse stereotypes, while Ribbon (incidentally starring Sumeet Vyas) explores the urban marriage of two people compromising on their individuality to survive the city. None of their characters come up with ideas to look remarkable.

In fact, on combining the montages of both films – the THMS group of men looking for a place for their Sunday football sessions, and Ribbon’s couple aspiring to a higher class of living – we get the truly definitive montage of Love Per Square Foot: a song that plays over the escapades of a loved-up couple desperate to make out. From Bandra Fort to midnight rickshaws and shady Manori hotels to construction sites, Sanju and Karina are thwarted everywhere.

The only difference between them and the Chaturvedis cuddling on Marine Drive promenade three decades ago, or the D’Souzas getting it on in an abandoned 1980s garage, is their quick-fit restlessness. They want shortcuts, because they don’t want to be just another untold story. They want to scream and make clumsy mistakes – just like their writers – to be heard, unlike the Bhaskars and Blossoms of a bygone era, or the Sundays and Ribbons of this one.

And since it’s 2018, it’s this restlessness – a stagey antidote to defy the inertia of previous generations – that creates the cinema their parents couldn’t become. They steal the scene and stand out, adding up to put forth the most basic Mumbai state of mind.

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