Writer: Nagesh Kukunoor, Shashi Sudigala and Bahaish Kapoor
Why Did She Leave Me Here?
I don't know if you've felt this watching Telugu films but child actors tend to ham it up to the point of being annoying. But once in a while a child actor comes along and robs every frame away from other actors.
If C/O Kancharapalem gave us Kesava Karri and Nithyasree Goru, in Modern Love's first episode directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, we get Advitej Reddy Chaklet who plays Ramulu, the younger version of Rohan (Naresh Agastya). Mind you Advitej shares frame for the most part with Suhasini Maniratnam who plays his grandmother Gangamma and it doesn't take an ordinary actor to outshine her. But as the petulant, but lovable and always hungry Ramulu, Advitej is excellent in capturing despair. There aren't too many directors like Nagesh Kukunoor who can tell children's stories that are far from childish. Essentially, this story is that of Ramulu's tragedy. It posits his success as a CEO and rebirth as Rohan after adoption, and the emotional cost it has on him.
Suhasini is the soul of the film. While her Telangana diction is labored, it's a minor complaint in an otherwise gentle performance. Another actor-director duo might have amped up the melodrama, but Kukunoor and Suhasini tone it down and thus leave the audience filling the blanks of the depth of the tragedy. It works. Watch her lay a plate out of habit for someone who's no more and then quickly retract before Ramulu notices it and you realize this is why Suhasini was chosen for this part. The series has the feel-good factor of a baby tasting a lime for the first time. Kukunoor, despite some weak writing, gently pulls us into the show with the help of some seasoned acting.
Finding Your Penguin
How often in Telugu cinema do we get to see a woman's quest for love and an active dating life without being villainized or hyper sexualized? And how often do we get to see female camaraderie that feels like a sisterhood with warmth?
Venkatesh Maha's Finding Your Penguin is one such tale of a microbiologist Indu (Komalee Prasad) who goes through the trials and tribulation of dating after a bad breakup. But her guiding philosophy is dictated by her profession and she tends to see herself as an animal looking for another animal. So which animal is she? Which animal does she need?
I immediately fell in love with the film when it gave me insights into the characters by revealing their opinions about the bacteria cultures they were observing. What I particularly love is that while modern filmmakers inspired by the new age comedy minds of Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi tend to get carried away by the flourishes, here, the director does just the right amount. You can see this restraint between the scenes with Indu and her father.
Komalee Prasad plays Indu to perfection. When she rejects a mate (a hilarious Rag Mayur) because he's just so boring, you laugh at her plight because he has done everything 'right' – like a Telugu hero – but he's just so damn boring. Barring the odd dialogues written for Ayesha, Indu's Muslim friend, Devika Bahudhanam writes some hilarious dialogue and she gets the vibe of the film. I can't wait to see more such work from her. The episode is the perfect mix of warmth and quirkiness that makes it stand out in the anthology.
My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner
Thematically, this story is the most rooted in Hyderabad and you understand why this story could be told in Hyderabad only. It's not in the plot points of the story but rather in the secondary arcs that show the intertwined nature of the communal harmony between an Urdu/Telugu-speaking Muslim family and a Telugu-speaking Hindu family that are neighbours. The Hyderabadi love for food acts as a lubricant between the seemingly distant cultures.
The story speaks of the mending of the fractured relationship between Noori (Nithya Menen) and her mother after Noori leaves home to marry the man she loves. Mehernussia (Revathy), for all her kindness and warmth, has strict beliefs in social hierarchy and expects the same from her daughter. Nearly six years later when they are forced to spend time together because of the lockdown in 2020, they begin looking inwards.
This film, like Haleem and so much of the other flavorsome food it shows, takes its time to become a delicious film. Like in the first film, Kukunoor, the director, leaves the central conflict and not the stylistic choices to do the heavy lifting. It's entirely predictable but much like the Khatti Dal that Mehernussia makes, it's never bland.
It's neither an ambitious film nor a fresh one, but because it's so lovable and well-acted, that it's easy to indulge in it. You forgive the sins of the film as easily as the mother and daughter forgive each other.
About That Rustle in The Bushes
About That Rustle in The Bushes, directed by Devika Bahudhanam, is closest in resemblance to mainstream Telugu cinema, and not necessarily in a bad way. The central conflict of the film explores the relationship between an overprotective father and a young daughter, who finds herself at the cusp of modernity and tradition. You've seen it in films like Nenu Local, Ninnu Kori, Nuvve Nuvve etc. But in those films, the women were deified and steeped in moral goodness and the fathers were tragic heroes.
Luckily, this episode is not concerned with the moral aspect of this relationship and is willing to explore uncomfortable areas. Until the disappointing climax. The film is about Sneha (Ulka Gupta) and her quest to find love in Hyderabad through matrimonial websites and dates set up by friends. Except her father (played by Naresh) constantly checks on her to ensure that she doesn't "stray" morally.
I loved Ulka Gupta's Sneha. Devika, the director, plants a clever secret up Sneha's sleeve which tells us why Sneha is meek or rather why Sneha thinks she has to be meek. If people find out Sneha's secret, they'd reject her so then she has to put up with a lot of BS from the men she dates and a lot more rustling in the bushes from her father as he stalks her. Even the overprotectiveness is not defined by Sreedhar being a dad alone. There is a reason he's like that and Naresh is perfect in the role.
But this meaty premise culminates in a tear-jerker climax that leaves one with a bad taste in the mouth. It would have been the right climax for some film but not this one. And that's why after finishing About That Rustle in The Bushes, one is unsure if a great premise has been wasted or whether a melodramatic film had some wonderfully natural moments.
What Clown Wrote this Script
What Clown Wrote this Script, directed by Uday Gurrala, left me with the most questions. An ambitious young producer, Ashwin (Abhijit Duddala) tired of his job producing Telugu soaps, chances upon a young comedian Vandana 'Vinnie' Bharadwaj. Vinnie has a stand-up comedy act that explores 'The stereotypical Telugu man'. Ashwin wants to convert it into a reality show – like Seinfeld, but for Telugu women. But the studio overlords have other plans for them.
This one feels the oddest amongst all the others because it's hard to see Hyderabad in this film. The external texture of the show is of course Hyderabad – the presence of Imax, a Jandhyala film festival, the regressive Telugu soaps and the tantrums of their stars, etc. But the essence of the story is still New York thus making the short film feel like a dosa wrapped around a bagel.
Similarly, the problem with stand-up comedy on screen is that it's never as funny or insightful as the audience finds it on screen. Rather it's usually bland, lame and terribly unfunny. India as a nation is still grappling with stand-up comedy in English and the Telugu stand-up space feels far away from being fully realized. The material on screen is odd and feels tonally off. But it is Abhijit Duddala's stoic Ashwin that keeps you hooked to the film. I'm not sure if I'm being unfair to him but I sensed a Vijay Devarakonda-esque twang in his delivery and that works. But barring that the film feels tonally off and the closest to Modern Love New York and furthest from Modern Love Hyderabad.
Fuzzy, Purple, and Full of Thorns
Can we obsess over the smallest things to the point of ruining a beautiful relationship? Are we allowed to keep parts of our previous romances as relics of an intimate space once shared?
These are a few questions Fuzzy, Purple, and Full of Thorns wants to answer. It tells the story of Renuka (Ritu Verma) who finds purple heels that belonged to her live-in partner Uday's (Aadhi Pinisetty) ex. His refusal to get rid of them upsets Renu so much that it begins to create cracks in their relationship. Is she justified? Or is she making a mountain out of a heel? Are there bigger secrets?
This is director Nagesh Kukonoor's funniest short film of the three but it's still never as funny as it can get. It's evident that humor is not his strong suit. But he is spot on in the breezy treatment of the film, which has vignettes interspersed with cartoon structure to it. The cartoons are important because Renu is a cartoonist and maybe the profession is an extension of her personality. And we see her pine for Uday's attention, do odd things and make a fool of herself over these slippers. But I think this film needed to tell us a little more about Uday to create interest in him.
But the film's biggest disservice is done to Hyderabad as it is reduced to Nazneen (Zee Aly), a character in the film who speaks a mix of Urdu, Hindi, English, Urdu-fied Telugu. This feels more like tokenism than actual representation. Worse, at the end, it feels like an afterthought. Much like What Clown Wrote This Script, this story feels oddly adapted in that, one never senses Hyderabad.
Modern Love Hyderabad
I would have loved to see a little more of Hyderabad in all the stories and to me those that don't work, don't work precisely because they ignored the cultural factors going into the setting. It is not a coincidence that Venkatesh Maha's Finding Your Penguin and Nagesh Kukunoor's My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner stand out easily amongst the others.
My issue with the anthology began when they announced the series – the dominant presence of Nagesh Kukunoor as the director and his broad creative voice. This is not to say that his voice is weak but rather it might be too strong. Telugu cinema is bustling with young talent that is struggling to get space within mainstream cinema. Would they not be better served with such opportunities rather than limiting the broad voice to one filmmaker?
For now Modern Love Hyderabad is partly mediocre but mostly feels good. And who can say no to feel good?