If there is one thing I learned about myself from Modern Love Chennai, it is that I unequivocally find autobiographical voiceover — even that of a woman — as ear-piercing as fingernails scratching a chalkboard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Produced by Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Tyler Durden and Kino Fist, Modern Love Chennai is a potpourri of tenderness, warmth, rebellion, acceptance, uncomfortable realities and discomfiting imagination. Each story adapted from articles published in the New York Times deliberately sidesteps what is commonly seen in Tamil cinema as ‘love.’ For starters, each story is a woman’s, but that’s surprisingly besides the point here.
Raju Murugan’s Lalagunda Bommaigal is hilariously cynical. It begins with an abortion, a doctor making judgmental and snarky comments, yet going on about her job rather matter-of-factly. From there, we see love and faith go up and down throughout the film. Shoba, the fierce and determined protagonist (played exceptionally by Sri Gouri Priya) falls in and out of love, cock-sure of surviving it all. She’s not the only one, though. Nearly every woman has a love story — each funny, dark and introspective in its own way.
Lalagunda Bommaigal isn’t in denial of everyday realities. In fact, it acknowledges the harshness of ‘society’. Yet, the film never resigns to it. It mocks the status quo, while being kind to the past. Sean Roldan’s song and background score keep the film light. They add a timber of nonchalance without becoming superfluous. Raju Murugan’s dialogues top it off with delight.
Balaji Sakthivel’s Imaigal, written by Balaji Tharaneetharan, is a frustrating film. Devi (played by T J Bhanu), suffers from a retinal degenerative disease that makes her progressively blind. When she discloses this to Nithiya (Ashok Selvan), he responds with a dramatic gesture of love. Yet, in everyday life, he doesn’t keep up..
We soon see her worst fears come true. The scene where Nithiya continues to speak on the phone, despite seeing Devi struggle to get their daughter ready is bad enough until he starts nagging her about the school van honking at the door. The argument between the two about having another child is exceptionally sensitive to the imbalance in a marriage. Given the empathy the film shows to Devi throughout, the ending feels like a cop out.
Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji, written by Reshma Ghatala, directed by Krishnakumar Ramakumar, is a Kollywood-obsessed love story of a woman through the years. Mallika (Ritu Varma) narrates her romantic escapades, kissing a dozen frogs before she lands her prince, in a grating voiceover. The innumerable references to Gautham Menon filmography, hat-tips to 90s music and even the Baradwaj Rangan cameo can’t save us from this film.
Margazhi, written by Balaji Tharaneetharan, directed by Akshay Sundher, begins with Jayaseelan (Srikrishna Dayal) at church worried for his daughter’s plight after his recent divorce. His daughter Jazmine (a terrific Sanjula Sarathi) is withdrawn, listening to music, remaining at a distance from her friends. She isn’t asocial, just happy with the company of herself and Ilaiyaraaja.
The rest of the 40-minute film traces her journey through longing, restlessness, self-discovery and perhaps love. If there ever was the right answer to, “why do you love me?” it can be heard from Milton’s (Chu Khoy Sheng) lips.
In true Balaji Tharaneetharan style, this film is slow and meticulous — even the father’s prayer is uttered completely. Editor Sundher is in no hurry either. Ilaiyaraaja’s score brings nostalgic sunshine, in an otherwise pleasantly cool Marghazhi.
Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal is Barathiraja’s tribute to Balu Mahendra’s Marupadiyum (1993). Ravi (Kishore) meets Rohini (Vijayalakshmi) on the metro train. A few chance encounters later, they begin building a relationship together. Ravi comes clean to his wife Revathi (Ramya Nambeesan), who invites Rohini over for an adult conversation.
Modern Marupadiyum is mature, if not rebellious. The conversation between Revathi and Rohini — while Ravi remains a restless mute spectator throughout — is most certainly awkward, but it is underlined by a sense of warmth for the ‘other woman’. Remya Nambeesan is exceptional as the woman who is hurt but ready to move on. Vijayalakshmi is gracious, despite being in an unnecessary situation unsupported by her lover. Kishore too is understated, yet he makes the restlessness palpable.
Ravi’s conversation with his father (Delhi Ganesh) is sharp. Bharathiraja also cleverly makes the character enter and leave without much impact on the narrative, showing us the role parents — and their opinions — play in modern relationships.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Ninaivo Oru Paravai is the googly in this anthology. It’s modern in the way we’d expect modern to be — you know, pubs, casual sex, smoking, psychiatry and so on. It’s trippy, with an entire song a montage of the two leads laughing, at inane things. It’s meta to the point of feeling pretentious. That is not to say that it doesn’t work. It does, in its own weird sort of way. But to like it, one must be drawn into the film’s whimsy, which I was not.
I was tempted to say that Modern Love Chennai’s biggest success is taking the city beyond the filter kaapis and the temples. But that would be setting the bar too low. In fact, Modern Love Chennai raises the bar. It stays true to its writers’ and filmmakers’ imagination of Tamil cinema and serves films that are almost non-mainstream, while perfectly palatable.
On five out of six counts, it even succeeds in capturing the imagination of the audience.