This is the 25th edition of Reel and Real, sent fortnightly on Saturday. That is about all things cinema, society that watches it, industry that creates it, and media that writes about it.
There’s a scene in Hansal Mehta’s Baai, part of the excellent anthology series Modern Love: Mumbai, where Manzar (Pratik Gandhi) tends to his ailing grandmother, Baai (Tanuja). Manzar is a homosexual, and this is a fact he and his family have always hidden from Baai. In the climax, though, Baai correctly surmises Manzar’s truth.
“Khaane mein sabse aham kya hota hai?” (What’s the most essential ingredient in any dish?”), she asks him. When he replies, “Masale?” (“Spices?”), she remarks, “Sirf pyar!” (“Only love!”)
The food-based metaphor is apt for Baai. Growing up in a Muslim family scarred by memories of the 1993 riots in Mumbai, Manzar also struggles to connect with his family, who shun him because of his homosexuality. Even when he rebels and finally settles into a domestic partnership with the likeable chef Rajveer (Ranveer Brar) in Goa, no one in the family has the heart to reveal the truth to his grandmother. Everyone harbours the notion that Baai will disapprove of her grandson’s sexuality, let alone accept him with a Hindu lover. And yet, when the time comes, she leaves everyone with the most inviolable lesson possible: Love conquers all.
Neither Modern Love: Mumbai, nor Modern Love—the original New York-based series that inspired the Mumbai spinoff— have been short on stories. Both have borrowed heavily from the much-acclaimed Modern Love column in The New York Times, which is described as “a weekly column, a book, a podcast and a television show about relationships, feelings, betrayals and revelations.” The beauty of the column is that it isn’t exclusive: anyone can submit pieces about love, relationships, heartbreak and so on, and the column does a great job of highlighting the universality of love even in the most diverse of settings.
While both shows do a remarkable job translating the essence of each story from print to streaming, there are differences. The original Modern Love series excels as a straight-cut adaptation, with all the sensibilities of a feel-good rom-com intact. There is a certain lightness of touch in how the stories are presented, apart from the stellar cast—from Anne Hathaway to Kit Harrington to Minnie Driver—the makers of the show have worked with, throughout two seasons. And yet, both the New York and Mumbai shows exist in stark contrast to each other, not just because of their geographic or cultural differences, but also because the level of “inclusivity” in both cities is also different.
Issues such as casteism, homosexuality, racism, and others which provide fodder for the Mumbai narratives because of how “taboo” they are considered even now, are considered part and parcel of life in New York. I feel all six directors in Modern Love: Mumbai—Mehta, Shonali Bose, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dhruv Sehgal, Alankrita Shrivastava and Nupur Asthana—deserve kudos just for thinking of adapting and “Indianizing” the Modern Love stories, without taking away from the socio-political realities of India in 2022.
Where the original Modern Love series excels in showing us the magical side of love in a relatively-free setting, each story in Modern Love: Mumbai does a remarkable job of giving us “lovers” who fight against all sorts of prejudices—the socio-political and economic ones set by society, as well as the insecurities that plague them internally—for the freedom to love.
When you look at the depiction of multi-faceted narratives in the metropolis in Hindi cinema, Anurag Basu’s 2007 film Life In A…Metro immediately comes to mind. Nikkhil Advani’s Salaam-e-Ishq also released in the same year, and even that film utilized multiple love stories interwoven into each other. Yet, while Salaam-e-Ishq feels like a strangely anodyne version of the 2003 British classic rom-com Love Actually (minus Hugh Grant and the Christmas cheer!), Life In A…Metro is a quintessential Mumbai film, using the sprawling, multicultural and kinetic embrace of the bustling metropolis as a backdrop for multiple interwoven stories of love, heartbreak and betrayal.
A jaded housewife, whose husband is involved in an affair with his secretary from work, finds purpose and love in her life when she bumps into a theatre actor. The housewife’s sister keeps looking for a perfect groom for herself, and then finds a candidate who doesn’t care for pretence or pompousness. On the other hand, the secretary also has a secret admirer in one of her colleagues, who also provides the flat for her sexual trysts in the hopes of a promotion at work. And then there’s a couple, long estranged from one another, who decide to elope in the search for a happy ending. These are the various sub-plots of Life In A…Metro, and while all of them sound compelling on paper, what elevates them on screen is how Basu skilfully makes the city of Mumbai a prominent character in all these narratives.
The film was shot at a variety of spots in Mumbai, with half the climax taking place at the imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT). I feel what makes Life In A…Metro stand out, even now, is how the city constantly challenges the well-being of each character. Each character fights for their existence throughout the film—and sometimes, even for their own relevance—but Basu’s masterstroke is in showing how, with time and the perfect company, these characters break out of their ennui and, just like Monty’s (the groom’s) mad dash towards CSMT on horseback, attempt to run towards their happiness. Not all the sub-plots end happily, but you know each character has given their best.
Even though people from various walks of life have been shown in Life In A…Metro, it hasn’t aged very well in terms of its depictions of “diversity”. The problem in 2007 was that no one had attempted this “interwoven anthology” approach to filmmaking very well, and by those standards, this was an unusual film for distributors as well. Since OTT platforms didn’t exist then, Basu had no other option but to tailor the script for mainstream audiences. So you have an entire track where a character develops a crush on one of her colleagues at work, and then she is shocked to discover, later on, that he is homosexual and entangled in an affair with her boss. That track is uncomfortable to watch, even in 2022, because of the problematic way it was portrayed. However, it is also true that homosexuality was decriminalized by the Supreme Court only in 2018, and so Basu’s portrayal of the same was apt according to the prevailing realities of the time.
But somehow Life In A…Metro feels limited in its portrayal of diverse realities, because much of it is confined to a subset of working middle-class people, for whom paying the next EMI or shopping at malls is the number-one priority. There’s no mention of how class or caste keeps playing an insidious role in the lives of people in the city.
And that is why, over time, even the definitions of love have evolved in cinema, as in life.
In Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat (2010), for instance, we see the caste-and-class divide skilfully woven into the fabric of the multi-layered narrative, where it acts as both a unifier as well as a divider. The exchanges between Munna, a washerman or dhobi, and Shai, a banker, casually reveal the divide between them.
To Munna, the act of washing clothes is not something he particularly enjoys, but it is his ticket to survival. But when Shai walks around the dhobi ghat photographing Munna, she is looking at the same act through a lens of wonder, because it is so different—and unique—from what she does. While Munna harbours a desire for Shai, he is also aware of his status in society, but he never lets that get in the way of his friendship with her. However, the same cannot be said of Shai, who only tolerates Munna because only he can give her the new address for the reclusive painter Arun, who Shai wants to win over.
Even Arun’s own dalliances with the videotapes of Yasmin he finds in the new apartment also mirror this divide. In search of artistic inspiration, Arun starts voraciously watching the tapes, which reveal so much about the unheralded life of Yasmin. As a Muslim housewife having to always live within the bounds of suffocating patriarchy, Yasmin’s life is dependent on the scraps of happiness she finds in everyday life within the confines of the same apartment that Arun now lives in, and over the course of the film, we see her desire to live slowly ebb away. Rather than give us a maudlin view of Yasmin’s struggle with extra melodrama, Rao’s direction makes us view her plight through Arun’s reclusive existence. When Arun realizes Yasmin is no more, and imagines her body hanging from the ceiling, he breaks down.
It is only then you realize Arun and Yasmin’s track is an offbeat “love story” that mirrors the love the inhabitants of Mumbai have for their city—regardless of caste or class—and how it ebbs and flows over time, changing its character constantly.
Like Life In A…Metro and Dhobi Ghat, the explorations of love have become more nuanced as time has gone on. The central conceit of Shoojit Sircar’s 2018 film October, set in New Delhi, isn’t whether Shiuli had any feelings for Dan before her fatal fall, but whether the cynical Dan can find enough grace and love in his heart to care for someone he barely knows.
Sircar’s film excels in showing “selfless love”, where Dan becomes a carer to Shiuli, as well as to her mother, and this unrequited love helps him grow up from being a hot-headed, immature young boy to a sensitive and mature young man in touch with his own vulnerabilities. And it is remarkable how Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi use the gambit of a seemingly well-worn “one-sided” love story to talk about how love transforms the self, and how there can be no greater love story than that with the self.
Where Life In A…Metro and Dhobi Ghat stumbled was in letting their narratives be at the mercy of distributors and theatres. While the former went on to become a sleeper hit, bolstered by a terrific ensemble cast and that timeless rock-based soundtrack by Pritam Chakraborty, Dhobi Ghat didn’t find many takers at the box office, in spite of its short runtime. But now, with the prevalence of OTT platforms, such multi-narrative films and anthologies have managed to wholeheartedly embrace the breathing space that long-form storytelling offers. And this helps Modern Love: Mumbai soar.
You find shades of October and even Queen (2013) in Shonali Bose’s Raat Rani, where Lali, a tempestuous housewife who also works as a maid, struggles after her husband Lutfi deserts her. But Lali’s “love story” actually happens with herself, courtesy the city of Mumbai. When she cycles excitedly on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge—a space where two-wheelers are not allowed—this act of defiance represents the freedom Mumbai gives Lali to exist on her own terms. It is the ultimate act of self-love.
There are other aspects explored in the anthology too. The cross-cultural love story that brews in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Mumbai Dragon hides anxieties surrounding racism in its lively narrative. Alankrita Shrivastava’s My Beautiful Wrinkles forces us to confront our ageist prejudices when it comes to watching sexual desire play out for a woman on the wrong side of 60. The ups and downs of marriage get documented in Nupur Asthana’s Cutting Chai. And then there’s Dhruv Sehgal’s I Love Thane, which uses the urban-versus-suburban debate and endless conversations to show two vastly-different people falling in love—with each other, with the city and with themselves.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these films and shows is that love is made complex only by prevailing socio-economic and political realities. The metropolis, in its sweep and size, might take a lot out of its inhabitants, but its vast embrace also allows for these love stories to play out unhindered, unfettered. Despite various obstacles put forth by society, politics and our very own insecurities, love does find a way to add flavour to life. Or as Baai tells Manzar, “Sirf pyar!”
If you love Korean romantic dramas, check out Soundtrack #1 on Disney+ Hotstar. The writing is lovely and the performances are heartfelt in this four episodes long drama.
Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.
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