Before her power-packed and deeply intimate portrayals in Delhi Crime, Human, Jalsa (2022), and Darlings (2022), Shefali Shah played the role of a middle-aged restaurateur in the Netflix movie Once Again (2018). It is a typical love story at its heart even as it attempts to portray a mature romance. Despite the soulful music and melancholic cinematography and lighting, it could have been a pleasant but unremarkable journey, had it not been for Shah and her co-star, Neeraj Kabi.
Both actors have years of experience in front of the camera as well as on stage. Kabi plays an actor, something of an avant-garde international star. To his credit, he makes this unusual-for-Indian cinema character extremely charismatic and convincing. When the film begins, the characters already know each other, though only through phone calls. He is a huge star and she is the woman who runs the restaurant supplying glorious Mangalorean food to him. So in tune are the actors with each other that their pauses and smiles on a phone call are sufficient for one to start rooting for them. They speak about their day-to-day lives, poetry, Mumbai, their respective children, and of course the food that brought them together.
The films picks up the pace when the two finally meet. This scene is shot in a mediocrely lit buzzing Mumbai street, and yet such is the intense power of the chemistry that I barely noticed anything other than Amar (Kabi) and Tara (Shah). Tara is wooed with flowers, the slightly intoxicating fragrance of jasmine, and Amar’s sudden compliments on her beauty. Tara pretends to be shocked by his sudden visit and maybe she is, for she would have probably liked it to be well-planned as opposed to this impromptu one. But as she walks away from Amar with flowers in her hand, a small smile graces her face.
Once Again’s plot and screenplay spring no surprises. The children played by Rasika Dugal, Priyanshu Painyuli, and Bidita Bag do their bit, though Rasika comes across as too chirpy at times. The other supporting characters are cliche at best. But Amar and Tara’s intimacy thrives and how. While Tara is close to letting go of her last inhibition about Amar and their relationship, he springs a surprise on her. Shah is exemplary at conveying her disappointment, with her eyes instantly widening in all their big almond-shaped beauty, her mouth going slack, and the smile on her face dying down in the aftermath of this little tragedy. The joy on her face dies down by the second. Even though their shattered intimacy broke my heart, it made me empathise with each of them.
During my first watch of the movie, I was curious about how it would end. And end it did, with a magnificent display of the same chemistry and the mention of a fear that was shared in one of their earlier conversations. The last shot of the movie shows only the backs of the actors, still and silent. Even their backs had such flawless chemistry! By then, I was content with continuing Amar and Tara’s story within the confines of my mind.
Modern Love’s Mumbai edition, despite the talented cast, felt to me only mildly engaging. But I still managed to get through five of its episodes, somehow not compelled enough to watch the sixth episode with Arshad Warsi and Chitrangada Singh, titled “Cutting Chai”. Nevertheless, I finally decided to take the plunge! What a good decision that was.
This was the best episode of the lot to me. Latika (Singh) and Danny (Warsi) are such a mismatched couple when you start watching. He comes across as distant, and more accommodating of his clients than his wife. She comes across as not much better, a writer who has still not managed to “write that first novel”. I could relate to her way more than I could to Danny. When Singh sets out for her sister-in-law’s wedding, hoping to meet her husband at the train station so that they can both head to the wedding together, the screenplay employs the use of “what-if” sequences. Singh has always been stunning and expressive, but here, when stuck in contemplation, she is mesmerising. Her chemistry with Warsi, another actor with great charisma, is absolutely amazing. Danny is never on time and Latika anticipates it. Time acts as a metaphor for their relationship. Should be an easy thing to abide by, but somehow never is.
When Latika finally arrives at the wedding venue, Danny’s sister and mother share the disappointment she feels, but there is a pleasant surprise followed by an epiphany. The scene is lovely and I almost teared up. It is a testament to the unpredictability of life in Mumbai which makes time more fickle than we’d like. Yet, none of this matters when we truly care about someone. We find a way to make things work. Latika does too. My favourite scene is the one where Latika and Danny meet for the first time. We find out how his laidback nature was what intrigued her the most. As for Danny, he is simply floored.
Both Once Again and Cutting Chai left me charmed, the performances reminding me how age is just a number, physicality is just a construct and good chemistry on screen can cast a spell, pun intended.