Directors: Ruchir Arun, Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, Anand Tiwari, Danish Aslam, Sachin Kundalkar and Jaydeep Sarkar
Written by: Monisha Thyagarajan; Gazal Dhaliwal; Saurabh Swamy and Aarsh Vohra & Ritwiq Joshi; Sulagna Chatterjee; Arati Raval and Sachin Kundalkar; Jaydeep Sarkar and Shubhra Chatterjee
Starring: Radhika Madan and Amol Parashar; Kajol Chugh and Mihir Ahuja; Simran Jehani and Rohit Saraf; Saba Azad and Sanjeeta Bhattacharya; Zayn Marie Khan and Neeraj Madhav; Tanya Maniktala and Skand Thakur
Streaming on: Netflix
Feels Like Ishq is another Netflix anthology series, but it's also one of the first pointedly young portraits of India's social media generation. In other words, it belongs to the Dice Media school of Modern Love. I say "young" because (most of) the makers aren't old-school Bollywood hands pretending to be hipsters speaking a language they don't understand. Either the writers or the directors seem to know the world of their short 30-minute stories. There's largely a sense of ease about the idiosyncrasies, the conflicts and voices. Which is funny, because the horribly corny titles evoke precisely that uncle-gone-kewl syndrome. If "Feels Like Ishq" sounds like a futuristic youth wing of a leftist cyber regime, the individual ones take the ICQ-era cake. Let alone a movie, is it even legal to name a mobile game "Quaran-teen Crush"? Is it socially acceptable to say "Save the Da(y)te" with the parenthesis? Do you even Amar Chitra Katha if you don't "Star Host"? Is it necessary to normalize the grammatically unsound wordplay of "She Loves Me, She Loves Me
Lot Not"? I understand we're a culture that judges a book by its cover, but that doesn't mean you tear up the cover and fling it into a pond of poor Instagram puns.
I needed to get that out of my system. The films themselves fare a little better. I've never quite figured out how to "ration" a review of an anthology, so I'm going to go in chronological order. Save the Da(y)te is light years better than it sounds. Radhika Madan stars as the 'bindaas' bridesmaid, teaming up with Amol Parashar's wedding planner to track down a runaway bride in Goa. He's the cynic, she's the hopeful romantic. (Or: he's the film critic and she's the Bollywood film). The elements – two pretty strangers in a tourist town, a tequila bottle, a convertible, a crisis – are familiar, but I like the vibe of the film. Madan is a natural in front of the camera, treading that thin line between mouthy millennial and manic pixie dream-girl. She also nails the digital influencer act, especially in the way she fakes enthusiasm while answering phone calls. As a result, even cheesy lines like "marriage is a mutual fund" sound like a behavioral in-joke, and her chemistry with an affable Parashar tides the tired opposites-attract theme over. Once Little Things director Ruchir Arun's name flashed in the end credits, everything made a little more sense.
The next short, Quaranteen Crush, gave me such a sugar rush that I had to go for a midnight cycle ride. It's sweet: too, too sweet. At the onset of the first Covid-19 lockdown, a Sikh teenager (Mihir Ahuja) crushes on a new neighbour (Kajol Chugh) who's quarantining after arriving from Canada. The boy, Maninder, finds a questionable way to establish a point of contact with the girl – it involves his mother's phone and home-cooked meals – which kicks off a blossoming bond. The film has a good sense of space – the two bungalows, and the gate where they meet while social distancing, are filmed (and edited) to enable the girl-next-door narrative. The quirks are nice: his father is a bra salesman, his mother makes cooking videos, the masked girl doesn't reveal her face till midway through. However, Maninder's passion for music – leading to a terrace jam session (he sings in Punjabi, she in English) – feels like unnecessary dressing. Most significantly, the film subverts Hindi cinema's stalking problem by centering its conflict on the boy's moral awakening. I like that the story checks itself, but the device of change itself could have been smarter. Simply chancing upon an internet link makes the wokeness look superficial – and planted.
The third film, Star Host, stars the pleasant Rohit Saraf as a boy saving money to fulfil his dream of seeing the Northern Lights. With his parents out of town, he rents out their scenic Mahabaleshwar cottage to vacationers. His latest guest is a nervy first-time solo tourist (Simran Jehani) who's trying to prove a point to her ex-boyfriend. The film gets it right by choosing to be her coming-of-age story. But ironically, it's the "feels like ishq" part that looks forced. Sparks fly between the two only because they must. That's the theme after all. The connection is too written, too planned. But if there's one thing the film does, it gets the location on point. Expect a few thousand "Netflix Star Host real villa Airbnb view" internet searches in Mumbai this August.
The fourth short, She Loves Me She Loves Me Not, is easily the weakest of the lot. The film tries too hard to be something it's not. This takes some doing, given that the rare queer love story features an underconfident bisexual girl (Sanjeeta Bhattacharya) falling for the gay new firebrand (Saba Azad) in office. The Archie-comics treatment – for the last time, stop breaking the fourth wall if your name is not Fleabag – ruins what might have been a sensitive snapshot of young same-sex attraction. The writing is quite immature. But there's one moment that stands out – one girl eases the other through an anxiety attack at a pub – until the tenderness is punctured by, you guessed it, the shattering of that fourth wall. Why resort to narrative gimmickry to tell a heartfelt story? Why not, for once, trust the premise to do the talking?
The fifth film, The Interview, is my favourite of the lot. It says something that this is the only segment that breaks away from the urban-poor spirit of the anthology. The film's working-class mindscape is gentle and disarming. An ambitious Muslim woman (an expressive Zayn Marie Khan) and a nervous Malayali man (the charming Neeraj Madhav) vie for the same salesperson job. And they form an unlikely bond. That's all there is to it. But the daredevil lies in the details. Most of The Interview is set inside an electronics store, a space often relegated to the background of both films and life. The space is central to the film's elegant linking of middle-class aspiration with personal ambition. This setting isn't random. Both the characters view the showroom with starry eyes. On one hand, this is a job that puts them in close proximity with the people they hope to become. On the other, this is a profession that hinges on the irony of selling dreams through the voices of those who can't afford to buy them. The duality is laid bare in a series of delicate moments, without eschewing the demons in their head. When the two pretend to be customers, for instance, they're visibly torn between the desire of owning and the hunger to sell. The acting is nuanced – his blooming, her grooming – and allows the screenplay to uncover the cross-cultural feeling instead of gift-wrapping it.
The last segment, Ishq Mastana, is about a first date at a protest march. An entitled townie (Skand Thakur) hopes for a "rebound fuck" with a chirpy activist (a striking Tanya Maniktala). Naturally, things go South before heading West. Again, the idea – of pitting digital-age privilege against idealism – makes sense. He opens up to her about his poor-little-rich-boy insecurities, she admits that "I don't protest to change the world, I do it so that the world doesn't change me". But the shades are broad. They're written not as people but personality tropes (Malabar Hill meets JNU). Worse, the film is bound by the concept of them ending up together. Nothing about them suggests they should. I'm surprised she didn't make him cry. In the real world, they might have gone home and sly-tweeted (at) each other.
But if the clincher can be a guy named Kabir singing Sufi verses to surprise everyone, then our grandparents were right about us. Some of us need to live without telling the world we're #living. It may not feel like ishq, but it may also not feel like the incandescent rage I suppress when confronted with the linguistic audacity of 'Hinglish' hybrid phrases. When will it stop? It's, like, panauti max.