Directors: Vishal Bhardwaj, Alankrita Shrivastava, Dhruv Sehgal, Nupur Asthana, Hansal Mehta, Shonali Bose
Writers: John Belanger, Devika Bhagat, Devika Bhagat, Vishal Bhardwaj, Jyotsna Hariharan, Raghav Raj Kakker, Kashyap Kapoor, Nilesh Maniyar, Hansal Mehta, Nupur Pai, Ankur Pathak, Dhruv Sehgal, Alankrita Shrivastava
Cast: Fatima Sana Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Pratik Gandhi, Ranveer Brar, Prateik Babbar, Ahsaas Channa, Chitrangada Singh
Cinematographers: Tassaduq Hussain, Kavin Jagtiani, Pratham Mehta, Aniruddha Patankar, Sanket Shah, Akshay Singh
Editors: Antara Lahiri, Shan Mohammed, A. Sreekar Prasad, Yasha Ramchandani, Charu Shree Roy, Maulik Sharma
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
When I read a Modern Love column in The New York Times, I have to keep reminding myself that it actually happened. That these are real people. The enduring charm of reading these personal essays is that they sound like movies but they're not. The novelty is that life imitates art. So when this is translated into an anthology series, it's a bit like art imitating life imitating art – which can be a bit of an overkill. That's why the two seasons of John Carney's anthology series felt corny. They look like fiction, not fact, because the life itself of the columns is swallowed by neat rom-com tropes. Some segments are still sweet to watch, because the 'stories' themselves are lovely and infused with the luxury of hindsight, irrespective of the packaged storytelling.
When I heard about Modern Love: Mumbai – a geo-focused anthology series that would adapt the NYT column – I was worried that the Mumbai template would reduce it to just another city (Mumbai; je t'aime?) anthology. The point of Modern Love is that it cuts across continents and times; it's the diversity of an emotion, not a place, that binds the parts together. Given that the original stories didn't occur in India, I suspected that the cultural translation might hijack – and become – the core narrative. The writing might try too hard to localize it, and promptly lose the essence of the life-imitates-art tone. What would be the difference, then, between short fiction and short films derived from reality?
Not all my concerns were unfounded. At least two of the six segments – Alankrita Shrivastava's My Beautiful Wrinkles and Nupur Asthana's Cutting Chai – succumb to the short-fiction syndrome. They're the weakest of the lot. Both look overly designed, where the idea of a city movie overwhelms the idealism of a love story. Shrivastava's film, not uncharacteristically, looks at social identity through the lens of female desire. Starring Sarika as a divorced woman attracted to a man 30 years her junior, it feels like a lesser riff on Ratna Pathak Shah's character in Lipstick Under My Burkha. The edginess feels plastic. This Punjabi lady smokes on her balcony and drinks wine in her antique bathtub. She's a book fiend. She tutors a young Gujarati man for his job interviews – he's also training for the Mumbai marathon – and soon, the film turns into a glorified music video resembling a 1990s Pankaj Udhas single. The incessant background score and grating dialogue ("He's gone and I'm here, alive" promptly triggers a "Are you?"; "Hey I like this song!" signifies a person fitting into the Cool Crowd) reduces her experience to an awkward epiphany. It feels like the film is just biding time, unsure of how to convey a sense of growth without being aggressive. Despite Sarika's committed (re)turn, the slice-of-life-ness is too self-conscious to make a mark.
The same applies to Asthana's Cutting Chai, a film about a frustrated writer whose reservations about her own life – and marriage – are informed by a rare local train ride. Latika (Chitrangda Singh), a mother and a wife, has been working on her first novel for years, but her role as default homemaker derails her plan. A spat with her hotel-manager husband, Daniel (a priceless Arshad Warsi) means that Latika spends the day reminiscing about her youth at CST station before they meet for dinner. That she's named Latika is a nice ode to Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning Mumbai movie in which CST station played a definitive role. But that's where it ends. Some stray moments in the train aside, the film gets too handsy with its rom-com body. Latika's flashbacks are clumsily woven in, yet another Mumbai Monologue dominates the screen, and quasi-musical devices (where commuters become voices in her head; or where Latika imagines alternate futures) distract from what could have been a tender marriage of perspective and time. I suppose this isn't the first time film-makers mistake human connection for human aspiration.
Two of the segments – Dhruv Sehgal's I Love Thane and Shonali Bose's Raat Rani – do better with the tropes. Sehgal, of Little Things fame, sticks to its walk-and-talk conversational style (adjective of choice: "breezy"), crafting a watchable film about a 34-year-old landscape designer navigating the urban dating landscape. Of course, Thane happens to her while she's busy making Mumbai-sized plans. People happen to her while she's busy making plans with profiles…and all that. I like the adapted Manhattan-versus-Jersey allegory – City-slicker Saiba's (Masaba Gupta of Masaba Masaba) preconceived notions about Thane are challenged when her paths cross with a municipal officer (Ritwik Bhowmik from Bandish Bandits) on a new project. The two have nothing in common, he is not even on social media (serial-killer alert in a more mainstream film), and yet she doesn't mind those long and existential drives to Thane every day. Bhowmik, in particular, is disarming as the small-city loyalist with fish-in-pond dreams, and Gupta does well as a single woman trying to figure out the difference between curiosity and attraction. The only thing this short lacks is organic chemistry between chalk and cheese. Their differences are amplified so much that the coupling feels like it's conceived to fit a whispery Prateek Kuhad ballad, not life itself.
Shonali Bose's Raat Rani, too, is very The Sky Is Pink-esque in terms of its loud life-affirming vibe. On-the-nose lines like "I have crossed the flyover" and "I was asleep all along" punctuate the story of a spunky Kashmiri woman in Mumbai coming to terms with the heartbreak of being ghosted by her husband. (Lines like these are written by the author, not explicitly said by characters – they're retrospective subtext, not urgent text). A cycle becomes a heavy-handed metaphor of progression. The Bandra-Worli Sea Link becomes an allegory for breaking free. In her loftiest moments, she taunts the sky. A generic Khwaabon anthem with "curfew" in it scores her triumph. But Raat Rani works only because of Fatima Sana Shaikh who, as Lalzari, swings for the fences with both accent and spirit. Hers is a wonderfully over-the-top yet sentimentally grounded performance. Early on, Lalzari, a housemaid, vents to her employer (Tannishtha Chatterjee) in what begins as a comical meltdown and becomes, within seconds, a tragic plea. It's an example of how the actress plays with volume rather than tone. Despite a transformation, her body language and character stay within the magnetic pitch of her personality; she doesn't change, her views do. She even makes the thinking-aloud trope sound plausible, and makes us notice the finer things about the script – like her employer, who's a divorce lawyer, not being presented as an urban saviour. She's only a silent ally. Lali learns the meaning of agency by working in a certain setting. The narrative never seeks the presence of city counterparts for the sake of women-empowerment statements.
The two best segments of the anthology, though, speak of inclusivity through the language of music and food. On its surface, Hansal Mehta's Baai is centered on the love story between a singer and a chef. But it's the potent cultural context that defines the film. It's about who they are more than what they feel. Manzar Ali (Pratik Gandhi) returns to his family home in Mumbai to meet his dying grandmother (Tanuja). Memories rush back to him – the Bombay riots when the old Muslim woman single-handedly repelled a violent mob, his orthodox father vowing to disown him on discovering he's gay, a meet-cute with future partner Rajveer (a charming Ranveer Brar) at a Goan restaurant, their honeymoon phase, and so on. The writing is clever in teasing out the parallels between religious and sexual marginalisation in a country brimming with bigotry. Arguably the moment of the anthology features a Muslim mother asking her son's partner if they've considered moving to America, where they can at least live freely – when she hesitates mid-sentence, realizing the irony of her own words. Her admission – "stopping love is a form of spreading hate" – is subtle and startling, for it lays bare the democratic nature of intolerance. At the end of the day, it's hard to distinguish a homophobe from a rioter.
I love the little touches of Baai. Manzi's sister, for instance, compromised and married a Muslim man for her family, but this man is no jerk; he's a good husband. The film opens with the family car snaking through the shadowy bylanes of town instead of the main roads, signifying deep-rooted trauma and social invisibility – tying into a flashback of a car scrambling to escape a riot – and not just a pragmatic habit. Then there's the fantastic cast, led by Gandhi, whose cheekbones play a leading role in his reactive performance – whether it's blushing at the dishy chef hitting on him, pleading with his hurtful father, or brooding to the perfectly placed sounds of Ali Sethi's Chandni Raat at a beach. He manages to flaunt the psychological miles on his face with the tiniest of gestures. Even during the film's only false note – where Manzar delivers a cheesy exposition dump about why he chose music ("music equalizes everything; it doesn't care if you're gay") – the actor keeps the film rooted at the intersection between love and acceptance.
Vishal Bhardwaj's Mumbai Dragon, too, feels like the sort of Modern Love story that is both specific and universal at once. It's as funny as it is profound in its portrait of cross-cultural collision. The film stars Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann as Sui Mei, a Chinese immigrant in Mumbai whose battle to preserve the roots of her fading community is reflected in her stifling love for a second-gen son (Meiyang Chang, as Ming). The arrival of her son's peppery new girlfriend – a vegetarian, garlic-averse Gujarati (Wamiqa Gabbi) – threatens Sui, who then treats his weekend visits as a device to impose her territory through tiffins of homemade Chinese food. Sui resents the girl for not just 'diluting' Ming but also inspiring him to ditch his dentistry and pursue his Bollywood singing dreams.
The film is light-footed and beautifully designed: a mother's cooking as an extension of the umbilical cord, the use of language (Sui's Hindi, Ming's sparse Cantonese) as a generational gap with a one-way bridge, Naseeruddin Shah's wise Sikh presence, and even Anurag Kashyap's umpteenth self-satirical cameo, where he threatens to send an assistant "to Motwane" if he doesn't behave. There are two love stories here – mother-son and boy-girl – with one struggling to concede ground to the other. This hits very close to home. I saw a lot of my own mother in Yeo Yann Yann's perceptive performance as Sui – as a single woman fighting to stay relevant in both family and culture, but also as a mother whose affections sway between harmless melodrama and toxic warmth.
Too many films villainize a parent's inability to let go. But Mumbai Dragon humanizes this conflict with empathy and humour. It's shot in the same vein. You can almost smell the incense in Sui's Chinese apartment, lit and decorated with the defiant identity of the Kwan Kung Temple below it, while Ming's shared Andheri flat is yet to grow a hybrid voice of its own. Sui swears by her heritage but isn't shackled by it, unlike Ming, who swears by his mother but is also shackled by her. Mumbai Dragon is a bit of an emblem in that sense. It juxtaposes the antiquity of adapting – to sons and stories, art and life – with the newness of wanting: in trains and cars, on bridges and beaches. It is the only film that expands the thematic curbs of this anthology. Because it finds that sweet spot –between the too-good-to-be-true-ness of modern love and the too-true-to-be-good-ness of Mumbai.