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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Modern Love Mumbai: When only one short (out of six) is memorable, you know that Indian anthologies are in trouble

Post Credits Scene: For far too long, we've been settling of anthology series with poor hit-rates. Modern Love Mumbai is just the latest in a long line of shows that are barely able to produce more than one watchable short.

Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
May 18, 2022 8:09:55 am
Masaba Gupta and Ritwik Bhowmik in a still from I Love Thane, one of the six shorts in Modern Love Mumbai.

At this point, there’s a better chance of KGF: Chapter 3 bombing at the box office than for an Indian anthology series to produce more than one watchable chapter. Despite having been desensitised to disappointment thanks to the dozen or so anthology titles that streamers have released over the last few years, watching Modern Love Mumbai—a show made more relevant because of Prime Videos’ Marvel-minded approach to the material—was disheartening in ways that I hadn’t expected. The exercise felt so cynical.  

Only one short (out of six) truly works in Modern Love Mumbai, an enterprise that was doomed from the moment they decided to re-adapt original New York Times columns as opposed to sourcing local stories. It’s also the only one that appears to have a sense of place (which I thought was sort of the point of this thing), and ironically, it’s the only one that isn’t technically set in Mumbai.  

While the other five shorts could’ve done well to replicate the love they have for algorithms in their approach to crafting characters, I Love Thane, starring Masaba Gupta and Ritwik Bhowmick, is the sole entry that feels like the product of one artistic voice. 

Mellow, optimistic and observant, the voice belongs to director and co-writer Dhruv Sehgal, who is perhaps best known as the creator of Little Things, which remains Netflix India’s longest-running original series. Like that show, I Love Thane is a character-driven piece about finding real, human connections in a world that doesn’t seem to be interested in accommodating them anymore.  

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While the other five shorts make the mistake of contriving ‘obstacles’ for their protagonists to overcome (I’m looking at you, Raat Rani), I Love Thane prioritises naturalistic dialogue over life-altering crises. By comparison, Alankrita Shrivastava’s My Beautiful Wrinkles could play like a serial killer movie depending on your outlook on life.  

Sehgal takes the same Before Trilogy approach that he has co-opted so well in the past, and applies it to a story about millennial disillusionment. It’s hopeful, filled with keenly observed asides about food that are becoming something of a Sehgal trademark, and achingly romantic about our chances in the big, bad world.  

He’s the youngest director of the lot, which perhaps explains some of it. The rest of the line-up includes industry stalwarts such as Vishal Bhardwaj (whose Mumbai Dragon has some culturally-specific flavour that is quickly drowned out by cinematic MSG) and Hansal Mehta, who allows his ideologies (albeit noble) to overtake his storytelling. The filmmaker’s Baai is also undone by unnecessary excess—it attempts to weave together a story about generational trauma, same-sex romance, and communal discord, all in 40 minutes. It succeeds only partially.  

This isn’t to say that narrative ambition should be discouraged. If Neeraj Ghaywan wasn’t ambitious about his worldview, we wouldn’t have gotten Geeli Pucchi, the one true highlight of the oddly-packaged Netflix series Ajeeb Daastaans. Ghaywan’s protagonist, played by Konkona Sensharma, was thrice-oppressed—she was a woman, Dalit, and queer. And yet, Geeli Pucchi never allowed the plot to overpower her personality. You don’t remember Bharti Mandal’s workplace troubles, but her interactions with Aditi Rao Hydari’s character are unforgettable.  

Ajeeb Daastaans is a cautionary tale for what can happen to great films simply because of the company they’re forced to keep. Geeli Pucchi was too good to be ignored. But look what happened to Abhishek Chaubey’s magnificent short Madhyantar, which had the misfortune of being clubbed together with deeply mediocre work by Saket Chaudhary and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari in the Netflix anthology film Ankahi Kahaniya. Not enough people talk about Madhyantar, and it was one of the best films of 2021, period.  

Upsetting as they may be, things like this are bound to happen when streamers display an ‘anything goes’ mindset in curating ‘content’. On paper, anthologies are a no-brainer. A, they have a relatively short turnover time, b, they don’t cost as much as features, and c, they function as fodder for the IP-creation farms that streamers have become. Come to think of it, there was no stopping Modern Love Mumbai. It would’ve seen the light of day even if Shrivastava’s short was the best that it had to offer.  

For similar reasons, the anthology approach is popular internationally, as well. But what could have been an outlet for up-and-coming filmmakers to reach wider audiences—why can’t Devashish Makhija, Karishma Dev Dubey and Rohin Raveendran be allowed to make shorts for major streamers?—has somehow turned into a lazy assembly line for complacent filmmakers to bring their B-game. 

This wasn’t always the case–Lust Stories and Ghost Stories had some gems–but it is more common in the South Indian language anthologies that streamers produce as a part of their diversification strategies. The shorts in Navarasa and Putham Pudhu Kaalai ranged from mediocre to downright problematic. Paava Kadhaigal at least attempted, conceptually, to push the boundaries, but to mixed results. It might be too late to course-correct the two other Modern Love adaptations already in development, but here’s a radical thought: what if instead of retroactively trying to fit films into clearly defined categories and luring big-name filmmakers to get into business with them, streaming services with money to spare for cake-based reality shows and softcore porn instead fund a thriving short film culture? 

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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