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Review: Modern Love Mumbai works best when grief turns to comedy

Inspired comic turns by Yeo Yann Yann and Fatima Sana Shaikh are the highlight of an otherwise heavy-handed collection of love stories

Fatima Sana Shaikh in 'Modern Love Mumbai'
Fatima Sana Shaikh in 'Modern Love Mumbai'

‘The secret ingredient is love’ isn’t just a cliché, it’s an embarrassment. It says a lot that two unconnected stories in Modern Love Mumbai, a six-episode series based on the popular New York Times column, have a variation on this line. At least one of them—the otherwise delightful Mumbai Dragon—uses it in passing, possibly in jest. Baai has it right at the end, capping a heavy scene. “The secret ingredient is… coriander” may not be poetic, but it’s better than making the viewer groan as someone is dying. 

Let’s start at the top. Mumbai Dragon is perfectly pitched, engaging with history and identity and prejudice without seeming laboured. Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj and co-written with Jyotsna Hariharan, it’s the story of Sui (Yeo Yann Yann), a third-generation Mumbaikar. Her grandfather came here from China and, if a flashback is to be believed, invented sweet corn soup. Food has helped them build bridges ever since; Sui used to sell dim sums at Nariman Point. But it becomes a comic barrier when Sui’s son, aspiring singer Ming (Meiyang Chang), brings home his chatty girlfriend, Megha (Wamiqa Gabbi). She doesn’t eat meat or even garlic, which makes Sui defensive and tetchy. She takes a vow not to speak Hindi anymore until Ming agrees to marry someone from their community. 

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Bhardwaj draws a lovely sardonic performance from Yann, whom some might know from the Singaporean films Ilo Ilo and Wet Season. Ming resists Sui's emotional blackmail, but we can also see he’s unable to disappoint her (Megha’s fridge is overflowing with Sui’s lunch boxes for her son), and realise that eventually she’ll have to come around herself. Tassaduq Hussain makes masterful use of cramped spaces. The cultural exchange in the languages—an Indian Chinese woman speaking Hindi, a Punjabi man speaking Cantonese—is very Bhardwaj and also very Mumbai.  

The fear of abandonment prompts another remarkable comic performance. In Raat Rani (written by Nilesh Maniyar and John Belenager, directed by Shonali Bose), Fatima Sana Shaikh plays Lalzari, a Kashmiri woman living with her security guard husband, Lutfi (Bhupendra Jadawat), in a modest one-room that's apparently in shouting distance of Shah Rukh Khan’s house. When Lutfi leaves one morning and doesn’t return, a frantic Lali heads out to look for him. His absence forces growth upon her: she gets the house fixed, learns to ride a bicycle, starts selling kahwa.

Like in some of her recent films, Shaikh is on the receiving end of injustice. But here she’s allowed the space to be desperate, silly, unsure and funny. There’s a euphoric scene where she’s riding her bicycle on Worli Sea Link at night, a ‘two wheelers not allowed’ sign prompting her to launch into a litany of things she’s been denied in life. “And when your husband leaves you, being happy is NOT ALLOWED,” she yells. But there’s a huge smile on her face.

The other four episodes are less successful, for various individual reasons, and for one common one: they have a heavy touch. Baai (written by Raghav Raj Kakker, Kashyap Kapoor, Ankur Pathak and Hansal Mehta; directed by Mehta) might have the heaviest. Manzu (Pratik Gandhi) is a singer who comes out of the closet over the course of the film. Hanging over everything is the memory of the Bombay riots, evoked through a nifty action scene possibly modelled on the single-take from Children of Men. The two strands are connected by Manzu’s grandmother (Tanuja), whose bravery saved the family during the riots, and who’s now dying without the knowledge that her beloved grandson is happily married. In the past, Hansal Mehta has been a deft observer of spiky family dynamics and difficult romances; this, though, is laboured and rather sappy, taking in too much for its 33-minute runtime, with achingly sensitive music poured over everything.

Viewers who skip the opening credits of My Beautiful Wrinkles might nevertheless recognise it as a Alankrita Shrivastava film, given her earlier forthright treatments of unlikely relationships. Here, it’s between a woman in her 60s (Sarika) and a much younger man (Danesh Razvi)—first a friendship, then a flirtation. There’s a teasing waltz that reminded me of ‘Yumeji’s Theme’ but the film lacks the delicacy and wit that might prompt further comparisons to In The Mood for Love. Dhruv Sehgal’s I Love Thane (co-written with Nupur Pai) looks at modern dating through the largely unsuccessful efforts of landscape designer Saiba (Masaba Gupta). As she texts with and meets a series of unavailable or undesirable men, and finds herself drawn to a sincere architect (Ritwik Bhowmik), the film settles on a tame take: that people on dating apps are mostly shallow and duplicitous and the ones who aren’t on it (and live in ‘real’ neighbourhoods like Thane) are genuine. Of Cutting Chai (written by Devika Bhagat, directed by Nupur Asthana), I'll only say that the musical-style fantasy moments are a good try and it’s always a pleasure to see Arshad Warsi (I like that the film gently suggests Chitrangda Singh is out of his league). 

Modern Love Mumbai will do for a rainy afternoon. But it’s alarming how quickly streaming TV in India has started to resemble Hindi cinema: the same directors, the same actors, the same music and editing and thinking. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge established filmmakers a chance to work in a new medium. At the same time, if streaming doesn’t bring forth new voices, is it just another little Bollywood? The horror! 

Modern Love Mumbai is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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