Director: Lakshya Raj Anand
Cast: Aahana Kumra, Amol Parashar
When we come across a modest Indian show shot in a foreign country, it speaks volumes about the entertainment landscape that our first thought revolves not around partial tax rebates but an entirely sponsored tourism promotion shoot. Such is obviously the case with digital platform Viu’s four-episode series, It Happened In Hong Kong. The platform seems to have clearly struck a sweet all-expenses-paid deal with the Hong Kong Tourism Board, after which they might have worked backward to set a “wanderlust” tale designed to incorporate the sights and sounds of the popular vacation spot.
Such an arrangement isn’t a particularly bad sign for storytelling, especially if contemporary makers, no doubt influenced by the classics of modern-day ‘travel’ cinema, decide to view the city through the unstructured lens of their curious characters. For instance, this series stars a Bombay girl, Aahana (Kumra), on a solo trip after a personal-life shakeup, and a Delhi boy, Amol (Parashar), on a business trip in the middle of an existential crisis. They are in Hong Kong for different reasons; they seek different things from the visit.
They meet as strangers, and agree to spend the last few days of their trip together, engaging in probing banter across this bustling alien city – a decision visibly triggered by the romanticism of millennial pop-culture journeys. “Sunrise or Sunset?” he even asks at one point, to which she promptly replies, “Sunset” – a not-so-subtle hint about the possible direction of their graph, in context of Richard Linklater’s iconic “Before” trilogy.
The template is tired: there is a candlelit-dinner-on-street night, a pub-crawl night song, a flirting-confiding-in breakfast, a hotel-room conflict morning and so on
Yet, the first episode begins with a mechanical blogger-voiceover outlining the food and beauty of Hong Kong (“the food is yum!”); of course it is revealed she is writing a ‘travel book,’ to justify this garishly commercial narrative device. Safe to say she won’t be paid for her skills. They then explore Hong Kong with the perspective of a production crew ticking off the entries of a diverse montage list rather than embracing the meandering spirit of a couple making the most of their serendipitous encounter.
The template is tired: there is a candlelit-dinner-on-street night, a pub-crawl night song, a flirting-confiding-in breakfast, a hotel-room conflict morning and so on. The “natural” conversations somehow contrive to mention the city in lofty phrases every few minutes – like pesky SEO keywords peppering an online article. And despite seeing over an hour of Hong Kong on screen, I don’t find myself desperate to visit the place anytime soon either. Hence, the show may have fallen short not only as a blossoming romantic drama, but even as the airy promotional project it was hired to be.
There’s something distinctly Anushka Sharma-ish about Aahana Kumra. She is distinctly expressive, even when she only listens or silently reacts to certain words. As a director it’s important to be careful with someone as evocative as her, because there is always a danger of her overplaying a moment. At times, if the shot isn’t cut at the right moment, her response might appear generated by the instructions of the director off-camera instead of the actor in her frame. Even as an out-and-out Imtiaz Ali heroine here, she brandishes glimpses of the volatile fragility – a trademark of sorts – that has previously defined her scene stealing turns in Inside Edge, Lipstick Under My Burkha and The Blueberry Hunt. This unpredictability somewhat dilutes her chemistry with a safe and clean Amol Parashar.
As a result, their mutual attraction risks the possibility of being “scripted” according to locations rather than being organically felt in spaces. The usual breakup backstories and Delhi-Bombay trolling aside, there’s nothing original about their imperfect personalities for them to merit our undivided investment. Hong Kong, Prague, Lisbon, London, Paris, New York – they are all the same for excitable desi writers. The fresh culture rarely affects the holding pattern of the meet-separate-unite protagonists. And if travelling to an exotic country in a not-so-budget Hindi-movie manner doesn’t make you think like less of a cliché, I’m not sure what else will.