Modern Love Mumbai: A still from the trailer. (courtesy: YouTube)
Cast: Fatima Sana Shaikh, Chitrangada Singh, Arshad Warsi, Pratik Gandhi, Ranveer Brar, Masaba Gupta, Ritwik Bhowmik, Yeo Yann Yann, Meiyang Chang, Naseeruddin Shah, Wamiqa Gabbi, Bhupendra Jadawat, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Tanuja, Sarika, Danesh Razvi, Prateik Babbar, Aadar Malik, Dolly Singh
Director: Shonali Bose, Hansal Mehta, Vishal Bhardwaj, Alankrita Shrivastava, Dhruv Sehgal, Nupur Asthana
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
A compilation of charmingly cock-eyed takes on longing and loss, assertion and surrender, which steer clear of the conventional trajectories of screen romance, Amazon Prime Video's Modern Love Mumbai presents six lively stories of life rather than mere love stories.
The short films, each about 40 minutes long, follow men and women navigating matters of the heart and the spirit in a bustling megapolis where every day springs a surprise or two, sometimes pleasant, at others disorienting.
The Mumbai version of the American series Modern Love (two seasons of eight episodes each created by John Carney based on weekly personal columns in The New York Times), has half a dozen Mumbai directors - there men and three women - interpreting life and its vicissitudes in the city they live and work in.
The show, produced by Pritish Nandy Communications, has Vishal Bhardwaj, Hansal Mehta, Nupur Asthana, Shonali Bose, Alankrita Shrivastava and Dhruv Sehgal putting their creative shoulders to the wheel and sailing through with distinction.
No matter what the gender of the director is or what the essential tilt of each story is, it is the women, both the fictional characters and the performers who portray them, who make Modern Love Mumbai worthwhile.
Fatima Sana Shaikh (in the fifth film, Raat Rani, helmed by Shonali Bose) leads the charge with astounding energy and flair. The remaining principal female actors on the screen, notably Yeo Yann Yann, Sarika and Tanuja, one as good as the other, use subtle strokes to etch out multi-layered, intriguing individuals. They bring to the table variations of emotion and impulse that are easy to relate to but are anything but facile.
A middle-aged woman attracts a much younger man in the first of the shorts, Alankrita Shrivastava's My Beautiful Wrinkles. A diffident landscape designer looks for stability as she flits from one random date to another in the third story - Dhruv Sehgal's I Love Thane. A married writer struggles to finish her debut novel as household chores and a callously inattentive husband weigh her down in Nupur Asthana's Cutting Chai, the final film.
Modern Love Mumbai, even when a chapter has a man at its centre like the one helmed by Hansal Mehta (the title is Baai, and that says it all), is principally about women thirsting for fulfilment or struggling to grasp a second chance.
In Shrivastava's My Beautiful Wrinkles, written by the director herself, sexagenarian Dilbar Sodhi (Sarika) develops a bond with an introverted Kunal (Danesh Razvi), who finds job interviews exceedingly difficult to crack. The lady steps in to help him tide over the problem. The seemingly innocuous relationship takes a serious turn. It throws Dilbar off balance
The strength of this simple story stems from the lightness of the treatment. Sarika is perfectly cast. The actress has been acting since the late 1960s. Her pivotal presence in a new age interpretation of love that defies a yawning age difference is filled with possibilities. Sarika brings Dilbar alive in a quiet, confident, effortless manner.
Baai, directed by Hansal Mehta, guides love in a completely different direction - in fact in two different directions. One centres on a crooner Manzar Ali (Pratik Gandhi) whose sexual orientation precipitates an inevitable clash with his conservative parents (Talat Aziz and Mansi Joshi Roy) and pushes him towards Manhattan chef Rajveer (played by real-life chef Ranveer Brar in his first acting assignment).
The other is Manzar's deep, unalloyed love for his grandmother (Tanuja, an old-timer who has lost none of her charm), a woman famed as much for her courage in the face of adversity as for her exceptional culinary skills. Revealing his 'secret' to the woman who he dotes on is a challenge for Manzar. It forms the crux of Baai.
A gay love story embedded in a sensitive, eloquent portrait of a Muslim family in a nation that has suffered a violent Partition, and in a city that has seen terrible communal rioting in more recent times, Baai is embellished with some soulful songs, not the least of which is the delectable Kaisi baatein karte ho, composed by Jeet Gannguli and sung by Sonu Nigam.
Director and co-writer Hansal Mehta extracts flawless performances from the tw0 principal actors - Tanuja and Pratik Gandhi. Ranveer Brar steps into a new domain without showing any signs of strain.
I Love Thane, directed by Dhruv Sehgal and adapted by him and Nupur Pai, begins in the heart of Mumbai before veering away to a distant suburb. There, an unlikely relationship blossoms between 34-year-old Mumbai landscape designer Saiba (Masaba Gupta), exasperated with men who give her no hope of finding a sustainable soulmate, and a self-effacing but sorted Parth (Ritwik Bhowmik), a Thane municipality audit official assigned to oversee a new park project the former has been hired for.
A tale of unlike poles attracting each other, I Love Thane does not hinge on any grandstanding or demonstrative gestures. It wends its way forward on the back of gentle conversations that do not sound like just a whole lot of words. Saiba and Parth are embodiments of two ends of a metropolitan region that meet in search of common ground.
Masaba Gupta, as an independent woman grappling with "self-doubt and humiliation", is absolutely believable. Ritwik Bhowmik's unassuming man who is at peace with Thane because the place lets him be, conjures up an affecting portrait of endearing ordinariness.
Baai has granny's nihari and qorma, I Love Thane has Parth's love for good old misal pav. Food is at the centre of Vishal Bhardwaj's delightfully vibrant Mumbai Dragon, too. The film is written by the director and Jyotsna Hariharan and led admirably by Malaysian actress Yao Yann Yann, the star of Singaporean auteur Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo and Wet Season.
Sui Mei is another weather-beaten woman who can rustle up a mean sweet corn soup - a family speciality - and make noodles and dim sums to die for, is mighty miffed when her son Ming (Meiyang Chang) gravitates towards Gujarati girl Megha Patel (Wamiqa Gabbi), who does not touch garlic, let alone eat any meat. Sui, a true-blue carnivore, is forced to rustle up stir-fried eggplants for her.
Sui's confidant, Patiala native Pappi (Naseeruddin Shah), tries to convince her to budge but her son, a struggling Bollywood singer waiting for a big break, will have nothing of his mom's mental block. The quirks of a mother-son no-holds-barred war - it also entails a clash between Hindi and Cantonese - are articulated vividly by the two actors, with Naseeruddin Shah and Wamiqa Gabbi providing support that enhances the appeal of the story.
Vishal Bhardwaj's lyrics and music yield a beautiful love ditty Raat bhar hijr mein, rendered superbly by Meiyang Chang - one of the high points of a studded-with-delights episode.
The vitality of Modern Love Mumbai shoots up several notches in Shonali Bose's Raat Rani, about a voluble Kashmiri migrant woman Lali (Fatima Sana Shaikh) who must fend for herself when her husband and his scooter desert her without warning.
An abandoned bicycle and a modest home in a slum are all that Lali has left. The lead actress pulls out the stops in playing a woman who goes from feckless to feisty, riding a bicycle, dealing with a flyover in her path and learning to enjoy her favourite flavour of ice-cream by herself. Raat Rani, written by Nilesh Maniyar and John Belanger, is a tale of empowerment that does not feel like a standard tale of empowerment.
The final story, Nupur Asthana's Cutting Chai, written by Devika Bhagat, is a subdued relationship drama that has Chitrangda Singh and Arshad Warsi engaged in a battle of the sexes within a marriage that has drifted into soul-crushing drudgery for the woman.
Latika, an aspiring writer who wants to finish her first novel but is thwarted by her marital responsibilities unthinkingly thrust upon her by Danny (Warsi), her hotel F&B executive-husband and habitual latecomer. This story of a love gone cold provides an added dimension to the compilation.
Modern Love Mumbai is easy on the eye and the mind because the writing across the six stories, like the green lung that Saiba and Parth try to create in I Love Thane, allows enough room for the characters to breathe.