In ‘Modern Love: Mumbai’, it Is the Simple Emotions That Score

One of the six shorts in the Amazon Prime Video anthology Modern Love: Mumbai – inspired by the New York Times’ Modern Love column – opens to a rare Bollywood sight: a female writer. Latika (Chitrangada Singh), a homemaker, is struggling to finish her novel. Interruptions litter her routine like pesky commas: domestic chores, dependent children, lax husband. Her partner, Dan (Arshad Warsi), is so negligent that his tardiness seems like a lifestyle. She fell for him 17 years ago, but today, about to attend an important event with him, she fears that he’ll turn up late again. It makes her wonder: was she the one who delayed – in following her passion, in making literary contacts, in pursuing the right love?

Cutting Chai, directed by Nupur Asthana, builds sufficient intrigue but struggles to sustain tension. She relies on three main devices, and they range from functional (interior monologue) to tedious (flashback) to ludicrous (accusatory psychological projection). At the CST station, a man asks Latika the time. Random people start chanting, “Time! Time! Time!” (It looks more laughable than it sounds.) When she’s worried about a tricky character in her novel, nearly a dozen commuters approach her, saying, “Change it, if you don’t like it, change it!”

The several flashbacks are even more annoying as they delay the pay-off — the couple meeting after a quarrel — without revealing character or complicating the plot. Worse, they repeat two main points: his distinct tardiness, her probable regret. The flashbacks keep coming — one of them is imagined — making the short stagnant and closed. Cutting Chai starts with Latika writing, then deleting a sentence. Asthana should have followed her cue.


Hansal Mehta’s short revolves around a middle-aged Muslim man, Manzu (Jatin Gandhi), who grew up in Bombay, sharing a warm bond with his grandmother — a fiery figure and a great cook — Baai (Tanuja Samarth). His city back then had almost murdered him for who he was, a Muslim. When a bloodthirsty mob showed up at his house — chasing him and the other children from the street — Baai opened the door, told them something, and they left. Manzu now lives in Surat, visiting Mumbai to meet Baai. The city has changed, its name has changed — Baai has gotten wizened — but Manzu still craves that one thing: acceptance.

Baai has a tender core. But it suffers from a problem that often marks middling feature writing. You know those pieces where a reporter writes a line ‘setting up’ the quote followed by the actual quote? Sometimes it’s needed, sometimes it’s redundant. The latter happens in Baai. In a flashback, a young Manzu and a young man are decorating flowers in the house — he touches Manzu’s side hip and, right on cue, Chandni Raat plays. Nothing so far has happened between them, but we get the central conflict — for the filmmaker has impressed meaning on the scene — that Manzu is gay.

A few scenes later, they break into an awkward kiss, and he slaps Manzu. Take another scene, where Manzu is singing (a schmaltzy Jeet Gannguli number) at an upscale restaurant in Goa. It’s crosscut with a chef, Rajveer (Ranveer Brar), cooking in the kitchen with palpable joy. Again, it’s not tough to connect the dots, especially when he presents that dish to Manzu. The surprise of a flirtatious exchange — the quote itself — has been diluted by the elaborate set-up.

Mehta ‘explains’ not only via songs — they pop up nearly half-a-dozen times in the 40-minute piece, not elevating but diluting impact — but also through (cheesy) dialogues. Towards the end, Rajveer tells Manzu’s mother, “You need just one ingredient to make good food.” The answer — you won’t be surprised — “Love” (the same answer, in the form of a conversation, soon repeats). Baai constructs a fascinating and subtle parallel between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ people: Manzu’s family (who can’t accept a person of a different sexual orientation) and rioters (who can’t accept a person of a different faith). But it’s all spelled out in the end, when Manzu’s mother says, “Preventing love is also like spreading hate.” A short about accepting oneself, among others, Baai misses the most important ingredient in such a journey: confidence.


Mumbai Dragon, by Vishal Bhardwaj, starts with a Chinese woman, Sui (Yeo Yann Yann), pledging in Hindi, in front of the Warrior God Kwan Tai Kwon, that she’ll not talk in Hindi till He brings her son, Ming (Meiyang Chang), to her. Ming hasn’t gone anywhere; he lives in Andheri, wanting to make it as a singer, visiting his mother every weekend who inundates him with several boxes of food. The main annoyance is a “Vegetarian Daayan”, a Gujarati woman, Megha (Wamiqa Gabbi), Ming’s girlfriend. Sui fears Megha will ‘steal’ her son. She wants him to be a dentist, marry a Chinese woman.

Sui is no bigot. She has lived in Mumbai for decades. Her best friend, a Sikh man, Pappi Singh (Naseeruddin Shah), often comes over to drink and banter. She is just being a mother — a fond mother, a protective mother, a jealous mother. The ‘love’ in Mumbai Dragon then moves beyond the romantic, encompassing transcultural compassion, maternal tug, true calling. Bhardwaj films Pappi and Sui’s bond with so much warmth and bite and humour — a platonic relationship between people from two marginalised groups — that it could have been a great separate short in itself. Chang’s Ming, who loves his mum but sometimes sees the ‘smother’ in ‘mother’, is a compelling presence: full of soft smiles, easy charm, gentle exasperation. Yann, a renowned Malaysian actress, plays Sui like a full-on Bollywood mother. Bhardwaj gives her delectable lines, soaked in Bollywood melodrama (“Arre yeh bhi koi poochne waali baat hai?”).

A still from ‘Mumbai Dragon’.

The short doesn’t lack compelling moments. But what happens in the story is much more interesting than what the story is about. Its central thesis bordering on truism — ‘if you love someone, let them go’ — contradicts its otherwise originality. What’s even more disappointing is its convenient climax — straining to be funny via an Anurag Kashyap cameo (and a Vikramaditya Motwane reference), the familiar meta shtick — diluting its many joys and dejections hiding in plain sight.


Alankrita Shrivastava’s My Beautiful Wrinkles features an unusual protagonist, an old single woman, Dilbar (Sarika). Steering away from stereotypes, the filmmaker imagines her as cynical and cool (even cold). It opens to her playing bridge with her friends, then reading a college reunion card — which, you presume, would underpin the central conflict, maybe via an old flame — but the drama here lies not inside, but outside, her world. Outside her window in fact: a young man, Kunal (Danesh Rizvi), jogging on a promenade. They’ve become friends; she trains him for job interviews. It seems like she has a crush on him, but it’s the other way around.

The story unfolds with enough care (and surprise). Even with an age gap of nearly three decades, Kunal and Dilbar share vital commonalities. She wanted to be a novelist; he wants to be a designer. She holds her past like a pack of favourite cards: fondly, carefully, hesitant to part with it — for she believes she’s already won. But her table, her world, has other players. A new game has begun, and Dilbar feels lost. Her husband died in a car crash — she was driving. The car still stands in front of her apartment: dusty and dented, stranded between living and dead. This framing is essential to understand not just Dilbar, but her ‘relationship’ with Kunal. She doesn’t like most people because she doesn’t like herself. Like Dilbar, Kunal preserves his past — his rejection letters — like a prized souvenir.

Just two false notes mar this sure-footed piece: Sarika’s stilted initial performance and her needless and excessive crying in the car. Shrivastava has a great eye for spotting unfulfilled desires — especially those stifled by tradition (think Ratna Pathak Shah’s character in Lipstick Under My Burkha). The old meets the young once again here and finds in that ineffable bond droplets of awareness that fill her pool of past.


I can think of many Angrezi words to describe Lali (Fatima Sana Shaikh), the heroine of Shonali Bose’s Raat Rani: flamboyant, motor-mouth, fiery and so on. But none of them fit. There’s only one, to my mind, that justifies her maximalism: chatak. A Kashmiri woman who works as a cook, Lali loves her husband, Lutfi (Bhupendra Jadawat), a security guard, like an untrammelled whirlwind. He has no option; if he says no, she’ll beat the shit out of him. It’s an intense love, an arresting love, a mad love.

Lali in ‘Raat Rani’.

But you don’t even need to see Lali to understand her passion. Just listen to her. She speaks Hindi in a Kashmiri twang — a rough, tender, poetic cadence. Her “l” isn’t soft — like the ones spoken by the Hindi belt folks — but flies off her tongue like a sharp arrow. Just listen to her say “Lutfi” — in Lali’s world it’s not just a word; it’s the world itself. Unlike most shorts in the anthology, Raat Rani is that rare piece that ‘gets’ Mumbai. When Lali sits with Lutfi on the rocks facing Bandra-Worli Sea Link, wolfing down cups of ice cream, a few boats lounge nearby. Boats for us but shikara for her — emaciated shikara, maybe, but one that feels like home (a similar painting hangs in her hovel). Many Mumbai migrants, like Lali, both accept and recreate the metropolis. (I know — once a migrant, I often tried ‘finding’ my Dhanbad on the streets of Andheri: in stalls selling gol gappa, bhel puri, chicken roll.)

One day, Lutfi leaves (he says he got “bored”). The roof of her house collapses, too. She starts to endure the typical seven stages of grief. But a storm can’t mope for long even if she wants to. So, Lali recovers, helped by an unlikely ally: her bicycle (she wants to jump off a flyover, but her salwar gets stuck in it) and the way it glides on the road, giving her the same effortless velocity that Lutfi’s scooter did. This isn’t a conventional ‘romantic’ short. What is it then? The hints are all around; consider those boats — those shikaras — once more.

Lali is a Kashmiri. Just one word: that’s what Raat Rani is about.


Saiba (Masaba Gupta), 34, is looking for love. She tries and fails, fails and tries: one date, then another — but men will be men. Her job, as a landscape artist, is a cruel compliment to her romantic exasperations, where synthetic decoration should substitute something real. Among all the shorts in the anthology, it’s Dhruv Sehgal’s I Love Thane that nails the unpredictable narrative of modern love. For quite some time, I had no idea where it was headed. The names of her dates fill the screen, as if they’ll drive the story (“Animesh, 39, corporate lawyer”, “Divik, 35, filmmaker and home chef”).

But they’re just peripheral distractions. The man who matters, Parth (Ritwik Bhowmik), sits at the literal edge of a screen during a work call. He doesn’t even speak during the whole conversation. He’s not the kind of person who, like Masaba and her dates, would be considered ‘deep’ — or ‘cool’. Parth is a simple man. He grew up in Thane, adores Thane, wants to live in Thane. And he makes no big deal about it.

People like Parth — simple, straightforward, ordinary — live all around us. But many Hindi films whiz past them like bullet trains, considering them too insignificant. His profundity is not a performance — it just is. He drops deep lines, sauntering: “The world seems to shrink as we grow up” (talking about his childhood), “life breathes here, no?” (talking about their project).

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Sehgal films their conversations with quiet aplomb. They meet for work, eat lunch, take a walk, share stories. No ‘sparks’ fly, no violins play, none of that synthetic Bollywood nonsense. For a large part, it doesn’t even look like love. But consider this: What is the genesis of most, if not all, love stories? Two people talking. Sehgal also builds a rich, dense world. In one scene, Parth and Saiba are sharing a quiet moment near a lake. But look behind them: there’s a wedding shoot going on. I Love Thane also captures the absurdity — the awkwardness — of modern conversations equally well. Jokes fall flat; intense feelings trail off like… ellipses. It is there, yet it is not, as if the heart is an eight-year-old playing hide and seek.

Cinema and other art forms are deeply invested in the ‘profundity’ business — so much so that it’s rubbed on to us. We want to appear deep; we want to sound deep — we like to think that we’re hardbound ‘literary fiction’ destined for the Pulitzer. Nothing less than most grand — or most Intense — will do. What is it that they say? Yeah — “if it’s not madness, then it’s not love”. But sometimes love (or life) doesn’t need to be so complex.

Simple is not a synonym of dumb. Being ‘ordinary’ is not an insult. When we stop trying to be something that’s when our love stories start.  Love is finding, and sharing, comfort in the minute mundaneness of life — so ordinary yet so elusive.

This review was first published on The Wire.